What is The Great Awakening? The Awakening was a period of great revivalism that spread throughout the colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. It deemphasized the importance of church doctrine and instead put a greater importance on the individual and their spiritual experience. What most people refer to as “the first Great Awakening” can be described as a renewal of religion that swept through the colonies between the 1730s and the 1770s.
The beginnings of the first Great Awakening appeared among the Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Led by the Tennent family, Reverend William Tennent and his four sons, the Presbyterians not only began religious revivals in those colonies during the 1730s but also established a seminary to train clergymen whose “fervid, heartfelt preaching” would bring sinners to experience an evangelical conversion. This religious movement quickly spread from the Presbyterians of the Middle Colonies to the Baptists and Puritans of New England. Around the 1740s, the clergymen of these new churches were conducting revivals throughout that region, using the same strategy that had given the Tennent’s similar success.
They would deliver emotional sermons, all the more powerful because they were delivered without prior preparation, preachers such as Jonathon Edwards would portray terrifying images of the corruption of human nature and the atrocities that await those who are unrepentant in hell. Early revivals in the northern colonies inspired some converts to become missionaries to the South. By the eve of the American Revolution, the evangelical converts accounted for about ten percent of all southern churchgoers.
The First Great Awakening also gained strength from the travels of an English preacher, George Whitefield. Whitefield and his crew of Anglican clergyman led a movement to reform the Church of England which resulted in the founding of the Methodist Church late in the eighteenth century. During his several trips across the Atlantic after 1739, Whitefield preached everywhere in the American colonies, drawing audiences so large that he was forced to preach outdoors. But not everyone was convinced. Throughout the colonies, conservative and moderate clergymen questioned the emotionalism of evangelicals and charged that disorder and disagreement attended the revivals.
They disliked “itinerants,” ministers who, like Whitefield, traveled from one community to another, preaching and often criticizing the local clergy. And with even more displeasure they despised when some white women and African Americans shed their social status long enough to encourage religious gatherings. So the first Great Awakening left colonials polarized along religious lines. Anglicans and Quakers gained new members among those who disapproved of the revival’s excesses. The largest single group of churchgoing Americans remained within the Congregationalist and Presbyterian religions, but they divided internally between those who were for the Awakening and those who opposed of it, known as “New Lights” and “Old Lights.” Inevitably, civil governments were drawn into the argument.
The Second Great Awakening was marked by an emphasis on personal piety over schooling and theology. It arose in several places and in several forms. In northern New England, social activism took precedence; in western New York, the movement encouraged the growth of new religions. In the region of Tennessee and Kentucky, the revival energized Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists, and gave rise to the popular camp meeting, a chance for isolated frontier folk to gather and enjoy the excitement of evangelistic passion.
People who were part of the revival felt strongly about the opposers of the movement in general. “..that you know not God nor his worship, and that to follow your advice would be the sure road to perdition (Dow 593).” Women made up the majority of the converts during the Awakening, and therefore played a crucial role in its development and focus. It is not clear why women converted in larger numbers than men, but it might’ve had to do with women being overall more religious.
“Nothing is thus left for women but marriage—Yes; Religion is the reply (Trollope 172-173).” In Frances Trollope’s account of a camp meeting, he describes “most of the wretched creatures” being “beautiful young females (Trollope 172-173).” Despite a lack of formal leadership roles, informally through family structure and through their maternal roles, women became very important in conversion and religious upbringing of their children. Religion during the period of the revivals was often passed to children through the teaching and influence of mothers who were seen as the moral and spiritual foundation of the family at this time. Baptists and Methodists in the South preached to slaveholders and slaves alik.
Conversions and congregations started with the First Great Awakening, resulting in Baptist and Methodist preachers being authorized long slaves and free African Americans more than a decade before 1800. “By the first decades of the nineteenth century, large numbers of both slave and free blacks were drawn into the Methodist and Baptist camps (p153).” Early Baptist congregations were formed by slaves and free African Americans in South Carolina and Virginia. Especially in the Baptist Church, African Americans were welcomed as members and as preachers.
“Baptists condemned slavery and welcomed blacks as equals in their churches (p153).” Many converts believed that the Awakening brought about a new millennial age. The Second Great Awakening stimulated the establishment of many reform movements designed to heal the evils of society before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
The Great awakening pretty much brought a new way people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America, people became more passionate about their religion and more emotionally involved.