The (First) Great Awakening 1700-1799

The Great Awakening comes in the context of the Enlightenment 1685 - 1815, the Reformation 1500-1750, and the American Revolution 1775–1783. The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century which many call "The Century of Philosophy." Many of the ideas popular in the Enlightenment are with us today and are centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy. In many instances, especially today, the "reliance on reason" takes as an axiom materialism, which is to deny that there is a spiritual realm at all. The Enlightenment philosophers came to advance ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state. Today we find ourselves inheriting much of this except for the notion of tolerance. ("Tolerance" has been redefined in our day to be anything but tolerant of differing ideas.) The Reformation threw off the idea of an imperial Church and splintered Christendom. The Scholastic of the middle ages applied reason and the study of philosophy to the study of theology and in many ways set the stage for the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was not as hostile to Christianity as our modern academics are now. They were, in the main, aware that their society was based on Christian underpinnings. The Americans with the revolution "...dissolve[d] the political bands which... connected them with another..." while Christianity in the colonies was likely more fractured that it was in England.  

For many the Great Awakening was a counter social movement or even a reaction to the Enlightenment. Wikipedia says:

The Great Awakening or First Great Awakening was a Protestant religious revival that swept Protestant Europe and British America in the 1730s and 1740s. An evangelical and revitalization movement, it left 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. The Great Awakening pulled away from ritual, ceremony, sacramentalism, and hierarchy, and 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.

This is typical of the way this period is treated by historians who think of Christianity, and religions generally, as social movements. From inside the church, especially the organized denominations, movements like this can also be looked upon with suspicion because, as this one did, they upset the established order. In Evangelical Churches, however, movements like this are more often seen as a "move of the Spirit." Something the modern secularist and even some churchmen would not consider or even understand. Wikipedia thinks that the reason for the movement's impact were the sermons. The Evangelical knows that there is something deeper here, although it is accomplished by "the foolishness of preaching" (I Corinthians 1.21).

Wikipedia continues:

The movement was an important social event in New England, which challenged established authority and incited rancor and division between traditionalist Protestants, who insisted on the continuing importance of ritual and doctrine, and the revivalists, who encouraged emotional involvement. It had an impact in reshaping the Congregational church, the Presbyterian church, the Dutch Reformed Church, and the German Reformed denominations, 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.

Most of the colonies of the time had established churches. Freedom of religion as we now know it was not really part of the American psyche at this time and this period is often thought of as the transition that brought it about. As can be seen in the rest of the Church History section there is a long tradition of government dictating religious things, the church resisting government intervention and even sometime the church becoming a powerful political force. Despite the Reformation and many people coming to the colonies for religious freedom, that is not what they established. The thinking of many was that the purity of their particular religious tradition could lead to a transformed society. The message of the Great Awakening was that it was the transformed person that will act to produce a transformed society.

Reducing things to bullet points, the Great Awakening:

  • Deemphasized the importance of church doctrine.
  • Greater emphasis on the individual and their spiritual experience.
  • The role of the individual in religion and society. (The transformed individual would transform society.)
  • Establishment of new institutions of higher learning:
    • Brown,
    • Dartmouth,
    • Princeton and
    • Rutgers.


Key leaders and screwballs of the Great Awakening:

Name Dates Denomination Comment
Jonathan Edwards 1703-1758 Congregationalist

Most famous sermon  "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

Of his many books, The End For Which God Created the World, The Life of David Brainerd, and Religious Affectionsl

George Whitefield 1714 - 1770 Anglican

An English Anglican cleric who was one of the founders of Methodism and the evangelical movement. 

In 1740, Whitefield traveled to North America, where he preached a series of revivals that came to be known as the "Great Awakening".


Samuel Davies 1723 - 1761 Presbyterian

Samuel Davies was an evangelical Presbyterian pastor and educator. He played a critical role in the early years of the Great Awakening, the series of religious revivals that would eventually lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England as America's official church. He was a poet and composed or adapted 10 hymns. A collection of his sermons was published in 5 voulms.

Gilbert Tennent 1703 - 1764  Presbyterian His most famous sermon, "On the Danger of an Unconverted Ministry," compared contemporary anti-revivalistic ministers to the biblical Pharisees described of the Gospels, resulting in a division of the colonial Presbyterian Church which lasted 17 years.
James Davenport 1716 –1757 Congregational

Famous for what he called the "Bonfire of the vanities." Where he urged his followers to burn their worldly books.

On March 7, 1743, Davenport exhibited perhaps his most bizarre behavior yet, in an incident which garnished him lasting fame—or infamy. The day before, he had led a crowd to burn a large pile of books; this day he called them to throw their expensive and fancy clothing onto the fire, so as to prove their full commitment to God. Davenport—leading by example—removed his pants and cast them into the bonfire. One woman in the crowd quickly grabbed his pants out of the blaze, and handed them back to Davenport, entreating him to get a hold of himself. "This act broke Davenport's spell," wrote historian Thomas Kidd. Davenport had gone too far, charisma or no, and the crowd quickly dispersed.

Samson Occom 1723 – 1792 Presbyterian

A member of the Mohegan nation, from near New London, Connecticut. At seventeen Samson Occom was converted to Christianity by Rev. James Davenport during the "Great Awakening."

Became a Presbyterian cleric. The first Native American to publish his writings in English

Benjamin Randall 1749 - 1808 Congregational
Freewill Baptist
 the main organizer of the Freewill Baptists (Randall Line) in the northeastern United States.
Isaac Backus 1724 - 1806 Baptist A leading Baptist preacher during the era of the American Revolution who campaigned against state-established churches in New England.
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