The GREAT AWAKENING and The AMERICAN REVOLUTION
While revivals also took place in Germany and England, the American experience of the Great Awakening tended to cross class lines and take place in urban as well as rural areas.
It was the first experience shared by large numbers of people throughout the American colonies, and helped shape the formulating AMERICAN IDENTITY.
Revivalists partook in large public meetings, openly criticized the elites of society, and prayed for the hastened arrival of Christ’s Second Coming and the establishment of his kingdom on Earth.
Because of these factors and more, some scholars have come to see the First Great Awakening as a kind of “DRESS REHEARSAL” for the War of Independence.
To be sure, the Revolution itself was not conceived during the revivals, but the Great Awakening did cause a shift that historians must take seriously.
Revivals did contribute to the coming Revolution in important ideological, sociological, and religious ways.
The revivals shattered the social order of church hierarchy, rejecting the existing power structures of the day and focusing instead on the INDIVIDUAL.
People who had normally had their voices marginalized or silenced were suddenly able to speak freely about God’s grace in their lives.
It provided a millennial hope of a NEW AGE.
As John Adams would later write, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced.
The Revolution was in the MINDS and HEARTS of the people; a change in their RELIGIOUS sentiments of their duties and obligations.”
If we are to take this change of “religious sentiments” from before and after the Revolution seriously, we must take the phenomenon of the revivals seriously.
The (un)SURPRISING WORK of GOD
The Great Awakening was America’s first major religious revival and was the most important religious event within the colonial period.
While reporting on the revivals being experienced within New England, an astonished Jonathan Edwards described the events as a “surprising work of God.”
But the First Great Awakening did not drop from heaven; rather, it sprang forth from a turbulent and formative time within the American colonials’ history.
British colonial power had begun to shift following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and in 1727, another war with the Spanish had broken out in Panama.
Inter-colonial conflict had continued to brew which would culminate with the coming French and Indian War (1754-1763). Less than one hundred years prior the English Civil War had broken out and climaxed with the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Additionally, with the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 and the succession of William and Mary in favor of James II, the fear of royal persecution was resurrected among the Puritan colonies in America.
While the 1689 Act of Toleration granted Protestant dissenters the right of private religious conscience, its actual effectiveness remained ambiguous.
Yet in Massachusetts, a new charter in 1692 declared that “there shall be a LIBERTY of CONSCIENCE allowed in the Worship of GOD to ALL Christians (except Paptists).”
With this more inclusive shift to extend further rights to Anglicans, Quakers, and Baptists within the New England colonies, “the age of EXCLUSIONARY PURITANISM had come to an END.”
Traditionally, the revivals that make up the Great Awakening have been understood as a series of religious events that took place in the 1730s and 1740s.
The revivals were the result of the colonial importation of PIETISM, a German movement of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that emphasized INTENSE, PERSONAL, and EXPERIENTIAL CONTACT with GOD.
PIETISM influenced British and Dutch religious cultures and crossed the Atlantic between the 1680s and the 1730s due to German, Scottish, and Scotch-Irish immigration.
Championed by Jonathan Edwards in Northampton and typified by the preaching tours of George Whitefield, Theodore Jacob Frelinghugusen, James Davenport, Samuel Davies, and Gilbert Tennent, the revivals emphasized the focus on “SPIRITUAL REBIRTH.” (“ANASTASIOS”!)
Those who had been “reborn” or “awakened” were called “New Lights,” stressed the individual and emotional experiences of conversion brought about by the workings of the HOLY SPIRIT, and REJECTED any sort of understanding that included GOOD WORKS as integral to SALVATION.
The “Old Lights,” most notably Charles Chuancy, saw the revivals as a dangerous display of religious “enthusiasm” (by which they meant excess and delusion).
While some scholars have characterized the period of the First Great Awakening as a sort of “waiting period” before the Revolution, Richard Bushman’s studies have revealed that revivals affected the economic ambitions of the time period.
