First Great Awakening Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The First Great Awakening, a spiritual revival in North America, gave birth to religious tolerance and inclusiveness in American society. It influenced the values that would shape the founding of the United States and the framing of the U.S. Constitution a few decades later.

Summary of Event

Between 1739 and 1742, the American colonies experienced a general quickening of religious faith that became known as the Great Awakening. The young Anglican preacher Preaching George Whitefield, whose reputation as a great pulpit and open-air orator had preceded his visit, traveled through the colonies in 1739 and 1740. Everywhere, he attracted large and emotional crowds, eliciting countless conversions as well as considerable controversy. Critics condemned his enthusiasm, his censoriousness, and his extemporaneous and itinerant preaching; yet his extemporaneous preaching, his use in sermons of plain language, and his appeal to the emotions were to contribute to the emergence of the democratic and popular style of American Christianity. This manner of preaching also won for him numerous imitators, who spread the Great Awakening from New England to Georgia, among rich and poor, educated and illiterate, and in the backcountry as well as in seaboard towns and cities. [kw]First Great Awakening (1739-1742) [kw]Awakening, First Great (1739-1742) [kw]Great Awakening, First (1739-1742) Great Awakening, First Religious revivalism [g]American colonies;1739-1742: First Great Awakening[0980] [c]Religion and theology;1739-1742: First Great Awakening[0980] [c]Social issues and reform;1739-1742: First Great Awakening[0980] Edwards, Jonathan Whitefield, George Tennent, William Tennent, Gilbert Buell, Samuel Dickinson, Jonathan Davenport, James Wheelock, Eleazar Jarratt, Devereux Chauncy, Charles Frelinghuysen, Theodore J. Davies, Samuel Stearns, Shubal Marshall, Daniel Stoddard, Solomon

In the Middle Colonies, Gilbert Tennent was the leader of the revival among the Presbyterians. Led by Jonathan Dickinson, Presbyterianism;colonial America Presbyterians of New England background also joined in the revival. In New England, the most notorious evangelist was James Davenport, whose extravagances were even denounced by Tennent and other revivalists. Jonathan Edwards, Buell, Samuel Samuel Buell, and Wheelock, Eleazar Eleazar Wheelock, less controversial than Davenport, were likewise instruments of the Awakening in New England. In the Southern colonies, the Great Awakening made its greatest headway on the frontier. Frontier;American Samuel Davies preached revivalism among the Presbyterians of Virginia and North Carolina; Sterns, Shubal Shubal Stearns and Marshall, Daniel Daniel Marshall drew converts to the Separate Baptist fold; and Jarratt, Devereux Devereux Jarratt inaugurated the Methodist Church;colonial America Methodist phase of the Great Awakening.

The colonists were not unprepared for the Great Awakening. Prior to 1739, there had been indications of a religious quickening among several denominations. In the 1720’s, the Dutch Reformed Church Dutch Reformed Church in New Jersey experienced a series of revivals led by Theodore J. Frelinghuysen, a native of Germany who had been influenced by the Pietistic movement within the Lutheran Church. In the mid-1730’s, a “refreshing” occurred among the Presbyterians of New Jersey and Pennsylvania as a result of the preaching of a group of Scotch-Irish ministers led by Gilbert Tennent’s father, William, and trained in William’s Log College.

The revivals continued throughout the 1730’s, coinciding with the “subscription controversy” within American Presbyterianism. New England was also the scene of religious excitement before 1739. The “harvest” of Stoddard, Solomon Solomon Stoddard, known as the “pope” of the Connecticut Valley, and the Northampton revival of 1734-1735, led by his grandson Jonathan Edwards, foreshadowed the later, more general, awakening. Thus, Whitefield’s tour provided the catalyst, not the cause, of the Great Awakening, which represented the culmination of impulses that were already beginning to transform colonial Protestantism;colonial America Protestantism.

At first, the Great Awakening was celebrated as a supernatural work, the “pouring out of the grace of God upon the land.” However, controversy over the origins and effects of the revival soon displaced the earlier consensus. Prorevivalists continued to defend the Great Awakening as the work of God, but opponents of the revival reacted negatively both to what they regarded as unlearned preaching and to the religious enthusiasm that it fomented. The assault by the revivalists on the orthodox clergy as “without spiritual taste and relish,” an assault classically expressed in Gilbert Tennent’s “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” could only have amplified the hostility.

The root of the disagreement between the pro- and antirevivalist parties reached to the source of religious faith. The orthodox clergy, the most famous of whom was Charles Chauncy of Boston, tended toward a “rational” theology. It was from this group that the Unitarians Unitarian Church later emerged. By contrast, the revivalists held that religion was a matter of the heart or the “affections,” as Jonathan Edwards called them. Yet Edwards and his disciples, in what was known as the New England theology, held that both reason and the emotions were rightfully a part of religious experience. In keeping with their Puritan Puritanism heritage, these Edwardseans also reaffirmed the Calvinist Calvinism;colonial America convictions about the depravity of human beings, the sovereignty of God, and the necessity of unmerited grace for salvation. For them, regeneration was not a matter of good conduct but the result of a “new birth” or a “change of heart” wrought by God.

