The First and Second Great Awakening are names given to two periods of religious revival that occurred over wide geographic areas in the 18th and 19th centuries. Revivals occur in many religions throughout the world, but they are often identified with American evangelicalism.
The awakenings exerted immense influence on American culture, as later generations of Christians emulated these revivals, hoping to recreate their benefits, including unusually high numbers of conversions and an intensified piety and commitment. The idea of a nationwide revival inspires a deep longing among evangelicals to see the nation morally renewed.
The causes of religious revivals are impossible to specify, though contributing factors can be identified. The effects usually consist of greater preoccupation with spiritual things among the awakened: prayer, spiritual concern, communal harmony, and moral reform.
The First Great Awakening
The First Great Awakening began in the 1730s, touching most English-speaking populations around the North Atlantic. In New England, descendants of the Puritans were conscious of having fallen away from the severe moralism and intense religious devotion of their forefathers, seizing instead the new economic opportunities offered by the expanding Atlantic market.
Christians of the middle colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey struggled to maintain identity and cohesion in a highly diverse religious environment utterly unlike the Europe their churches had been formed in. Churches in the southern colonies, largely Anglican, served a plantation elite, leaving the poor, and especially slaves, unevangelized.
The awakening’s first interpreter was one of its major leaders, Jonathan Edwards. In 1734 and 1735 Edwards’s church experienced some “surprising conversions” which he believed were the beginnings of a revival.
His Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, written in 1737, advertised these events and what Edwards thought they portended across the Atlantic world. Churches prayed for revival, preachers emphasized the need to experience the “new birth.”
Edwards speculated that the revival was part of God’s plan to evangelize the world and usher in the millenial reign of Christ. While many preachers accepted Edwards’s speculations, their overriding concerns matched those of ordinary people: assuring their personal salvation rather than the salvation of the masses.
Conversion and George Whitefield
Conversion had always been a church and community affair. Most Protestant traditions taught that experiences of God had to be confirmed, through one means or another, by the local community of believers. Only then could the individual trust that the experience was real.
The revivalists of the First Great Awakening, while far from antiec-clesiastical, made the church secondary to the transaction that took place between an individual and God, and most taught that if a person truly believed, they could be assured they were converted.
Thus, for people coping with more diverse communities, geographical mobility, and the declining authority of communal hierarchies, the revivals offered new paths to spiritual life.
Itinerant preacher George Whitefield (1714–70) emphasized the simplicity of conversion: “Believe on the Lord Jesus and be saved.” In a society increasingly characterized by the dislocations of urban and frontier existence, this streamlined model of conversion was particularly effective.
Where earlier forms of conversion required one to agree with nuances of church doctrine, as well as find a place in a local community, in Whitefield’s preaching these fell to the background.
What was central was the transaction between an individual and God. Whitefield’s popularity was in large part due to the nature of his message: He told ordinary people there was another way to salvation, and it did not require placating other human beings.
Other factors surely contributed to his celebrity: youth, good looks, voice (which was both loud and pleasant, he had originally aspired to be an actor), and the controversy he generated by itinerating with no fixed pulpit. All appealed to the mass audiences he attracted, estimated by his friend and supporter Benjamin Franklin at up to 20,000 on some occasions.
Whitefield’s evangelistic tours, which began in 1739, revolutionized American expectations and left an altered religious landscape. Churches debated his call for a more evangelical theology and preaching. Many split, allowing for religious choice in towns where none existed before.
Numerous preachers took his simple message, his appeals to the emotions, as well as his penchant for controversy, and carried them farther, sometimes to extremes, as Protestants divided into the pro-revival (“New Light”) and anti-revival (“Old Light”) camps.
New Lights sent missionaries to Indians, evangelists to work among slaves, and, most important, supported numerous educational initiatives, such as the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), which called Edwards as its first president.
Pastors and scholars, influenced by the revival and eager to see it replicated, filled pulpits and lecterns throughout the colonies and infused the American culture with New Light ideas.
The Second Great Awakening
The Second Great Awakening (1790–1840) was characterized by emotional preaching, outdoor assemblies, and sophisticated (for their time) publicity efforts. It spanned by some reckonings almost half a century, occurring in various regions and with a motley assemblage of leaders and participants.
The energies it unleashed left an even deeper impression on the United States than the first and is seen by some historians as the beginning of modern revivalism.
