Basic Concepts of the First Great Awakening

 

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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