The First Great Awakening: From a British Revival to the American Revolution

By linking the choice of new birth with his audience’s choice of a new American identity, British evangelist George Whitefield provided a common American experience that unified diverse colonists who lacked a common identity

By Gary David Stratton, Professor, Johnson University (TN) and James L. Gorman, Assistant Professor, Johnson University 

1357700728-whitefieldThe Great Awakening is the common designation for a Protestant socio-spiritual movement in the American colonies that helped establish the groundwork for much of the nation’s spiritual and national identity. The awakening began among German, Dutch and Scot-Irish immigrants and was greatly influenced by British Methodists and New England Puritans. It culminated in enormous religious gatherings, mass professions of faith, controversial ecstatic experiences, and the overthrow of Old World hierarchies in church and society. While interpretations of the meaning of the Great Awakening divide into numerous schools of thought, “It seems evident that in one way or another, the Great Awakening helped to prepare American society and culture for the Revolution, but of course not in any direct, deliberate, or intentional manner” (Wood, p. 180-181). 

Initial stirrings

An upsurge in revivalist piety began in the middle colonies in the ministries of German-American Dutch-Reformed minister, Theodore Jacobus Frelinghuysen (c. 1691 – c. 1747), and Scots-Irish-American Presbyterian, Gilbert Tennent (1703-1764), as well as among Congregationalist churches in the Connecticut River Valley (Crawford, p. 108).  When the Connecticut River Valley revival reached Northamption, MA in 1734, its effect was so dramatic, it prompted the town’s minister, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) to write what became a bestselling account, entitled, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton. Considered by many to be America’s greatest theologian, Edwards viewed this outpouring of the Spirit as an acceleration and intensification of the work of the normal Holy Spirit so that as much is “done in a day or two, as at ordinary times […] is done in a year.” (p. 21). Like all Puritans, Edwards held that such “outpourings of the Spirit” were God-granted events to be sought by ministers and their congregations as their only hope for advancing the gospel on earth. As the story of Northampton’s revival spread, ministers and congregations up and down the Atlantic seaboard began praying for similar visitation in their towns.

Divine Dramatist

British evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) entered this rarified spiritual atmosphere determined to seize the moment for God’s glory. Whitefield’s adoption of John Wesley’s practice of “field preaching” coupled with his profound dramatic gifts connected him with his audiences in an unprecedented manner. His first trip to America (mostly in Georgia from 1737–1738), followed by his tremendously successful campaign in London, thrust him into popular imagination such that Harry Stout declares him “Anglo-America’s first modern celebrity” (1991, p. x). In preparation for his second American preaching tour (1740-1741), Whitefield fashioned a plan to build on this momentum. The evangelist and his publicist, William Seward, work tirelessly to promote Whitefield’s exploits, writing as many as a hundred personal letters, articles, and journal entries a day to a vast network of leaders and publishers throughout the New World. Incredibly, Whitefield personally wrote or inspired thirty-percent of every printed work published in America in 1740.

By the time he reached Boston, all of New England was in a fever pitch of anticipation. Six weeks and 175 sermons later, virtually every New England inhabitant heard Whitefield preach face-to-face. Scores of professed conversions and great public interest in religion swept the colonies, from Harvard, where young Samuel Adams was deeply affected, to Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin and Whitefield became famous friends. In fact, Whitefield’s growing celebrity granted him unparalleled influence in Colonial society. He was able to network with the rich and powerful, target key social causes (especially orphans and African-American education), and take controversial anti-institutional stands on the issues of his day as the first in a long line of public figures whose claim to influence rested on celebrity rather than inherited social status (Stout).

Controversy and Excess

Gilbert Tennent fired what was perhaps the opening salvo of the disestablishment of a the Old World hierarchical view of society in his 1739 sermon, “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” arguing that only ministers who have experienced “the new birth of conversion” should be allowed to preach. While Tennent was immediately and nearly unanimously condemned by the established clergy, Whitefield picked up the theme and began to use it regularly in his 1740-1741 preaching tour, pushing the message deep into the Colonial psyche. Whitefield’s call for religious freedom from the hierarchical structure of denominational leadership and parish loyalties resonated with his colonial audiences.

His life and his message provided some measure of resolution to the growing colonial tensions between the leaders of mercantile economy rooted in individual enterprise versus inherited social power of the socio-political system. This was particularly true in New England, where community leadership was contingent upon denominational church leadership—often making the minister the most powerful leader in town, but also resonated in more religiously tolerant communities such as the Delaware River Valley.

