The First Great Awakening (often referred by historians as the Great Awakening) is the name sometimes given to a period of heightened religious activity, primarily in Great Britain and her North American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. In New England, the Great Awakening was influential among many Congregationalists; while in the Middle and Southern colonies (especially in the rural regions of those colonies) the Awakening was influential among Presbyterians and other dissenting Protestants. Although the idea of a “great awakening” is contested, it is clear that the period was, particularly in New England, a time of increased religious activity. The revival began with Jonathan Edwards, a well-educated theologian and Congregationalist minister from Northampton, Massachusetts, who came from Puritan and Calvinist roots, but emphasized the importance and power of immediate, personal religious experience. Edwards was said to be “solemn, with a distinct and careful enunciation, and a slow cadence.”Nevertheless, his sermons were powerful and attracted a large following.” Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is his most famous sermon and his essay, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, describes his local experience during the Awakening. The Methodist preacher George Whitefield, visiting from England, continued the movement, traveling across the colonies and preaching in a more dramatic and emotional style, accepting everyone into his audiences. The first new Congregational church in Massachusetts in the Great Awakening period of 1730-1740, was at the newly incorporated town of Uxbridge and was pastored by the Rev. Nathan Webb, a native of Braintree. The First Great Awakening is often credited with helping to forge a new national identity that served as backdrop to the American Revolution.
Those caught up in the movement likely experienced new forms of religiosity. They became passionately and emotionally involved in their religion, rather than passively listening to intellectual discourse in a detached manner. Ministers who used this new style of preaching were sometimes called “new lights,” while the preachers who remained unemotional were referred to as “old lights”. People affected by the revival began to study the Bible at home. This effectively decentralized the means of informing the public on religious manners and was akin to the individualistic trends present in Europe during the Protestant Reformation.
Historians have debated whether the Awakening had a political impact on the American Revolution, which took place soon after. Heimert (1966) argues that Calvinism and Jonathan Edwards provided pre-Revolutionary America with a radical and democratic social and political ideology and that evangelical religion embodied and inspired a thrust toward American nationalism. Colonial Calvinism was the basis for the American Great Awakening and that in turn lay at the basis of the American Revolution. Heimert thus sees a major impact as the Great Awakening provided the radical American nationalism that prompted the Revolution. Awakening preachers sought to review God’s covenant with America and to repudiate the materialistic, acquisitive, corrupt world of an affluent colonial society. The source of this corruption lay in England, and a severance of the ties with the mother country would result in a rededication of America to the making of God’s Kingdom. However, Heimert has been criticized for not recognizing the differences between educated and uneducated evangelists, and for not recognizing the significance of Separate-Baptists and Methodists.
The First Great Awakening resulted from powerful preaching that aimed to convince listeners of their personal guilt and of their need of salvation through decisive action that included public repentance. The Great Awakening led people to “experience God in their own way” and taught that they were responsible for their own actions.
Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made religion intensely personal to the average person by creating a deep sense of spiritual guilt and redemption, along with introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality. Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom sees it as part of a “great international Protestant upheaval” that also created Pietism in Germany, the Evangelical Revival and Methodism in England.
The attempt at conversion brought about an apocalyptic event in New England that challenged established authority. It incited rancor and division between the old traditionalists who insisted on ritual and doctrine, and the new revivalists. It had a major impact in reshaping the Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and German Reformed denominations, and strengthened the small Baptist and Methodist denominations. It had little impact on Anglicans and Quakers.
Unlike the Second Great Awakening, which began about 1800 and reached out to the unchurched, the First Great Awakening focused on people who were already church members. It may have contributed to changes in some followers’ ritual behavior, piety, and sense of self.
The First Great Awakening is a name sometimes given to a period of time when religious revitalization movements were highly active in the American colonies during the 1730s and 1740s. Some scholars have disputed the idea of a “Great Awakening.” Jon Butler has suggested that both the name and the concept of the “Great Awakening” first arose in the work of nineteenth-century religious historians such as Joseph Tracy. Joseph Conforti has argued that ardent promoters of the eighteenth-century revivalists concocted the Great Awakening tradition. Frank Lambert lay the roots of the term not at the feet of secondary promoters, but upon the revival preachers themselves. He contended that the terminology and concept were indeed as old as the eighteenth-century events themselves, but that they existed more as press release than news report—more as an expression of what the preachers hoped would happen than as a realistic description of what did happen.
On the other hand, scholars such as William G. McLoughlin have argued that the Great Awakening was “the key which unlocked the door to the new household of the [American] republic.” Students of Christian revival movements and historians of the church have continued to write scholarly tomes analyzing Great Awakening.
The historicity of Edwards, Frelinghuysen, Tennent, and Whitefield is not disputed. The realignment of existing Christian denominations into pro-revival and anti-revival factions during the period is well attested, as is the emergence of new denominational bodies connected to the revival movement. Something happened to the American religious landscape between 1740 and 1776 to explain these phenomena. The nature of the debate goes less to the nature of the events themselves and more to the manner of their interpretation.