Great Awakening

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Great Awakening

Great Awakening, series of religious revivals that swept over the American colonies about the middle of the 18th cent. It resulted in doctrinal changes and influenced social and political thought. In New England it was started (1734) by the rousing preaching of Jonathan Edwards. Although there were early local stirrings in New Jersey in the 1720s under the evangelical preaching of Theodorus Frelinghuysen of the Dutch Reformed Church, the revival in the Middle Colonies actually began in New Jersey largely among the Presbyterians trained under William Tennent. His son Gilbert Tennent became the leading figure of the Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies. Other preachers followed, and with the tour (1739–41) of the famous Methodist preacher George Whitefield, the isolated currents of revivalism united and flowed into all the colonies. The revival reached the South with the preaching (1748–59) of Samuel Davies among the Presbyterians of Virginia, with the great success of the Baptists in North Carolina in the 1760s, and with the rapid spread of Methodism shortly before the American Revolution.

In New England the movement died out rapidly, leaving behind bitter doctrinal disputes between the “New Lights” and the “Old Lights,” the latter led by Charles Chauncy, a Boston clergyman, who opposed the revivalist movement as extravagant and impermanent. The theology of the “New Lights,” a slightly modified Calvinism, crystallized into the Edwardian, or New England, theology that became dominant in W New England, whereas the liberal doctrines of the “Old Lights,” strong in Boston and the vicinity, were destined to develop into the Universalist or Unitarian positions. A similar division between “New Sides” and “Old Sides” took place in the Middle Colonies, causing a schism (1741–58) in the Presbyterian Church.

The Great Awakening also resulted in an outburst of missionary activity among Native Americans by such men as David Brainerd, Eleazar Wheelock, and Samuel Kirkland; in the first movement of importance against slavery; and in various other humanitarian undertakings. It led to the founding of a number of academies and colleges, notably Princeton, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth. It served to build up interests that were intercolonial in character, to increase opposition to the Anglican Church and the royal officials who supported it, and to encourage a democratic spirit in religion.


See A. E. Heimert and P. Miller, ed., Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequences (1967). J. Tracy, A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield (1845, repr. 1969); C. H. Maxson, The Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies (1920, repr. 1958); W. M. Gewehr, The Great Awakening in Virginia (1930, repr. 1965); E. S. Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England (1957, repr. 1965); R. L. Bushman, ed., The Great Awakening (1969, repr. 1989); D. B. Rutman, The Great Awakening (1970); C. L. Heyrman, Southern Cross (1997).

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Great Awakening

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Its proponents claim it to be the most important revival in American history. They say it was a cross-denominational movement of God that changed the course of religion in America for the better, that it led to a new way of preaching, new forms of ministry, and a better understanding of God's purpose in the founding of America.

Its detractors call it a social phenomenon that split churches, ruined lives, demeaned the Reformation, and all but destroyed America's chance of ever being a real Christian nation.

It is called the Great Awakening and, for better or worse, America was changed after a Calvinist preacher named Jonathan Edwards preached a series of five sermons on the topic of "justification by faith alone." The scene was Northampton, Massachusetts, and the date was 1734. Edwards had been concerned by what he considered to be the complacent acceptance of Arminianism (see Calvin, John, and Jacobus Arminius) by the people in the Congregational church he served. He also noticed that the youth of Northampton were:

very much addicted to night walking, and frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices.... It was their manner very frequently to get together in conventions of both sexes for mirth and jollity, which they called frolics, and they would often spend the greater part of the night in them.

The result of his sermons surprised everyone, especially Edwards. In his humble opinion they proved to be "a word spoken in season" and sparked "a very remarkable blessing of heaven to the souls of the people in town."

That was, to say the least, an understatement. A spiritual snowball started rolling down the cold hill of New England's religious life, enveloping folks who have been called by more than one writer "God's frozen people."

A young woman, said to have "questionable morals," became convinced of the evil of her ways. That inspired young people to follow her example of repentance. Conversions multiplied. According to Edwards, during the spring and summer of 1735, "the town seemed to be full of the presence of God. It was never so full of love, nor so full of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then."

