Great Awakening

Summary

Great Awakening is the collective name for a series of large Protestant revival movements that occurred in the British colonies in North America and the United States from the 1730s onward. Historical research identifies three revival movements in particular for the United States: The First Great Awakening (1740-1760), the Second Great Awakening (1800-1840), and the Third Great Awakening (1880-1910). Controversial is the term “Fourth Great Awakening,” coined by historian Robert Fogel to describe a series of developments in the history of religion in the 1960s and 1970s.

At each Great Awakening, converts flocked in large numbers to a wide range of Protestant communities – both existing and entirely new denominations. The interest of these revivalists turned either to entirely new belief systems or to those that promised, within existing doctrines, to overcome their (supposedly rigid) orthodoxy.

The American revivalist movements turned against the Enlightenment and modernity, insofar as they doubted the inerrancy of the Bible and held out the prospect of a successful moral life even without reference to transcendence. At the same time, however, they used genuinely modern means, especially in communicating their message. In this respect, according to the German theologian Jörg Lauster, they are not to be understood as anti-modernist, but as crisis phenomena of modernity. The revivalist movements are the historical roots of fundamentalism.

Although revival movements are nothing specific to American religious life and have been described all over the world, the cycle of American Great Awakenings is characterized by some peculiarities that fundamentally distinguish it from other revival movements. This is to be understood against the background of the extraordinarily broad spectrum of Protestant faith communities in the United States. This diversity is an expression of the special freedom of the life of faith in American Protestantism. Because of the distance of this Protestantism from the state (especially in comparison with the Lutheranism of northern and central Europe and the Anglicanism of England) and the lack of centralism of the Roman Catholic Church, new religious ideas could spread there without having to slowly reform the existing institutions from within. The existing religious communities, on the other hand, enjoy such prestige and have such a capacity for persistence that the need for new religious ideas wears itself out against their resistance in such a way that a regular cycle of bloodless religious revolutions emerges from this.

Das Erste Große Erwachen

The first Great Awakening occurred simultaneously in Britain and the British colonies in North America in the 1730s and 1740s. While the revival movement in New England influenced primarily the Congregationalists, it influenced the Presbyterians in the Middle and Southern Colonies, especially in their hinterlands. Unlike later revival movements, the First Great Awakening was primarily an internal church movement that intensified the faith life of church members.

Although the idea of a “Great Revival” is disputed in the literature, this period-particularly in New England-was a time of strong religious activity and accelerated religious developments. These began with the missionary activities of Jonathan Edwards, an educated theologian and Congregationalist preacher from Northampton, Massachusetts, who had Puritan and Calvinist roots, but who repeatedly emphasized the importance and power of immediate personal religious experience. Edwards” sermons were powerful and attracted large audiences from about 1731 onward.

The Methodist preacher George Whitefield, who had arrived from England, continued the revival movement, touring the British colonies and preaching in a dramatic and emotional style that was new at the time. Also new was Whitefield”s acceptance of everyone in the audience – including African Americans and slaves.

The first new Congregationalist church congregation influenced by the Great Awakening emerged in 1731 in Uxbridge, Massachusetts.

Before the Great Awakening radically changed spiritual life in New England, the British colonists had little interest in religion. They were primarily trying to gain wealth here. To encourage interest, the church created rules that allowed converts to enter other denominations without being perceived as converting. In addition, it gave preferential treatment to wealthy families by allowing them to occupy regular seats in the pews close to the altar.

In the Connecticut River Valley, wealthy landowners drove up land prices, which meant that many young people could not establish a farm and were therefore forced to wait to marry. This not only impoverished them, but also made them unwelcome in church services. The situation was different with the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, who was especially devoted to this target group and preached sermons that particularly appealed to the feelings of this group of people. A spirit of passionate Puritan faith prevailed in his meeting house, which radiated to the rest of the population and attracted more and more parishioners. Whereas religion had until then been regarded as a matter for adults, church attendance by young people in particular was now on the increase.

The faithful began to prefer passionate preaching and lost interest in ministers who preached in a “cool” style. Although there was eventually open conflict with the established churches, German Pietists and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians carried the revival movement forward. In Pennsylvania, William Tennent, a Presbyterian preacher, and his son Gilbert fostered the training of a new generation of preachers. In a log cabin in Warminster in 1726, they established what became known as “Log College,” which in 1746 became the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University.

George Whitefield continued to develop his doctrine. Like Edwards, he declared that human beings were “half angel and half devil” and therefore entitled to hope for salvation. Many religious leaders added the requirement of piety and purity to established Protestantism. Believers now perceived religion as a relief from the burdens imposed on them in their personal lives.

The people who joined the movement experienced new forms of religiosity. While believers had previously followed intellectual religious discourse without close personal involvement, their religious experience in the Great Awakening became passionate and emotional. Ministers who cultivated the new style of preaching were sometimes called “New Lights,” while preachers whose style remained cool were called “Old Lights.” Believers not only heard the texts of the Bible in church services, but also began to study them at home. This decentralization of religious instruction to the faithful corresponded to the general individualization that the Reformation had promoted.

