The Great Awakening
Out of the philosophical position of rationalism, residents of western Europe and
the American colonies gained increasing understanding of and control over their world.
Navigation instruments, printing presses, vaccinations against epidemics, and botanical
innovations were among the discoveries and inventions that convinced these innovators
that the world was subject to predictable laws. The result was erosion of the general
belief in a vengeful God who would arbitrarily choose to save some souls and damn
others. A forgiving God gained ascendancy, one who would grant "grace" (forgiveness
and salvation) to anyone who would profess faith and dedication. These new ideas had
had their origins in Europe, but they acquired special power in the North America
colonies, where increasing ideological independence was bolstered by the growing
number of people in whom profitable exports and plentiful, inexpensive land bred
optimism. For many American yeoman farmers, merchants, and artisans, increasing
economic independence convinced them that they could master and improve their own
fate, with or without divine assistance. By 1720 church attendance had declined in all
the American colonies.
At the same time American religion faced new institutional challenges. In the
South and in parts of New York, the Anglican Church reigned, but in most of the
colonies there were also vigorous alternative sects—Quaker, Mennonites, and Dutch
Reformed, with a few Roman Catholics and Jews added to the mix. Traditional Native
American--and even African--religious practices also attracted some English followers.
Only in Pennsylvania were citizens free to join the church of their choice without also
being taxed in support of the established denomination. Because there were few
educational institutions to train ministers and no Anglican bishops in the colonies, there
were not enough educated and credentialed religious officials to maintain theological
discipline and consistency in American churches. American clergy had to return to
England to be ordained, and often their congregations viewed them as incompetent,
aloof, and uninspiring. The result by the 1720s was a restless mixture of institutions and
individuals ripe for dramatic remodeling.
Transformation came in the form of "revivals" begun by local ministers in New
Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts as early as the 1720s. In the Raritan Valley
region of New Jersey, much of the ideological leadership came from Theodorus
Jacobus Frelinghuysen, a Protestant immigrant who, worried that American Christians
had grown too lax in the practice of their faith, preached stirring sermons differentiating
between the "broad way" and the "narrow way." The broad way was easier and more
attractive, Frelinghuysen argued, but only the narrow way would result in "Eternal Life,
everlasting Glory and everlasting Joy and Salvation." Frelinghuysen's emotionally
stirring sermons prepared the way for Presbyterian evangelical preacher, William
Tennent Sr. , and his three sons to echo a similar message in Pennsylvania and in the
western mountains of Virginia. Convinced that individual and community salvation
required that community members dedicate themselves to serving the Lord, preachers
like Frelinghuysen, the Tennents, and their followers stressed the importance of biblical
Their revival movement, which gathered momentum during the 1730s, followed a
format similar to that of British minister John Wesley's. He traveled through England and
the colonial South preaching a religion that stressed social service to prisoners, slaves,
and other oppressed people and a disdain for traditional Protestant churches. Wesley
also emphasized a personal conversion experience frequently involving a dramatic and
emotional public confession of sins and embracing of renewed faith. The final spark of
America's Great Awakening was lit by rebel Anglican minister George Whitefield, who
arrived from England, almost single-handedly coalesced a movement, and then left its
expansion in the hands of an equally charismatic New Englander, Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards and other itinerant preachers responded to invitations that helped build a
network of revivalist communities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and a few
outposts in New York, Maryland, western Virginia, and South Carolina.
Wesley had worked with Whitefield in England, and the two had developed a
compelling preaching style that drew thousands to hear them wherever they spoke. By
1741 Whitefield had become the first person who almost everyone in all the colonies
had seen or heard of. Many men who had abandoned the boredom of church services
turned out to hear Whitefield, and tens of thousands of women were drawn to carry out
their own evangelizing. Jonathan Edwards's wife, Sarah, wrote a detailed account of her
experience of being "swallowed up, in the light and joy of the love of God." She was but
one of many women who began to see that women's souls might be equal before God
and that therefore women might also claim equality in social and political ways as well.
Whitefield, an itinerant preacher who modeled himself after Edwards, regularly
preached to mixed audiences of men and women, black and white. Through such
gatherings many African Americans had their first compelling experience with
Christianity. Several noted black religious leaders were recruited in these gatherings.
English followers of Whitefield and Wesley swept across the American
countryside, especially in New England and the South, deputizing lay preachers,
distributing food and medical care to the needy, opening some schools for orphans,
stirring consciences against slavery, and gathering converts among both free black
people and slaves, who would in large numbers adopt the religion of these advocates.
Many Methodists, Baptists and Quakers adopted the idea that all souls were equal
before God, and, although they did not openly advocate abolition, they became
identified with justice for the dispossessed—including poor white people and African
Americans. Itinerant ministers and revival meetings were a perfect match for isolated
rural communities, and in such areas their impact was phenomenal. Poor white
farmers—men, women, and children—found the social aspect of revival meetings
compelling and reassuring. Black people—both slave and free—joined in revival
meetings and took note of these new ideas, and in subsequent plots for slave
insurrections their code of behavior called for leniency for practitioners of these liberal
religions. Methodists and Baptists often went beyond Quakers in incorporating black
members into their congregations and in appointing black preachers.
Despite its apparent anti-intellectualism, the Great Awakening also spawned
educational institutions designed to train ministers. Presbyterians established Princeton
College and Dutch Reformed Church leaders started Rutgers (NJ). Baptists founded
Brown University (RI), and Congregationalists opened Dartmouth College (NH). Soon,
other minister-training schools would dot the countryside. Thus, this religious revival
movement became the impetus for a burgeoning national education system.
Two more enduring legacies of the Great Awakening are its effects on American
political leaders and its influence in leading American citizens toward a separation of
church and state. The rumblings within traditional religious structure gave permission for
thoughtful Americans to embrace the Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas
Jefferson are among the best-known of the advocates of Deism, but many intellectuals
subscribed to the idea that the universe might be a system set in motion by a God who
then left it for humans to manage. The shaping of the documents that underpin
American political life—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—are
flavored with the idea that religious freedom is the "natural" result of the assumption that
"all men are created equal."
The Great Awakening can be described as the first truly unifying event of the
British colonies in America. In some ways it was a rehearsal for the unity that would be
called upon by white Americans during the Revolution and for the religious themes that
would undergird the black communities' struggles for their freedom.