The First Great Awakening Essay

Jonathan Edwards: America's Theologian-Preacher

Jonathan Edwards is probably the best-known figure associated with the Great Awakening. He has often been caricatured, however, simply as the “fire-and-brimstone” preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Indeed, some secular writers, embarrassed by this distortion, have even attempted to reverse that picture completely, portraying a brilliant New England thinker who was only incidentally religious. The truth is that Edwards was a multifaceted man—certainly brilliant and undeniably a keen logician, but also an intensely religious man of deep and reverent piety. It is Jonathan Edwards, perhaps, not philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who deserves the description “the God-intoxicated man.”

The Preacher and the Printer

George Whitefield, the famous evangelist, became friends with Benjamin Franklin, the famous printer and philosophe, while he was visiting Philadelphia on a preaching tour. This essay takes excerpts from the correspondence between two remarkable men of the eighteenth century.

George Whitefield: The Awakener

“I love those that thunder out the Word,” said George Whitefield. “The Christian World is in a dead sleep. Nothing but a loud voice can awaken them out of it.” Whitefield was almost certainly the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth century. He preached throughout the British Isles and the British colonies in North America. Although Whitefield’s reputation has been overshadowed by Wesley’s, his contribution to the revivals of the eighteenth century is almost as great.

Use this page to find some basic information on the Great Awakening: what it was, what caused it, and what it influenced.

What was the Great Awakening?

The Great Awakening was a spiritual renewal that swept the American Colonies, particularly New England, during the first half of the 18th Century. Certain Christians began to disassociate themselves with the established approach to worship at the time which had led to a general sense of complacency among believers, and instead they adopted an approach which was characterized by great fervor and emotion in prayer. This new spiritual renewal began with people like the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield in England and crossed over to the American Colonies during the first half of the 18th Century. Unlike the somber, largely Puritan spirituality of the early 1700s, the revivalism ushered in by the Awakening allowed people to express their emotions more overtly in order to feel a greater intimacy with God.

What caused the Great Awakening?

In late 17th Century England, fighting between religious and political groups came to a halt with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, an event which established the Church of England as the reigning church of the country. Other religions, such as Catholicism, Judaism, and Puritanism, were subsequently suppressed.

From a political perspective, this led to stability since everyone now practiced the same religion. But instead of being a positive driving force for religious belief in general, it created complacency and spiritual “dryness” among believers. Religion became something of a pastime in which people would “go through the motions” during religious services without deeply-felt convictions of the heart and soul. It was only after some decades of this kind of complacency in both England and the American colonies that the spiritual “revival” of the Great Awakening came about.

What were the effects of the Great Awakening?

The Awakening’s biggest significance was the way it prepared America for its War of Independence. In the decades before the war, revivalism taught people that they could be bold when confronting religious authority, and that when churches weren’t living up to the believers’ expectations, the people could break off and form new ones.

Through the Awakening, the Colonists realized that religious power resided in their own hands, rather than in the hands of the Church of England, or any other religious authority. After a generation or two passed with this kind of mindset, the Colonists came to realize that political power did not reside in the hands of the English monarch, but in their own will for self-governance (consider thewording of the Declaration of Independence). By 1775, even though the Colonists did not all share the same theological beliefs, they did share a common vision of freedom from British control. Thus, the Great Awakening brought about a climate which made the American Revolution possible.

Further Reading

The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents, by Thomas S. Kidd

Inventing the “Great Awakening”, by Frank Lambert

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