The teachings preached during the First Great Awakening centered on the personal guilt of each individual and the need to be redeemed, with that redemption involving a final resolution and public repentance. The Great Awakening led believers to “experience God in their own way” and taught them that they were responsible for their actions. As the importance of rite and ceremony receded, religion became a intensely personal experience for the average believer, marked by deep awareness of spiritual guilt and repentance, introspection, and a resolute determination to follow a new standard of personal morality. American historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom describes the Great Awakening as part of that “great international Protestant upheaval” that also produced Pietism in Germany and Evangelicalism and Methodism in England.

The First Great Awakening exerted considerable influence on the Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and German Reformed churches and strengthened the small Baptist and Methodist congregations. It had little influence, on the other hand, on the Anglicans and the Quakers. Unlike the Second Great Awakening, which sought to reach people who were not yet members of a church, the First Great Awakening focused largely on those believers who were already church members.

Through the Great Revival, many slaves also came to the Christian faith for the first time. In the southern colonies, the Baptists allowed both slaves and slaveholders to preach from the 1770s onward. After women had been overrepresented in the churches until then, the number of male church members also increased.

Some historians have described the Great Awakening as the American outworking of the second phase of the Reformation. It is estimated that the number of churches here doubled during the period 1740-1780.

Das Zweite Große Erwachen

A second major revival movement occurred in the United States during the period from 1790 to 1840. Significant religious leaders of the time, in whose meetings untold numbers of believers had an experience of personal salvation, were Charles Grandison Finney, Lyman Beecher, Barton Stone, Peter Cartwright, Asahel Nettleton, and James B. Finley. The movement also fostered a committed evangelical mindset that was clearly evident when issues such as penal reform, the temperance movement, women”s suffrage, and the abolition of slavery were later debated in the United States.

While the renewed interest in religion in New England resulted in a wave of social activism, it led to the spread of religious movements such as the Restoration Movement, the Mormons, and the Holiness Movement in western New York State (which was also known as the “burned-over district” because of the perceived burning intensity of religious fervor). In the West, especially in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, and in Tennessee, the Revival strengthened the Methodists and introduced a new form of religious expression: the open-air camp meeting.

The Methodists and Baptists received a considerable influx; to a lesser extent, the Presbyterians also gained new members. In addition, new religious communities arose during the Second Great Awakening that still exist today, such as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the aforementioned Mormons and the Seventh-day Adventists. Since many believers preferred to seek their basis of faith in the New Testament rather than in the later Catholic and Protestant doctrines and practices, many of the new movements explicitly considered themselves non-denominational faith communities, including the churches of Christ.

In Appalachia, the revival movement cultivated camp meetings and adopted many of the characteristics that had already characterized the First Great Awakening. Camp Meetings were worship services lasting several days at which several preachers spoke. These events were very popular, if only because they were usually a welcome change for the residents of the sparsely populated region. The very joy of participating in a religious revival together with hundreds, possibly thousands, of other believers led to the dancing, bustling and singing that was typical of these events. Even more important than the social component, however, was the deep impression the events made on the believers” self-esteem, which was initially destroyed by guilt, but then restored by the awareness of personal salvation. Most converts joined small local congregations, which grew rapidly in this way.

One of the first camp meetings was held in July 1800 by Creedence Clearwater Church in southwestern Kentucky.A much larger camp meeting was held in Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801. It attracted an estimated 20,000 attendees, and services included several Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist preachers. Faith communities such as the Methodists and Baptists were able to significantly increase their membership through events such as these. However, Cane Ridge also promoted the Restoration Movement and non-denominational communities that professed New Testament Original Christianity, such as the Christian Church, the Disciples of Christ, and the Churches of Christ.

As American theologian Kimberly Bracken Long outlined in 2002, since the 1980s, humanists have traced camp meetings back to the tradition of Holy Fairs, which were common in Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries. Until then, their roots had been thought to lie exclusively in the American frontier experience.

The revival movement quickly spread across Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio. Each denomination possessed advantages that enabled it to thrive in the sparsely populated regions. The Methodists possessed an efficient organization based on preachers who traveled to extremely remote areas for their missionary work. These “circuit riders” recruited from the common people, which made it easier for them to relate to the frontier people they hoped to convert.

Congregationalists in Florida, Kansas, and Hawaii established missionary societies to evangelize the West. Their members, who represented the culture of the urban American East, acted as educators and as apostles of the faith in the West. Christian publishers provided for the dissemination of Christian education; the most important of these was the American Bible Society, founded in 1816. The social interest that had arisen with the revival movement led to the founding of the American Temperance Society and abolitionist groups, as well as efforts to reform the penal system and care for the disabled and mentally ill. Followers of the movement firmly believed that people could be improved and held high moral standards in their efforts.

The Second Great Awakening was tremendously influential in American religious history. Since colonial times, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Reformed had been the dominant denominations. The Second Great Awakening now helped the Baptists and Methodists significantly increase their membership.

