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1740 - The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening was the most important event in American religion during the eighteenth century. The increasing prosperity of the towns prompted fears that the devil was luring society into pursuit of worldly gain and may have contributed to the religious reaction of the 1730s, known as the Great Awakening. Its two immediate sources were George Whitefield, a Wesleyan revivalist who arrived from England in 1739, and Jonathan Edwards, who served the Congregational Church in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Whitefield began a religious revival in Philadelphia and then moved on to New England. He enthralled audiences of up to 20,000 people at a time with histrionic displays, gestures, and emotional oratory. Religious turmoil swept throughout New England and the middle colonies as ministers left established churches to preach the revival.

Edwards was the most prominent of those influenced by Whitefield and the Great Awakening. His most memorable contribution was his 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Rejecting theatrics, he delivered his message in a quiet, thoughtful manner, arguing that the established churches sought to deprive Christianity of its function of redemption from sin. His magnum opus, Of Freedom of Will (1754), attempted to reconcile Calvinism with the Enlightenment.

The Great Awakening gave rise to evangelical denominations (those Christian churches that believe in personal conversion and the in-errancy of the Bible) and the spirit of revivalism, which continue to play significant roles in American religious and cultural life. It weakened the status of the established clergy and provoked believers to rely on their own conscience. Perhaps most important, it led to the proliferation of sects and denominations, which in turn encouraged general acceptance of the principle of religious toleration.

In Christian lands, most persons grew up, of course, into a kind of Christianity, and lived on, without seriously inquiring whether they lived as the gospel required. Many, in the course of their lives, some in one way and some in another, were "awakened" to this inquiry. When awakened, the very thought that they knew not whether they were on the way to heaven or not; that they had lived so many years, in hourly danger of death, without once seriously considering whether they were prepared, or even preparing for it, was alarming. To noble and ingenuous minds, the thought that, they had lived so long without seriously considering how they treat certain duties which many call important, and may therefore be much deeper in guilt than they ever suspected, was more alarming still. The result of self-examination is the discovery of guilt, or, in the technical language of practical theology, conviction of sin. The discovery that we are morally worse than we ever supposed, is an appalling discovery.

The most important practical idea which then received increased prominence and power, and held its place ever since, was the idea of the "new birth," as held by the Orthodox Congregationalists of New England, and others who harmonized with them; the doctrine, that in order to be saved, a man must undergo a change in his principles of moral action, which will be either accompanied or succeeded by exercises of which he is conscious, and can give an account; so that those who have been thus changed, may ordinarily be distinguished from those who have not; from which it follows, that all who exhibit: no evidence of such a change, ought to be considered and treated as unregen'erate, and in the road to perdition, and therefore not admitted to the communion of the churches.

This doctrine of the "new birth," as an ascertainable change, was not generally prevalent in any communion when the revival commenced; it was urged as of fundamental importance, by the leading promoters of the revival; it took strong hold of those whom the revival affected; it naturally led to such questions as the revival brought up and caused to be discussed; its perversions naturally grew into, or associated with, such errors as the revival promoted; it was adapted to provoke such opposition, and in such quarters, as the revival provoked; and its caricatures would furnish such pictures of the revival, as opposers drew. This was evidently the right key; for it fitted all the wards of the complicated lock.

The Great Awakening, however dramatic, was nevertheless unnamed until after its occurrence, and its leaders created no doctrine nor organizational structure that would result in a historical record. That lack of documentation has allowed recent scholars to suggest that the movement was "invented" by nineteenth-century historians. Some specialists even think that it was wholly constructed by succeeding generations, who retroactively linked sporadic happenings to fabricate an alleged historic development.

The Great Awakening was invented -- not by historians but by eighteenth-century evangelicals who were skillful and enthusiastic religious promoters. Reporting a dramatic meeting in one location in order to encourage gatherings in other places, these men used commercial strategies and newly popular print media to build a revival--one that they also believed to be an "extraordinary work of God." They saw a special meaning in contemporary events.

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Page last modified: 04-09-2017 16:27:53 ZULU