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The First Great Awakening

Christine Leigh Heyrman
Department of History, University of Delaware
©National Humanities Center


What historians call “the first Great Awakening” can best be described as a revitalization of religious piety that swept through the American colonies between the 1730s and the 1770s. That revival was part of a much broader movement, an evangelical upsurge taking place simultaneously on the other side of the Atlantic, most notably in England, Scotland, and Germany. In all these Protestant cultures during the middle decades of the eighteenth century, a new Age of Faith rose to counter the currents of the Age of Enlightenment, to reaffirm the view that being truly religious meant trusting the heart rather than the head, prizing feeling more than thinking, and relying on biblical revelation rather than human reason.

The earliest manifestations of the American phase of this phenomenon—the beginnings of the First Great Awakening—appeared among Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Led by the Tennent family—Reverend William Tennent, a Scots-Irish immigrant, and his four sons, all clergymen—the Presbyterians not only initiated religious revivals in those colonies during the 1730s but also established a seminary to train clergymen whose fervid, heartfelt preaching would bring sinners to experience evangelical conversion. Originally known as “the Log College,” it is better known today as Princeton University.

Religious enthusiasm quickly spread from the Presbyterians of the Middle Colonies to the Congregationalists (Puritans) and Baptists of New England. By the 1740s, the clergymen of these churches were conducting revivals throughout that region, using the same strategy that had contributed to the success of the Tennents. In emotionally charged sermons, all the more powerful because they were delivered extemporaneously, preachers like Jonathan Edwards evoked vivid, terrifying images of the utter corruption of human nature and the terrors awaiting the unrepentant in hell. Hence Edwards’s famous description of the sinner as a loathsome spider suspended by a slender thread over a pit of seething brimstone in his best known sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

The three most famed evangelical preachers of the Great Awakening,
whose portraits do not convey the fiery emotions of their sermons.
Gilbert Tennant Jonathan Edwards George Whitefield
Left to right: Gilbert Tennent, courtesy Billy Graham Center Museum;
Jonathan Edwards
, courtesy Forbes Library; George Whitefield, Portraits of Faith

These early revivals in the northern colonies inspired some converts to become missionaries to the American South. In the late 1740s, Presbyterian preachers from New York and New Jersey began proselytizing in the Virginia Piedmont; and by the 1750s, some members of a group known as the Separate Baptists moved from New England to central North Carolina and quickly extended their influence to surrounding colonies. By the eve of the American Revolution, their evangelical converts accounted for about ten percent of all southern churchgoers.

The First Great Awakening also gained impetus from the wideranging American travels of an English preacher, George Whitefield. Although Whitefield had been ordained as a minister in the Church of England, he later allied with other Anglican clergymen who shared his evangelical bent, most notably John and Charles Wesley. Together they led a movement to reform the Church of England (much as the Puritans had attempted earlier to reform that church) which resulted in the founding of the Methodist Church late in the eighteenth century. During his several trips across the Atlantic after 1739, Whitefield preached everywhere in the American colonies, often drawing audiences so large that he was obliged to preach outdoors. What Whitefield preached was nothing more than what other Calvinists had been proclaiming for centuries—that sinful men and women were totally dependent for salvation on the mercy of a pure, all-powerful God. But Whitefield—and many American preachers who eagerly imitated his style—presented that message in novel ways. Gesturing dramatically, sometimes weeping openly or thundering out threats of hellfire-and-brimstone, they turned the sermon into a gripping theatrical performance.

But not all looked on with approval. Throughout the colonies, conservative and moderate clergymen questioned the emotionalism of evangelicals and charged that disorder and discord attended the revivals. They took great exception to “itinerants,” ministers who, like Whitefield, traveled from one community to another, preaching and all too often criticizing the local clergy. And they took still greater exception when some white women and African Americans shed their subordinate social status long enough to exhort religious gatherings. Evangelical preachers and converts rejoined by lambasting their opponents as cold, uninspiring, and lacking in piety and grace. Battles raged within congregations and whole denominations over this challenge to clerical authority as well as the evangelical approach to conversion from “the heart” rather than “the head.”

So the first Great Awakening left colonials sharply polarized along religious lines. Anglicans and Quakers gained new members among those who disapproved of the revival’s excesses, while the Baptists (and, in the 1770s, the Methodists) made even more handsome gains from the ranks of radical evangelical converts. The largest single group of churchgoing Americans remained within the Congregationalist and Presbyterian denominations, but they divided internally between advocates and opponents of the Awakening, known respectively as “New Lights” and “Old Lights.” Inevitably, civil governments were drawn into the fray. In colonies where one denomination received state support, other churches lobbied legislatures for disestablishment, an end to the favored status of Congregationalism in Connecticut and Massachusetts and of Anglicanism in the southern colonies.


Guiding Student Discussion

Now let’s cut to the classroom. You’ve sketched out the story of the first Great Awakening—its beginnings in the mid-Atlantic, its transit to New England, and its culmination in the South, its legacy of debate and division. And you’ve emphasized that it was only the colonial manifestation of a religious revival of much broader geographic scope—it spread the length of British North America (where, indeed, the only public figure whose name was known to virtually all colonials was George Whitefield!) and reverberated throughout the Protestant countries of Europe as well.

So your next move might be to pose the question: What could account for the tremendous appeal of evangelical Christianity to men and women living on both sides of the Atlantic during the latter half of the eighteenth century?

