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The Great Awakening

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The Great Awakening

Imagine becoming so overcome with emotion that your body convulses in response to a spiritual conversion. While not all religious conversions embodied such a physical response, many people in the colonies wanted to experience such an event. In the early 1740s, the Great Awakening, a mass religious movement, spread throughout the thirteen colonies. The Great Awakening influenced the colonies' religious ideology and would eventually shape the identity of the United States. This movement unified the colonists on a scale never seen before. During this time, many colonists claimed to wake up to God. Furthermore, thanks to the printing industry, colonists were able to experience others' "Great Awakening" through newspapers and other articles.

The First Great Awakening 1720s-1740s

The Great Awakening had its roots in England, Scotland, and Germany, where great religious revivals had taken place and ultimately spread to the American colonies. Many ministers, either not associated with a known church or breaking away from the church, began preaching an emotional approach to religion. Colonists began to dislike the impersonal worship style of traditional church practices, and preachers emphasized an individual's salvation experience instead of religious ideas like predestination. As a result, colonists rebelled against the established church hierarchy and structure and changed colonial religion.

The First Great Awakening saw a movement of Protestant Revivalism that spread through colonial America in the mid to late eighteenth century. Preachers came from several denominations, including Congregationalists, Anglicans, and Presbyterians. In addition, many evangelists spoke of the need to repent and devote oneself entirely to God. As a result, thousands of non-religious colonists converted to Protestantism, which critically impacted the church population, home life, and colleges.

Protestant Revivalism- A movement in the Protestant faith that seeks to re-energize the spiritual energy of the current church members and bring in new members

Religious Belief systems that influenced the First Great Awakening:

  • Congregationalists- The religious foundation of this group came from Calvinism. They emphasized the grace of God, faith, and preaching God's word.
  • Anglicans- includes religious features from both Catholicism and Protestantism, did not believe in the Catholic idea of purgatory but believed that Christ died on the cross for everyone's sins
  • Presbyterians- believed in the authority of scripture, that one could only have grace through faith in God, and that God was the ultimate authority

Preachers of the First Great Awakening

The Great Awakening, Portrait of Jonathan Edwards, Study SmarterPortrait of Jonathan Edwards. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards, a minister, and theologian, became well known for his sermons. In his sermon, Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, Edwards preached that God's judgment would be harsh and that it would incur much fear and pain. However, Edwards also maintained relationships with Native Americans, caring for their educational and religious progression. As we can see below, Edwards' preached that the only salvation man had was by the will of God.

“There is nothing that keeps wicked men, at any one moment, out of hell, but the mere pleasure of GOD.”

-Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

The Great Awakening, Reverend George Whitefield, Study Smarter, Image from the Life of Rev. George Whitefield, 1877. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

George Whitefield

Many preachers of the First Great Awakening would travel throughout the colonies to share their religious beliefs. For example, George Whitefield, a well-known preacher in England, traveled throughout the colonies, drawing crowds so large that he often preached outside. Whitefield’s popularity correlated with his often theatrical sermons where weeping and threats of "fire and brimstone" were commonplace. However, many clergy members disagreed with such religious enthusiasm leaving many colonists polarized.

Eventually, a split between the two different ideologies known as the "New Lights" and the "Old Lights." The Old Lights remained close to stricter religious beliefs and saw the new revivalism as turbulent. However, the opposing New Lights believed strongly in the new idea of emotional religiosity.

Did you know?

When Whitefield was young, he contracted measles which left his eyes crossed. This can be seen in most of his portraits.

Growth of Colleges

Colleges saw exponential growth during the first great awakening. The need for seminaries to instruct future preachers was great. With little to no schools in the colonies, students needed thorough instruction. William Tennent, a Presbyterian minister, founded Log College in 1735 to fully train future preachers. Log College graduates would later go on to found Princeton University.

Historian Perspectives on the Great Awakening:

Later historians, less ready to admit either its [the Great Awakening] greatness or its generality, have in concert described the revival as limited to this area or that, to this social class exclusive of that, and as brought about by this or that socio-economic force. Yet the phenomenon known as the Great Awakening is of such proportions as to lead to its interpretation as something other than a religious movement. -Edwin S. Gaustad, Society and the Great Awakening, 1954

The Great Awakening, with its' strong ties to religiosity has been argued by some historians as having more secular developments rather than religious. In the quote above Gaustad opens his article on the Great Awakening with a statement regarding the potential of the Great Awakening's beginnings in something other than religion. Though the Great Awakening is historically known as a religious event, deeper cultural impacts could be seen throughout colonial America.

American historians have also linked the Awakening directly to the Revolution. Harry S. Stout has argued that the Awakening stimulated a new system of mass communications that increased the colonists' political awareness and reduced their deference to elite groups prior to the Revolution." -Jon Butler, Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction, 1982.