The tension only grew as a growing band of itinerant and uncredentialed Whitefield imitators began “invading” staid parishes preaching Whitefield’s emotional and theatrical revival message. The wildest of these, such as Yale graduate James Davenport (1716–1757), began to give the leaders of the Awakening, known as “New Lights,” more trouble than their enemies. No sooner had Whitefield sailed for England than the enemies of the Awakening (and defenders of the old social order), known as “Old Lights,” launched a counter-offensive to restore the status quo.  The faculties of Harvard and Yale denounced both the Awakening in general and Whitefield in particular. Charles Chauncy, Boston’s most influential clergyman (and later president of Harvard), published his Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against (1742) as a treatise against the excessive emotional displays of revivals.

Eventually, even Edwards had to speak out against the excesses of the revival. In his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1742), Edwards declared Satan the winner of the Awakening due to the New England clergy’s inability to lead their flocks out of wildfire and into love of God and sacrificial love of others.  This was perhaps Edwards’ most enduring legacy. While, Faithful Narrative would define the standard expectations for evangelical conversion and firmly establish Edwards as the revival expert with broad readership for his future publications, it was his 1746 publication of Religious Affections (and his 1749 popularization of his views on his more balanced view of revivalism in The Life of David Brainerd) that would lay the groundwork for a profoundly influential evangelical protestant movement in America. Noll (2003) asserts that the Great Awakening “marked the beginning of a distinctly evangelical history” marked by a “consistent pattern of convictions and attitudes that have been maintained over the centuries since” (p. 80, 18-19).

Lasting Influence

It is not obvious if the exact term, “Great Awakening,” was used before Joseph Tracy in 1842, causing some (Butler, 1982; Lambert, 1999) to assert that the Great Awakening itself was merely the invention of historians. Even those who accept the event at face value often grapple with the meaning of those few short years of American history. Kidd (2007) argues that the division of the dynamic evangelical movement into two distinguishable parts may only “obscure the fact that the evangelical movement continued to develop after 1743 and before 1800” (p. xix).  Stout (1977, 1991) argues what while the Awakening itself was more than a historical invention, clearly there was an inventive sense to Whitefield and Seward’s promotional approach (and to some degree Edwards’ rush to publicize the short-lived work of God in Northampton).

Beyond their religious significance, Whitefield’s radical innovations in communication and publicity provided the rhetoric through which republican ideas could be conveyed to an unlettered audience. This style endured, even if the Awakening did not, and became a growing influence in the mode of persuasion of the American Revolution and modern mass communication (Woods, Stout). One school of thought (Heimert, 1966; Mahaffey 2007, 2011) holds that the Awakening’s impact upon the Revolution extended far beyond communication and into the foundational ideas of democracy and nation building, and “provided pre-Revolutionary America with a radical, even democratic, social and political ideology, and evangelical religion embodied, and inspired, a thrust toward American nationalism” (Heimert, viii). By linking the choice of new birth with his audience’s choice of a new American identity, Whitefield provided a common American experience that unified diverse colonists who lacked a common identity. “Without George Whitefield […] American independence would have come much later, if at all” (Mahaffey, 2011, xi).

Gary David Stratton (Ph.D. Biola University) is University Professor of Cultural and Spiritual Formation and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Johnson University (TN). James L. Gorman (Ph.D. Baylor University) is Assistant Professor of History at Johnson University. Based upon Stratton and Gorman’s “The Great Awakening [1730s to 1740s]” in the forthcoming “Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

See also

The Second Great Awakening: From Rural Revival to National Social Movement Revival and Moral Philosophy:  A Puritan Vision for American Higher Education

Do America’s Colleges Need ‘Revival’? What does the University of Tennessee have to do with Prayer?


Butler, Jon. 1982. “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fictions” Journal of American History: 305-325 Crawford Michael J. 1991. Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Edwards, Jonathan, and C C. Goen. 1972. The Great Awakening: A Faithful Narrative. the Distinguishing Marks. Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, Letters Relating to the Revival. New Haven: Yale University Press. Heimert, Alan. 1996. Religion and the American Mind, from the Great Awakening to the Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Kidd, Thomas S. 2007. The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven: Yale University Press. Lambert, Frank. 1999. Inventing the “Great Awakening”. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Mahaffey, Jerome D. 2007. Preaching Politics: The Religious Rhetoric of George Whitefield and the Founding of a New Nation. Waco: Baylor University Press. ________________ 2011. The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America. Waco, Tex: Baylor University Press. Marsden, George M. 2003. Jonathan Edwards: a Life. New Haven: Yale University Press. Noll, Mark A. 2003. The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press. Stout, Harry S. 1977.  “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 34: 519-41; reprinted in Butler and Stout, Religion in American History: A Reader 89-108. ___________ .1991. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. Wood, Gordon. 1997. “Religion and the American Revolution,” in Stout, Harry S., and D. G. Hart. Eds. New Directions in American Religious History. New York: Oxford University Press.  

