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What is the Great Awakening?

The Great Awakening refers to a series of religious revivals that swept through the American colonies in the 18th century, profoundly shaping the nation's spiritual landscape. It fostered a newfound emphasis on personal faith and democratic principles in worship. How did this movement redefine the American identity? Join us as we explore its lasting impact on society.
James Doehring
James Doehring

The Great Awakening was a Christian religious revival in America. There were actually several distinct periods of increased religious activity, but the term often refers to a period in the 1730s and 1740s, also known as the First Great Awakening. Characteristics of this period include increased church membership, fervent sermons from pastors, social activism, and new religious denominations.

The term itself refers to a perceived slumber in religious devotion; it was used by those who favored a resurgence of religious activity. English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton's 1687 publication of Principia offered widely-accepted arguments for a mechanic universe that followed natural laws. Many in the following Age of Enlightenment challenged religious claims and advocated human values more in line with those of Classical times than those connected to periods of strong Christian influence.

The Great Awakenings was a time of increased religious activity in the 1700s.
The Great Awakenings was a time of increased religious activity in the 1700s.

Two leading figures are believed to have sparked the First Great Awakening in the United States. While the revivals were part of a broader religious movement that was strong in England, Scotland, and Germany, ardent speeches by preachers in America were immediately followed by heightened religious activity. Jonathan Edwards is known to have evoked vivid images of hell in his best-known sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." George Whitefield, originally an English preacher, began to draw large audiences in America after 1739. Edwards' and Whitefield's speech style emphasized an emotional connection to everyday Christians rather than rational theological arguments and was imitated by many preachers and lay-Christians alike.

The Great Awakening was marked by fiery sermons.
The Great Awakening was marked by fiery sermons.

The Second Great Awakening extended from the 1790s to the time before the American Civil War broke out in 1860. Similar to the first period, there was a surge in preaching activity. A number of political movements also advanced during this time, including the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, prison reform, and alcohol temperance. It also coincided with the emergence of a number of new Protestant denominations, such as Mormon, Baptist, and Shaker.

Some historians recognize a Third Great Awakening. The American Civil War upset many religious activities in the northern U.S., but is believed to have stimulated revivals in the South. Following the war, there was an increase in social activism, including campaigns for better working conditions and the prohibition of alcohol, pornography, and prostitution. Missionary work, both domestic and international, was very active during this time period. Like the second movement, it saw the establishment of new Christian denominations as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Great Awakening referred to in historical context?

The Great Awakening refers to a series of religious revivals that swept through the American colonies, particularly during the 18th century. These revivals were characterized by a renewed interest in religion, a deep sense of personal conviction and redemption, and a call for individuals to embrace a more pious and devout lifestyle. The movement had profound effects on American Protestantism, leading to increased church membership and the formation of new religious denominations.

How did the Great Awakening affect American society?

The Great Awakening had significant social and political impacts on American society. It challenged established religious and governmental orders by promoting new ways of thinking about individual rights, equality, and the relationship between church and state. This movement laid the groundwork for the American Revolution by fostering a sense of shared identity and encouraging ideas of liberty and democracy. It also contributed to the growth of higher education as new colleges were founded to train clergy for the expanding denominations.

Who were the key figures of the Great Awakening?

Key figures of the Great Awakening include Jonathan Edwards, a preacher known for his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," and George Whitefield, an English evangelist whose charismatic preaching drew large crowds. Both men emphasized personal salvation and a direct, emotional experience of faith. Their powerful sermons and the widespread religious enthusiasm they sparked played a central role in the expansion and democratization of American religious life.

What were the long-term effects of the Great Awakening on religion in America?

The long-term effects of the Great Awakening on American religion include the proliferation of diverse religious sects and denominations, greater emphasis on individual spirituality and direct experience with God, and increased involvement of laypeople in religious affairs. The movement also promoted religious tolerance and pluralism in the colonies, setting the stage for the constitutional principle of freedom of religion that would later be enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Did the Great Awakening have any influence outside of the United States?

While the Great Awakening was primarily an American phenomenon, it was part of a broader wave of evangelical revivalism that was taking place in other parts of the world, particularly in Great Britain. Preachers like John Wesley and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism, were influenced by and concurrently influenced the revivalist spirit. The transatlantic exchange of ideas and preachers helped to spread revivalism across the English-speaking world, contributing to the evangelical movement's global impact.

