Modern history

Religious Awakenings

Whether rooted in fears that worldly concerns were overshadowing spiritual devotion or that growing religious diversity was undermining the power of the church, Protestant ministers lamented the state of faith in eighteenth-century America. Many church leaders in Britain and the rest of Europe shared their fears. Ministers eager to address this crisis of faith—identified in the colonies as New Light clergy—worked together to re-energize the faithful and were initially welcomed, or at least tolerated, by more traditional Old Light clergy. But by the 1740s, fears that revivalists had gone too far led to a backlash. Still, for a time, the religious awakenings of the early eighteenth century created a powerful sense of common cause among Protestant colonists of different faiths, nationalities, and classes and promised a rebirth of commitment to both spiritual values and the larger society.

The Roots of the Great Awakening

The European religious landscape had grown remarkably more diverse in the two hundred years following the Reformation as Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, and a variety of smaller sects competed for followers. Another current also had an impact: By the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment, a cultural movement that emphasized rational and scientific thinking over traditional religion and superstition, had taken root, particularly among elites. As North American colonies attracted settlers from new denominations and as more and more colonists were influenced by Enlightenment thought, the colonists as a whole became more accepting of religious diversity.

There were, however, countervailing forces. The German Pietists in particular challenged Enlightenment ideas that had influenced many Congregational and Anglican leaders in Europe and the colonies. Pietists not only decried the power of established churches but also urged individuals to follow their heart rather than their head in spiritual matters. Only by restoring intensity and emotion to worship, they believed, could spiritual life be revived. Persecuted in Germany, Pietists migrated to Great Britain and North America, where their ideas influenced Scots-Irish Presbyterians, French Huguenots, and members of the Church of England. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and a professor of theology at Oxford University, taught Pietist ideas to his students. George Whitefield was inspired by Wesley. Like the German Pietists whose ideas he embraced, Whitefield believed that the North American colonies offered an important opportunity to implement these ideas.

But not all colonists waited for Whitefield or the German Pietists to rethink their religious commitments. By 1700 both laymen and ministers voiced growing concern with the state of colonial religion. Preachers educated in England or at the few colleges established in the colonies, like Harvard College (1636) and the College of William and Mary (1693), often emphasized learned discourse over passion. At the same time, there were too few clergy to meet the demands of the rapidly growing population in North America. Many rural parishes covered vast areas, and residents grew discouraged at the lack of ministerial attention. Meanwhile urban churches increasingly reflected the class divisions of the larger society. In many meetinghouses, wealthier members paid substantial rents to seat their families in the front pews. Small farmers and shopkeepers rented the cheaper pews in the middle of the church, while the poorest congregants—including landless laborers, servants, and slaves—sat on free benches at the very back or in the gallery. Educated clergy might impress the richest parishioners with their learned sermons, but they did little to move the spirits of the congregation at large.

In 1719 the Reverend Theodorus Freylinghuysen, a Dutch Reformed minister in New Brunswick, New Jersey, began emphasizing parishioners’ emotional investment in Christ. The Reverend William Tennent arrived in neighboring Pennsylvania with his family about the same time. He despaired that Presbyterian ministers were too few in number to reach the growing population and, like Freylinghuysen, feared that their approach was too didactic and cold. Tennent soon established his own academy—one room in a log cabin—to train his four sons and other young men for the ministry. Though disparaged by Presbyterian authorities, the school attracted devout students. A decade later, in 1734—1735, Jonathan Edwards, a Congregational minister in Northampton, Massachusetts, made clear the value of religious appeals that emphasized emotion over logic. Proclaiming that “our people do not so much need to have their heads stored [with knowledge] as to have their hearts touched,” he initiated a local revival that reached hundreds of colonists.

Like Edwards, William Tennent’s son Gilbert urged colonists to embrace “a true living faith in Jesus Christ.” Assigned a church in New Brunswick in 1726, Tennent met Freylinghuysen, who viewed conversion as a three-step process: Individuals must be convinced of their sinful nature, experience a spiritual rebirth, and then behave piously as evidence of their conversion. Tennent embraced these measures, believing they could lance the “boil” of an unsaved heart and apply the “balsam” of grace and righteousness. Then in 1739 Tennent met Whitefield, who launched a wave of revivals that revitalized and transformed religion across the colonies.

An Outburst of Revivals

Whitefield was perfectly situated to initiate the series of revivals that scholars later called the Great Awakening. Gifted with a powerful voice, he understood that the expanding networks of communication and travel—developed to promote commerce—could also be used to promote religion. Advertising in newspapers and broadsides and traveling by ship, coach, and horseback, Whitefield made seven trips to the North American colonies during his career, beginning in 1738. He reached audiences from Georgia to New England to the Pennsylvania backcountry and inspired ministers in the colonies to extend his efforts.

In 1739 Whitefield launched a fifteen-month preaching tour that reached tens of thousands of colonists. Like Edwards, Freylinghuysen, and Tennent, he asked individuals to invest less in material goods and more in spiritual devotion.

