Donald Bowling

The Great Awakening (1740-1743) was a time of great anewed spiritual awareness. It was a time when ministers started appealing to the crowds and religious services stopped being a time of critical examination of scripture. Everybody was coming to the Lord in their own special way. Preachers were selling their theologies to the public by appealing to their emotions (Neville). The church was caught in the middle. Before the Great Awakening the church was full of decay, religion was boring and the church was only a political figure and a series of customs (Newlin p.72). The Great Awakening overall was a movement away from secularization, corporate values, and the materialistic nature of the church. During this time the doctrines of the original churches changed and new branches of the original church sprang up as well as new ways of thinking about God (Neville). The preachers of this time are colorful and each could be focused upon in a paper. However this term paper focuses mainly upon the theological and institutional changes of religion in this period of time in American history .

Before the Awakening, there was little interest in religion among the people of the Colonies. Thanks to Jonathan Edwards and John Whitfeild, a new interest was sparked through emotional evangelism which appealed to human emotion with the terror or joy of the worlds to come (Newlin p.73). Other ministers heard them and began develope the idea of emotionally experiencing religion. It was preached that salvation was the first step towards God (Bratanica "U.S.A."). Though all of this was very good, many times ministers preached false doctrines because of their meager knowledge of the Bible. The need to translate the Bible into something that would appeal to the crowd's emotions gave way to error. (Gaustad p.126)

Many differences arose during the Great Awakening's development on who God was, and how he should be experienced. The major issues were such things as whether a person should have a general or a certain kind of atonement for their sins. Also, an issue was whether grace was free from God for the asking, or if you had to earn it by good deeds. The question of whether God was divine in thought or if he thought in a human like manner was also brought to front. The workings of God were also questioned, in such things as; if God should be experienced through reason or revelation, or if you were reformed or regenerated when you are saved. Most of this was, due to two different movements that were going on at the time. (Gaustad p.126)

The oldest of the two was Calvinism which was founded by John Calvin. The Calvinists said everybody was predestined to go to either heaven or hell. They said God had put a limit on the number of people who could be attoned. If you were one of the few who was supposed to go to heaven a person would inevitably end up in church and be regenerated. Calvinists were professly against missionary work. They believed it was unnecessary to go out and recruit people into the church. The Armianist, the second group, believed that a human was the master of their own destiny and thus, the church should go out and shepherd the lost flock and reform them. They founded various missionary movements. Arminiasm became the driving force of the Awakening (Gaustad p.130/ Mead p.241\ Sweet p.961). Arminiasm was not a new idea. It originated when Anne Hutchinson rebelled against the Puritan Church. But had never taken root into American religion. However once Armianism caught on in America it became the main focus of the Great Awakening (Neville).

The Armianist view gave a better evangelistic stance to the Great Awakening. Preachers could preach free grace to all who wished to receive. As well, it put God on their level by humanizing Him. The old ways of thought were hard to die. Sometimes it was necessary to comprimise between new and old ways of thought. In Gaustaud's book, he said there were three basic schools of religious thought of the time. First, were the Liberals who wanted to reduce religion to little more than just being moral. The second, were New Calvinist who subscribed to the belief that man is the master of his own destiny. Throughout the Great Awakening, they found it necessary to accept some Armianist views in order to survive the change, though they where professedly Calvinists. And third, were the Old Calvinist or Strict Calvinist which stayed strong to the Calvinist doctrines( p.102-112).

Another form of classification that will be used in this paper is that of New Light and Old light. The Old Lights were opposed to the Great Awakening and believed in experiencing God in the specific way of the old orthodox Calvinist. The New Lights were supporters of the Awakening and believed in experiencing religion emotionally in their own special way, thus they where often Arminists. (Gaustad p.67)

