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Stirrings of Revolution: 1730–1774

First Great Awakening

First Great Awakening, Enlightenment, and Deism

Religion heavily influenced the creation of the American colonies and many of their laws were written with Anglican or Puritan values and practices in mind. The reasoned thinking of the Enlightenment and Deism also influenced some colonists.

Early life in the American colonies was built on a foundation of Christian practices and beliefs. Some colonists identified with Anglicanism—the Protestantism of the Church of England. Others followed the tenets of Puritanism, a Christian sect whose leaders sought to strip away traces of Roman Catholicism they believed were present in Anglicanism. Colonial Puritans believed in the absolute supremacy of God, salvation through dependence on divine grace, and a duty to provide moral leadership for the colonies.

The formation of the original colonies was deeply entwined with religion. Church attendance was mandatory in some colonies, as was the payment of taxes to provide a salary for members of the clergy. Eight of the 13 original colonies had an "official" denomination. Those who worshipped outside of that denomination ran the risk of punishment or jail time.

It was hard to enforce religious laws and practices in the early years of the American colonies. Settlers were spread out across new lands, which made it difficult to congregate for worship. Perhaps only a quarter of the colonists were women, which meant traditional households with a man, woman, and child were in short supply. There was also a shortage of clergymen. But as communities grew, so did the influence of the church. Between 1700 and 1740, approximately 75 percent of the colonial population regularly attended worship services.

New Englanders, who were generally Puritans, attended services in wooden meetinghouses. Their highly educated clergy members were often interested in both scripture and science. Puritan governments took a strict view of individual religious involvement. Those who did not attend church were thought to be "a threat to civil order" and were often punished for their nonconformity.

Religious groups in the Middle Colonies were far more diverse than those in New England and included Quakerism, Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Judaism. With no religious group dominating the area, inhabitants of the Middle Colonies tended to be tolerant of divergent beliefs.

The Southern Colonies were less religiously diverse than the Middle Colonies but allowed greater freedom than Puritan-dominated New England. Anglicanism—the Church of England—was the government-sponsored religion in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Maryland. Anglicans did not represent the entire population, however. Some Baptists and Catholics lived in the Southern Colonies. Settlers in the newly founded colony of Georgia included Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Jews, drawn there by the colony's promotion of religious pluralism.

Most early 18th-century colonists embraced the traditional Christian beliefs of their home colony. However, some individuals—chiefly the highly educated elite—were exploring the ideals of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason. Enlightenment thinkers focused more on the use of human intellect than faith in the divine to understand the world. Many who accepted Enlightenment principles considered themselves Deists. Deism is the acceptance of religious knowledge acquired through the use of reason. Deists believe in logical religious theory and discount the teachings of organized churches. One of the earliest proponents of Enlightenment thinking in the colonies was Roger Williams. He was a religious leader and politician who advocated for the separation of church and state and freedom of religion for all, including non-Christians. Rhode Island, the colony founded by Williams, drew colonists seeking to worship without governmental restraint.
Late 17th- and early 18th-century Puritans attended worship services in stark wooden meetinghouses. Puritans believed they should provide colonial leadership, and many meetinghouses doubled as town halls.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, HABS ME,8-ALNA,1--6

Religious Awakening in the Colonies

The Great Awakening served as a counterpoint to rising interest in Enlightenment thought. A divide between religious leaders challenged established religious practices.

The Great Awakening (also known as the First Great Awakening) was a religious revival in England, Scotland, Wales, and the American colonies in the 1720s–40s. A departure from somber and strict Puritanism and conservative Anglicanism, the Great Awakening emphasized individual piety and religious devotion. It reinvigorated religious practices in the colonies and served as a counterpoint to the rising interest in Enlightenment thought.

The colonial Great Awakening originated with Presbyterians in the middle colonies of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Beginning in the 1730s, Reverend William Tennent and his sons, all members of the clergy, led revivals and established a seminary to train clergymen.

Tennent's words and enthusiasm spread to the Puritans and Baptists in New England. It was there that Jonathan Edwards, a Yale minister who refused to convert to Anglicanism, preached about human corruption and the ravages of hell in sermons such as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." He believed there was too much emphasis on wealth and power and not enough on religion.

Tennent's and Edwards's voices were joined by that of George Whitefield, a minister from Britain who engaged in a speaking tour throughout the colonies. As a schoolboy Whitefield had acted in numerous plays, and this experience served him well on the pulpit. His passionately delivered sermons were punctuated with tears of sorrow and joy. Thousands of colonists crowded into open fields to hear him and other Evangelical ministers preach at massive religious meetings. Such a meeting was called a revival. Revivals were emotional, interactive affairs that emphasized the religious rebirth of an individual from sinner into a devout follower of God.

Many in the religious establishment were suspicious of this new form of worship. Some church officials believed the revivalists were disregarding the established structure of religious practice. They felt challenged by the Evangelical message of personal religious faith and salvation. Colonists soon found themselves divided into two camps: the "Old Lights," who preferred the old interpretations of Anglicanism and Puritanism, and the "New Lights," who embraced revival-focused religion. This division was the foundation of religious tolerance in the colonies. No one denomination or method of practice outweighed any other. Everyone had to learn to live together peacefully.

For the most part, the Great Awakening's focus on faith and divine law reduced the spread of Enlightenment philosophy in the colonies. It also set the stage for future colonial independence from Britain. Most revivalist ministers weren't formally educated in theology. They were not part of the elite class that ruled in Britain and the colonies. These differences boosted their appeal for people of different classes, backgrounds, and racial/ethnic identities. Their success, and that of the faiths they represented, proved it was possible for people to interpret religious doctrine for themselves and indicated self-government may be possible as well.
George Whitefield was one of the best-known evangelists of the 1730s and 1740s. He advocated an emotional devotion to God over reserved piety.
Credit: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "Whitefield." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1777 - 1890.