Academic Branding: Professors Producing Hollywood-Style Previews to Attract Students, by Daniel A. Gross

Videos may have no clear connection to course content, but they shape the identity of the course

Harvard University was an early adopter in short videos shared across social networks to boost student interest and attendance as they “shop” for classes. They have an intimacy that course catalogs and posters lack.

David Malan, who teaches Computer Science 50 at Harvard, shows 
video trailers for the popular course on the first day of class. (Rose Lincoln, Harvard U.)

by Daniel A. Gross • The Chronicle for Higher Education

After 25 years as a typographical designer, Richard Hunt knows the value of visual communication — which makes it a little ironic that his online course at OCAD University, an art-and-design college in Ontario, initially released lectures in an audio-­only format. Last year students accustomed to on-campus learning felt that Mr. Hunt’s “History and Evolution of Typography” course needed greater visual engagement than lecture slides could provide. This fall Mr. Hunt, an assistant professor, hopes to correct that, starting with a video trailer that went live just a few weeks ago. “We thought a trailer would put a face to the voice,” he says.

The new course trailer, released on the college’s internal network and on YouTube, begins with a simple shot of Mr. Hunt speaking. “It’s a way of selling the course to students who resist the online format,” he says.

Course trailers have become increasingly common at universities across North America, as a strategy for attracting students and for putting a public face to the institutions. Several universities have set up official media teams to help faculty members create them. Though such videos seem like a natural development in an age of online and multimedia coursework, they’ve also entered the brick-and-mortar classroom, signaling that a branding tactic once reserved for the marketplace has entered the marketplace of ideas…

Continue reading

The End of Teaching as We Know It, by Alvaro Gonzalez-Alorda

As a follow up to the J.R. Miller’s wildly successful article “Flipped Theology: How Flipping Your Classroom Increases Learning,” we turned to one of the top slideshares on the new teaching revolution in higher education.

by Alvaro Gonzalez-Alorda

Six Key Drivers of Educational Technology to Watch and Five Challenges Higher Education Institutions need to Face


Presentation  teaching  is  becoming  a  luxury  you’ll  only  pay  for  if  professors  are  really  inspiring.  Good  content won’t  be  enough.

Professors  need  to  challenge  themselves  by  experimenting  and  creating  disruptive  teaching  methodologies.

It is hard to see how this doesn’t apply to pastors, youth workers, and other communicators as well.

View the SlideShare

View the SlideShare

Where are the Christians in Academia? by Gabe Lyons

“The LORD has chosen Bezalel and filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of arts, as well as the ability to teach others.”   –Exodus 35:30-33

We’re still field testing the new Two Handed Warriors web format for our January 2012 relaunch. This article from Q Ideas seems like a great test case. The Mustard Seed Foundation’s Harvey Fellows Program is in many ways a template for what Two Handed Warriors is attempting in the Bezalel Hollywood Training Initiative–Identifying, Training, Mentoring, and Funding the world’s best young filmmakers of faith. However, The Harvey Fellows program is much more focused on formal education, as is appropriate for training educational leaders.

The success of the Harvey Fellows gives us great hope for more long-term approaches to nurturing culture makers of faith–what we call Two Handed Warriors–instead of continually relying upon more stop-gap and quick-fix strategies.

Let us know what you think of the article, the long-term strategy, and the new website (still under construction).



Gabe Lyons: The Academy is unique in a lot of ways, both as a place of opportunity and also complexity and challenge for people of faith. I’m here with Duane Grobman, Executive Director of the Mustard Seed Foundation and Director of the Harvey Fellows Program. When you talk to Duane, you realize just how strategically he and some others have been thinking about the role of believers in the academy and the importance of developing great scholars, the importance of thinking long-term, not just short-term, and thinking about, “What does the next 20 to 30 years of philosophy look like in major campuses around the U.S. and the world?”

Duane, tell us about the Harvey Fellows Program.

Duane Grobman: Sure. The Harvey Fellows Program began in 1992 and it was started, and it’s continued to be funded by, the Mustard Seed Foundation. They founded the Fellows Program because they wanted to encourage Christians to innovate their faith with their vocation and also to encourage them to pursue leadership positions in what we call strategic fields where Christians appear to be underrepresented.

