The Great Awakening

One of the most distinctive features of North American Protestant Christianity is the phenomenon of the "Awakening." To date, three Awakenings have been documented, each leading initially to religious renewal and subsequently to social change. Sociologists have noted that such religious revitalization often originates in times of cultural stress and uncertainty and leads to radical social reform and transformation.11 The Awakening, though primarily religious in nature, has the capacity to energize the culture as a whole. The first of these religious revivals, traditionally known as the "Great Awakening," took place in New England in 1734. To appreciate its importance, we must consider the background against which it took place.

By 1700 American Protestantism appeared to be stagnant. The first generation of Puritan immigrants was possessed by a driving religious vision that was not always shared by their children. Church membership began to decline. When increased immigration from Europe led to the middle Atlantic states becoming religiously diverse to an extent without parallel anywhere else, awkward questions were raised about earlier Puritan visions of a "holy commonwealth." More significantly, a series of scandals rocked the credibility of Puritan institutions. The worst of these were the Salem witch trials of 1693; instigated by the clergy of that town, the trials led to the execution of nineteen people. Governor Sir William Phips eventually put an end to the hysteria, and the subsequent clerical apologies and recantations seriously diminished the standing and reputation of the clergy of the area.12

Tensions began to emerge over church membership. In the early seventeenth century, New England congregations generally had a policy of admitting to full membership only those individuals who could provide a narrative of personal conversion. As the century progressed, fewer and fewer individuals could testify to such an experience. Yet most individuals wanted some connection or association with the church, not least on account of the close ties between church membership and citizenship in most communities. As church attendance began to decline, tensions emerged between those who wanted to maintain religious purity at any cost and those who believed that the churches could survive only if they broadened their membership base by adopting less strict criteria.

A compromise was reached. In 1662 a "halfway" membership was accepted by some congregations: those prepared to accept formally the truth of Christianity and the moral discipline of the church could have their children baptized.13 The result of this idea of a "halfWay covenant" was perhaps inevitable: by the beginning of the eighteenth century, a large proportion of church members were "nominal" or "halfway" Protestants. Protestantism was on its way to becoming the civil religion of New England, with primary functions that were social and moral.

All this was changed in the Great Awakening, which is often associated with Jonathan Edwards, widely recognized as America's greatest theologian to date.14 Edwards was born at East Windsor, Connecticut, on October 5, 1703, the son of a local pastor. In September 1716, he entered Yale College in New Haven (now Yale University), where he later served as tutor from 1724 to 1726. When he was around seventeen years of age, Edwards underwent a conversion experience. As he read 1 Timothy 1:17, he was overwhelmed by a sense of God's greatness and glory. "As I read the words," he wrote later in his journal, "there came into my soul, and it was, as it were, diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine Being; a new sense quite different from anything I ever experienced before."15

In 1726 Edwards resigned his post at Yale in order to take up a pastoral charge at Northampton, Massachusetts, as the colleague of his maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard was widely regarded as the leading spiritual authority in the Connecticut Valley—so much so, in fact, that local people called him "Pope Stoddard" behind his back. Edwards was ordained on February 15, 1727, aged twenty-three. In July of the same year, he married Sarah Pierrepont, with whom he had been in love for some considerable time. His grandfather died in February 1729, leaving Edwards in charge of one of the most important churches in the area. Reflecting on the events of those two years, Edwards noted the general absence of any real interest in religion: Northampton, like virtually all of colonial North America, "seemed to be at that time very insensible of the things of religion, and engaged in other cares and pursuits."

From about 1735 to 1745, much of New England was engulfed in religious renewal. Contemporary records speak of mass outdoor meetings that occasionally attracted twenty thousand people, open-air sermons, deserted taverns, and packed churches. Historians have pointed out that the connections between these events are often difficult to establish and that using the term "Great Awakening" retrospectively imposes a single narrative structure upon what may really have been a complex set of happenings.16 It is, however, clear that some extraordinary events that took place at this time reversed the downward trend in church attendance and the declining public profile of religion in the region.

Edwards himself was witness to such events in Northampton during the winter of 1734-35. The final weeks of 1734 witnessed several conversions, "very remarkably and suddenly, one after another." The revival continued into the new year, reaching its peak during March and April 1735. There was hardly a household in the town that was not affected. Perhaps as many as three hundred individuals, "about the same number of males as females," appeared to have been converted.

The phenomenon of "enthusiasm" once more made an appearance, generating concern within the churches over its apparent excesses. Edwards himself was concerned that such seemingly hysterical behavior could bring the church into disrepute and even destabilize the social order.17 Confronted with obvious evidence of ecstatic religious experiences, however, Edwards began to develop what we might now call a "psychology of religion"—an attempt to understand and make sense of ecstatic phenomena as natural responses to a sense of guilt or the realization of forgiveness. His 1741 commencement address at Yale, entitled "The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God," sought to distinguish between a primary divine inspiration and a secondary human response. The latter (but not the former), he argued, could be understood in naturalist terms.

