First Great Awakening
The Great Awakening, called by historians the First Great Awakening, was an evangelical and revitalization movement that swept Protestant Europe and British America, and especially the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s, leaving a permanent impact on American Protestantism. It resulted from powerful preaching that gave listeners a sense of deep personal revelation of their need of salvation by Jesus Christ. Pulling away from ritual, ceremony, sacramentalism and hierarchy, the Great Awakening made Christianity intensely personal to the average person by fostering a deep sense of spiritual conviction and redemption, and by encouraging introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality.
The movement was a monumental social event in New England that challenged established authority and incited rancor and division between traditionalists Protestants who insisted on the continuing importance of ritual and doctrine, and the revivalists, who encouraged emotional involvement. It had a major impact in reshaping the Congregational church, the Presbyterian church, the Dutch Reformed Church, and the German Reformed denomination, and strengthened the small Baptist and Methodist Anglican denominations. It had little impact on most Anglicans, Lutherans, Quakers and non-Protestants. Throughout the colonies, especially in the south, the revivalist movement increased the number of African slaves and free blacks who were exposed to, and subsequently, converted to, Christianity.
Unlike the Second Great Awakening, which began about 1800 and which reached out to the unchurched, the First Great Awakening focused on people who were already church members. To the evangelical imperatives of Reformation Protestantism, 18th century American Christians added emphases on "outpourings of the Holy Spirit". Revivals encapsulated those hallmarks and spread the newly created evangelicalism into the early republic. Evangelical preachers "sought to include every person in conversion, regardless of gender, race, and status."
The evangelical revival was international in scope, affecting predominantly Protestant countries of Europe. The emotional response of churchgoers in Bristol and London in 1737, and of the Kingswood colliers (coal miners) with white gutters on their cheeks caused by tears in 1739 under the preaching of George Whitefield, marked the start of the English awakening. Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom sees it as part of a "great international Protestant upheaval" that also created Pietism in Germany, the Evangelical Revival and Methodism in England. Revivalism, a critical component of the Great Awakening, actually began in the 1620s in Scotland among Presbyterians, and featured itinerant preachers.
Although the idea of a "great awakening" has been contested by Butler (1982) as vague and exaggerated, it is clear that the period was a time of increased religious activity, particularly in New England. The First Great Awakening led to changes in Americans' understanding of God, themselves, the world around them, and religion. In the Middle and Southern colonies, especially in the "back country" regions, the Awakening was influential among Presbyterians. In the southern Tidewater and Low Country, northern Baptist and Methodist preachers converted both whites and blacks, enslaved and free. Whites welcomed blacks into their churches and took their religious experiences seriously, while also admitting blacks into active roles in congregations as exhorters, deacons, and even preachers; although the latter was a rarity. The message of spiritual equality appealed to many slaves and as African religious traditions continued to decline in North America, for the first time blacks accepted Christianity in large numbers. Few Evangels desired to abolish slavery and the overwhelming majority of them had no intent to get rid of slavery. Evangelist leaders in the southern colonies had to deal with the issue of slavery much more frequently than those in the North. Still, many leaders of the revivals proclaimed that slaveholders should educate their slaves so that they could become literate and be able to read and study the Bible. Consequently, many Africans were finally provided with some sort of education. Africans hoped that their newly acquired spiritual equality would soon translate into earthly equalities. As blacks started to make up substantial proportions of congregations they were given a chance to momentarily forget about their bondage and enjoy a slight sense of freedom. Before the American Revolution, the first black Baptist churches were founded in the South in Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia; in Petersburg, Virginia, two black Baptist churches were founded.
The revival began with Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards came from Puritan, Calvinist roots, but emphasized the importance and power of immediate, personal religious experience. He taught a general distrust of religious leadership and any knowledge from afar. He taught that only a personal experience can be valid, decrying the entire process of scientific inquiry and progress. Edwards was said to be 'solemn, with a distinct and careful enunciation, and a slow cadence.' His sermons were powerful and attracted a large following. The Anglican preacher George Whitefield, visiting from England, continued the movement, traveling across the colonies and preaching in a more dramatic and emotional style, accepting everyone into his audiences. Both Edwards and Whitefield were slave owners and believed that blacks would acquire absolute equality with whites in the Millennial church.
