First Great Awakening
gigatos | January 1, 2022
The Great Awakening or First Great Awakening was an evangelical and revitalization movement that swept Protestants in Europe and British America, particularly in the American colonies, in the 1730s and 1740s, leaving a permanent impact on American Protestantism. It was the result of powerful preaching that gave listeners a sense of deep personal revelation of their need for salvation from Jesus Christ. The Great Awakening broke away from ritual, ceremony, sacramentalism, and hierarchy, and made Christianity intensely personal for the average man, fostering a deep sense of spiritual conviction and redemption, encouraging introspection and commitment to a new standard of personal morality.
The movement was a major social event in New England, challenging established authorities and inciting resentment and division between traditionalist Protestants, who insisted on the continued importance of ritual and doctrine, and revivalists who encouraged emotional involvement. It had an impact in reshaping the Congregational Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Dutch Reformed Church, and the Evangelical Reformed Church, and it strengthened the small Baptist and Anglican Methodist churches. 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 converted to Christianity.
The second great revival began around 1800 and reached non-practitioners, while the first focused on people who were already members of the church. Eighteenth-century American Christians emphasized the “outpouring of the Holy Spirit” and the evangelical imperatives of the Protestant Reformation. Revival meetings encapsulated these characteristics and spread the new evangelicalism in the new republic. Evangelical preachers “sought to bring every person to conversion, regardless of sex, race, or social status.”
The evangelical revival had an international character, affecting Protestant-majority countries in Europe. The emotional response of the faithful marked the beginning of the English revival in Bristol and London in 1737, and in Kingswood colliers (miners) emerged from George Whitefield”s preaching with white stripes streaking their cheeks, caused by tears, in 1739. Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom saw this as part of the “great international Protestant upheaval” that gave rise to Pietism in Germany and the Evangelical and Methodist revival in England. Revivalism was a critical component of the great revival, and it began in the 1620s in Scotland among Presbyterians, giving rise to itinerant preachers.
The idea of a “great awakening” was challenged by Butler (1982) as vague and exaggerated, but it is clear that the period evidenced more religious activity, especially in New England. The first great awakening led Americans to changes in their understanding of God, themselves, the world around them, and religion itself. In the middle and southern colonies, particularly in the “black” regions, the revival was influential among Presbyterians. In the southern colonies and low lands, Northern Baptist preachers and Methodists converted people, both enslaved and free, among whites and blacks. Caucasians began to welcome dark-skinned individuals into their churches, taking their religious experiences seriously, even admitting them into active roles in congregations, such as deacons and even preachers, although the latter were a rarity.
The message of spiritual equality resonated with many slaves, and as African religious traditions increasingly declined in North America, blacks accepted Christianity, in large numbers, for the first time. Evangelistic leaders in the southern colonies were dealing with the issue of slavery much more frequently than those in the North, and many of them proclaimed that slaveholders should educate their slaves so that they could become literate and be able to read and study the Bible. As a result, many Africans were provided with some type of education. Africans hoped that their newly acquired spiritual equality would translate into earthly equality. As soon as people of color began to occupy a substantial part in congregations, they had the opportunity to momentarily forget their slavery and enjoy a slight sense of freedom. Before the Revolutionary War, the first black Baptist churches were founded in the South, in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia; two black Baptist churches were established in Petersburg.
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The revival began with Jonathan Edwards in Northhamton, Massachusetts. Edwards was descended from Puritan and Calvinist roots, but he emphasized the importance and power of immediate, personal, religious experience. He taught that religious experience had to be immediate. He distrusted hierarchies and catechisms. According to him, scientific research was useless and he taught that only personal experience could be valid. His sermons were “solemn, with distinct and careful enunciation and a slow cadence.” His sermons were powerful and attracted a large following. Anglican preacher George Whitefield came from England and followed up the movement, traveling throughout the colonies preaching in a more dramatic and emotional style, accepting anyone in his audience. Both Edwards and Whitefield were slave owners and believed that blacks would gain absolute equality with whites in the millennial church.
Winiarski (2005) examined Edwards” 1741 sermons and his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” At this point, Edwards tolerated the “noise” of the Great Awakening, but his approach to revivalism became more moderate and critical in the years immediately following.
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The arrival of the young Anglican preacher George Whitefield sparked the great awakening. Whitefield”s reputation preceded his visit as a great open-air pulpit. He traveled through the colonies in 1739 and 1740. He attracted large and emotional audiences everywhere, sparking countless conversions as well as considerable controversy. He declared his “parish” to the whole world. God is merciful, was his proclamation. Men and women were not predestined for damnation, but could be saved by repenting of their sins. Whitefield spoke primarily of the concept of spiritual “rebirth,” explaining that men and women could experience a spiritual awakening, in life, that would grant them entry into the Promised Land. He appealed to the passions of his listeners, powerfully describing the infinite joy of salvation and the horrors of damnation.
Critics condemned his “enthusiasm,” his censorship, and his extemporaneous, itinerant preaching. His techniques were copied by numerous imitators, both lay and clerical. Itinerant preachers spread, preaching the great revival from New England to Georgia, among rich and poor, educated and illiterate, in inland areas and coastal cities.
Whitefield”s sermons reiterated an egalitarian message, but translated only into spiritual equality for Africans in the colonies who mostly remained slaves. Whitefield was known to criticize slave owners who treated their slaves cruelly and those who did not educate them, but he had no intention of abolishing slavery. He lobbied to reinstate slavery in Georgia and became a slave owner himself. Whitefield shared a common belief among evangelists that after conversion slaves would be granted true equality in heaven.