As the revival continued in New England, it was given a new sense of direction by George Whitefield, recently arrived from England.18 England itself was then experiencing the evangelical revival associated with John and Charles Wesley as well as Whitefield. Edwards found that he himself was no longer at the forefront of the revival movement. He was also troubled by divisions within his congregation at Northampton, particularly over matters of church discipline. He moved to minister to a congregation at Stockbridge, where relatively light parish duties allowed him to write a series of major theological works that gave intellectual muscle to New England Puritanism.19 In 1757, his reputation as a scholar firmly established, Edwards was invited to become president of the College of New Jersey in Princeton (now Princeton University). Following an unsuccessful inoculation against smallpox at Princeton, intended to demonstrate the safety of the new medical procedure to his students, he died on March 22, 1758.

The Awakening, however, continued. It was far too broad and deep to be dependent upon any one individual. By 1760 it was clear that the movement was bringing about significant changes in American Protestantism. It was not simply that people were returning to church, or that religion was playing an increasingly significant role in public life. The revival changed the nature of Protestantism, bringing about a changed perception of the relationship between the individual, the congregation, and the state.

The new emphasis on individuals having undergone a personal conversion led to the emergence of "conversion narratives" as a means of proving religious commitment and affirming personal identity.20 Whereas in the 1630s a congregation would test an individual's beliefs to determine whether that person was indeed a truly converted, orthodox believer prior to being admitted to full membership, the emphasis now fell upon the individual's personal experience. Conversion was not authenticated by an external ecclesiastical body, but by an inward individual experience. Furthermore, these conversion narratives raised questions about the place of the precise theological formulations once favored by Puritan church leaders. It seemed to many that the convert's immediate sense of participating directly in spiritual reality was more important and significant than such rigid formulations. In short: the Awakening led to the weakening of the intellectual side of faith and shifted the emphasis to its emotional and relational aspects.

So how might such a revival be accommodated within the confines of a Calvinist theology? How could such an experiential approach to the religious life be reconciled with the theological logic of a movement often associated with intellectual rigor rather than devotional fervor? The answer lies in the dynamics of theological internalization—the process by which ideas are transmuted into attitudes.21 The capacity of contemporary Puritanism to forge links between theology and experience must be regarded as one of its most significant characteristics, and above all in relation to explaining the origins of the Great Awakening.

Most people responded to a theology focusing on divine judgment and human sinfulness by realizing their inability to achieve self-deliverance and hence totally entrusting their destiny to the will of God. For others, a discernment of divine mercy and grace led to a joyful expectation of deliverance, often linked with moments of ecstatic perception and delight.

The Awakening also had implications for the democratization of religion. The individual experience of conversion was recognized as being open to all, whether male or female, rich or poor, ignorant or wise. Religion became "popular," in the sense that it no longer made significant intellectual demands of its adherents. Grace was something to be experienced rather than defined and articulated in the esoteric language of theology. The experience of the divine was no longer dependent upon texts or sermons. The same factors that would help make Pentecostalism the religion of the urban poor in the late twentieth century were anticipated in the Great Awakening more than two centuries earlier.

Yet the most important outcome of the Puritan commonwealths of the 1630s and their revitalization a century later was political. A radical alternative was established to the European model of Protestantism as a regional or national religion. The rise of confessionalism in Germany led to state-sponsored Protestant churches defining the religious establishment. Lutheranism was the state religion in certain parts of Germany and Scandinavia, Reformed Christianity in certain other regions of Europe, and Anglicanism in England and the British colonies—including the Carolinas and Virginia. Catholicism, of course, was firmly established as the state religion in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, as well as in the newly established Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Central and South America.

The congregationalism of the Puritan commonwealths offered an alternative model that had no real precedent in Europe: an understanding of religious "establishment" that did not involve preferential state support for any one specific ecclesiastical body. The Puritan experimentation in defining church-state relationships was driven as much by hatred for the English model of a state church, which both patronized and oppressed alternative forms of Christianity, as by a longing for individual and corporate freedom. Yet during the first half of the eighteenth century, this was merely a local model, appropriate to the commonwealth of Massachusetts and a few other locations in New England. It would take a revolution to make it the norm for America as a whole. As events unfolded, it turned out that such a revolution lay to hand.

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  • steffen
    What was the lasting legacy of the great awakening on american protestantism?
    1 year ago
  • Mary McIntosh
    How is the great awakening associated to the puritan age?
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