Deference: humble submission and respect

Another interesting historian claim is the direct link between the Great Awakening and the Revolution. In the quote above, Stout argues that the Great Awakening helped heighten colonists' political perception. This political perception, according to Stout, urged colonists to see a smaller gap between the social classes.

The Second Great Awakening 1800-1870s

New Theology of the Second Great Awakening:

The Second Great Awakening drew on a new type of theology that would go against the established colonial religion at the time. For example, Puritans followed Calvinism which was rooted in predestination. Predestination was a belief that God already knew who would get into heaven and who would go to hell. To Puritans, their actions did not matter because God had already decided who was going to heaven. However, the theology of the Second Great Awakening directly opposed the teachings of Calvinism. Instead, preachers taught believers to be concerned with doing good words and bringing heaven to earth.

Calvinism- Religious belief based on French theologian John Calvin and predestination

The Great Awakening, Sacramental Scene in a Western Forest, Study SmarterSacramental Scene in a Western Forest. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

The Second Great Awakening was a period of religious revival in early colonial America that embodied social, religious, and cultural practices in the 19th century. As a result, church attendance soared, and thousands of people had religious conversions where they pledged their lives to God. However, while the First Great Awakening focused predominantly on the New England area, the Second Great Awakening focused on spreading educational and religious infrastructure to the frontier (Western New York).

Frontier Revivals:

Camp Meetings became the dominant preaching format on the frontier, drawing tens of thousands of people for days. Encouraged by the sparse population in the frontier, many settlers were eager to meet with a large group of people and experience an emotional, spiritual conversion. After the camp meetings, settlers would return home and often join a local church. Thus, the camp meeting revivals often spurred local church attendance and participation.


The Great Awakening, Religious Camp Meeting, Study SmarterReligious Camp Meeting. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Camp Meetings

The Second Great Awakening used camp meetings as one of the dominant preaching platforms. Camp meetings staged assemblies where people heard sermons and engaged in conversions. Thousands of people were drawn to these meetings due to their religious fervor during conversions. Many people would shout, shake, and throw themselves on the ground during one of these profound spiritual experiences. As word traveled about the dramatic camp meetings, more people attended to either have an experience or witness one.

The Great Awakening, Portrait of Charles Finney, Study SmarterPortrait of Charles Finney. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Source).

Famous Frontier preachers:

Two of the most well-known preachers were Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney during the frontier religious revival. Beecher believed that people were becoming too secular and straying away from God. He thought he should feel religion with emotion instead of logic, following closely with most other religious teachings of the Second Great Awakening. On the other side, Charles Finney traveled and drew tens of thousands of people with his sermons and believed that women should preach in public. The two men had starkly different perspectives but became well-known contributors to the religious movement.

Circuit Riders

The Great Awakening, Circuit Rider Statue in Oregon, Study SmarterCircuit Rider Statue in Oregon (1924). Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

In the Second Great Awakening context, the frontier referred to western New York and Appalachia. Thus, reaching remote families and towns became difficult. However, multiple denominations had many tools to reach these remote people. For example, Methodists used groups of preachers called circuit riders. These preachers would go by horseback to remote families out on the frontier to convert them. The riders were also responsible for organizing and setting up camp meetings.

Circuit riders- A preacher who rode on horseback to preach to rural areas, used mainly by the Methodist

Social and Moral Reforms:

The Second Great Awakening brought about important social and moral reformations, spurred by social and geographic mobility and the market revolution. Colonists could move around easier than before, and manufacturing had begun shifting away from homes to factories giving the people purchasing power. The temperance movement established a crusade against alcohol and drunkenness and opened roles for women. Several temperance organizations arrived in America in the 19th century. For example, the American temperance movement maintained thousands of chapters and aligned with the abolitionist movement to stop the slave trade.

Abolitionist- A person who is against the institution of slavery, someone who wants to end slavery

The Great Awakening, Portrait of Dorothea Dix, Study SmarterPortrait of Dorothea Dix. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Along with moral reforms, the second great awakening spurred social reformations that changed education, asylum, and prison reform. In the 1830s, a significant push for universal education swept colonial America. In addition to education, improvements in mental health treatment came about through asylum reform headed by Dorothea Dix. Finally, reform for prison policies eliminated prison for debtors.

Utopian Societies:

Utopian societies were prevalent in religious teachings throughout the second great awakening. These societies promoted perfection on earth through good works and human behavior. Several villages attempted to create a utopian society in colonial America. For example, Brooke Farm in Massachusetts believed that all residents should work equally. Other towns and villages attempted utopian societies where ideas like free love and complete equality became the norm.