Winiarski (2005) examines Edwards's preaching in 1741, especially his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." At this point, Edwards countenanced the "noise" of the Great Awakening, but his approach to revivalism became more moderate and critical in the years immediately following.
The arrival of the young Anglican preacher George Whitefield sparked the Great Awakening. Whitefield, whose reputation as a great pulpit and open-air orator preceded his visit, traveled through the colonies in 1739 and 1740. Everywhere he attracted large and emotional crowds, eliciting countless conversions as well as considerable controversy. He declared the whole world his "parish." God, Whitefield proclaimed, was merciful. Men and women were not predestined to damnation, but could be saved by repenting of their sins. Whitefield mainly spoke about the concept of spiritual "rebirth", explaining that men and women could experience a spiritual revival in life that would grant them entrance to the Promised Land. Whitefield appealed to the passions of his listeners, powerfully sketching the boundless joy of salvation and the horrors of damnation. Critics condemned his "enthusiasm", his censoriousness, and his extemporaneous and itinerant preaching. His techniques were copied by numerous imitators both lay and clerical. They became itinerant preachers themselves, spreading the Great Awakening from New England to Georgia, among rich and poor, educated and illiterate, and in the back country as well as in seaboard towns and cities. The first new Congregational church congregation and worship building in Massachusetts in the Great Awakening period of 1730–60 was at the newly incorporated town of Uxbridge. It was headed by the newly called Pastor Rev. Nathan Webb, a native of Braintree, who remained in the ministry in Uxbridge for the next 41 years. His student, Samuel Spring, served as a chaplain in the American Revolutionary War, and started the Andover Seminary and the Massachusetts Missionary Society. Whitefield's sermons reiterated an egalitarian message, but only translated into a spiritual equality for Africans in the colonies who mostly remained enslaved. Whitefield was known to criticize slaveholders who treated their slaves cruelly and those who did not educate them, but he had no intention to abolish slavery. He lobbied to have slavery reinstated in Georgia and proceeded to became a slave holder himself. Whitefield shared a common belief held among Evangels that after conversion slaves would be granted true equality in the Heaven. Despite his stance on slavery, Whitefield became influential to many Africans.
Benjamin Franklin became an enthusiastic supporter of Whitefield. Franklin, a Deist who rarely attended church, did not subscribe to Whitefield's theology, but he admired Whitefield for exhorting people to worship God through good works. Franklin printed Whitefield's sermons on the front page of his Gazette, devoting 45 issues to Whitefield's activities. Franklin used the power of his press to spread Whitefield's fame by publishing all of Whitefield's sermons and journals. Many of Franklin's publications between 1739–1741 contained information about Whitefield's work, and helped promote the evangelical movement in America. Franklin remained a friend and supporter of Whitefield until Whitefield's death in 1770.
Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister who would later become the fourth president of Princeton University, was noted for converting African slaves to Christianity in unusually large numbers, and is credited with the first sustained proselytization of slaves in Virginia. In a letter Davies wrote in 1757, he references the religious zeal of an enslaved man he had encountered during his journey, "I am a poor slave, brought into a strange country, where I never expect to enjoy my liberty. While I lived in my own country, I knew nothing of that Jesus I have heard you speak so much about. I lived quite careless what will become of me when I die; but I now see such a life will never do, and I come to you, Sir, that you may tell me some good things, concerning Jesus Christ, and my Duty to GOD, for I am resolved not to live any more as I have done.". Samuel Davies became accustom to hearing such excitement from many blacks who were exposed to the revivals. Davies believed that blacks could attain knowledge equal to whites if given an adequate education and he promoted the importance for slaveholders to permit their slaves to become literate so that they could become more familiar with the instructions of the Bible.
