The Great Awakening - Bill of Rights Institute (2023)

Author: Thomas Kidd, Baylor University

At the end of this unit you will:

  • Explain how and why the different goals and interests of European leaders and settlers affected the way they saw themselves and their relationship with Britain

Recommended order

Before students read this story, students should be familiar with the role of religion and challenges to religious authority in the New England colonies (Anne Hutchinson and the Religious DissentersInThe Salem Witch Trialsstories). This story should be followed byWhat was the great awakening?Point-counterpoint

On a cool October morning in 1740 in Kensington, Connecticut, Nathan Cole was hard at work in his field, as he had been since dawn. Suddenly his work was interrupted by the cries of a passing messenger: at 10 A.M. evangelist George Whitefield was to preach in nearby Middletown. Nathan immediately threw his tools into the field, ran to fetch his wife, and saddled his horse. He and his wife joined a crowd of others hurrying through the streets to Middletown, fearing they would arrive too late to hear the famous preacher.

After graduating from Oxford University, Whitefield had begun a life of itinerant preaching and evangelism. Instead of explaining the intricacies of Christian doctrine, he appealed to the emotions of his listeners back home in England, and now, only twenty-five years old, he had taken his new style to the American colonies. For weeks, Nathan Cole had been hearing reports that Whitefield's preaching tour of the colonies was drawing huge crowds, in the tens of thousands. Many in the audience experienced the "new birth" of evangelical conversion. When Cole saw the famous preacher begin, he began to tremble. "The fact that I heard him preach," he wrote in his diary, "wrapped my heart."

The Great Awakening - Bill of Rights Institute (1)

Compare the two images of George Whitefield: (a) a 1774 portrait by engraver Elisha Gallaudet and (b) a 1763 British political cartoon titled “Dr. The Elevation of Squintum, or the Reformation." Dr. Squintum was a nickname for Whitefield, who was cross-eyed. What details can you find in the pictures that represent the artists' respective views of the preacher?

Whitefield's message was simple: It was not enough to be baptized or go to church. Each person must be converted by God's Holy Spirit through a personal, heart-wrenching examination of their own depravity and sinfulness. The young, twenty-five-year-old English clergyman captivated the crowds in Middletown with his masterful, emotional pleas for all to receive God's gift of salvation and be "born again." Countless listeners, including Nathan Cole, were converted.

Whitefield was not America's first revivalist. Just a few years earlier, Jonathan Edwards, a minister in Northampton, Massachusetts, had also led a series of revivals. Probably the greatest theologian the colonies had ever produced, Edwards was a master orator who preached about human sinfulness and the need for divine grace. Most famously, he delivered a sermon in 1741 entitledSinners in the hands of an angry God. Under Edwards' preaching, a town-wide revival broke out in Northampton from 1734 to 1735. In London, Edwards published a fascinating account of this revival:A faithful story of God's amazing work. When George Whitefield, England's John Wesley, and other evangelical ministers read Edwards' story, they realized that he was part of a series of religious revivals that began in the colonies and spread across the Atlantic. He was in the midst of what historians call "The Great Awakening."

The Great Awakening - Bill of Rights Institute (2)

This picture shows its facadeSinners in the Hands of an Angry God, a Sermon Delivered at Enfield, July 8, 1741, by Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was an evangelical minister who led a Protestant revival in New England. This was his most famous sermon, the text of which was often reprinted and widely distributed.

During his seven preaching tours throughout the colonies, Whitefield reached 75 to 80 percent of the population, sometimes addressing crowds approaching 30,000 listeners. His revivals were controversial. Local ministers resented Whitefield and other itinerant preachers coming into their towns uninvited. When revivalists gathered huge crowds and preached publicly, local pastors and congregations feared that the preachers were undermining their spiritual authority. Worse still, some evangelical preachers, such as Gilbert Tennent of New Jersey, have ventured to suggest that many of the ministers of the established church were unconverted. Tennent claimed that some ministers were Christians in name only because they had not yet experienced the "new birth". He called on true believers to leave lukewarm established churches and join new, "pure" churches.

