First Great Awakening

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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."[1] 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[2] 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".[3] 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.[4][5]

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.[6]

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."[7] 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.[8] Joseph Conforti has argued that ardent promoters of the eighteenth-century revivalists concocted the Great Awakening tradition.[9] 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.[10]

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."[11] Students of Christian revival movements and historians of the church have continued to write scholarly tomes analyzing Great Awakening.[12]

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.

See also

  • The Second Great Awakening (1800s - 1830s)
  • The Third Great Awakening (1880s - 1900s)
  • The Fourth Great Awakening (1960s - 1970s)


  1. Holly Reed, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology. Retrieved July 27, 2016.
  2. Joseph S. Clarke, A Historical Sketch of the Congregational Churches in Massachusetts, from 1620 to 1858 (Boston: Congregational Board of Publication, 1858), 148.
  3. Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007, 978-0195315882), 41.
  4. William G. McLoughlin, "Essay Review: the American Revolution as a Religious Revival: 'The Millennium in One Country.'" New England Quarterly 1967 40(1): 99-110.
  5. Philip Goff, "Revivals and Revolution: Historiographic Turns since Alan Heimert's Religion and the American Mind." Church History 67(4) (1998): 695-721.
  6. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), 263.
  7. Frank Lambert, "The first great awakening: Whose interpretive fiction?" The New England Quarterly 68 (4) (1995): 650.
  8. Jon Butler, "Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction," Journal of American History 69 (2) (Sept 1982): 322.
  9. Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, and American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 12.
  10. Frank Lambert, Inventing the "Great Awakening (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 5-6.
  11. William G. McLoughlin, "'Enthusiasm for Liberty': The Great Awakening as the Key to the Revolution," in Preachers and Politicians: Two Essays on the Origins of the American Revolution (Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1977), 73.
  12. Alvin Reid and Malcolm McDow, Firefall: How God Has Shaped History Through Revivals (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1997).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Primary sources

  • Davies, Samuel. Sermons on Important Subjects, Edited by Albert Barnes. 3 vols. Palala Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1346632445
  • Davies, Samuel. The Reverend Samuel Davies Abroad: The Diary of a Journal to England and Scotland, 1753-55, Edited by George William Pilcher. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1967. OCLC 961848
  • Edwards, Jonathan and C. Goen, editor. The Great-Awakening: A Faithful Narrative. Collected contemporary comments and letters; Yale University Press, 1972, ISBN 0300014376.
  • Gillies, John. Memoirs of Rev. George Whitefield. New Haven, CT: Whitmore and Buckingham, and H. Mansfield, 1834. OCLC 2630105
  • Heimert, Alan, and Perry Miller, (ed.); The Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequences. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967. OCLC 382751
  • Jarratt, Devereux. The Life of the Reverend Devereux Jarratt. Religion in America, ed. Edwin S. Gaustad. New York: Arno, 1969. OCLC 88274
  • Whitefield, George. George Whitefield's Journals, Edited by Iain Murray. London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1960. ISBN 978-0851511474
  • Whitefield, George. Letters of George Whitefield, Edited by S. M. Houghton. Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976. ISBN 978-0851512396

Secondary sources

  • Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1972. ISBN 0385111649
  • Brekus, Catherine A. Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845. University of North Carolina Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0807847459
  • Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America. Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0195041187
  • Bumsted, J. M. "What Must I Do to Be Saved?": The Great Awakening in Colonial America. Dryden Press, 1976. ISBN 0030866510.
  • Butler, Jon. "Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretative Fiction." Journal of American History 69 (1982): 305-25. ISSN 0021-8723
  • Butler, Jon. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0674056008
  • Conforti, Joseph A. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition and American Culture. University of North Carolina Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0807845356
  • Gaustad, Edwin S. The Great Awakening in New England. New York, Harper, 1957. OCLC 382750
  • Gaustad, Edwin S. "The Theological Effects of the Great Awakening in New England," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 40(4) (1954): 681-706. OCLC 35781793
  • Goen, C. C. Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740-1800: Strict Congregationalists and Separate Baptists in the Great Awakening. Wesleyan University Press, 1987 (original 1960). ISBN 0819561339.
  • Goff, Philip. "Revivals and Revolution: Historiographic Turns since Alan Heimert's Religion and the American Mind." Church History 67(4) (1998): 695-721. ISSN 0009-6407 Fulltext: in Jstor and Ebsco
  • Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0300050608
  • Heimert, Alan. Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1966. OCLC 382500
  • Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790. 1982, emphasis on Baptists. ISBN 978-0807841167
  • Lambert, Frank. Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals. Princeton University Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0691032962
  • Lambert, Frank. "The first great awakening: Whose interpretive fiction?" The New England Quarterly 68 (4) (1995): 650. ISSN 0028-4866
  • Lambert, Frank. Inventing the "Great Awakening"; Princeton University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0691043791
  • McLoughlin, William G. "'Enthusiasm for Liberty': The Great Awakening as the Key to the Revolution," in Preachers and Politicians: Two Essays on the Origins of the American Revolution. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1977.
  • McLoughlin, William G. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977. 1978. ISBN 978-0226560915
  • McLoughlin, William G. "Essay Review: the American Revolution as a Religious Revival: 'The Millennium in One Country.'" New England Quarterly 40(1) (1967): 99-110. ISSN 0028-4866 Fulltext: in Jstor
  • Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: the American Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2007 (original 1982). 978-0195315882
  • Reid, Alvin and Malcolm McDow. Firefall: How God Has Shaped History Through Revivals. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1997.
  • Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2001. ISBN 978-0802849663
  • Schmotter, James W. "The Irony of Clerical Professionalism: New England's Congregational Ministers and the Great Awakening," American Quarterly 31 (1979): 148-168, a statistical study. Retrieved July 28, 2022.
  • Stout, Harry. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991. ISBN 978-0802801548
  • Tracy, Joseph. The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield. 1842; reprinted 1997. OCLC 57266144

External links

All links retrieved March 28, 2024.


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