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A historical event during the eighteenth century that encouraged an intense and emotional spiritual movement was referred to as The Great Awakening. This occurrence would be the first social outburst of a Protestant revivalism that the British Atlantic would experience. In the end, the Great Awakening created an American identity as the colonists banded together from a common belief that would affect all the colonies.
In the 17th century, England was fighting between the religious and political groups that were current. There was a split between those who were gravitating towards reason and science or those gravitating towards religion and faith. The Enlightenment, that was also happening, was what stimulated the power of reason and scientific view of the world. This would put a restraint on religion, as it was no longer something that was personal, which led to the decrease of church attendance all around. Faith had been reduced to intellectual acceptance. From this idea that secularism was being emphasized and the passion for religion was downscaling, the colonists gathered the willpower for creating an awakening.
The ending of the Glorious Revolution is what established the Church of England as the controlling church of the country. Different religions such as Catholicism, Judaism, and Puritanism were all suppressed from this undertaking. From a political perspective, there was stability since everyone now had to practice the same religion. However, this then created dryness instead of having an encouraging and motivating influence that kept everyone of his or her feet. Everyone was going through the same motions until several decades later when some of the colonists and England decided to undergo this particular spiritual revival.
Revivals are an astonishing religious event that are originated for where the culture expects showers of God’s grace and when they recognize the signs of an honest revival. These occur when people identify that there is a need for a restoration and when religion has been sunk down to an all time low point. A revival will also occur when the minister’s service means are designed to prepare for this special out powering of a divine forgiveness. A revival will additionally occur when the people believe that something lofty and good has been absent or diminished from their lives.
Evangelists for this movement came from numerous of different denominations. These evangelicals would even reach out to the Native Americans and Africans that were surrounding them. They would also encourage others to Christianize the Natives and African people as well while on their missions. The two most popular evangelists for the Great Awakening period were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. However, some historians would see George Whitefield, who was an Anglican minister, to be the more memorable evangelist since he had a powerful, pleasant voice and went along the seaboard preaching to those who would be converted.
Jonathan Edwards believed that humans were rationality unreliable, that they were corrupted to the core, and they are morally worthless and were deserving of an eternal damnation. The way that Edwards would word his sermons made it seem as if God’s wrath was coming soon. Edwards believed that the young people were the key for this revivalism. Once they could figure out how to get the young people back into church then the rest of society would follow. Edwards wrote in his A Faithful Narrative:
In the fall of the year I proposed it to the young people, that they should agree among themselves to spend the evenings after lectures in social religion, and to that end divide themselves into several companies to meet in various parts of the town; which accordingly done, and those meetings have been since continued, and the example imitated by elder people. This was followed with the death of an elderly person, which was attended with many unusual circumstances, by which many were moved and affected. (Edwards)
Jonathan Edwards led what was an epidemic by his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. This particular sermon used a vivid word imagery to describe what were the frights of hell and all the possibilities of avoiding damnation by a personal transformation. From his writing of Some Thoughts Concerning the present Revival of Religion in New England, Edwards was commending the improvement of America by the Great Awakening, he was defending his application to emotions, and he was supporting his preaching terror when it was necessary. From Part V of this passage you can see part of where Edwards wrote about his support,
Thus I have, (I hope, by the Help of GOD,) finished what I was proposed. I have taken the more Pains in it because it appears to me, that now God is giving us the most happy Season to attempt a universal Reformation, that ever was given in New England. And ’tis a thousand Pities, that we should fail of that which would be so glorious, for want of being sensible of our Opportunity, or being aware of those Things that tend to hinder it, or our taking improper Courses to obtain it, or not being sensible in what Way God expects we should seek it. (Edwards 412)
George Whitefield, also referred to as the Grand Itinerant, was more of the flamboyant type compared to Edwards. Whitefield had more of a dramatic preaching that could excite enormous crowds. His arrival in America triggered what was known as a colonial revival that swept through the northern provinces. The sermons could either stir his audiences to an outburst of emotions or render them to silence when he wanted. The Grand Itinerant enjoyed acting out all the emotions that he hoped to bring out of his listeners. One example of his moving sermon was his “The Eternity of Hell’s-Torments.”
O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death!” O foolish mortal that I was, thus to bring myself into these never-ceasing tortures, for the transitory enjoyment of a few short-lived pleasures, which scarcely afforded me any satisfaction, even when I most indulged myself in them. Alas! Are these the wages, these the effects of sin? O damned apostate! First to delude me with pretended promises of happiness, and after several years drudgery in his service, thus to involve me in eternal woe. O that I had never hearkened to his beguiling insinuations!
