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
THE GREAT AWAKENING
|The Great Awakening, 1735-1745: A Brief Outline Guide by D. Cambell at Gonzaga University|
|The Great Awakening , by Dr. Steve Prescott, Southeastern College at Wake College|
|The 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.]|
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
How was the Great Awakening New?
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.]
Scope: Local revivals had been the norm as with Solomon Stoddard and Jonathan Edwards. In the 1740s they swept through all the colonies
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.
Chauncy's Against Revivalism (Aug. 4, 1742)
DEFENDER: Jonathan Edward
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.
Jonathan Edwards: America's Premier Theologian
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.
Challenges to Traditional Protestantism [Note the subversion of the classic Christian Myth.]
American Voices of Deism and Rational Religion