The causes of the Great Awakening can be traced back to seventeenth-century England, where the political climate led to a decrease in spirituality among English citizens. With the death of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the Anglican Charles II assumed the throne and the majority of citizens welcomed him with open arms. Charles attempted to erase all influences of Puritanism in his court, even to the point of exhuming Cromwell’s body from its grave for all to see.
The Puritans had previously grown in number in England as a reaction to the perceived corruption and secularism of the Church of England, and now they were being pushed back from avenues of power within renewed monarchical England. Catholics formed a small minority in England, but they had some powerful allies. Charles was sympathetic to Catholic concerns; in 1670 he and Louis XIV agreed to the Treaty of Dover, in which Charles clandestinely agreed to join the French to oppose Holland and also to bring Roman Catholicism back to England. The next king after Charles, James II, was a Catholic.
Then with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 came the banishment by William and Mary of all clergy who refused to transfer allegiance away from James II. Whiggish political thought denounced divine right of kings and complacent obedience, and much of the Anglican clergy easily accepted allegiance to the new monarchs.
The clergy gravitated away from the doctrinal extremes and tended to follow a more moderate path. These moves served to cut off the fiery and crusading elements of the Church of England, thereby creating a dismal spiritual existence for those remaining. As one clergyman put it:
It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted, by many persons, that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is, not at length, discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly they treat it, as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained, but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals, for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world.
This religious complacency occurred during the post-revolution years which gave England a period of good feelings for most as well as a sense of national superiority. The government was satisfied with itself, as minority religious groups – such as Jews, Catholics, and Unitarians – were suppressed through severe punishments.
Meanwhile, the colonists welcomed the 1688 revolution and the restoration of rights they thought it would bring to England and her colonies. The colonists shared their motherland’s fear of Catholic and Stuart control, and were happy with what was to be the spread of the ideals of the Whigs to the New World. The vision of the colonists soon proved wrong, however, as strict centralized rule over the colonies continued under many of the same policies that governed the land prior to the revolution.
Then, near the turn of the century, Charles and John Wesley underwent interior transformations in which they gained an understanding of Christian faith apart from mere nominal participation in their religion; from this spawned Methodist groups centered on personal significance of the gospels. The Wesleys, along with characters such as George Whitefield, formed the revivalist movement in England which reacted against the coldness of religion and the deistic rationalism which prevailed at the beginning of the 18th Century.