First Great Awakening

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The First Great Awakening, or simply Great Awakening, was an eighteenth-century transatlantic revival involving England and its North American Colonies. Certain unnamed people, sensing that Christian worship had become too formulaic (liturgical) and devoid of emotion, spurred the revival.[citation needed] Notable clergy who fueled the awakening included Theodore Frelinguysen, who led a revival in the 1720s among members of the Dutch Reformed Church in New Jersey.[1] Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the minister of a Congregationalist church in Northampton, Massachusetts, led revivals in the Connecticut River Valley.[citation needed] Edwards is perhaps best remembered for his classic 1741 "fire and brimstone" sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. However, his greatest contribution to the awakening was probably his 1737 book, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. For many younger untried clergymen, Edwards's book was a "how-to manual" that instructed them as to the finer points of conducting a revival. It influenced even the most famous of the Great Awakening ministers, George Whitefield (1714-1770).

Whitefield, an associate of John Wesley (1703-1791), received ordination as an Anglican minister in England in 1736. However, he was not assigned a pulpit and began preaching in parks and fields on his own. In short, he preached to people who normally did not attend churches. Like Edwards, he developed a style of preaching that elicited emotional responses from his audiences. However, Whitefield had charisma, and his voice (which, according to many accounts, could be heard over vast distances), small stature, and cross-eyed appearance (which some people took as a mark of divine favor) all served to help make him the first American celebrity (he emigrated to the colony of Georgia in 1738). Thanks to the use of print in colonial America, perhaps more than half of all colonists heard about, read about, or read something written by Whitefield. Whitefield used print extensively. He sent advance men to put up broadsides and to distribute handbills announcing his sermons. He also arranged to have his sermons published (a common practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). Most notably, he entered into a profitable business partnership (and lifelong friendship) with Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790).

While Franklin noted that Whitefield’s sermons tended to improve morality among the colonists, Whitefield was never able to get Franklin to embrace Christianity on a personal level. This was unsurprising since Franklin embraced the Enlightenment, and the Great Awakening was a reaction against the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason and learning.[2]:10 Of course even if Whitefield's sermons "improved morality", his first lobbying to make slavery legal in Georgia[3][4] in order to make his plantation profitable[5] shows things about the morality he was preaching.

Many colonial clergymen initially welcomed Whitefield and other revivalists, and opened their churches to them. However, over time many had second thoughts, regarding the revivalists — some of whom lacked theological training — as unorthodox. They saw the revivalists as challenging their own authority and regular church attendance. As a result, many denominations split into "Old Light" and "New Light" factions. As a rule, the "Old Lights" preferred the order of regular church services, while the "New Lights" favored the more emotional appeal of the revivalists. Newer denominations, particularly the Baptists and the Methodists, gained many converts. The Baptist church, in particular, became popular amongst slaves since it advocated abolition and racial equality. That particular belief often landed Baptist preachers in Southern colonial jails.

Divisions between "Old Lights" and "New Lights" did not stop at the church door. As a rule, older, more established, and wealthier colonists (particularly in the South) tended to prefer the "Old Light", while poorer colonists and new arrivals gravitated toward "New Light" services.

Politically, the First Great Awakening helped to lay some of the foundations of the American Revolution. By challenging the social stratification of the Church of England, this revival developed a notion that all were equal before God (provided they weren't slaves, or women, or ...). Although many of the founders had their own take on what this meant for the role of religion in government, the ideal of equality for all formed a ground-rule for the Revolution that most of them could agree on. Although most of the revolutionary generation were young at this time, Benjamin Franklin based parts of the influential Poor Richard's Almanac (published 1732-1758) on the teachings of the Great Awakening, enabling the younger generations of revolutionaries to be exposed to the concepts. Furthermore, many of the beliefs articulated during the Awakening eventually found their way into the pamphlets of the American radicals during the Revolution.

Subsequent "Great Awakenings" followed.


  • Frank Lambert, Inventing the Great Awakening (Princeton University Press, 1999)
  • Bernard Baylin, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1967)


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen.
  2. How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson (2022) Oxford University Press. ISBN 019758179X.
  3. Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth Century (1980), Volume 2
  4. This is not good news — this is not salvation — Slacktivist
  5. Frank Lambert, Pedlar in divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770. pp. 204–205. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-691-03296-2