Probably, the first group that was greatly influenced by the Great Awakening in the New England Colonies was the Congregationalist Church. This religion was governed by people in the congregation of each church, for the most part. They were Calvinists before the Awakening. To become a member of the church, a person had to relate an experience of rebirth similar to the people already in the congregation. In the Great Awakening, it was a challenge to do away with the similar rebirth theology of the old Congregationalist. The New Lights believed each person should experience God in their own special emotional way and because of this, views collided. Another clashing point between Old Light and New Light Congregationalists was the fact that the Great Awakening appealed to the poor. The Congregational Church for the most part was controlled by the "betters" who were concerned for themselves and did not make rules favorable to the less affluent (Gaustad p.43). In the Congregational Church, a specific line can't be drawn between beliefs of the time. Congregationalists did not have a national conference. Doctrines were made up by individual churches. But for the sake of comparison today, they may be compared to that of the the Regular and Sepratist Congregationalists. The Sepratist being New Lights and Regulars being Old Lights and with some churches, found a middle ground in between. One thing that helped the common person in the church, is that through the Great Awakening the exact beliefs of certain churches were defined specifically. Before this, Congregational Churches had their beliefs, but they were not well defined as they became through the Awakening (Guastad p.182)

In the Middle Colonies (especially in VA) the major church that experienced reform in the Awakening was the Presbyterian Church whose most direct founder was John Calvin (Maxon p.101). It is needless to say that because of the conflicting veiws the church was divided, and the strict Calvinist sector still had to compromise to maintain itself. The major driving force behind the Awakening in this church was William Tennet. Tennet both preached and founded Princeton University which started in his "log cabin college". Tennet learned most of his philosophy from Whitfeild which he then applied to the Presbyterian Church. The breaking factor between the Old and New Light ways in this Church was the idea that the Awakening was founded upon that of emotionally experiencing God. There was great internal conterversy through the Church during this time. The New Light Presbyterians formed what is now the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A, which is known for its emphasis on education and Arminist views (Mead p.178-9). They started with very few ministers. Because of this, they were the first ones to actively use lay preaching in congregational services (Maxson p.146). Another attribute the Presbyterians gained during the Awakening was that of abolitionists; they allowed Negroes in services and preached against slavery (Neville). The Calvinist or Old Light Presbyterians named themselves the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The major reasons for the separations of the established Church was differences in mission concept involving external social matters, theology [liberal v. conservative], and whether to allow Negroes to partake of religion (Mead p.180).

The other group that greatly experienced the Great Awakening of the Middle Colonies was was the Baptist. During the Great Awakening, they were just establishing their religion in the Colonies and as most religions of the time they beleived in the Calvinistic theology. They were, of course, flexible since their religion had just taken shape in the Colonies. Thus the Awakening did not form as rigid a line of separation between Old and New Lights. They also did not have many evangelistic ministers of their own, so the Baptists depended upon the converts from Whitfeild, or other ministers looking for a church to wander their way in. (It is believed because of the lack of evangelical ministers and the strictness of their doctrines, the Baptists could not properly appeal to the people). The Baptist movement was mostly centered in the Carolinias and the Middle Colonies. The Great Awakening helped the Baptist by bringing new membership into the church and released the tension of their doctrines. There were major discrepancies in the church on such issues as the laying of hands, the day of sabbath, foot washing, terms upon which to receive communion, and psalm singing (Maxson p.131-2). Eventually a split resulted as with other denominations, and two churches were formed out of the original. The Regular Baptist were Old Lights and very Calvinistic in view and believed in a strict law of God with little room for error. Throughout the Great Awakening they compromised to allow free grace from God to help a person abide by their strict laws. They also made such things as baptism optional and they no longer had a governing national convention (they had one, but it was only for fellowship). The Sepratist Baptists or General Association of Separate Baptist were New Lights but still they hung onto Calvinism to a great extent. They became basically congregational governed with national conference for advisory and joint mission work. Their basic requirement was belief in the scriptures and the Trinity. Partaking of certain sacraments was required (Mead p.34-35, 50-55).

During this period certain groups changed their theology but didn't directly benifit from or develop close ties to the Awakening. One such group was that of the Morvians that really had no specific doctrine, except that they were opposed to the corruption of the Catholic Church. Since the Morvians were mostly made up of German immigrants they were considered to be vulgar and hypocritical. They did not actively participate in the Great Awkening since they where not good at interacting with the predominate society. The Awakening influenced the Morvians to direct their emphasis to that of missionary work, especially work pertaining to that of Negro salvation, and the civilizing of the western frontier and American Indian. Since the Great Awakening mission work has stayed the primary focus of the Morvians (Neville\ Maxson p.21\ Mead p.160).