And so, their hope was that through the program they would encourage students to pursue culturally influential vocations, that they would actually help equip students with tools necessary to lead integrated lives and that they actually help validate exceptional abilities and academic leadership and gifts as gifts from God worthy of cultivation development. Because, often times the church hasn’t been terrific at validating individual’s abilities in the areas of leadership and academics.

Gabe: I loved the long-term thinking that obviously has gone into this entire program. Really, this is a pretty strategic attempt to connect with some of the most astute leaders in society for the long-term. Right?

Duane: That is correct. To our knowledge, we’re the only program of this kind. (THW Editor’s note: Lord willing not for long.) You hit the nail on the head there, in that, I think one of the reasons is because it is so long-term. We’ve often said that it’s sort of a 20-year experiment, that we won’t fully know the effects of the program culturally and its impact for 20 years.

There’s not a lot of foundations that are willing to invest in that long-term vision. But given, now, that we’re in our 16th year, from the fruit that we see and the impact, we find this incredibly encouraging. So we’re feeling really confident that it’s a worthwhile investment.

Read Gabe and Duane’s entire interview

Podcast: Dave Schmelzer and Gary David Stratton on Faith, Culture, Hollywood and Ivy League

On April 7, author, and playwright-turned-pastor Dave Schmelzer interviewed me for a podcast posted 4/19 on his website: Not The Religious Type, on the Blue Ocean platform. It was a great experience, and I really want you to listen to it. However, first I’d like you to know a few things about Dave and his work among the Harvard/MIT-dominated culture of Cambridge, MA. It will really help you understand what in the world Dave and I are talking about.

My wide-ranging conversation with Dave strengthened my conviction that the principles Dave employs to help “Stage 4” Ivy Leaguers embrace faith might be key for Hollywood as well.

I’ve known Dave since we were classmates at Fuller Seminary (CA) back in, well, back “in our student days.” 3,000 miles and ten years later, Sue and I had the joy of watching Dave, his wife Grace and entrepreneur-turned-pastor Charles Park plant a thriving church of 1,000+ in a city that is still regarded as a “graveyard of preachers.”

Dave’s unique ability to communicate the gospel free of religious trappings has enabled him to guide even hardened Harvard skeptics to faith. Dave’s approach grew out of his own journey from atheism to faith while a student at Stanford University, and his subsequent difficulty in finding a church that seemed to preach the actual faith he had discovered in Jesus. He notes:

Having entered faith from aggressive atheism, I found myself baffled by my experience as I visited churches.  On the one hand, they seemed to be talking about this faith I’d discovered.  On the other hand, they were talking about things that seemed, to me, to be peripheral at best.  What was I missing?

Dave’s captivating book chronicles his journey from atheism to faith and how that journey taught him to communicate to the largely atheistic culture of Cambridge, MA.

When God unexpectedly hijacked Dave’s career as a culture-making playwright in order to become lead pastor at a failed church-plant in Cambridge, he was determined NOT to create THAT type of church. He wanted someplace where atheists would feel as welcome as “inculturated” Christians, and where Jesus, not religion, was the big deal. Two driving concepts shaped Dave’s approach.

The first he calls “centered set” faith (see video above). It is an approach to faith that keeps Jesus as the focus of his church’s culture, rather more exclusive secondary issues.  The goal is that people entering Dave’s church for the first time won’t have to learn a new “religious” culture to fit in. Instead, they are encouraged to move toward Jesus from within the vantage point of their own culture and personal journey.

The other concept is what Dave calls, “Stage Four Faith.” Dave bases his system upon the work of psychologist and best-selling author M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled By, etc.). In Dave’s book Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist (which I use as a textbook in my Theology of Ministry class), Dave explains:

Peck talks about an odd thing he’d noticed in his practice. Some patients would begin therapy as deeply troubled, deeply religious people. He’d help them, and—to his mind—part of their clear growth would occur when they’d leave their religion behind. Other patients, just as troubled and then just as helped, would find faith as a result of their work together. What did that mean? That question agitated Peck into proposing a four-stage theory of human spiritual and emotional development.

Schmelzer explains Peck’s theory and its application this way:


Note: For those who have heard me teach on the subject, Dave’s “Stage Four Faith” is basically the same as my “Stage Five Faith.” I use Kohlberg and Fowler’s concepts to add a stage between Peck/Schmelzer’s 1 & 2. (See link below to read my SVS paper on Strengthening Blue Ocean Stage-Theory.)

Okay, now that you’ve waded your way through all that, you are ready to enjoy Dave and my conversation on faith, and culture, and Hollywood, and the Ivy League.

Click for: Podcast with Dave Schmelzer & Gary David Stratton

See also my paper on Strengthening Blue Ocean Stage-Theory.

Listen to Podcast