From the Protestant Reformation to the American Revolution:
America’s First Great Awakening from the 1730s to the 1770


In the early 1700s, British America's population was rapidly growing as was its ethnic diversity and expanding number of different Christian sects. Most of these Christian sects were groups splintering off from other branches of Protestantism. Protestantism came from the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1500s when certain Christian groups broke away from the authority of the Pope and the practices of the Roman Catholic Church.


The Start of Christianity: Greek Orthodox vs. Roman Catholic

Jesus was born around the year 1, during the Roman Empire. Gradually, his followers spread his message. After 500 AD Christianity spread rapidly throughout Western and Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe (and Russia) Christianity centered around the Greek Orthodox Church. In Western Europe Christianity centered around the Roman Catholic church which looked to the Pope in Rome as its earthly authority and relied on the language of the Latin.


The Protestant Reformation: Catholic vs. Protestant

Historians look to Martin Luther as the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 a German monk named Martin Luther nailed a document to the a door of a church in Germany that criticized the Church’s system of “indulgences” (selling salvation to the poor masses) and other indulgences (in the modern sense) of the very powerful Pope and hierarchy of Church officials. This document, called the 95 Theses, criticized specific practices of the Catholic Church, but the overall gist was that the vast power, privilege, wealth, and authority of at those at the top of the Church hierarchy signalled that the Church had lost touch with the fundamentals of Christianity. Luther was concerned that very formal rituals of Catholic mass given in Latin (the language of intellectuals, not an everyday spoken language) alienated the average person (who couldn’t understand Latin). Luther thought people should be able to hear and read liturgy in their own language (vernacular) and people should be able to manage their own relationship with God – and not have to have their relationship with God mediated by some Church authority.


The Protestant Sects: Puritans, Baptists, Methodists, etc.

Martin Luther is said to have kicked off Protestantism by breaking with the Catholic Pope. The Protestants themselves broke off into infinite Protestant sects in Germany, England, and France. Some of these Protestant sects are
Lutherans (who followed Martin Luther), Anabaptists, Calvinists (aka Presbyterians or Huguenots), Anglicans (aka Church of England, started when Henry VIII couldn’t get the Pope to grant him a divorce), Puritans (who thought the Anglicans didn’t go far enough in their Protestant reform, some of them became the Pilgrims who settled New England in America), Mennonites (Amish is one of their branches), Baptists, and Methodists.


Evangelical Protestants in Europe: Head vs. Heart (Enlightenment rationalism vs. religious piety)

What historians call the First Great Awakening refers to revitalization of religious piety (faithfulness, devoutness, purity) that swept through the American colonies between the 1730s and the 1770s. This religious revival in America was part of an evangelical upsurge on the other side Atlantic, especially in England, Scotland, and Germany. Evangelicals felt that preaching and scripture were more important than religious rituals and that Christians needed to get back to the basics, the fundamental’s of Jesus’ teachings.

In the middle decades of the 18th century, the Protestant cultures of Europe (England, Germany, Scotland) promoted a new Age of Faith (evangelical faith) to counter the currents of the Age of Enlightenment (aka the Age of reason). The Enlightenment was an 18th century revolution in thinking where intellectuals looked to reason, science, and rationality to understand and organize the world – rather than faith or God’s will. Enlightenment thinkers might be characterized as thinking with the head rather than the heart. For the evangelical Protestants of the 18th century, being truly religious meant just the opposite – it meant trusting the heart rather than the head, it meant relying on feeling more than thinking, it meant seeking truth in biblical revelation rather than human reason.


From Europe to America: Evangelicalism Spreads to the Middle Colonies, New England, and, finally, the South

The earliest manifestations of the American phase if this evangelical movement, the First Great Awakening, began with Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Led by the Tennent family (Reverend William Tennent, a Scots-Irish immigrant, and his four clergymen sons) Presbyterians initiated religious revivals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the 1730s. What is today Princeton University in New Jersey was established as seminary to train clergymen whose fervid, heartfelt preaching would bring sinners to experience evangelical conversion.