If they admitted their depraved and sinful state and truly repented, God would hear their prayers. The droughts and locusts that plagued farmers and the epidemics and fires that threatened city folk were signs of God’s anger at the moral decay that marked colonial life. Whitefield danced across the platform, shouted and raged, and gestured dramatically, drawing huge crowds everywhere he went. And he went everywhere, preaching on 350 separate occasions in 1739—1740. He attracted 20,000 people to individual events, at a time when the entire city of Boston counted just 17,000 residents.

Whitefield encouraged local ministers like Tennent to join him in his efforts to revitalize Protestantism. Less concerned with denominational affiliation than with core beliefs and passionate preaching, Whitefield hailed his fellow revivalists as “burning and shining lights” and embraced the vitality (and disruption) that followed in their wake. New Light ministers carried on Whitefield’s work throughout the 1740s, honing their methods and appeal. They denounced urbane and educated clergy, used extemporaneous oratorical styles and outdoor venues to attract crowds, and invited colonists from all walks of life to build a common Christian community. Some became itinerant preachers, preferring the freedom to carry their message throughout the colonies to the security of a traditional pulpit.

New Light clergy brought young people to religion by the thousands. In addition, thousands of colonists who were already church members were “born again,” recommitting themselves to their faith. Poor parishioners who felt little connection to preaching when they sat on the back benches eagerly joined the crowds at outdoor revivals, where they could stand as close to the pulpit as a rich merchant. Indeed, Tennent appealed especially to poor and single women and girls when he preached with Whitefield in Boston. Enthusiastic parishioners from a wide range of denominations formed new churches. Some, like the New Building of Philadelphia, sought interdenominational communion, but most expanded the reach of particular denominations, whether Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, Baptist, or Anglican.

Religious Dissension

Initially, the Great Awakening drew support from large numbers of ministers because it increased religious enthusiasm and church attendance throughout the colonies. After decades of decline, religion once again took center stage. But the early embrace by Old Light clergy diminished as revivals spread farther afield, as critiques of educated clergy became more pointed, and as New Light clergy began carrying parts of older congregations into new churches. A growing number of ministers and other colonial leaders began to fear that revivalists were providing lower-class whites, free blacks, and even women and slaves with compelling critiques of those in power. As the Great Awakening peaked in 1742, a backlash developed among more settled ministers and their congregations.

Itinerant preachers traveling across the South seemed especially threatening as they invited blacks and whites to attend revivals together and proclaimed their equality before God. Although it was rare that New Light clergy directly attacked slavery—indeed, many preached that worldly status was irrelevant to salvation—they implicitly challenged racial hierarchies. New Light preachers also gained more adherents among African Americans and American Indians than had earlier clergy by emphasizing communal singing and emotional expressions of the spirit, both of which echoed traditional African and Indian practices. Combined with their recruitment of young, poor, and female converts, such a broad appeal came to seem more dangerous than beneficial.

In the North, too, Old Light ministers and local officials began to question New Light techniques and influences. One of the most radical New Light preachers, James Davenport, attracted huge crowds when he preached in Boston in the early 1740s. Drawing thousands of colonists to Boston Common day after day, Davenport declared that the people “should drink rat poison rather than listen to corrupt, unconverted clergy.” Claiming that Davenport’s followers were “idle or ignorant Persons, [and] those of the Lowest Rank,” Boston officials finally called a grand jury into session to silence him “on the charge of having said that Boston’s ministers were leading the people blindfold to hell.”

Although Davenport was unusual in directly linking corrupt clergy to a corrupt social order, he suggested to authorities the dangers of allowing revivalists to go unanswered. The extremes to which a few revivalists went also disturbed some New Light ministers, including Tennent, who eventually sought to reunite the Presbyterian Church he had helped to divide. From the beginning, he had celebrated Christian love and fellowship. In 1757 Tennent wrote a sacramental sermon entitled “Love to Christ” that emphasized pietistic communion. He then worked earnestly to reunite the New York and Philadelphia synods, and his efforts succeeded a year later.

Not all churches reconciled their differences so easily, however. Revivals continued throughout the 1740s, as the awakening in Pomfret, Connecticut, indicates. Yet over time, they lessened in intensity as churches and parishioners settled back into a more ordered religious life. Moreover, the central tenets of revivalist preaching—criticisms of educated clergy, itinerancy, and extemporaneous preaching—worked against the movement’s institutionalization. The Great Awakening echoed across the colonies for at least another generation, but its influence was felt more often in attitudes and practices than in institutions.

For example, when, in 1750, King George II threatened to appoint an Anglican bishop for the North American colonies, many North American ministers, both Old Light and New, resisted the appointment. Most colonists had become used to religious diversity and toleration, at least for Protestants, and had little desire to add church officials to the existing hierarchies of colonial authorities. In various ways, revivalists also highlighted the democratic tendencies in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament. Thus even as they proclaimed God’s wrath against sinners, they also preached that a lack of wealth and power did not diminish a person in God’s eyes. Indeed, it was often the well educated, the wealthy, and the powerful who had the most to fear from the righteous. And revivalists honed a style of passionate and popular preaching that would shape American religion and politics for centuries to come. This mode of communication had immediate application as colonists mobilized to resist what they saw as tyrannical actions by colonial officials and others in authority.


• What groups were most attracted to the religious revivals of the early eighteenth century? Why?

• What were the legacies of the Great Awakening for American religious and social life?

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