The Lutherans have a very strict religion, therefore, it was very difficult for the Awakening to have a pronounced effect. But as the Morvians, (and partially by their influence), the Lutherans developed a keen liking for missionary work. Also, a warm way of preaching developed. This was unlike the traditional, strict, dull preaching much like that of the Puritans. It helped make the religion more open towards people and more of an outreaching institution (Maxson p.125-127).

The German and Dutch Reform Churches were much like the Congregationalists in respect to doctrine. As did the Congregationalist, the Reform Churches had conflicts in traditional doctrines and the new Arminist doctrines presented by the Awakening. Unlike the Congregationalist though, they had their own famous evangelical preacher. He was known as Theodore J. Frelinghuysen who was a major factor in the New Light movement among the Reform Churches (Bratanica "U.S.A."). During this time also the Dutch Reform Church broke into five independent bodies and the German Reform Church broke into three creeds. Eventually the Reform Churches for the most part merged into the Congregational Church (Mead p.189-190).

Probably the greatest thing that came out of the Awakening was the fact that it cleared the way for the Methodism to move its way into the Americas. Without the Awakening as a prelude, the Methodist movement probably wouldn't have been as successful. Since Whitfeild had visited John Wesley in England, many Methodist ideas were used in the Great Awakening. The Awakening opened peoples' minds to the upcoming Methodist Religion (Maxson p.127). On the other hand, though, the Awakening led to the fall of the Church of England. In fact, it can be considered a movement in part against Anglicanism (Newlin p.73, 75).

The Great Awakening made it easier for young people and the common man to experience religion. Ministers spoke in the congregation's language because most ministers were commoners themselves. They made God become comprehensible to the average person. The common man became part of religion through lay ministry (Nevill\ Sweet p.302). Because of the emphasis on education of ministers, churches built great colleges such as Princeton and Darthmouth. This also made way for the education of the general public. The Awakening led to evangelistic religion as we know it today with the Holy Spirit reaching out to people and working with their souls and heart. The idea of God really loving humans and human souls being valuable were conceived (Newlin p.73-74). It was the first time in history of mass rebirths to Christ, "who loved his flock". In New England alone, response was so great that it is estimated that rebirths range from 30,000-50,000 (Sweet p.291). The same methods of preaching and theologies that Whitfeild, Edwards and others used during their time in camp meetings are used by todays modern evangelists on televangelistic shows. Thus, the ideas of the Awakening have brought many more souls to Christ than those saved just during the given window of time.

The Great Awakening through its Enlightenment theologies of John Locke and Issac Newton cleared way for the American Revolution. America developed its own national identity and broke away from the English Anglican Church. During this time sprouted the first roots of abolitionist ideas. African ideas became incorporated into the Church ( Britanica "U.S.A"\ "Protestantism"). Even though the Awakening seemed good on the surface, it tore neighborhoods and families apart because of differences of opinion and it undermined established institutions. The Awakening seemed unable to mend this rift it had created. The movement ended very abruptly, and the death of Jonathan Edwards symbolized the death of new ideas for religion such as those introduced during the Awakening (Maxson p.190). America as a whole was left stonger in spirit and with a new sense of independence as a result of this important time in our history.

We must climb to perfection, because not to change is failure.


Gaustad, Edwin Scott, The Great Awakening in New England. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957.

Mead, Frank S. Handbook of Denominations in the United States. Nashville: Adindon Press, 1965.

Maxson, Charles Hortshorne, The Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies Gloucester: University of Chicago Press, 1920.

Neville, Barry. (Assoc. Professor of History) Interview at Eastrean Shore Community College. 15 Nov. 1995.

Newlin, Claude M. Philosophy and Religion in Colonial America New York: Philosophical Library Inc. 1962

"Protestantism." Encyclopedia Britanica. 1991 ed.

Sweet, William Warren, Religion in Colonial America New York: Cooper Square Publishers Inc. 1965

"United States Of America, The Great Awakening." Encyclopedia Bratanica 1991 ed.