By 1738 Edwards's book, bearing the descriptive title Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundreds of Souls in Northampton, was the talk of London, England. It was reprinted in staid, conservative Boston. John Wesley read it during a walk from London to Oxford. George Whitefield read it during a trip to Georgia. By 1740, what was now being called a "Great Awakening," or religious revival, had spread from Georgia to Nova Scotia and out to what was then called the frontier. So great was the religious fervor and conviction of itinerant circuit preachers that it became common to declare, "The weather is so bad today that there's nothing moving except crows and Methodist ministers!"

Jonathan Edwards was not what we would today call a typical evangelist. He was a student who preached tightly knit expositions of scripture. For example, reading his famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in which he keeps sinners suspended like spiders on webs over the fires of hell for all eternity, leads people to expect to hear the voice of a real fire-breathing, pulpit-pounding, brimstonepreaching evangelist. But Edwards read it word for word in a monotone, and he seemed almost embarrassed when people started to swoon in the aisles, swept up in their conviction of sin and despair. He was a theologian, not a natural speaker. (The preacher Edwards really admired was George Whitefield. It was said of Whitefield, after he was invited to fill the pulpit in Northampton, that by merely saying the word "Mesopotamia" he could move a congregation to tears.)

Whenever religious revivals begin, you can be sure detractors will follow. To some, the fervor of the Great Awakening was simply the "emotional babble" of lowerclass, uneducated, simple folk who knew no better. Ministers who allowed such activity were not doing their duty. The detractors were called "Old Lights," and they were the essence of respectable, upper-class pillars of the community. Religion to them was to be expressed in contained, unemotional, intellectual, and academic terms. It was certainly nothing to get excited about.

The strange thing was that this was exactly the kind of man Jonathan Edwards was. He had graduated from Yale College. He believed in predestination. But people kept "choosing" to be saved when he preached. He was counted as one of the "New Lights," those who favored revival and reveled in the excesses the "Old Lights" so deplored.

The clergy and their churches were so split they completely rearranged the religious landscape. From the courthouse balcony in Philadelphia, Whitefield cried out:

Father Abraham, whom have you in heaven? Any Episcopalians? No! Any Presbyterians? No! Any Independents or Methodists? No, no, no! Whom have you there?

We don't know those names here. All who are here are Christians...

Oh, is this the case? Then God help us to forget party names and to become Christians in deed and truth.

As time went on, it became a matter of more importance to side with the "Old Lights" or the "New Lights" than to belong to a particular church. Although the term "denomination" had been defined a century earlier, it now became widely used as a way to express the idea that people were Christians first, and members of a particular "brand" of the church second. Ever since then, denominationalisim has been a distinctly American tradition, even when transported to other countries.

We have to remember that the Great Awakening was called "Great" because it was general and universal. It changed the way many people thought about God in America and, to a lesser degree, in Europe. Its social ramifications alone changed the way America thought about itself. It unified American society and made people of differing religious traditions feel like one. Edwards and Whitefield were unifying names and rallying points a full thirty years before Washington and Jefferson were.

No one knows how many people started going to church, but the numbers were huge. Missions, especially to the American Indians, grew as never before. Education received a shot in the arm when the need for ministers schooled in the classics was seen. Universities—many of which, such as Princeton and Brown, still survive as respected secular institutions of learning—trace their beginnings to this time of religious fervent. The role of the laity in positions of leadership was enhanced. Ministerial authority was lessened, due to the fact that "New Light" ministers were pitted against their "Old Light" colleagues. Paradoxically, the profession was also enhanced due to the fame of "New Light" revivalists.

But all things come to an end. Gradually people returned to normal. Bickering and disillusionment increased. Jonathan Edwards was fired from his church when disagreements arose. A second Great Awakening arose during the first years of the nineteenth century, followed by religious high-water marks such as the 1950s church-building craze and the charismatic movement of the early 1970s, but a religious movement as significant as the Great Awakening has not been seen since.

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