This particular speech creates a scene of the sinner’s arrival at the gates of hell that would create fear into conversion. Matthew 25:46, the verse attached to this sermon, the King James Version says “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” This verse portrays sinners receiving punishment while the ones who repent will endear eternal life, which helps Whitefield’s sermon. Being able to publish pages within newspapers, articles, and journals with revival news and the sermons of these evangelists is what helped extend the Great Awakening.
There were major themes that were present during the Great Awakening. The first one discussed how all people were born sinners into this world. People could only ne saved by the will of God. Sins without salvation would result in the person going to hell. Anyone (white, black, poor, rich) could be saved if they would confess their sins, seek compassion, and accept God’s grace. Everyone could have a direct and passionate connection with God if they wanted to. It was the belief that religion should be casual and private instead of formal and traditional. People were encouraged to make this personal connection with God instead of having to rely on a minister to fulfill their needs.
The Great Awakening would cause a major split between the colonists. There were those who followed the message (New Lights) and those who rejected the evangelical notion (Old Lights). The opposing parties of the Great Awakening would include a Congregationalist named Charles Chauncy, an Anglican Timothy Cutler, and two Old Side Presbyterians by the names of Francis Alison and John Thompson, and finally a Baptist named Ebenezer Kinnersley. The beliefs of New Lights competed with the religions that were already in the colonies. These men wanted to denounce the foolish theology of their un-Christian behavior of the New Lights. Old Lights arguments were faithful to their Puritan heritage. How so the government in Massachusetts and Connecticut even tried to convince the churchgoers to continue to pay for the legal tithes to their old churches. The Old Lights would even criticize this new revivalism as them transforming the messages towards enthusiasm rather than focusing on the scripture. Old Lights also believed that the New Lights were only causing chaos that was unnecessary and there were a few occasions where there were chaos-taking place.
In 1743, there was a New Light minster by the name of James Davenport who would urge his followers to burn books. He would also go as far as telling them to burn their clothes as a sign of casting the sinful trappings of the world. However a woman tossed his clothes back to Davenport and told him that he had gone too far. Theodorus Frelinghuysen, in New Jersey, would then inspire Gilbert Tennent to create another outburst. Tennent thought to believe that the decline of religion was within the church itself. He believed their members no longer practiced the devotion that they once had declared. Their religion was no longer the light of their life but instead it was something that was formal and lifeless. In 1739, Tennent preached “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” This sermon was his fear of ministers failing to declare the whole message and exposed the damage he believed was being done by unconverted pastors who were preaching. He also believed that a good revival preaching depended on the right message and messenger. This man was the one who helped spark the Presbyterian revival within the Middle Colonies.
The Great Awakening witnessed the rise of several Protestant religions. These new denominations included Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists who stressed adult baptism. These newer religions grew quickly within the colonies. However with the rise of these religions, there was now a decline on the older Protestant groups such as the Quakers, Anglicans, and the Congregationalists. There was also an increase in religious tolerance. This religion revival movement left many different footprints on all of the colonies and sects.
This time period was concerned with their individual salvations. They were defining their religious beliefs on what they wanted rather than tolerant them from a minister. It emphasized the human decision on religion and morality. As well as having the ability to choose what minister they wanted based on their personality and preaching style rather than the religion and meetings. Also there was an acceptance of those who would share their similar style and worries regardless of what their religion was. In the 18th century, there were social, religious, and intellectual changes all across the British Empire.
The Great Awakening unified the colonies and altered their views on how they were. It inspired the questioning of authority and questioning the British control on their lives. This revivalism taught the colonist how to be bold and stand up for what they want. If the church wasn’t living up to expectations then one has to ability to break off from the institution and form one of their own. It showed the colonist that the power of religion was within his or her own hands. Another effect was showing the colonist that the political power also didn’t reside with the English monarchs but instead they should have their own determination for self-governance.
Thomas Paine’s publishing helped what the Great Awakening message was. The Common Sense also emphasized how the Britain government was an evil. America could create a more equal society and economy. There is no longer a need to have Britain attacked to them anymore. The colonies were better off instead to having the Mother Country hovering over and invading their privacy as colonies. He had the belief that Britain was abusing the power and was a tyrannical.
This prepared America for our independence war by encouraging the colonists with the notions of nationalism and individual rights. There was the believing of the human means that promoted revivals, which led to having meetings. This showed the colonists how they had to ability to hold meetings when they wanted to make a difference within their colonies. From this, the 2nd Continental Congress was reading over the past events of the Enlightenment, Great Awakening, and the Common Sense to decide whether they should go for independence or to not gain their independence.
In conclusion, the Great Awakening emphasized obtaining a more emotional attachment to religion. People believed that they could fight against their religious authority. Then this led to the colonists realizing that they could take control. The Great Awakening unified the colonies for the first time. There was the spread of the belief that people were equal regardless of their origin. This unifying of the colonies and belief that they could stand up for what they wanted is what prepared the Americans for their war of independence.


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