Utopian- wanting a state in which everything is perfect/idealistic

Comparison of first and second great awakening

First Great AwakeningSecond Great Awakening
1720s-1740s1820s-1850s
Dominated the New England area Focused on Appalachia
God grants salvationSalvation is controlled by the individual
Sinful nature of humans (Jonathan Edwards)Humans have the capacity to change their behavior
Believed in PredestinationRejected predestination
Spurred colleges to instruct future preacherscollege growth continued
Personal accountability was crucial
spurred reform movements and utopian societies

Effects of the Great Awakening

  • Colleges saw exponential growth during this time. Several were founded, including Rutgers, Yale, Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, and Princeton

  • Unified the colonies through a shared identity colonists had seen their settlements as separate from others

  • Spread a feeling of social equality throughout the colonies

  • Incited the idea of social rebellion through going against the religious establishment; this laid the foundation for the American Revolution

  • The religious enthusiasm and fervor brought many colonists to begin questioning the norms colonial life was built on

  • Initiated/normalized the idea of social rebellion that would lead to the American Revolution

    The Great Awakening laid the ideological groundwork for the colonial breakdown regarding British authority. The ministers' messages often preached against church hierarchy and other aspects of colonial society. The challenge of church structure planted the seed of social rebellion against authority. The loss of respect initiated strong political ideals that led to the American Revolution.

  • Second Great Awakening initiated social, moral, and education reforms:

    • Moral Reforms: temperance- the movement against alcohol and drunkenness this movement would later align with the abolitionist movement

    • Social Reforms:

      • Universal Education movement 1830s

      • Asylum Reform for better treatment of mental health patients headed by Dorothea Dix

      • Prison Reform that would eliminate prison for debtors

    • Utopian Societies were prevalent, believed in perfecting society

      • Examples: Brooke Farm, Massachusetts, believed in workplace equality for all

The Great Awakening - Key takeaways

  • First Great Awakening 1720s-1740s:
    • happened mainly in the New England area
    • Great Awakening had its roots in England, Scotland, and Germany, where great religious revivals had taken place and ultimately spread to the American colonies
    • Colonists felt religiously stagnate with strict worshiping practices and wanted a more emotional approach to religion
    • Ministers and preachers broke away from mainstream churches and began preaching emotional religiosity
    • Colleges saw exponential growth in the first great awakening. Influenced by the religious movement, many men wanted to become preachers. Therefore, new colleges were needed to instruct the new ministers.
    • The Great Awakening caused a split in religious ideology of the colonists:
      • New Lights- believed in the new teachings of emotional religiosity
      • Old Lights- believed that the new teachings of the revival would cause chaos
  • Second Great Awakening 1800s- 1870s:
    • Occurred in the frontier (Western New York and Appalachia)
    • Dominant preaching platform was camp meetings which drew tens of thousands of people from rural communities
      • Camp meetings were known to have strong, emotional religious conversions and many wished to participate in such an event
    • To reach other remote communities circuit riders (ministers on horseback) were often utilized
    • Spurred social reforms:
      • Universal Education movement 1830s
      • Asylum Reform for better treatment of mental health patients headed by Dorothea Dix
    • Utopian societies were prevalent:
      • Examples of Utopian societies: Brooke Farm, Massachusetts, believed in workplace equality for all

Frequently Asked Questions about The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening was a religious revival where many ministers and preachers emphasized an individual's salvation experience instead of religious ideas like predestination. 


The Second Great Awakening was a religious movement that focused on a new type of theology that went against the established colonial religion at the time. An example of this is Calvinism which taught predestination. 

The Great Awakening was caused by the colonists' dislike of the impersonal worship style of traditional church practices. 

The Second Great Awakening was caused by the need for educational and religious infrastructure in the frontier (Western New York). 

The Second Great Awakening influenced American society by raising church attendance, spreading culture and religious teachings to the frontier, and spreading social and moral reforms. 

Final The Great Awakening Quiz

Question

What was the time period of the Great Awakening?

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Answer

The 1720s to 1740s

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Question

Explain the cause of the Great Awakening. 

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Answer

The Great Awakening was caused by the colonists' dislike of impersonal worship style and rigid church structure and practices. The wanted change brought new preachers to start the idea of social and religious rebellion.

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Question

Which college did the Princeton founders graduate from?


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Answer

Log College 

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Question

What was the dominant preaching platform during the Second Great Awakening? 


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Answer

Camp meetings

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Question

Name two of the most well-known preachers during the Second Great Awakening. 


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Answer

Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher 

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Question

Explain the “new theology” of the Second Great Awakening. 

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Answer

During the Second Great Awakening, Preachers believed in doing good works and bringing heaven to earth. 

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Question

List a significant moral reformation during the Second Great Awakening. 


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Answer

The temperance movement

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Question

What idea was planted during the Second Great Awakening laid the foundation for the American Revolution?


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Answer

Social Rebellion

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What area did the Second Great Awakening take place in? 


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Answer

The Second Great Awakening took place in the colonial "frontier," Western New York and Appalachia.

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Question

Give an example of Utopian society in colonial America. 


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Answer

Brooke Farm, Massachusetts, was a community that based its ideals on a utopian society. 

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