- The Great Awakening was a religious revival that happened in the 1730s and 1740s.
- The movement came at a time when people were emphasizing rationalism rather than religion.
- Many different religious leaders preached about the gospel, promoting salvation from sins and encouraging enthusiasm for Christianity.
- It made a significant impact on various Christian churches from American culture.
Reformation in Europe
Since the Reformation, people in Europe have argued about essential topics like religion and faith. The Reformation changed society’s views. It made people think beyond the Catholic Church. Keep reading to learn more about the Great Awakening.
One of the beliefs of the Reformation is that you should follow scripture. The final interpretation of scripture is up to you, not someone else.
In the 1500s, Martin Luther and John Calvin preached a doctrine of predestination. They read scripture closely. Later, some evangelical ministers were spreading a Christian message which spoke of personal faith. This was very different from book learning.
People could save themselves by accepting Christ. It is especially good for people who feel left out of traditional Protestantism. Those people are women, the young, and people at the lower end of society.
There were a lot of groups of Protestants. These different groups all believe in Christ as the Son of God, though.
One of the groups was the Puritans. They were a radical group, and they came to America to start a new society based on their beliefs.
Groups who wanted to share their interpretation of Christian morality came to New England. There were differences, but fundamental Protestant beliefs guided them and made them strong.
Then people started to have some money. They had an easier time with their lives. Then, people didn’t feel like they needed religion anymore because they were doing well.
In Europe, people believed that the world was a natural place. They did not need faith or religion to know what was going on.
Beliefs about religion started to change. Then came the “Great Awakening.”
The First Great Awakening
The First Great Awakening was a time when people wanted to be religious. It happened between 1730-1770.
That revival was part of a more significant movement. It happened on the other side of the Atlantic, in England, Scotland, and Germany.
In Protestant cultures, a new age started. This new age was different from the Enlightenment era. It meant that people should trust their hearts instead of their heads. It is better to have feelings than to think about something. Then you could believe more in the Bible than in people.
The early stages of the Great Awakening in America happened among members of the Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. When a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church named Theodorus Frelinghuysen did well, other ministers followed. They were Gilbert Tennent and his sons. The Presbyterians, together with the Tennent family, started some religious revivals around the colonies.
Tennant helped to establish the Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. He founded a seminary to teach ministers how to speak passionately and with so much emotion that sinners would be converted. Originally known as “The Log College,” it became better recognized as Princeton University.
The First Great Awakening caused a split between those who followed the evangelical message (called the New Lights) and those who rejected it (called the Old Lights). The elite ministers of British America were Old Lights, and they did not like the new revivalism.
New Lights also established two colleges in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. These later became Brown University and Dartmouth College.
Religious Fervor Spreads
Religious enthusiasm was spread from the Presbyterians that lived in the Middle Colonies to some of the Congregationalists and the Baptists who lived in New England. By the 1740s, these clergymen were holding revivals throughout that area, employing the same approach that helped make the Tennents so popular.
Jonathan Edwards was a preacher famous for his sermons. In them, he made scary pictures in people’s heads about sinning and the consequences of spending your eternal life in Hell. Edwards describes the sinner as a spider that is suspended by a thread. The spider is over a pit of seething brimstone.
Edwards wrote: “The wrath of God burns against them [sinners], their damnation don’t slumber, the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet and held over them, and the pit hath opened her mouth under them.”
The American South during the Great Awakening
Some people in the north became missionaries to the south. The early revivals inspired them.
In the late 1740s, Presbyterian preachers from New York and New Jersey went to Virginia and talked about their religion. In the 1750s, some people who were called Separate Baptists moved from New England to central North Carolina.
They also spread their influence to other colonies. By 1775, their evangelical converts made up about 10% of all southern churchgoers.
The First Great Awakening was the subject of a lot of interest, in part, because of the extensive travels of an English preacher named George Whitefield. Whitefield later joined forces with other Anglican clerics who shared his convictions despite his position as a Church of England cleric.
Together, they led a movement to change the Church of England. That was when the Methodist Church began.
George Whitefield traveled across the Atlantic. He was sometimes required to preach outdoors because there were too many people for church.
The preacher Whitefield said what other Calvinists said: that sinful people needed to be saved by a pure and mighty God. But Whitefield and many American preachers who were just like him presented that message in new ways. When these people were talking, they were moving their hands a lot or even crying or screaming. They make the Church sermon seem like a theatre play.
George Whitefield converted slaves and some Native Americans to Christianity. Even Benjamin Franklin, who was not religious, was a friend of Whitefield, and he printed many of his sermons. Franklin gave all his money to Whitefield after hearing him speak in Philadelphia.
During the Revolutionary War, his followers disinterred Whitefield’s body so that soldiers could grab pieces of his clothes, believing that if they did so, God would watch over them.
Not everyone looked on with approval. Some people who did not agree with the evangelicals said that they were emotional and that there was disorder when they preached. When some white women and black people spoke out in religious gatherings, they drew criticism.
Evangelical preachers and the people who converted to this religion spoke together and said their opponents lacked piety. Different people in churches got into fights over how to become a Christian.
Some people say to be a Christian; you need to believe and think about Jesus. But other people said you needed to feel it and believe in your heart that you are.
Consequences of the Great Awakening
The Great Awakening was a time when people were divided into two groups. People who believed fervently in religion and people who did not.
The First Great Awakening caused a lot of people to think differently. It led to unity between people in different colonies because everyone was going through the same thing at the same time.
Some people did not like the “excesses” of the revival, so they joined other Churches. But some people liked it so much that they became members of other Churches too.
The largest single group of churchgoing Americans became divided between New Lights and Old Lights. The Old Lights were against the Awakening, but the New Lights supported it.
The government was finally involved in this. In colonies that one denomination received help from the government, other churches wanted to remove the idea of a privileged position for that religion. In Connecticut and Massachusetts, they wanted to take away Anglicanism’s privileged position. And in the southern colonies, they wanted to take away Congregationalism’s privileged position.
The Great Awakening can be said to be a reaction against the Enlightenment. On the other hand, it also made people think of the Revolution.
Before, ministers were from the upper class. But with Awakening ministers, weren’t always ordained, and there was less respect for betters.
The new faiths that emerged were more democratic. The message was about equality.
The Great Awakening happened all over the country. It was the first event that helped break down differences between colonies.
There was no such episode in England, which meant that Americans and English people were different. This religious upheaval had a big effect on politics.
In the First Great Awakening, many ministers were not ordained, and they preached to ordinary people. The overall message was that people were more equal. After this, there was a Revolutionary spirit. Many things changed, and new powers were involved with it.
In the First Great Awakening, people were speaking about their spiritual equality. This led to the colonists thinking more about the need for democracy in both church and state.
The idea that God’s covenant with his church was based on consent and a participatory relationship would be expanded into political philosophy and general feelings about authority.
P.S. If you enjoyed what you read and are a teacher or tutor needing resources for your students from kindergarten all the way up to high school senior (or even adults!), check out our partner sites KidsKonnect, SchoolHistory, and HelpTeaching for hundreds of facts, worksheets, activities, quizzes, courses, and more!