The Great Awakening in America

First there was the Renaissance, when old Greco-Roman traditions, ideals, art, and culture returned to Europe after a millennium of the Dark Ages. Then came the Age of Reason, where science continued to muster support for its cause. Meanwhile, European empires were busy building far-flung empires and spreading their culture – including Christianity. Of those empires, Britain controlled most of the East Coast of the North American continent. The settlers there often fled Europe due to religious persecution. As science swept across the Western world, seemingly in opposition to religion, there was a backlash from hardline religious settlers, especially in the British colonies in America.

There are technically four distinct periods of “Awakening” in the United States, but here we are going to discuss only the First Great Awakening and a bit of the second. The former laid the foundation for the American Revolution and of course the later Awakenings.

While the Awakening started two centuries earlier (think Martin Luther), with an attempt at reforming the highly stratified and deeply entrenched Catholic Church, the most reactive and tumultuous periods were in the early to mid-1700s. The move was away from the ritualized customs of the Church and converted Christianity from being church based, hierarchically controlled, and priest centered to a more personal and emotional style. Preachers were still highly influential and important, but Christianity moved away from being specifically controlled by a central authority and allowed various denominations to split off from the main branches.


The first important player in the Awakening was Jonathan Edwards. He taught that instead of taking religious experience over time, it should be immediate. Furthermore, in his opinion, because only personal experience was valid, science was invalid. The basis for science is that others can replicate your findings, and you should take scientific insights, discovered by someone else, to be true. That was in direct conflict with Edwards’ teachings. His was a fiery preacher, and he even delivered a famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, which is required reading for many high school students along the East Coast of the United States to this day. It depicted terrifying images of Hell, claimed Hell to be a real place, and stated that if people continued living without Christ in their lives, they would eventually be condemned to Hell.

The next important figure was George Whitefield, who, unlike Edwards, was not an American colonial but a British Anglican preacher. He took up the reigns of the movement from Edwards and traveled throughout the American Colonies in 1739-40, spreading his version of Christianity. Like Edwards, he used extensive imagery in his sermons and relied on the attendees’ emotions. In contrast to believers in predestination, he taught salvation was possible. It is important to note that at this time in American History, notions of predestination (that your damnation or salvation was already written by God) were very powerful and widespread.

Samuel Davies was credited with converting a lot of African slaves to the religion, which helped advanced the decline of traditional African religions – today, almost no one practices tribal African religions, but Christianity is a huge influence on many African American communities.


The new style of preaching and religious practice meant more emotion in religion. The older Catholic and Protestant religions were considered dry and unemotional. The sermons would debate points on an intellectual level, and people would listen to preachers instead of actively partaking. With the Awakening, there were two categories of people: the “old lights”, who were those unaffected by the revival, and the “new lights”, who took the revival to heart. The latter became highly emotional religious followers, studying the Bible at home and feeding emotion into their daily religious practices.

The idea that religious thought should be a personal affair promoted the American ideals of freedom of religion. If one could study at home and come to his own conclusions, the religion was much more democratic. This may well have fueled the idea that America should be independent from Britain, igniting a war a half century later.
The greater democratization, however, had other consequences. Since each congregation could view the interpretation as they saw fit, there was a huge number of splits in previously unified denominations. In New England, there were no fewer than 98 splits. If you think there is only one right way, then this is catastrophic. If you believe slight differences are no problem, then this is great for individuals, as they have many choices and can decide for themselves which is the best path. The Calvinists especially were affected by the movement, as they believed in predetermination, while the revival sects claimed salvation was possible through the individual’s actions and intents.


The Age of Enlightenment was upon the world near the end, and that societal movement championed deism (God has no direct involvement in the universe) and skepticism. It was a continuation of the Age of Reason and even more scientifically focused. Unfortunately, it also went against religious doctrine, so another Great Awakening occurred in the US as a reaction. This revival incorporated parts of Romanticism, appealing to emotion and the supernatural. A supernatural appeal is a direct affront to the skepticism of Enlightenment.

The movement was hugely supported, and church membership skyrocketed. But more importantly for later history, the theology of the Second Awakening dealt with the Second Coming of Christ. Followers of the Second Great Awakening denominations felt the need to cleanse society before Jesus came for the second time. They needed to cleanse not only themselves but the wickedness of others. This is the origin of many Evangelical groups today.

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