Chances are that most students will simply look confused at this inquiry—although some Christians among them might suggest that divine providence inspired large numbers of people to embrace “true Christianity.” If that happens, you have a prime opportunity to point out that while such an explanation might well be persuasive from the standpoint of faith (that is, the perspective of a believer), historians (no matter what their personal religious convictions might be) strive to explain the IMMEDIATE causes of why things happened without reference to acts of God. (Otherwise they’d all be out of business, since the ULTIMATE cause of every historical event, from the standpoint of faith, is the will of God.)

With a little luck, those remarks will return the class to thinking about the SPECIFIC HISTORICAL CIRCUMSTANCES that might have enhanced the appeal of evangelical Christianity, with its formidable array of emotional consolations and moral certitudes, to large numbers of people in the eighteenth century.

To keep the discussion on that track—and to make such connections more accessible to students—you might try tossing out the observation that religious culture in America today bears many resemblances to that of the eighteenth century. As many commentators, both scholarly and popular, have noted, recent decades have witnessed an evangelical revival—what some regard as yet another “Great Awakening.” Since the 1960s, membership in conservative evangelical Protestant churches has grown dramatically, while the membership of national organizations like the Promise Keepers and local bible study groups have also expanded at an astonishing rate. Some of your students will be aware of those trends—and therefore will have greater confidence when it comes to speculating about the social sources of contemporary evangelicalism’s popular appeal—the transient lives of many Americans as population shifts to the South and West, the high incidence of family fragmentation in the face of staggering divorce rates, the uncertainty over gender roles fueled by feminism, the threats that recent scientific discoveries and “secular humanism” are perceived by many to pose to “traditional values,” and so forth.

Okay, here’s the payoff lurking at the end of this seeming digression into the religious culture of the late twentieth century: by now at least some students will see the connection between popular religious inclinations and broader social trends. So this is the moment for you to steer them back into the eighteenth century by noting that this, too, was an era of extraordinary upheaval and crisis for ordinary people. Remind them that England was entering the Industrial Revolution and that evangelicals like the Methodists attracted large numbers of converts among miners and factory workers. Remind them that northern Ireland and Germany, other hotbeds of evangelical enthusiasm, were wracked by warfare, famine, or both—harsh conditions that prompted hundreds of thousands to migrate to British North America. And, finally, remind them that in the American colonies, the same epoch witnessed a massive internal shift of population to the embattled frontiers of the South and West, where ordinary families endured hardscrabble, rootless lives and the ever-present threat of attack from dispossessed Indian tribes. Such circumstances also thrust women into newly responsible roles for the survival of migrating households as families were fragmented by movement and death.

Why would Jonathan Edwards refer to the
Great Awakening as the “Surprising Work
of God” in his 1737 narrative?
It follows that men and women faced with such stark challenges might have sought opportunities for fellowship, solace, and emotional release—and that is exactly what evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic offered. Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists touted their churches as havens from all the evils afflicting ordinary people—as islands of disciplined stability and Christian charity in a churning sea of social chaos and cultural confusion.

If you’d like more information about the First Great Awakening, the first book to consult is Patricia Bonomi’s Under the Cope of Heaven. This is probably the best overview of religious history in the American colonies, and it offers a superb discussion of both the First Great Awakening and how it bore upon the American Revolution. Another key source is J. M. Bumsted and John E. Van de Wetering, What Must I Do to Be Saved? For a vivid evocation of how revivalism flourished on both sides of the Atlantic during the eighteenth century, you could not choose a better book than Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Holy Fairs. Finally, for a magisterial survey of the sweep of spiritual awakenings throughout America’s past, you should take a look at William McLoughlin’s American Revivalism.


Historians Debate

There are two notable trends in recent scholarship on this subject. The first is represented by those historians who argue that the revivals became a means by which humbler colonials challenged the prerogatives of their social “betters”—both by criticizing their materialistic values and undermining their claims to deference and respect. The strongest case for this interpretation in the North has been advanced by Gary Nash in The Urban Crucible, a wide-ranging study of major seaports in the eighteenth century; a similar view of the Awakening in the upper South appears in Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790. Indeed, some scholars like Harry Stout (The New England Soul) have argued that the first Great Awakening radically transformed and democratized modes of mass communication, thereby setting the stage for the emergence a new popular politics in the revolutionary decades that followed.

But this interpretation has been sharply criticized by other scholars like Christine Leigh Heyrman (Commerce and Culture) and Christopher Jedrey (The World of John Cleaveland) who view the first Great Awakening, at least in the North, as an essentially conservative movement, a continuation of earlier religious traditions. As for the South, even those scholars who credit the potentially radical implications of early evangelical teachings in that region argue that challenges to slavery and class privilege faded quickly in the wake of the revolution; see, for example, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross and Rachel Klein, The Unification of a Slave State.

That skepticism about the social and political effects of colonial revivalism is shared by another scholar who has offered the most sweeping rejection of the long-held view that the first Great Awakening marked a watershed in early American history: Jon Butler, in his essay, “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction,” Journal of American History, 69 (1982–83), 305–25.

Many students of the first Great Awakening have been drawn to considering its possible bearing on the American Revolution. If you’d like to find out more about their conclusions, continue reading under Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Religion and the American Revolution.

Christine Leigh Heyrman was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1986–87. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University in American Studies and is currently Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. Dr. Heyrman is the author of Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial New England, 1690–1740 [1984], Southern Cross: The Beginning of the Bible Belt [1997], which won the Bancroft Prize in 1998, and Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the Republic, with James West Davidson, William Gienapp, Mark Lytle, and Michael Stoff [3rd ed., 1997].

Address comments or questions to Professor Heyrman through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

Links to online resources

To cite this essay:
Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “The First Great Awakening.” Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/grawaken.htm>

 

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