Impact on individuals
The new style of sermons and the way people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America. Participants became passionately and emotionally involved in their religion, rather than passively listening to intellectual discourse in a detached manner. Ministers who used this new style of preaching were generally called "new lights", while the preachers who remained unemotional were referred to as "old lights". People affected by the revival began to study the Bible at home. This effectively decentralized the means of informing the public on religious matters and was akin to the individualistic trends present in Europe during the Protestant Reformation. The Awakening played a major role in the lives of women, especially, though rarely were they allowed to preach or take public roles.
The Awakening led many women to be introspective; some kept diaries or wrote memoirs. The autobiography of Hannah Heaton (1721–94), a farm wife of North Haven, Connecticut, tells of her experiences in the Great Awakening, her encounters with Satan, her intellectual and spiritual development, and daily life on the farm. Phillis Wheatley, the first published black female poet was converted to Christianity as a child after she was brought to America. Her beliefs were overt in her works; in a poem she wrote titled On Being Brought from Africa to America, she describes the journey as being taken from a Pagan land to be exposed to Christianity in the colonies. Wheatley became so influenced by the revivals and especially George Whitefield that she dedicated a poem to him after his death in which she referred to as an "Impartial Saviour." Sarah Osborn adds another layer to the role of women during the Awakening. A Rhode Island schoolteacher, Osborn's writings, including a 1743 memoir, various diaries and letters, and her anonymously published The Nature, Certainty and Evidence of True Christianity (1753) offer a fascinating glimpse into the spiritual and cultural upheaval of the time period. The emotionality of the revivals appealed to many Africans and soon after they converted in substantial numbers, African leaders started to emerge from the revivals. These figures would pave the way for the establishment of the first black congregations and churches in the American colonies
Schisms and conflict
The Calvinist denominations were especially affected. For example, Congregational churches in New England experienced 98 schisms, which in Connecticut also had impact on which group would be considered "official" for tax purposes. These splits were between the New Lights (those who were influenced by the Great Awakening) and the Old Lights (those who were more traditional). It is estimated in New England that in the churches there were about 1/3 each of New Lights, Old Lights, and those who saw both sides as valid.
In Connecticut, the Saybrook Platform of 1708 marked a conservative counter-revolution against a non-conformist tide which had begun with the Halfway Covenant and would culminate in the Great Awakening in the 1740s. The Great Awakening bitterly divided Congregationalists between the "New Lights" or "Arminians" who welcomed the revivals, and the "Old Lights" or "Calvinists" who used governmental authority to suppress revivals. Theologically, the Arminians believed that every person could be saved by experiencing a religious conversion and one of the revivals; the Calvinists held that everyone's fate was a matter of predestination, and revivals were a false religion. The legislature, controlled by the Old Lights, in 1742 passed an "Act for regulating abuses and correcting disorder in ecclesiastical affairs" that sharply restricted ministers from leading revivals. Another law was passed to prevent the opening of a New Light seminary. Numerous New Light evangelicals were imprisoned or fined. The New Lights responded by their own political organization, fighting it out town by town. Although the religious issues decline somewhat after 1748, the New Light versus Old Light factionalism spilled into other issues, such as disputes over currency, and Imperial issues. However, the divisions involved did not play a role in the coming of the American Revolution, which both sides supported.
- Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America (2009)
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- Letters from the Reverend Samuel Davies (London, 1757), p.19.
- Lambert, Frank. ""I Saw the Book Talk": Slave Readings of the First Great Awakening." The Journal of African American History, Vol. 87, The Past before US (Winter, 2002) p. 14. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1562488.
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|Wikisource has the text of the 1920 Encyclopedia Americana article Great Awakening.|
- Lesson plan on First Great Awakening
- The Great Awakening Comes to Weathersfield, Connecticut: Nathan Cole's Spiritual Travels
- "I Believe It Is Because I Am a Poor Indian": Samsom Occom's Life as an Indian Minister
- "The Joseph Bellamy House: The Great Awakening in Puritan New England", a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan
- Edwards, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" text