The religious enthusiasm of the Presbyterians of the Middle Colonies spread to the Puritans (aka Congregationalists) & Baptists of New England. By the 1740s, revivals throughout the region used the same strategy for success as the Tennents. In powerful, extemporaneous, emotionally charged sermons, preachers like Jonathan Edwards evoked vivid, terrifying images of the corruption of human nature and the terrors awaiting the unrepentant in hell. Edwards is famous for his his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in which he describes a sinner as a spider suspended by a slender thread over a pit of fire and brimstone.

Revivals in northern colonies inspired some converts to be missionaries to the American South. In the late 1740s Presbyterian preachers from New York and New Jersey proselytized in the Virginia Piedmont; by the 1750s Baptists had moved from New England to central North Carolina where they influenced the surrounding colonies. By the eve of the American Revolution, evangelical converts totaled 10% of all southern churchgoers.

The First Great Awakening was also driven by the American travels of the English preacher, George Whitefield. Originally ordained a minister in Church of England, Whitefield later allied with other Anglican clergymen who shared his evangelical bent – such as John and Charles Wesley. Together they led a movement to reform the Church of England (just as Puritans had earlier) which resulted in founding of Methodist Church in the late 18th century. During several trips across Atlantic after 1739, Whitefield preached everywhere in the American colonies to audiences so large that he had to preach outdoors. What Whitefield preached was what Calvinists had been proclaiming for centuries: sinful men and women are totally dependent for salvation on mercy of a pure, all-powerful God. But Whitefield and the preachers who imitated his style presented this message in novel (new) ways. Gesturing dramatically, weeping openly, or thundering out threats of hellfire and brimstone, for example, turned their sermons into a gripping theatrical performance.

Not all Americans looked on with approval. Throughout the colonies, conservative and moderate clergymen (“Old Lights”) questioned the emotionalism of evangelicals (“New Lights”). The Old Lights charged that the revivals stirred up disorder and discord. Evangelicals did criticize the local clergy and allowed women and African Americans to shed their subordinate social status at religious gatherings. Evangelical preachers and converts called their Old Light opponents cold, uninspiring, and lacking in piety and grace. Battles raged over their challenges to clerical authority and their evangelical approach to conversion from the heart rather than the head.

The First Great Awakening polarized American colonials along religious lines. Anglicans and Quakers gained new members from those who disapproved of the revivals’ excesses, while Baptists and Methodists gained even more members from the ranks of the radical evangelical converts. The largest single group of churchgoing Americans remained within the Congregationalist (Puritan) & Presbyterian denominations, but they divided internally between advocates and opponents of the Awakening, the “New Lights” and “Old Lights.”

Connections between the First Great Awakening and the American Revolution

Just before the onset of the mid 1760s imperial crisis that became the American Revolutionary War, many colonists were swept up in evangelical revivals and many converted to evangelical sects. Some historians have argued that the members of America’s revolutionary generation had faced important choices regarding their fundamental religious beliefs and loyalties, and that these experiences may have prepared them to make equally crucial and basic decisions about their political beliefs and loyalties. More importantly, the men and women who converted during the First Great Awakening had defied traditional authorities to uphold their new religious convictions. Some criticized and rejected their former ministers or churches for not being sufficiently evangelical, others challenged the legitimacy of state-supported churches, which they deemed enemies to individual religious freedom. In short, this was a generation of people who had been schooled in the importance of self-determination and rebellion against existing hierarchies of deference and privilege.


From Religious (and Social) Revolution to Political Revolution

Some argue that the First Great Awakening was a “dress rehearsal” for the American Revolution. Participating in religious upheaval primed an entire generation of colonials to support a political revolution. The merging of traditions of radical Protestant dissent and republicanism may have been what spawned the American Revolution.