Although the revivals were primarily a spiritual matter, the Great Awakening reflected existing social tensions, threw into question many forms of authority, and inspired criticism of aspects of colonial society. They attracted primarily men and women of modest means—“rude, ignorant, void of manners, education or good breeding,” one Anglican minister complained. Revivalist preachers frequently criticized commercial society, insisting that believers should make salvation, not profit, “the one business of their lives.” In New England, they condemned merchants who ensnared the unwary in debt as greedy and unchristian. Preaching to the small farmers of the southern backcountry, Baptist and Methodist revivalists criticized the worldliness of wealthy planters and attacked as sinful activities such as gambling, horse racing, and lavish entertainments on the Sabbath.
A few preachers explicitly condemned slavery. And a few converts, such as Robert Carter III, the grandson of the wealthy planter Robert “King” Carter, emancipated their slaves after concluding that black and white were brothers in Christ. Most masters managed to reconcile Christianity and slaveholding. But especially in the Chesapeake, the revivals brought numerous slaves into the Christian fold, an important step in their acculturation as African-Americans. And a few blacks, touched by the word of God, took up preaching themselves. The revivals also spawned a group of female exhorters, who for a time shattered the male monopoly on preaching.
The revivals broadened the range of religious alternatives available to Americans, thereby leaving them more divided than before and at the same time more fully integrated into transatlantic religious developments. But the impact of the Great Awakening spread beyond purely spiritual matters. The newspaper and pamphlet wars it inspired greatly expanded the circulation of printed material in the colonies. The revivals encouraged many colonists to trust their own views rather than those of established elites. In listening to the sermons of self-educated preachers, forming Bible study groups, and engaging in intense religious discussions, ordinary colonists asserted the right to independent judgment. “The common people,” proclaimed Baptist minister Isaac Backus, “claim as good a right to judge and act for themselves in matters of religion as civil rulers or the learned clergy.” The revivalists’ aim was spiritual salvation, not social or political revolution. But the independent frame of mind they encouraged would have significant political consequences.
This 1740 pamphlet by Gilbert Tennent, a Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia, defended the Great Awakening by comparing anti-revival ministers to the false prophets described in the Bible.