First Great Awakening

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The First 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. It resulted 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.

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 English awakening. 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. [1]

Jonathan Edwards

The revival began with Jonathan Edwards, a well-educated theologian and Congregationalist minister from Northampton, Massachusetts, who came from Puritan, 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. 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.

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.[2]

Impact on individuals

The new style of sermons and the way people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America. Participants 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 generally called "new lights", while the preachers who remained unemotional were referred to as "old lights". 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.

Impact on American Revolution?

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.[3]

Some historians, in particular, Gary Nash in The Urban Crucible (1986), have seen the First Great Awakening as a means by which humbler colonial Americans were able to challenge their 'social betters'. Harry Stout (1986) has even suggested that the first Great Awakening radically democratized mass communication in the colonies, setting the stage for new popular politics later in the revolutionary decades that followed.

Christine Leigh Heyrman (1984) and Christopher Jedrey (1979) and others have been highly critical of this interpretation, arguing instead that The First Great Awakening was an essentially conservative movement a continuation of other, earlier religious traditions.

Bibliography

Primary sources

  • Jonathan Edwards, (C. Goen, editor) The Great-Awakening: A Faithful Narrative Collected contemporary comments and letters; 1972, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-01437-6.
  • Alan Heimert and Perry Miller ed.; The Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequences 1967

Notes

  1. Ahlstrom p. 263
  2. This letter, likely written by Samuel Phillips Savage, a strong supporter of evangelical Protestantism, is published in the appendix to Winiarski (2005).
  3. McLaughlin (1966), Goff (1998)