Like freedom of the press, religion was another realm where the actual experience of liberty outstripped its legal recognition. Religion remained central to eighteenth-century American life. Sermons, theological treatises, and copies of the Bible were by far the largest category of material produced by colonial printers. Religious disputes often generated more public attention than political issues. Yet many church leaders worried about lax religious observance as colonial economic growth led people to be more and more preoccupied with worldly affairs.
Jonathan Edwards, one of the most prominent preachers of the Great Awakening.
Many ministers were concerned that westward expansion, commercial development, the growth of Enlightenment rationalism, and lack of individual engagement in church services were undermining religious devotion. These fears helped to inspire the revivals that swept through the colonies beginning in the 1730s. Known as the Great Awakening, the revivals were less a coordinated movement than a series of local events united by a commitment to a “religion of the heart,” a more emotional and personal Christianity than that offered by existing churches. The revivals redrew the religious landscape of the colonies.
The eighteenth century witnessed a revival of religious fundamentalism in many parts of the world, in part a response to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and a desire for greater religious purity. In the Middle East and Central Asia, where Islam was widespread, followers of a form of the religion known as Wahabbism called for a return to the practices of the religion’s early days. In Eastern Europe, Hasidic Jews emphasized the importance of faith and religious joy as opposed to what they considered the overly academic study of Jewish learning and history in conventional Judaism. Methodism and other forms of enthusiastic religion were flourishing in Europe. Like other intellectual currents of the time, the Great Awakening was a transatlantic movement.
During the 1720s and 1730s, the New Jersey Dutch Reformed clergyman Theodore Frelinghuysen, his Presbyterian neighbors William and Gilbert Tennent, and the Massachusetts Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards pioneered an intensely emotional style of preaching. Edwards’s famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God portrayed sinful man as a “loathsome insect” suspended over a bottomless pit of eternal fire by a slender thread that might break at any moment. Edwards’s preaching, declared a member of his congregation, inspired worshipers to cry out, “What shall I do to be saved—oh, I am going to hell!” Only a “new birth”— immediately acknowledging one’s sins and pleading for divine grace— could save men from eternal damnation. “It is the new birth that makes [sinners] free,” declared the Reverend Joshua Tufts.