The Great Awakening of the Early 18th Century

The American Colonials Sought Independence in Religion

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards - Colonial Preacher of the Great Awakening. Public Domain

The Great Awakening of 1720-1745 was a period of intense religious revivalism that spread throughout the American colonies. The movement deemphasized the higher authority of church doctrine and instead put a greater importance on the individual and his or her spiritual experience. 

The Great Awakening arose at a time when people in Europe and the American colonies were questioning the role of the individual in religion and society.

It began at the same time as the Enlightenment which emphasized logic and reason and stressed the power of the individual to understand the universe based on scientific laws. Similarly, individuals grew to rely more on a personal approach to salvation than church dogma and doctrine. There was a feeling among believers that established religion had become complacent. This new movement emphasized an emotional, spiritual, and personal relationship with God. 

Historical Context: Puritanism

By the early 18th century, the New England theocracy clung to a medieval concept of religious authority. At first, the challenges of living in a colonial America isolated from its roots in Europe served to support an autocratic leadership; but by the 1720s, the increasingly diverse, commercially successful colonies had a stronger sense of independence. The church had to change.

One possible source of inspiration for great change occurred in October of 1727 when an earthquake rattled the region.

Ministers preached that the Great Earthquake was God's latest rebuke to New England, a universal shock that might presage the final conflagration and the day of judgment. The number of religious converts increased for some months afterward.

Revivalism

The Great Awakening movement divided longstanding denominations such as the Congregational and Presbyterian churches and created an opening for new evangelical strength in Baptists and Methodists.

That began with a series of revival sermons from preachers who were either not associated with mainstream churches, or who were diverging from those churches.

Most scholars date the beginning of the revival era of the Great Awakening to the Northampton revival which began in the church of Jonathon Edwards in 1733. Edwards gained the post from his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, who had exercised a great deal of control over the community from 1662 until his death in 1729. By the time Edwards took the pulpit, though, things had slipped; licentiousness prevailed particularly with young people. Within a few years of Edward's leadership, the young people by degrees "left off their frolics" and returned to spirituality.

Edwards who preached for close to ten years in New England emphasized a personal approach to religion. He bucked the Puritan tradition and called for an end to intolerance and unity among all Christians. His most famous sermon was "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," delivered in 1741. In this sermon, he explained that salvation was a direct result of God and could not be attained by human works as the Puritans preached.

"So that, whatever some have imagined and pretended about promises made to natural men’s earnest seeking and knocking, it is plain and manifest, that whatever pains a natural man takes in religion, whatever prayers he makes, till he believes in Christ, God is under no manner of obligation to keep him a moment from eternal destruction."

The Grand Itinerant

A second important figure during the Great Awakening was George Whitefield. Unlike Edwards, Whitefield was a British minister who moved to colonial America. He was known as the "Great Itinerant" because he traveled and preached all around North America and Europe between 1740 and 1770. His revivals led to many conversions, and the Great Awakening spread from North America back to the European continent.

In 1740 Whitefield left Boston to begin a 24-day journey through New England. His initial purpose was to collect money for his Bethesda orphanage, but he lit religious fires, and the ensuing revival engulfed most of New England. By the time he returned to Boston, crowds at his sermons grew, and his farewell sermon was said to have included some 30,000 people.

The message of the revival was to return to religion, but it was a religion that would be available to all sectors, all classes, and all economies.

New Light versus Old Light

The church of the original colonies was various versions of entrenched Puritanism, underpinned by Calvinism. The orthodox Puritan colonies were societies of status and subordination, with the ranks of men arranged in strict hierarchies. Lower classes were subservient and obedient to a class of spiritual and governing elite, made up of upper-class gentlemen and scholars. The church saw this hierarchy as a status that was fixed at birth, and the doctrinal emphasis was placed on the depravity of (common) man, and the sovereignty of God as represented by his church leadership.

But in the colonies before the American Revolution, there were clearly social changes at work, including a rising commercial and capitalist economy, as well as increased diversity and individualism. This, in turn, created a rise of class antagonism and hostilities. If God bestows his grace on an individual, why did that gift have to be ratified by a church official?

The Significance of the Great Awakening

The Great Awakening had a major impact on Protestantism, as a number of new offshoots grew out of that denomination, but with an emphasis on individual piety and religious inquiry. The movement also prompted a rise in evangelicalism, which united believers under the umbrella of like-minded Christians, regardless of denomination, for whom the path to salvation was the acknowledgment that Jesus Christ died for our sins.

While a great unifier among the people living in the American colonies, this wave of religious revivalism did have its opponents.

Traditional clergy asserted that it fomented fanaticism and that the emphasis on extemporaneous preaching would increase the number of uneducated preachers and downright charlatans.

  • It pushed individual religious experience over established church doctrine, thereby decreasing the importance and weight of the clergy and the church in many instances.
  • New denominations arose or grew in numbers as a result of the emphasis on individual faith and salvation.
  • It unified the American colonies as it spread through numerous preachers and revivals. This unification was greater than had ever been achieved previously in the colonies.

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Kelly, Martin. "The Great Awakening of the Early 18th Century." ThoughtCo, Apr. 9, 2018, thoughtco.com/great-awakening-of-early-18th-century-104594. Kelly, Martin. (2018, April 9). The Great Awakening of the Early 18th Century. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/great-awakening-of-early-18th-century-104594 Kelly, Martin. "The Great Awakening of the Early 18th Century." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/great-awakening-of-early-18th-century-104594 (accessed May 25, 2018).