Great Awakening

Members of the revolutionary generation were influenced by religious liberty and “The Great Awakening,” 1728-1790.

The protestant evangelical movement, taking place in England, Scotland and Germany, simultaneously took place in the colonies. Known as The Great Awakening (1728-1790), the religious revivals produced new forms of religious expression and belief that influenced the development of religious liberty throughout the colonies.

Under the leadership of a family of clergy, Reverend William Tennent and his four sons, Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, initiated revivals. From 1726-1745 at Log College, Tennent taught pupils ancient languages and the Bible and inspired an evangelical zeal in these future ministers. From the Middle Colonies, religious fervor spread to New England. In sermons such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and philosophical essays and lectures, Jonathan Edwards balanced the majesty of God and love of Christ with vivid portraits of the dangers of unrepentant sin. Edwards, who became the third president of Princeton University in 1758, influenced many to question traditional teachings and to follow their consciences. English preacher George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley began the Methodist Church, converted thousands to a new birth during seven visits to the colonies.

Charles Haynes in Finding Common Ground summarizes the influence of the Great Awakening and the struggles for disestablishment:

  • Madison and Jefferson were greatly aided in the struggle to remove official government support of the Church of England by the Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and other ‘dissenting’ faiths of Anglican Virginia.

  • The evangelical fervor of the Awakening cut across denominational lines and undercut support for the privileges of the established church.

  • Many saw religion as a matter of free choice and churches as places of self-government. The alliance of church and state was now seen by many as harmful to the cause of religion.

  • In Virginia this climate of dissent and the leadership of such religious leaders as John Leland, a Baptist, provided the crucial support Madison needed to win the battle for religious liberty in Virginia.

Use these online resources to supplement your textbook.
Religion and the American Revolution
History professor Christine Leigh Heyman provides a background essay with ideas for guiding students to understand the relation of religion and the American Revolution. On the National Humanities Center’s Web site.

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic: Religion and the American Revolution
This online exhibit includes artifacts, original documents and links to significant resources.

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic: Religion and the Congress of the Confederation, 1774-89
The Library of Congress online exhibit looks at the Continental-Confederation Congress. “The amount of energy that Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion in the new nation exceeded that expended by any subsequent American national government, ” according to the site. Includes why chaplains of different denominations are appointed.

The First Great Awakening
Essay gives overview of the 1730-1770 Great Awakening. National Humanities Center Web site.

A Dramatic Revival: The First Great Awakening in Connecticut
The Concord Review provides a sample student paper for an Advanced Placement U.S. History course.

Lecture Four: The Great Awakening
Wake Forest University online lecture

Anglican Timeline: 1584-1776

Anglican Timeline: 1738-1784