Given that the revivals centered on the TRANSFORMATION of the INDIVIDUAL, this self-consciousness and self-focus profoundly affected the social and communal aspects of day-to-day life within colonial America.
Rather than operating through covenants and contracts, GOD ACTED through the heart and commitment of EACH INDIVIDUAL, and therefore, the individual need not look BEYOND HIMSELF for any source of authority.
This meant that God did not work exclusively through kings or bishops, the clergy or the magistrates, but through the PEOPLE THEMSELVES.
This did not only have religious implications, but also economic ones. As Bushman puts it, “in the expanding economy of the eighteenth century, merchants and farmers felt free to pursue wealth with an avidity dangerously close to avarice, the ENERGIES EXERTED irresistible pressure AGAINST TRADITIONAL BOUNDS.
When the Great Awakening added its measure of opposition, the OLD institutions began to CRUMBLE.”
SPEAKING OUT AGINST “DEAD MEN”
While the First Great Awakening occurred during the age of Enlightenment, it was also the age of the COMMONWEALTH MAN. Seating arrangements reflected the rank of every person within the community, being assigned by wealth, age, and standing within the community. Despite being communal, worship reflected and played out the hierarchical “social drama” found within the colonial communities.
Or to borrow Stephen Foster’s reflection, “mutuality, subordination, and public service constituted a kind of sacred trinity of all respectable societies, Puritan or otherwise.”
The revivals dramatically changed the landscape of hierarchal order and assumed respect for one’s betters. It this higher class of commonwealth men and clerics that Gilbert Tennent and George Whitefield would openly criticize as “dead men” leading “lifeless” congregations.
The revivalists channeled the rhetoric of the GOSPELS. The same generation that partook in the Great Awakening was already mentally prepared to defy the British crown. In other words, when the Revolution was ignited, many of its leading participants and advocates had ALREADY transgressed the bounds of the social order.
Benjamin Franklin supported Whitefield’s revivalist endeavors. While a senior at Harvard, Samuel Adams heard Whitefield declare that the college’s favorite theologian, the Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson, “knew LESS of Christianity than Mahomet.”
Patrick Henry and James Madison studied the sermons of Samuel Davies, one of the Awakening’s greatest contributors and preachers in support of the Revolution.
What resulted from the Great Awakening was nothing short of the first widespread popular “yell of rebellion” against the established authorities in the history of British American colonies.
The PLAIN STYLE and the PUBLIC SPACE
Beyond the rhetoric of public criticism, the gatherings themselves manifested a new social order. While traditional congregational meetings reflected God’s supposed preordained hierarchy, the revivals altered this system due to their practice of open and public preaching.
Whitefield could draw in a crowd of thousands, bringing in people from every socio-economic walk of life. Young and old, men and women, rich and poor, educated and unlettered shared common ground and undistinguishable space.
Additionally, the language of the revivals was encompassed by the “plain style. The revivals sought to transcend both the rational manner of polite Liberal preaching and the plain style of orthodox preaching in order to speak directly to the people at large.”
Overturning the conventions of the classical jeremiad and other ecclesiastical formalities, the revivalists spoke in everyday language among a large mixture of everyday people.
Preachers of the revivals also operated within a new dynamic framework. Because these preachers were neither employed by or in authority over any particular congregation, the ways in which the gospel message was communicated could be FREE from ministerial POLITICS and local DRAMAS.
George Whitefield’s influence on the clergy was felt far and wide in how they began to preach and present themselves. After the revivals, what was expected of the clergy and their sermons was NEVER the SAME.
In the years following the Great Awakening, the plain style would gain more traction within the literature produced by the British American colonies. It was no accident that Thomas Paine wrote his most famous pamphlet, COMMON SENSE, in the language of the plain style.
Like Whitefield and the revivalist preachers of the Awakening, Paine sought to have his message READ and UNDERSTOOK as far and wide as possible.
COMMON SENSE was such a success because it was a “kind of SECULAR SERMON, an extraordinarily adroit mingling of religion and politics.”