Efforts to apply Christian teachings to the solution of social problems were important precursors and precedents for the social gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although in their own time they had very limited application to specific issues such as alcohol and slavery and were not applied to the overall economy. In the first half of the 19th century, the United States was emerging as a culturally diverse country, and the increasing differences and antagonisms within American Protestantism reflected and contributed to this diversity.

Das Dritte Große Erwachen

The period of the third Great Awakening spans from the 1850s to the early 20th century. This revival movement influenced the pietistic Protestant denominations and produced a strong social activism. It gained its strength from post-millenarian theology, according to which Christ would return to the world when humanity had converted the entire earth. The revival movement fostered the social gospel movement and a worldwide missionary movement. New religious groups such as the Holiness Movement, the Church of the Nazarene, and Christian Science emerged.

While the War of Secession (1861-1865) disrupted revivalism in Northern cities, in the South the war tended to encourage it in some ways, especially in Robert Edward Lee”s Confederate forces. As abolitionist spokesmen, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone became particularly well known.

In Chicago, Dwight Lyman Moody founded the Moody Bible Institute after the war. Moody”s partner, Ira David Sankey, wrote a variety of spiritual songs that were widely used in the Third Great Awakening.

At the end of the 19th century, the wealthy ruling class of the Gilded Age became the target of massive criticism by the preachers of the Social Gospel and by progressive reformers. In this context, historian Robert Fogel cites in particular the disputes over child labor, the introduction of compulsory education and labor protection for female factory workers. In addition, an extensive campaign was waged to introduce alcohol prohibition. The large Pietist Protestant denominations carried out missionary work, the scope of which increased worldwide. Denominational colleges sprang up and offered increasingly extensive programs of study. In many cities, the YMCA gained strong influence, as did denominational youth organizations such as the Methodist Epworth League and the Evangelical Lutheran Walther League.

Tolstoyan, on the other hand, was the Christian idealism that influenced Jane Addams, the founder of social work in the United States.

In the 1860s, Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science, which soon gained a nationwide following. Charles Taze Russell founded a Bible study group in 1876, which became the Jehovah”s Witnesses in 1931. That same year, Felix Adler founded the Society for Ethical Culture in New York City, which attracted mainly Reformed Jews. In 1880, the Salvation Army, founded in Great Britain, also began to spread in the United States. The doctrine of this free church was based on ideals that had found expression during the Second Great Awakening; its focus of interest, however, was the fight against poverty: one of the major themes of the Third Great Awakening.

Das Vierte Große Erwachen

The “Fourth Great Awakening” is the term used to describe a series of developments in the history of religion that occurred in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s. This usage was particularly coined by economic historian Robert Fogel. However, since many other historians believe that the developments described by Fogel are far less significant than those of the first three Great Awakenings, the term “Fourth Great Awakening” is controversial.

What is indisputable is that American faith life has again changed significantly since the 1960s. Moderate Protestant churches such as the Methodists, Presbyterians and Christian Church lost a significant portion of their membership and influence to denominations with traditional teachings, such as the Southern Baptists and the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups also found strong gains. At the same time, secularism was also growing strongly, and conservative Christian churches found themselves forced into controversy when issues such as the lesbian and gay movement, abortion and creationism were discussed in public.

This shift in the balance of power was accompanied by changes in evangelicalism itself, in the course of which new religious communities appeared; already existing ones often changed their emphasis. New nondenominational churches and community faith centers gave special emphasis to the believer”s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, nontraditional churches and megachurches with conservative theologies and para-church organizations such as Focus on the Family and Habitat for Humanity experienced influxes, while the mainline church lost many members. Occasionally, the Jesus Movement is classified as an expression of the Fourth Great Awakening.

In connection with the “Fourth Great Awakening”, reference has sometimes been made to the Charismatic Movement, which emerged in the USA from 1961 onwards. This has its origins in the Pentecostal movement, in which special attention is given to the experience of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, spiritual healing or prophecy. These gifts, which are considered signs of God or the Holy Spirit, also serve believers here to strengthen their spiritual convictions. Despite its Protestant origins, this movement also influenced many Catholics, whose leadership at the same time opened up to the ideas of ecumenism, placed less emphasis on institutional structures, and instead began to give space to the spirituality of the laity.

Because political programs in the United States have often been supported by religious faith communities, the Great Awakenings have had a marked influence on the politics of this country. Priest and historian Joseph Tracy (1793-1874), who gave his name to this religious phenomenon in his influential book The Great Awakening (1842), described the First Great Awakening (1740-1760) as a precursor to the War for Independence. The influence of the Second Great Awakening (1800-1840) is also unmistakable, promoting abolitionism and helping to challenge the institution of slavery in a way that made the War of Secession possible. The Third Great Awakening (1880-1910) greatly influenced the management of the Great Depression and World War II.

The idea of “revival” implies a state of sleep or passivity in times of worldliness or diminished religiosity. The term “revival” is therefore used especially by evangelical Christians. In recent American history, the concept of “revival” has often been advocated by conservative American evangelicals, including George W. Bush.

All book titles indicated are in English:

Sources

  1. Great Awakening
  2. Great Awakening