In addition to challenging religious principles, revivals could also challenge social conventions. Believing that all believers were equal before God, some evangelicals allowed women to "basket" or preach informally at gatherings. In Ipswich, Massachusetts, a gathering of evangelical Christians in 1742 was surprised when a "spirit of prophecy" filled a woman convert named Lucy Smith. Smith preached the Gospel at this meeting for over two hours. White evangelicals even ordain African-American and American Indian converts to preach or become missionaries, although this is usually only for their own community. Some evangelicals began to argue that, in light of the implications of the Gospel, owning slaves was sinful. These egalitarian impulses were unprecedented in colonial society and challenged racial and social hierarchies, especially in the South.

Evangelical education also challenged barriers based on social class. Uneducated, poor whites with no theological training often felt a strong call to preach. Their sermons were often highly charged and even frenzied, expressions of emotion and, according to some critics, resulted in indecent and immoral behavior. However, the messages of these radical preachers resonated with those lower down the social ladder. The common people and the American Indian loved the emotional, radical preaching of James Davenport, a trained minister in New England. In 1743 in New London, Connecticut, Davenport and his followers built a bonfire and instructed the public to throw their religious books into it. Davenport then took aim at their fine attire ("cabri hats, red-heeled shoes, fans, necklaces, gloves"), which deserved to be burned. Davenport set the example by taking off his own pants and throwing them into the fire. But that action went too far for some viewers. A woman tore his clothes from the flames and threw them in his face, and his audience scolded him.

Many critics considered the emotional appeal of "New Light" evangelical ministers foolish and leading to social chaos. New Light ministers rejected the rationalism of the Enlightenment and appealed to the public's passions rather than their minds, resulting in emotional reactions and instant conversion. The main source of opposition was the conservative pastors of the established churches, especially the Anglicans and the Congregationalists. These "Old Light" ministers insisted on sober and logical preaching and religious practices and rejected the passionate theology and New Light style of evangelical preachers. Old Light pastors successfully banned New Light pastors from preaching in various churches and cities.

By the late 1740s, the New England revivals had cooled, but the effects of the Great Awakening were widespread and long-lasting, as passion continued to spread throughout the southern colonies in the following decades. Revivals had weakened the dominance of established churches in colonial America, and large numbers of Christians joined new evangelical churches such as Baptists or Methodists.

The Great Awakening also contributed to colonial religious freedom by changing the religious balance of power. During the American Revolution and the struggle for individual freedom, Baptists used their new numbers and influence to challenge religious institutions, first in Virginia and then throughout the new country. Many evangelicals called for an end to government-sponsored denominations that received tax dollars and lands called "glebes" to support pastors and congregations. After the Revolution, opposition to established churches helped inspire the First Amendment's prohibition on an "establishment of religion" and guarantee of the "free exercise" of religion. The founders believed that freedom of conscience was an inalienable right of all individuals. The new nation's religious landscape was never the same again.

The Great Awakening helped prepare the colonies for the American Revolution. Its ethos strengthened the appeal of the ideals of freedom, and its ministers and members of the new evangelical religions strongly supported the revolution. The push for religious freedom against a tyrannical religious authority fueled the civil liberties movement against unjust British political power in the 1870s. Similarly, the evangelical teaching that every individual believer is equal before God made it easier for people to accept the radical consequences of democracy and challenge authority. So the same movement that sent Nathan Cole sprinting off his field that October morning helped pave the way for American independence. The Great Awakening was the most significant religious and cultural upheaval in colonial American history and helped establish the American political and religious liberties that emerged in the mid-eighteenth century.

View questions

1. Many historians believe that the Great Awakening helped pave the way for the American Revolution. Which of these ideas best supports this argument?

  1. Evangelical teaching during the Great Awakening suggested that every individual believer was equal before God, which made it easier to accept the radical implications of democracy.
  2. Many of the preachers of the Great Awakening were political radicals.
  3. The churches of the Great Awakening were much more democratic than the earlier churches.
  4. Great Awakening theology held that only those who were among God's "elect" would go to heaven when they died.

2. How did the local ministers feel about George Whitefield and other itinerant preachers coming uninvited to their towns?

  1. They welcomed these lay preachers, who brought more people to their church.
  2. They feared that the revivalists were undermining their spiritual authority.
  3. They appreciated the opportunity to study the techniques of traveling preachers.
  4. They were indifferent to the preachers of the Great Awakening.

