OVERVIEW: By the early 18th century the English colonies from New England to the Chesapeake were becoming more mature provincial societies. Native-born sons and daughters of America were from two to three generations away from the founding immigrants. By the end of the century they would be an independent republic, a new nation. This topic explores the ways religious movements and experience helped shape a distinct American identity. 

Two major cultural forces,  the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment, challenged the Protestant tradition planted in the previous century. Very different and apparently contradictory movements, they transformed religious life and influenced the political culture of the revolutionary generation.

See the Library of Congress exhibit on Religion in 18th-Century America 



Unlike the Enlightenment,  which appealed to the well educated upper classes, the Great Awakening was a mass movement. In the early 1740s a wave of spiritual excitement swept through all the colonies from New England to Georgia, affecting people from all walks of life. Peaking from 1740 to 1742 it was the first mass movement in American history, and historians continue to debate its significance.

Martin Marty, in chapter 8, sees it as the foundation of the American tradition of religion as a matter of personal choice.  For Marty the freedom to choose is the essence not only of American religion but of "modern religion in the West." [p. 109]  

Compare these presentations with Marty's and mine:

bulletThe Great Awakening, 1735-1745: A Brief Outline Guide by D. Cambell at Gonzaga University
bullet The Great Awakening , by Dr. Steve Prescott, Southeastern College at Wake College
bulletThe First Great Awakening by Christine Hyerman at University of Delaware. [Note that this site is for teachers; you will find the teaching and discussion hints helpful.]

Pre-Awakening Revivals

Puritanism as a revival movement

Revivals of religious commitment and spirit existed before the 1740s.

From the 1660s  through the 1730s ministers periodically brought new generations into the covenant following conversion experiences

Northhampton, Mass.: Solomon Stoddard and his grandson, Jonathan Edwards  are examples

How was the Great Awakening New?

Scope: Local revivals had been the norm as with Solomon Stoddard and Jonathan Edwards. In the 1740s they swept through all the colonies

Leadership: traditionally local clergy could orchestrate and control the revivals.  But with the arrival of George Whitfield in 1738 that changed. Whitfield was an itinerant; he traveled from place to place preaching revivals. Itinerant  preachers, some poorly educated, set the pattern after that. Local clerical leaders found they had to compete with itinerants and could not control the revivals as before. Here is Benjamin Franklin's assessment

Message and Method [Some of Whitfield's sermons can be found here.]

New Birth: preaching the conversion experience to be born again in Christ

Calvinist tone: Whitfield's theology was Calvinist; his use of the rhetoric of total depravity resonated with people, particularly  New England youth.

Large gatherings, often outdoors, responded to highly emotional language. The results could be dramatic group experience with physical manifestations like weeping, shouting, and body movements.

Controversies and Dissensions

Itinerant preachers produced both unprecedented conversions and bitter controversies. Church congregations separated and new churches were founded.

John Davenport's "excesses" in New London.

The authority of established clergy was challenged.   By 1743 clergy were widely divided; some of them supported the Revival as a work of God  and others criticized it as the devil's work. Their disagreements disturbed the peace of their communities and subverted the established churches.

CRITICS:  Charles Chauncy and Timothy Cutler, critics

Chauncy's Against Revivalism (Aug. 4, 1742)
Cutler, Letters,

DEFENDER: Jonathan Edward

A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1736)

Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God (1741)

Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746)


Clerical conflict  led to weakening of public trust. As a result, the Great Awakening was "the most critical period of colonial America's intellectual and religious history." [H.S. Stout, Dictionary of Christianity in America, p. 496]

Religious authority swung towards the Laity.

The growing power of congregations and lay officers led to the development of "evangelical" religious movements with authority coming from ordinary people rather than in the Old World pattern from the top down.

The new evangelical orientation: the essence of religious life was "Experimental, Saving Knowledge" of God given by the Holy Spirit through the medium of evangelical preaching and the techniques of Revivalism.

This knowledge that came with the being born again was open to all, regardless of class or education

With rebirth came the responsibility to testify and speak out for reform of society's problems. The Abolitionist Movement was one result.

John Newton and Amazing Grace

Jonathan Edwards: America's Premier Theologian


Brief biography and sermons


Collection of on-line sermons


Hall of Church History site on Edwards


THE ENLIGHTENMENT: You will find an overview of the The Age of the Enlightenment at my Core Studies 4 web site. 

Overview: In western Europe during the last third of the 17th Century thinkers, reacting against the strident and often violent religious conflicts that had followed the Reformation and  inspired by the development of the Scientific Revolution, inaugurated an Age of Reason. They stressed reason as the key to truth, saw the world ordered by natural laws which could be discovered by scientific inquiry, and held an optimistic belief in human progress. Reason and science rather than faith and religious authority were their watch words. They saw traditional religious dogma and the idea of divine revelation as obscuring true understanding of humanity, nature, society, and God.



Religion is coded in nature. 


The human mind can discover the truths of natural religion


Revealed religion is irrational and dangerous.



Basic Ideas:


God as Creator Designer constructed natural laws for the world's perpetual motion. [Newton's Principia, 1687,  was an influence on this idea.] The image was of a God as a clockmaker creating the universe wound up as a clock that would then work on its own without His later intervention.


All people have a conscience that prompts ethical behavior. Proper treatment of others, not forms of worship, is the essence of religion. Benjamin Franklin listed thirteen virtues as the core of religion in his Autobiography.


The sense of right and wrong makes it reasonable to believe in an afterlife of reward and punishment.



Cotton Mather, Reasonable Religion (1700) is an early American example of the influence of some of these ideas


at mid century important examples are: Charles Chauncy, Five Dissertations (1758) and Jonathan Mayhew, Seven Sermons (1749)

Challenges to Traditional Protestantism [Note the subversion of the classic Christian Myth.]


Scripture, the bulwark of authority in Protestantism, was subjected to critical scrutiny.  Whatever in the Bible appeared contrary to reason was criticized. A good example is Thomas Jefferson's version of the Bible.


God the Creator was the object of faith, but the belief in the Divine Trinity was rejected as irrational.


Jesus was the greatest ethical teacher but was not divine.  Atonement came through his teaching not his sacrificial death.


Miracles were rejected as contrary to the idea of cause and effect in natural law.


Belief in Free Will challenged Calvinism's doctrines of original sin and predestination.

American Voices of Deism and Rational Religion


Ethan Allen, Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1784)


Elihu Palmer, Principles of Nature (1801)


Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794-96) (Full Text) For required reading of excerpts click here.

New Denominations


Universalism (1790): A benevolent God will redeem everyone; salvation is universal

John Murray


Hosea Ballou, Treatise on Atonement (1805)


Unitarians (1825): God is One (non-Trinitarian); First church was King's Chapel in Boston, led by James Freeman. [Unitarian Creed, it has been humorously said, was the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston.]

Joseph Priestly


William Ellery Channing