If the first was evangelical in the sense that it emphasized individual conversion over confessional loyalty or church membership, the second institutionalized almost all the themes that currently define evangelicalism: revivalism, publishing ventures (especially Bibles and tracts), moral crusades, and the use of political means to reform society according to a specific Protestant vision.
In addition, new religious groups, known as upstart sects of Baptists and Methodists, and distinctively American movements, such as Adventism and Mormonism, grew out of the awakening. Slaves and free blacks converted in significant numbers for the first time, altering southern religious styles in the process.
The 1760s–90s were a low point in religious adherence and belief in the United States, with enlightened deism influential among elites; churches and personal morals disrupted by war; and politics, commerce, and westward migration competing with religion for popular interest. In New England, Yale’s Timothy Dwight warned that the new nation was sliding toward infidelity.
Clergy in that region were generally Federalists, supporting the old, pre-Revolutionary hierarchies: Men of education, wealth, and character needed to control politics and culture. The Revolution had turned those assumptions upside down, and, as power migrated into the hands of non-elites, conservatives feared for social order.
Revival, said Dwight, would instill virtues such as respect for authority in what otherwise might become an unruly rabble. Concerned that the French Enlightenment was in vogue among Yale’s students, Dwight’s chapel sermons eventually sparked a revival.
This phase of the awakening stressed the danger posed to youth by imported or innovative ideas and movements, offering revivals themselves as the antidote to the specter of national degeneration.
Similar concerns in the South led to small revivals at several colleges. Graduates impressed by these events joined the swarm of migrants pouring onto the frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee.
There, widely dispersed populations had run ahead of all institutions, including churches, and were living in moral chaos. Evangelists found people starved both for the comforts of the Gospel as well as entertainment, and preachers determined to provide them with both.
It is here that the frontier camp-meeting had its start. Meetings derived from Scottish Presbyterians, who gathered annually in multi-church outdoor communion services that lasted several days, involved a series of sermons, reflection, repentance, and finally a mass celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
This practice was carried to the frontier and evolved into something uniquely American. Old World sacramental decorum was traded for the boisterous, uninhibited expressions of the frontier.
The result was the “Great Revival” of Cane Ridge, Kentucky, where thousands congregated in 1800–01. Cane Ridge was notorious for its bizarre phenomena: crying out, jerking, uncontrollable laughter, and swooning.
To many, these signified true supernatural work; many preachers encouraged them. The active participation of marginalized segments of society—plain folk, blacks, and women—may have contributed to the uninhibited nature of these revivals.
The open market of religious choice that America now was meant that these groups had the power to affect, if not determine entirely, the style and the content of revival preaching.
Democratic appeal became an essential requirement for frontier religion. Calvinism (predestination) was jettisoned to make room for more emphasis on individual ability. Sermons had to be practical, simple, and entertaining.
The result was a religion that hewed close to the concerns, but also the prejudices, of the local community. Once critics of slavery, evangelicals in the South found themselves accommodating the system to better attune the sermons to the local populace.
Previously marginal churches such as the Methodists and Baptists bested competitors in popular appeal and came to dominate he South. Abolitionism received an influx of zealous evangelicals in the North, while slavery enjoyed the blessings of all the evangelical churches of the South.
The Legacy of the Awakenings
The Methodists’ powerful presence in antebellum America enticed other groups to adopt their style. Perhaps the most important figure in this regard was also one of the century’s most important religious figures, Charles Grandison finney. A lawyer when he converted, he developed a theology and preaching style that would produce revivals.
He adopted Arminian (free-will) views of human ability, arguing that conversion was an individual act that required no special divine grace. He preached in a way that argued his case and demanded an immediate decision. He brought a revivalism forged on the frontier to the urbanized Northeast and eventually the world.
His ideas—and the legacy of the Second Great Awakening—were passed on in his Lectures on Revivals of Religion in 1835. He and many other leaders became important voices for abolition, womens’ rights, health reform, the perfectibility of society, various moral reforms, and missions.
Neither awakening had as much of a numerical effect on the churches as their promoters hoped and claimed. What they did effect was a revolution in how churches operated in a diverse, democratic society. Protestants became open to experiment and were determined to grow in national influence, making evangelicalism the powerful movement it remains today.