3. Which of these was not a way in which the ministry of the Great Awakening challenged social conventions?

  1. Believing that all believers were equal before God, some evangelicals allowed women to "admonish" or preach informally at meetings.
  2. White evangelicals ordain African-American and American Indian converts to preach or become missionaries
  3. Some evangelicals began to argue that, in light of the implications of the Gospel, enslaving people was a sin.
  4. Sometimes children were allowed to preach from the pulpit.

4. Who were the "Old Lights"?

  1. People who read books from the Enlightenment and didn't go to church or meeting on Sunday
  2. Jewish residents of Newport, Rhode Island
  3. The elders were admired for their knowledge of the Bible and the scriptures
  4. Pastors and their parishioners who insisted on strict and rational religious practices and rejected the style of evangelical preachers

5. Who were the "new lights"?

  1. Critics who felt the emotional appeal of evangelical ministers were foolish and led to social chaos
  2. Followers of Great Awakening evangelical preachers whose sermons were noted for their emotion and dramatic appeal
  3. People interested in Enlightenment interpretations of the Bible
  4. Enlightenment preachers who wanted to introduce their parishioners to concepts such as deism

6. It has been argued that the Great Awakening contributed to the decline in the importance of established religion in the latter half of the eighteenth century because

  1. people were alienated by the anti-intellectual quality of the sermons they had to hear
  2. Many ministers simply abandoned their profession and denounced all forms of Christianity
  3. revivals had weakened the power of established churches in colonial America
  4. many Americans converted to Judaism or Islam

7. George Whitefield was extremely popular as a preacher in the colonies because

  1. he explained the intricacies of Christian doctrine with great precision and erudition
  2. he preached to small groups so he could get to know his audience
  3. he appealed to the emotions of his listeners, many of whom had experienced the "new birth" of evangelical conversion
  4. made his listeners feel good about themselves and assured them that they would be accepted into heaven

8. How did the Great Awakening affect laws in states that supported an official religion through taxation?

  1. Members of the "new" religions resented being judged for a church they did not attend, so they called for an end to this practice.
  2. The Great Awakening had little effect because the members of these new religions had little interest in money, which they saw as an invention of the Devil.
  3. Members of the new churches began to demand that they too receive support in proportion to their population in the colony.
  4. The Baptists could gain support, but the Presbyterians were considered too radical and outside the mainstream.

Free answers to questions

  1. Explain how the evangelical teaching of the Great Awakening broke down barriers based on social class.
  2. Explain how the Great Awakening laid some of the groundwork for the American Revolution.
  3. Explain the connections between the Great Awakening and the first clause of the First Amendment.

AP practice questions

“When I saw Mr. Whitefield go up to the scaffold, he looked almost angelic, a young, thin, slender boy before thousands of people with a bold, fearless countenance, and when I heard how God was everywhere with him as he passed by. , my feeling was fulfilled. spirit, and put me in trembling fear before he began to preach. for he looked as if he were clothed with authority from the Great God, and a sweet solemn solemnity sat upon his brow. And when I heard him preach, I got a wound in my heart. By the blessing of God my old foundation was broken, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me. Then I became convinced of the doctrine of election and began to argue with God precisely about it, because all I could do would not save me. and he had decided from eternity who should be saved and who should not."

Nathan Cole in Connecticut, 1740

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. What conclusion would a historian not draw from the passage provided?

  1. That Nathan Cole had but a slight interest in listening to George Whitefield
  2. That Nathan Cole was extremely interested in hearing about George Whitfield
  3. That Nathan Cole was a farmer
  4. That Nathan Cole was possibly identified as a "new light"

2. Based on the passage provided, how might a historian describe Whitfield's appeal to his audience?

  1. Whitefield could not project his voice to thousands of people without help.
  2. Whitefield looked a little disheveled, but his audience overlooked it.
  3. Whitefield's result was almost overwhelming.
  4. Whitefield was not a Calvinist minister.

Primary sources

"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God":

Recommended resources

Isaac, Rys.The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790. Chapel Hill: University Press van North Carolina, 1999.

Kidd, Thomas S.George Whitefield: America's spiritual founder. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

Kidd, Thomas S.The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford, 2007.

Kidd, Thomas S.The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Marsden, George M.A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards. Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008.

Marsden, George M.Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.


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