While Paine’s Common Sense marked the invention of a new mode of American political discourse, his use of common language and UNDERSTANDABLE prose can be traced back to the revivalist traditions of plain style preaching.
Not only did this change the pattern and behaviors of the clergy, but Evangelicalism presented a new challenge to social harmony. On average, New England meetinghouses only held up to 750 people.
Prior to the revivals, the largest forms of social assembly had been EXECUTIONS. While these grim events filled up the meetinghouses to capacity, they were FEW and far between.
The REVIVALS, on the other hand, regularly drew crowds of THOUSANDS.
“We went down in the Stream; I heard no man speak a word all the way three miles but every one pressing forward in great haste and when we got to the old meeting house there was a GREAT MULTITUDE; it was said to be 3000 or 4000 of people assembled together … “
Whitefield’s celebrity status during this period cannot be overstated.
During his preaching tour of Boston, Whitefield drew crowds up to 8,000. Fifty-thousand people assembled to see him preach at Hyde Park.
Cole commented that Whitefield’s preaching tour in Philadelphia had “many thousands flocking to hear him preach the GOSPEL, and great numbers were CONVERTED to CHRIST.”
By 1740, Whitefield had inspired thirty percent of the printed works published by the American colonies. He preached in virtually every major town on the eastern seaboard of the North American colonies.
Whitefield was so influential that before him “there was no unifying intercolonial person or event … But by 1750 VIRTUALLY EVERY AMERICAN LOVED and ADMIRED WHITEFIELF and saw him as THEIR CHAMPION.”
On Whitefield’s impact Franklin commented, “It was wonderful to see the Change soon made in the Manners of our Inhabitants; from being thoughtless or indifferent about Religion, it seem’d as if all the World were growing Religious; so that one could not walk thro’ the Town in an Evening without Hearing Psalms sung in different Families of every Street
During the Revolutionary war, in strikingly familiar language, a Philadelphia Lutheran pastor would complain that, “The whole country is in PERFECT ENTHUSIASM for LIBERTY.
Would to God that men would become as zealous and unanimous in asserting their SPIRITUAL LIBERTY, as they are in vindicating their POLITICAL FREEDOM”
An All-American Apocalypse
Along with anti-authoritarian principles, the First Great Awakening fostered strong millennial hopes across the entirety of the colonies. Seeing themselves as ACTORS on the STAGE of SALVATION HISTORY, REVIVALISTS UNDERSTOOD THEMSELVES to be playing a PIVOTAL ROLE in bringing about the Second Coming of CHRIST. (The King of Israel)
Revivalists envisioned themselves as a part of an EPIC and AGE-OLD BATTLE between CHRIST and SATAN, the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Jonathan Edwards was optimistic that the revivals were the dawning of GOD’s PLANS for the EARTH, a defining moment for America within SALVATION HISTORY.
According to Edwards, “we can’t reasonably think otherwise, than that the beginning of this GREAT WORK of GOD must be near.
And there are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America.”
Likewise, Rev. Josiah Smith boasted in a sermon in 1740 from Charleston, South Carolina, “Behold! … Some GREAT THINGS seem to be upon the anvil, some big PROPHECY at the BIRTH; God give it strength to bring forth!”
At this time, the Protestant faith had become intrinsically linked to the ideas of SPIRITUAL and POLITICAL FREEDOM.
Additionally, the attempts by the British crown to place an Anglican bishop within the American colonies blended this anti-authoritarian spirit .
The FIRST AMERICAN REVOLUTION
In conclusion, while I would agree that it would be an overstatement to claim that without the Awakening there would have been no Revolution, the Awakening is a HISTORICAL REALITY that more HISTORICANS need to grapple with in UNDERSTANDING the Revolution’s ORIGINS.
After the First Great Awakening, the so-called preordained order of society was completely TURNED UPSIDE DOWN.
It was during the REVIVALS that the colonists BEGAN to view themselves as capable of interpreting the WILL of GOD for THEMSELVES.