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Discussion Comments

anon310808

Yes, there will be another Great Awakening. Regardless of how far we have gone into technology, God is still God and the world has to acknowledge Him for who He is. We are in the hour that is crucial. Souls are dying every day and going to hell because we (the Church) are not preaching the uncompromising word of God.

If anyone thinks God is not moving in this hour for the harvest of souls, well think again. He is going to use His people like never before and every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that He is Lord. Write it down and mark it on your calendars because it is coming.

candyquilt

@MikeMason-- This is my personal opinion but I think that religious leadership played a huge part in both the first and second Great Awakening.

I think revival takes place when religious leaders feel that religion is not as revered as it should be. So they begin to preach in a more powerful way, encouraging believers to revive the religion before it is too late. Without the leadership that led the movement, neither of the Great Awakenings would have been possible.

stoneMason

Were historical events the main reason for the 2nd Great Awakening? What part does leadership play in religious revival?

donasmrs

It sounds like religion goes through ups and downs in terms of popularity. There are times when religious practice decreases and people concentrate on other things like science. And then, there are times when people become more religious and practice more. The latter period seems to be called an "awakening." But it's really just a typical shift in people's interest in religion.

anon299517

I saw that several people were wondering if we would have another Great Awakening. Just to let you know, some people even recognize a fourth Great Awakening. This awakening happen between late 1960 and early 1970.

anon297068

'Do you think we can ever have another Great Awakening?' Like somebody said above, the message of the GA was 'repent or burn.' The stupid Protestants refute that message constantly, so no, no Great Awakening ever again, unless someone burns every copy of Romans in the world and puts to death everyone who teaches justification by faith alone. But I don't see that happening.

shell4life

The message of the Great Awakenings seemed to be “repent or burn.” I think this is sad, because it paints God in a negative, angry light.

It may have convinced many people to become believers, but I do hope that those people eventually came to see God as loving and forgiving. It is hard to keep from becoming judgmental and bitter if that is how you see your God.

OeKc05

@wavy58 – I doubt there will be another Great Awakening. People seem to prefer technology and science over belief in a higher power, and they put their trust in knowledge instead of having faith.

wavy58

Do you think we will ever have another Great Awakening? The world is in such a state of turmoil that it seems turning to God is a logical solution. I almost expect more people to become religious as things get worse.

anon234734

Great article. I had no notion that these events took place. Thank you again WiseGeek!

anon234644

Educational and informative, inspiring yet challenging on how to sustain scriptural values over self desiderata or understanding. The article is timely for ethics and values for developing countries mimicking American democracy without losing human values to government.

dbuckley212

Jonathan Edwards was a faithful shepherd of his flock until they eventually kicked him out for his heavy-handedness. He was a very deep thinker and normally was good at relating to people, but some found him cold and plain. He did not emphasize rhetoric very strongly, but was very strong on doctrine. Today, he has descendants all over the nation, who occupy many influential positions, and founded Yale, along with many other important institutions in our nation.

GigaGold

@FitzMaurice

I hope you're not saying that southerners aren't as smart as northerners, but I understand your point about the second great awakening having a longer effect. Let's not forget though: New England saw much more demographic changes in the years following the great awakening than the south did. The immigration to the northeast means that most people who now live in that area are not descended from those who experienced the great awakening.

FitzMaurice

The second great awakening seems to have had a greater effect than the first great awakening, probably because it learned from it. The second great awakening put less of an emphasis on mental knowledge than the first did, resulting in the intellectual rift between the Northeast and much of the rest of the nation, especially the Midwest. Southerners came to frown upon intellectualism in some circles, emphasizing creed over deep knowledge. The deep knowledge of the north ended up causing them to put too much trust in their own understanding and not enough on the scripture.

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    • The Great Awakenings was a time of increased religious activity in the 1700s.
      By: Anyka
      The Great Awakenings was a time of increased religious activity in the 1700s.
    • The Great Awakening was marked by fiery sermons.
      By: Fabio Roncaglia
      The Great Awakening was marked by fiery sermons.