The First Great Awakening, was an evangelical movement that swept America in the 1730s and 1740s. Part of a much broader revival movement taking place simultaneously on the other side of the Atlantic (most notably in England, Scotland, and Germany), this “Awakening” impacted the American colonies, particularly New England, and left a permanent impact on American Protestantism. One historian observed, “The first Great Awakening in America resulted in a quantum leap forward in the life of the church and the nation. It was a psychological earthquake which reshaped the religious, social and moral landscape of Colonial America and determined its destiny for the next two centuries.”
The results in America were staggering. It is estimated that at least 50,000 souls were added to the churches of New England out of a population of about 250,000. It spread to the Middle States, ultimately affecting over one hundred towns. Multitudes of new churches were planted, the ranks of serving ministers swelled, biblically-based schools and colleges multiplied, works of love and mercy abounded, and missionary impetus transported the gospel message to other nations. Revival had come.
The period in which it was experienced
The Great Awakening of 1735–1745 was a reaction to a decline in piety and a laxity of morals within the Congregational churches of New England. One writer observed, “The decline in piety among the second generation of Puritans, which stemmed from economic changes, political transformations, and Enlightenment rationalism, was the primary cause of the Great Awakening. During the eighteenth century, political uncertainty and economic instability characterized colonial life and diverted devout Puritans from religious obligations.”
In addition to secular causes of decline, there was compromise within the Congregational Church. The second and third generations of Puritans failed to demonstrate the same devotion and discipline of the original Puritans. To compensate for a decline in piety, which began as early as the mid-seventeenth century, and to ensure steady numerical growth, the Congregational churches of Connecticut and Massachusetts in 1662 adopted the “Halfway Covenant” for church membership. Prior to this time, membership required “regeneration” and a credible testimony of a specific conversion experience. As politics and economics superseded religion, however, the second generation of Puritans failed to emphasize such conversion. The Halfway Covenant furthered the degeneration of the churches as they became inhabited largely by people without a personal relationship with God.
Sadly, even many ministers were unconverted and therefore could not lead their flocks to the true Shepherd. A preacher of the time, John Whiting of Hartford, expressed the need for revival in a sermon in 1686, saying, “Is there not too visible and general a declension; are we not turned (and that quickly too) out of the way wherein our fathers walked?… A rain of righteousness and soaking showers of converting, sanctifying grace sent from heaven will do the business for us, and indeed, nothing else.”
Prior to the revival times a spiritual “dryness” had set in even among true believers. It was only after decades of such complacency that the spiritual revival of the Great Awakening came about. The Spirit of God suddenly awoke as though from a great slumber and began to touch the population.
The prayer by which it was energized
The foundation of the Great Awakening under God was the praying of godly men. Jonathan Edwards was a man of prayer. He sought to see apathy and lukewarmness purged from his people. Thus he began to pray and fast for an entire week, and it was then that the Lord gave him the message “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” George Whitefield also depended heavily on prayer, reportedly spending hours—sometimes all night—bathing any preaching meeting in prayer.
Fervent church members—even though in very small numbers—kept the fires of revival going through their genuine petitions for God’s intervention in their communities. Prayer was offered even by the young people in their own meetings. Edwards wrote: “The children in various parts of the town had religious meetings by themselves for prayer, sometimes joined with fasting; wherein many of them seemed to be greatly and properly affected.”
The personalities by whom it was extended
It is believed the revival began with the Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Dutch reformed Pietist, and spread to the Scots-Irish Presbyterians under the ministry of Gilbert Tennent, one of four brothers, the so-called “flaming Tennants.” Their father, William Tennant, founded the famous Log College, a seminary to train clergymen whose fervid, heartfelt preaching would bring sinners to experience true evangelical conversion.
The revival fire spread among the Baptists of Pennsylvania and Virginia before the extraordinary awakening that began in Northampton, Massachusetts, under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards in December 1734. Edwards wrote of the revival that swept through Northampton in 1735–37: “A great and earnest concern about the great things of religion and eternal world became universal in all parts of the town.… The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing manner and increased more and more; souls did, as it were, by flocks come to Jesus Christ.” The First Great Awakening also grew from the itinerant ministry of the famous English evangelist, George Whitefield.
The power by which it was evidenced
The results of a genuine moving of God’s Spirit have always been clear to see both in the church and in society at large. The town of Northampton was transformed overnight. Its citizens sang hymns in the streets, the local tavern closed, the young people pursued God in large numbers, and it was impossible to get into church for worship unless one arrived hours early. In the year 1740, like a great flash flood, the Great Awakening rolled through New England. That was when Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” at Enfield with remarkable results.
It is estimated that ten percent of New England was converted during that time. Someone put it in perspective concerning modern America: “Imagine today 28 million souls converted in two years. Picture every church in your town doubling or tripling in the next two years, and you have some grasp of the enormity of what happened.” In 1743 Edwards wrote:
Ever since the great work of God that was wrought here about nine years ago, there has been a great abiding alteration in this town in many respects. There has been vastly more religion kept up in the town, among all sorts of persons, in religious exercises and in common conversation than used to be before. There has remained a more general seriousness and decency in attending the public worship. There has been a very great alteration among the youth of the town with respect to reveling, frolicking, profane and unclean conversation, and lewd songs. Instances of fornication have been very rare. There has also been a great alteration among both old and young with respect to tavern haunting. I suppose the town has been in no measure so free of vice in these respects for any long time together for this sixty years as it has been this nine years past.
As with any true work of God, there were spurious elements attached to the Awakening. Some outward manifestations were from the flesh and some even of Satan. This mixture drew much criticism at the time and subsequently. Edwards believed, however, that the essential work was from God. Yet he recognized that the work could be discredited and abandoned unless the church learned to separate the wheat from the chaff. He wrote prolifically to this end, his most important work on the subject being On Religious Affections, a Christian classic still in print today.
America was turned from spiritual decline through this first spiritual awakening. It also pleased God to visit this land and other nations a number of times after periods of decline. God’s people, therefore, who are alarmed at the ungodliness of our times have reason to hope and pray that God will send another great awakening.
Rev. Stephen Hamilton is the minister of Lehigh Valley FPC in Allentown, Pennsylvania.