What was the Great Awakening in America?

The Puritans who fled to America successfully escaped the ravages of religious persecution in Europe but fell prey to a more insidious enemy. Though America proved to be a safe haven for religious liberty, the new world also had other offerings as well. The brutal New England winters, the pressures and challenges of settling into a new environment and figuring out how to make a living and the unprecedented opportunities all coalesced to form a kind of sleepy haze over the early settlers. It was all too easy for their spiritual senses to become drowsy and dull in the warm intensity of their new home and many of them began to nod off into a state of spiritual slumber.

At the turn of the 18th century, the general feeling among the colonies was one of spiritual lethargy and drowsiness. This state of affairs led to what is known as the first great awakening with men like George Whitefield, Charles Tennent and Jonathan Edwards stepped into the gap to run the thread of revival across the sleepy colonies. The impact of the revival was enormous. One historian estimates that about 10-20% of a town would be converted and join the church in a single year. The effects were so widespread that by the 1740s most of the colonists, if not converted themselves, at the very least knew someone who was.

George Whitefield’s shadow loomed large over the first great awakening. He was an amazing orator and a remarkably itinerant preacher, able to hold vast crowds of people spellbound throughout his electrifying sermons. Thousands were converted with some conservative estimates at about 300-1100 young people converted to the church in the space of a few months.

One of the key points that the first great awakening emphasized was the individual’s right to freedom of conscience, a concept which was not new but was slowly crystallizing in the collective American consciousness. Similarly, it encouraged each individual to search the scriptures for themselves and to make up their own mind with regards to their religious persuasions independent of church authority. It was the war cry of individual accountability to God outside of the system of Papal hierarchy. It changed 17th-century American society in a marked way.

Not only did the revivals lead to great spiritual change but they led to great social and political change as well with some scholars suggesting that they were the springboard that led to democratizing American thought.

The Second Wave

The Second great awakening spread throughout America in the early 19th century with the preaching of men like Charles G. Finney. The second wave much like the first brought with it a wave of deep spiritual revival throughout America. Finney’s methods were new and refreshing. He introduced the concept of a camp meeting and developed a program that focused on public prayer, personal testimony, space for consultation and group prayer and a series of meetings that lasted several weeks.

Like the first great awakening before it the second wave was somewhat of a populist movement, bypassing the wealthy and more educated elite who had become enchanted with the enlightenment and taking the message to the common folk. Offshoot movements sprang up in the wake of these revivals, championing temperance, the abolition of slavery and women’s rights, creating a cloud of social reform as a by-product.

Soon, there would be another movement that would follow hard on the heels of this new wave. Something more potent, more fervent and perhaps a little more radical but by no means less electrifying and life-changing.

Each of these revivals gives us a taste of the kind of final revival movement that the Bible promises will sweep across the globe just before Jesus comes. Ecclesiastes 1:7 tells us that “there is nothing new under the sun”, meaning that history repeats itself and in the same way that God used the humble, simple and deeply spiritual instruments of past reformations and revivals, even so, he will use similar vessels to accomplish his final work. May we be unafraid to raise our hands in solidarity to join that final movement. Maranatha, the best is yet to come.

Citations and Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Capers, T.S. (1916) – The Great Awakening in The Middle Colonies in Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1901-1930), Vol. 8, No. 7 pp. 296-315
  • Feldman, S.M. (1997) – Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas: A Critical History of the Separation of Church and State (Chapter on The North American Colonies)
  • Knight, G.R. (2000) – A Search for Identity: The Development of Seventh-Day Adventist Beliefs