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?


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