Great Awakening

Great Awakening, series of religious revivals that swept over the American colonies about the middle of the 18th cent. It resulted in doctrinal changes and influenced social and political thought. In New England it was started (1734) by the rousing preaching of Jonathan Edwards. Although there were early local stirrings in New Jersey in the 1720s under the evangelical preaching of Theodorus Frelinghuysen of the Dutch Reformed Church, the revival in the Middle Colonies actually began in New Jersey largely among the Presbyterians trained under William Tennent. His son Gilbert Tennent became the leading figure of the Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies. Other preachers followed, and with the tour (1739–41) of the famous Methodist preacher George Whitefield, the isolated currents of revivalism united and flowed into all the colonies. The revival reached the South with the preaching (1748–59) of Samuel Davies among the Presbyterians of Virginia, with the great success of the Baptists in North Carolina in the 1760s, and with the rapid spread of Methodism shortly before the American Revolution.

In New England the movement died out rapidly, leaving behind bitter doctrinal disputes between the “New Lights” and the “Old Lights,” the latter led by Charles Chauncy, a Boston clergyman, who opposed the revivalist movement as extravagant and impermanent. The theology of the “New Lights,” a slightly modified Calvinism, crystallized into the Edwardian, or New England, theology that became dominant in W New England, whereas the liberal doctrines of the “Old Lights,” strong in Boston and the vicinity, were destined to develop into the Universalist or Unitarian positions. A similar division between “New Sides” and “Old Sides” took place in the Middle Colonies, causing a schism (1741–58) in the Presbyterian Church.

The Great Awakening also resulted in an outburst of missionary activity among Native Americans by such men as David Brainerd, Eleazar Wheelock, and Samuel Kirkland; in the first movement of importance against slavery; and in various other humanitarian undertakings. It led to the founding of a number of academies and colleges, notably Princeton, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth. It served to build up interests that were intercolonial in character, to increase opposition to the Anglican Church and the royal officials who supported it, and to encourage a democratic spirit in religion.

See A. E. Heimert and P. Miller, ed., Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequences (1967). J. Tracy, A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield (1845, repr. 1969); C. H. Maxson, The Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies (1920, repr. 1958); W. M. Gewehr, The Great Awakening in Virginia (1930, repr. 1965); E. S. Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England (1957, repr. 1965); R. L. Bushman, ed., The Great Awakening (1969, repr. 1989); D. B. Rutman, The Great Awakening (1970); C. L. Heyrman, Southern Cross (1997).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Protestant Christianity