Religious emotionalism was not confined to the American colonies—it spread through much of mid-eighteenth-century Europe as well. More than any other individual, the English minister George Whitefield, who declared “the whole world his parish,” sparked the Great Awakening. For two years after his arrival in America in 1739, Whitefield brought his highly emotional brand of preaching to colonies from Georgia to New England. God, Whitefield proclaimed, was merciful. Rather than being predestined for damnation, men and women could save themselves by repenting of their sins. Whitefield appealed to the passions of his listeners, powerfully sketching the boundless joy of salvation and the horrors of damnation. In every sermon, he asked his listeners to look into their own hearts and answer the question, “Are you saved?” If not, they must change their sinful ways and surrender their lives to Christ.

George Whitefield, the English evangelist who helped to spark the Great Awakening in the colonies. Painted around 1742 by John Wollaston, who had emigrated from England to the colonies, the work depicts Whitefield’s powerful effect on male and female listeners. It also illustrates Whitefield’s eye problem, which led critics to dub him “Dr. Squintum.”

Tens of thousands of colonists flocked to Whitefield’s sermons, which were widely reported in the American press, making him a celebrity and helping to establish the revivals as the first major intercolonial event in North American history. Although a Deist, Benjamin Franklin helped to publicize Whitefield’s tour (and made a tidy profit) by publishing his sermons and journals. In Whitefield’s footsteps, a host of traveling preachers or “evangelists” (meaning, literally, bearers of good news) held revivalist meetings, often to the alarm of established ministers.

Critics of the Great Awakening produced sermons, pamphlets, and newspaper articles condemning the revivalist preachers for lacking theological training, encouraging disrespect for “the established chinch and her ministers,” and filling churches with “general disorder.” Connecticut sought to stem the revivalist tide through laws punishing disruptive traveling preachers. By the time they subsided in the 1760s, the revivals had changed the religious configuration of the colonies and enlarged the boundaries of liberty. Whitefield had inspired the emergence of numerous Dissenting churches. Congregations split into factions headed by Old Lights (traditionalists) and New Lights (revivalists), and new churches proliferated— Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and others. Many of these new churches began to criticize the colonial practice of levying taxes to support an established church; they defended religious freedom as one of the natural rights government must not restrict.

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