In many cases, the controversy over the Great Awakening split denominations into opposing factions. The revival produced a temporary schism among the Presbyterians—between Old Sides, who opposed the Great Awakening, and New Sides, who approved it. Congregationalism Congregationalism was split between Old Lights and New Lights. Some prorevivalist New Lights became Separatists, withdrawing from the established Congregational churches and forming new churches of the regenerate; most of these Separate churches ultimately became Baptist Church;First Great Awakening Baptist, with the result that the majority of New England Baptists shifted from an Arminian to a Calvinist theology. No denomination entirely escaped the divisive effects of the Great Awakening. Divisiveness was not the decisive consequence of the Great Awakening, however.


The Great Awakening contributed significantly to the unity of the diverse American colonies and ultimately to the emergence of an American national consciousness. It communicated to the colonists a common experience and a transcending conviction about America’s special destiny. As for separations among the churches, these were far outweighed by a new denominational understanding of the church that the revivalists fostered. Of great significance for American religion, diverse Christian churches were coming to be regarded as but different expressions of one reality. As Gilbert Tennent remarked, all Christian societies professing the foundational principles are but diverse denominations of the “one Church of Christ.”

The establishment of Colleges and universities;nonsecular colleges was another institutional consequence of the revivalist impulse. As early as 1727, William Tennent established his Log College for the education of a clergy imbued with a vital inward faith. Other colleges dedicated to the education of ministerial recruits and a Christian laity were to follow. The Presbyterian Synod of New York secured a charter for the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University Princeton); the Hanover Presbytery established Hampden-Sidney College; the Baptists founded the College of Rhode Island Brown University (Brown); and the Dutch Reformed opened Queens College Rutgers University (Rutgers). Charitable schools also were established to provide educational opportunities for the children of indentured servants, and Dartmouth College Dartmouth College originated as a charitable school for the education of Native Americans.

Charitable schools were but one expression of the spirit of inclusiveness encouraged by the Awakening. Revivalism gave rise also to missionaries such as David Brainerd, who worked among the Delaware of eastern New Jersey, and Samuel Davies, who took his ministry to African American slaves. The first generation of revivalists paid slight attention to the institution of slavery, yet the followers of Jonathan Edwards, armed with the revivalists’ conviction about the essential dignity of all created beings, spoke out against the practice of African slaves Slavery;Great Awakening slavery. Some itinerants of the Baptist and Methodist Churches worked among black slaves, welcomed them with a surprising degree of equality into their churches, and utilized African Americans with special talents as exhorters and preachers in evangelistic endeavors. This revivalist impulse toward inclusiveness and Religious tolerance tolerance held promise for a future pluralism that was to become a distinctive feature of religion in the United States.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockway, Robert W. A Wonderful Work of God: Puritanism and the Great Awakening. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press, 2003. A history of the Great Awakening, examining the movement’s origins, its personalities (particularly James Davenport), and the controversies that split the movement, ministers, and congregations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gaustad, Edwin S. The Great Awakening in New England. New York: Harper & Row, 1957. A compact study of the New England awakening. Gives descriptions of the events, personages, and long-range effects of the revival.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goen, Clarence C. Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740-1800: Strict Congregationalists and Separate Baptists in the Great Awakening. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1969. A study of the separatist movement in New England during the Great Awakening, with attention to the Congregationalists and Baptists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hudson, Winthrop S. “The American Context as an Area for Research in Black Church Studies.” Church History 52, no. 2 (1983): 157-171. An account of the emerging African American church experience through the efforts of itinerant Protestant preachers during the Great Awakening.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lambert, Frank. Inventing the Great Awakening. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Lambert disagrees with some historians who claim the Great Awakening was an invention of nineteenth or twentieth century historians. He argues the awakening was created by eighteenth century evangelical preachers and examines preachers’ texts to show how they constructed their own understanding of the work in which they were involved and how they developed and expanded their religious movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mansfield, Stephen. Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield. Nashville, Tenn.: Highland Books/Cumberland House, 2001. A biography of Whitefield, describing his life, religious activities, and impact on colonial America. Examines his religion and religous activities, his friendship with Benjamin Franklin, and his support for the American Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Comprehensive biography, using newly available sources from Yale University to examine Edwards’s life within the context of the religious and cultural battles in colonial New England. Edwards is depicted as a complex thinker who struggled to reconcile his Puritan background with the secular world of the Enlightenment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maxson, Charles H. The Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1920. A study locating the Awakening among the Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian Churches in the Middle Colonies in the context of an international evangelical revival.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stout, Harry S. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991. Posits Whitefield as a hinge figure in American religious history, who transformed revivals from local to regional and national experiences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trinterud, Leonard J. The Forming of an American Tradition: A Re-examination of Colonial Presbyterianism. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949. Examines the process by which an American understanding of Presbyterianism emerged out of the theological controversy and spiritual quickening of the Great Awakening.

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