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   October 2018   
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First Great Awakening

First Great Awakening

George Whitefield

The First Great Awakening, or simply Great Awakening, was a religious revitalization movement that swept the Atlantic region, and especially the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s, leaving a permanent impact on American religion. Indeed, the First Great Awakening launched the Evangelical Christian movement in America and laid the foundation for the Evangelical successes of the Second Great Awakening of 1800-1830.[1]

The leaders were Jonathan EdwardsGeorge Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent, among many others.

The Awakening emerged from powerful preaching that gave listeners a sense of personal guilt and of their need of salvation by Christ. Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made religion intensely personal to the average person by fostering a deep sense of spiritual guilt and redemption, and by encouraging introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality. It brought Christianity to African-American slaves and was an apocalyptic event in New England that challenged established authority. It incited rancor and division between old traditionalists who insisted on the continuing importance of ritual and doctrine, and the new revivalists, who encouraged emotional involvement and personal commitment. It had a major impact in reshaping the Congregational church, the Presbyterian church, the Dutch Reformed Church, and the German Reformed denomination, and strengthened the small Baptist and Methodist denominations. It had little impact on Anglicans, and Quakers. Unlike the Second Great Awakening, that began about 1800 and which reached out to the unchurched, the First Great Awakening focused on people who were already church members. It changed their rituals, their piety, and their self-awareness.

To the evangelical imperatives of Reformation Protestantism, eighteenth- century American Christians added emphases on divine outpourings of the Holy Spirit and conversions that implanted within new believers an intense love for God. Revivals encapsulated those hallmarks and forwarded the newly created evangelicalism into the early republic.


International dimension

The evangelical revival was international in scope, affecting the North Atlantic region. The dramatic response of churchgoers in Bristol and London in 1737, and of the Kingswood colliers with white gutters on their cheeks caused by tears in 1739 under the preaching of George Whitefield, is marked the start of the awakening in England. But in fact these events had been preceded by similar revivals in Wales some years earlier, predated again by a movement of God's Spirit in New Jersey in 1719 and 1726 and in Easter Ross, Scotland, in 1724. 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.[2]

The Awakening was thus an 18th century transatlantic revival involving England and its North American colonies. The revival was spurred by the sense that Christian worship had become too formulaic and devoid of emotion. Among the most notable clergy who fueled the awakening was Theodore Frelinguysen who led a revival in the 1720s among members of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Jersey.

Jonathan Edwards

The revival began with Jonathan Edwards, a leading theologian and philosopher of The Enlightenment; he was a Congregationalist minister based in Northampton, in western Massachusetts. Edwards emerged 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.

Winiarski (2005) examines Edwards's preaching in the Suffield, Massachusetts, meetinghouse on 6 July 1741 and the sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" that he preached at Enfield two days later. At Suffield and Enfield, Edwards countenanced the "noise" of the Great Awakening, but his approach to revivalism became more moderate and critical in the years immediately following. The discovery of an anonymous letter composed by one who attended the Suffield service provides evidence for a reassessment of that seminal moment in the Great Awakening.[3]

Edwards' greatest contribution to the awakening was probably his book, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. For many younger untried clergymen, Edward’s book was a “how to manual” that instructed them as to the finer points of conducting a revival. It influenced even the most famous of the Great Awakening ministers, George Whitefield.

George Whitfield

The Methodist preacher George Whitefield, visiting from England, continued the movement started by Jonathan Edwards, traveling across the colonies and preaching in a more dramatic and emotional style, accepting everyone into his audiences.

Whitefield started as an associate of John Wesley in England. He was ordained as an Anglican minister. However, he was not assigned a pulpit and began preaching in parks and fields in England on his own. In short, he preached to people who normally did not attend Church. Like Edwards, he had developed a style of preaching that elicited emotional responses from his audiences. However, Whitefield had charisma, and his voice (which according to many accounts, could be heard over vast distances), small stature, and cross-eyed appearance (which some people took as a mark of divine favor) all served to help make him the first American celebrity. Thanks to the use of print in colonial America, perhaps more than half of all colonists, heard about, read about, or read something written by Whitefield. Whitefield used print extensively. He sent advance men to put up broadsides and to distribute handbills announcing his sermons. He also arranged to have his sermons published (a common practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). Most notably, he entered into a profitable business partnership (and lifelong friendship) with Benjamin Franklin. While Franklin noted that Whitefield’s sermons tended to improve morality among the colonists, Whitefield was never able to get Franklin to embrace Christianity on a personal level.


The Presbyterians split on the wisdom of revivals, with the “New Side” faction strongly supportive and the “Old Side” holding back. Gilbert Tennent (1703–64) of Pennsylvania was the most uncompromising of New Side Presbyterians. His sermon, "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry" (1741) played a major role in the schism that divided the Old Side and New Side. However, there was another side of Tennent's faith, one characterized by the pietism that nurtured religious renewal in the 18th century. This pietism is best seen in Tennent's celebration of the Sacramental Season, with its emphasis on Christian love and fellowship. Indeed, Tennent, like other revivalists, drew inspiration from the communal emphasis that permeated the sacramental celebration. In 1757, Tennent wrote a sacramental sermon, entitled "Love to Christ." It contains those elements of pietistic communion that inspired this "Son of Thunder" to work feverishly for the reunion of the New York and Philadelphia Synods, which took place the very next year.[4]

Samuel Davies was another well known evangelist of the era.

Impact on individuals

Sermons were the centerpiece of the movement. They contained far less theology and stressed the impact of Christ’s message on the souls of the audience. Receptive listeners became much more passionately and emotionally involved in their own destiny. New converts made the Bible a center of their home life, with frequent reading in family groups. Home study decentralized religion and was a further step in the individualistic trends introduced in Europe by the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.