Despite his stance on slavery, Whitefield became influential among many Africans. Benjamin Franklin became an enthusiastic supporter of his. Franklin was a deist who rarely attended church, and he did not adhere to Whitefield”s theology, but he admired him for urging people to worship God through good works. He printed Whitefield”s sermons on the front page of his Gazette, devoting 45 articles to Whitefield”s activities. Franklin used the power of his press to spread Whitefield”s fame, publishing all of his sermons and magazines. Many of Franklin”s publications from 1739-1741 contained information about Whitefield”s work and helped to promote the evangelical movement in America. Franklin remained a friend and supporter of Whitefield until his death in 1770.
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Samuel Davies was a Presbyterian pastor who later became the fourth president of Princeton University. He was known for preaching to African slaves, whom he converted to Christianity in unusually large numbers, and is credited with the first proselytizing toward slave freedom in Virginia. In 1757 Davies wrote a letter in which he referred to the religious zeal of a slave he had met on his journey. “I am a poor slave, brought to a foreign country, where I do not expect to enjoy my freedom. While I lived in my own country, I knew nothing of that Jesus of whom I have heard so much. I have lived quite distracted as to what will become of me when I die, but now I see a life I can never have, and I come to you, Lord, that you may tell me some good things, concerning Jesus Christ, and my duty to God, for I am resolved to live no more as I have done hitherto.”
Davies became accustomed to hearing such enthusiasm from many blacks who had been exposed to the revival.He believed that blacks could attain knowledge equal to that of whites if they were given a proper education, and he promoted the importance for slaveholders to allow their slaves to become literate so that they could be more familiar with the precepts of the Bible.
The new style of sermons and the way people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America. Participants gained passion and became emotionally involved in their religion instead of passively listening to intellectual discourse in a detached manner. Ministers who used this new style of preaching were generally referred to as “new lights,” while preachers who remained emotionless were referred to as “old lights.” People affected by the revival began to study the Bible at home. This effective decentralization of the means of informing the public about religious matters was similar to the individualistic tendencies present in Europe during the Protestant Reformation.
The revival played an important role in women”s lives, as they were rarely allowed to preach or take on leadership roles. A deep sense of religious enthusiasm encouraged women in particular to analyze their feelings, share them with other women, and write about them. They became more independent in their decisions, such as in their choice of husband. This introspection led many women to keep diaries or write memoirs. The autobiography of Hannah Heaton (1721-1794), a North Haven farmer”s wife, tells of her experiences in the Great Awakening, her encounters with Satan, her intellectual and spiritual development, and daily life on the farm.
Phillis Wheatley the first black poet of the her writing was published, had converted to Christianity as a child after being brought to America. Her beliefs were evident in her works; she described the journey, from a pagan land to Christianity in the colonies, in a poem entitled “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” (Brought from Africa to America). Wheatley was greatly influenced by the revival and especially by George Whitefield, to whom she dedicated a poem after his death in which she described him as an “impartial savior.” Sarah Osborn added another layer to the role of women during the awakening. She was a schoolteacher in Rhode Island, and her writings offer a fascinating glimpse into the spiritual and cultural upheaval of the period, including a 1743 memoir, several diaries and letters, and her anonymous publication The Nature, Certainty and Evidence of True Christianity(1753).
The emotionality of revival appeals to many Africans and African leaders began to emerge soon after they were converted in considerable numbers. These numbers paved the way for the creation of the first black congregations and churches in the American colonies.
The new town of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, saw the birth of the new Congregational church, with its associated house of worship, during the period of the Great Awakening (1730-60). It was headed by Pastor Nathan Webb, a native of Braintree, who remained in Uxbridge for the next 41 years. His student Samuel Spring served as chaplain during the Revolutionary War and created the Andover Newton Theological School and the Massachusetts Missionary Society.
Calvinist congregations were especially hard hit. For example, congregational churches in New England had 98 schisms. These schisms occurred among both the “new lights” (those influenced by the Great Awakening) and the “old lights” (traditionalists). It is estimated that in the New England churches there was a nearly equal division between “new lights,” “old lights,” and those who held both positions valid.
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In Connecticut, the Saybrook Platform of 1708 marked a conservative counter-revolution against the nonconformist tide that had begun with the Halfway Covenant and culminated in the great revival of the 1740s.
The Great Awakening bitterly divided congregationalists between “new lights” or “Arminians,” who welcomed the awakening, and “old lights” or “Calvinists,” who used governmental authority to suppress the awakening. The Arminians believed that every person could be saved by experiencing a religious conversion and one of the awakenings, while the Calvinists declared that everyone”s destiny was a matter of predestination and the awakenings were a false religion. The legislature was controlled by the “old lights” who had passed the “Act for regulating abuses and correcting disorder in ecclesiastical affairs” in 1742, which ministers of the leading revival churches had abruptly curtailed. Another law tended to prevent the opening of “new lights” seminaries. Numerous “new lights” evangelicals were imprisoned or fined. The “new lights” responded with their own political organization, fighting city by city. Religious issues declined slightly after 1748, although the rivalry between the old and new lights shifted to other issues, such as disputes over currency matters and imperialism. However, the divisions played no role in the subsequent war of secession, which was supported by both sides.
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