Cause and Effect The First Great American Awakening

Revival did not drastically increase the total number of people actually joining the church. Notes from Eerdman's Handbook of Christianity in America.

In a few towns the rapid spread of revival followed closely upon the heels of serious illness, especially the "throat distemper" (diphtheria) which carried away large numbers of New Englanders in the 1730s. In other awakened localities, economic problems had been a troubling source of tensions. Some merchants worried about the effects of conflict following Britain's declaration of war on Spain in 1739. Many others joined the merchants in concern about the absence of an adequate currency.

Some historians have speculated that the shift from rural and agricultural to urban and commercial styles of life may have engendered guilt in those leaving "the old ways" behind.

In modern Aztec-like fears that God is not going to be able to preserve the kingdom and keep the sky from falling, the "urbans" hold a 52 year and a 52 week event like the Jubilee. The houses of the rurals are burned down, everyone is hustled into town, all of the fires are put out, up to 20,000 people are sacrificed, the sacred fire is relit and taken out to individual, renewed dwellings to make sure that the "rurals" are up to speed with the "urbans."

Others have suggested that tensions between generations over the inheritance of diminishing amounts of land may have created similar feelings. All of these observations lead toward the conclusion that environmental factors prepared the colonial population to embrace a spiritual message which, even if it could not deal directly with such problems, brought inner peace and an escape from guilt.

All ancient Jubilees were for the purpose of an atonement. The guilt was relieved by returning individual lands to the tribe.

Debate over the causes of the Great Awakening should be informed by history, but will probably be resolved ultimately by belief. Christians should learn from secularists.

They should recognize that nonspiritual factors came into play; such factors need not explain the whole story, especially since Christians believe that the gospel is intended precisely to answer humanity's deepest needs in times of distress.

But secularists also should learn from Christians. They should recognize that similar environmental "preconditions" had existed at other times when revival did not occur and that no exact correlation can be established between the outbreak of revival and any set of social conditions. The final evaluation, as in most such historical questions, will depend less upon the evidence of history than upon the convictions of historians.


The number of Americans actually converted during the Awakening is hard to ascertain. Early estimates ranged from several thousand to half a million, although the latter figure is quite high given a total colonial population around one million in 1740. In New England, where again records are best,

the years of revival witnessed a marked increase in the number of people joining the church (often the only reliable guide to measure conversions).

The Connecticut churches, for example, admitted on the average about

eight people each per year in 1739 and 1740,
but then about
thirty-three per year in 1741 and 1742.

Similar gains took place in Massachusetts.

The picture changes somewhat, however, if long-term trends are analyzed. Very soon after the revival the average number of admissions dropped considerably

below where they had been in the 1730s.

While it is true that these figures do not fully reflect the formation of new "Separate" and Baptist churches, they do seem to suggest that revival did not drastically increase the total number of people actually joining the church with a profession of faith over the entire period, 1730-1750.

It seems rather to have concentrated church admissions in the years of its great impact.

The one imponderable with these figures is the question whether conversions and admissions to church would have continued at their old rate without a revival. It is possible that the Awakening, while not increasing the rate of conversion when calculated over the long run, did keep that rate at its former level when it otherwise might have fallen.

For the other colonies it is very difficult to obtain accurate figures for the revival's effect. In the midd e colonies, the Presbyterians who favored revival did grow much more rapidly than those who did not.

In 1741 there were about twenty-five prorevival Presbyterian ministers and an equal number opposed.

By 1758 the number of prorevivalists (and churches) had risen to seventy-three, the antirevivalists had fallen to twenty-three.

And in the South, evangelists by 1760 had made inroads into the backcountry population which had less and less use for the formalities of the Church of England, and more and more interest in the informal piety of the Baptists.

Apart from the individuals actually converted, a number of other things were also revived during the Great Awakening.

In the first place, the prominence of Whitefield and Edwards encouraged a resurgence of Calvinism.

Whitefield eventually broke with the more Arminian Wesleys over his belief that God sovereignly called the elect by his grace alone.

Edwards' devotion to the greatness of God's power and his conclusion that sinners do not wish to act contrary to their own sinful natures led him to restate Calvinistic conceptions of salvation in powerful and influential books.

The Great Awakening also revived experiential piety. It encouraged people to devote their practical, daily exertions to loving God and serving their neighbors.

A new desire to see the churches purified of all but the elect was an ecclesiastical reflection of this more intense piety.

Led by Edwards, many Congregational and Presbyterian churches repudiated the Half-Way Covenant.

The fellowship of the faithful on earth, so this reasoning ran, should reflect the purity of God's grace as closely as possible.

The Great Awakening also stimulated a concern for higher education. In 1740, Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale (founded 1701) were the only colonial colleges. Leaders elsewhere in the colonies had long expressed an interest in founding colleges, and the revival added to that interest. The Awakening led more young men to pursue the ministry, and it encouraged greater boldness on the part of laypeople in appropriating the faith for themselves.

A combination of ecclesiastical and other motives, thus, led to the rapid founding of several more colleges: the College of New Jersey at Princeton by Presbyterians in 1746, Rhode Island College (later Brown University) by Baptists in 1764, Queents College (later Rutgers) by Dutch Reformed in 1766, Dartmouth by the Con-gregationalist Eleazar Wheelock in 1769 (an institution which had begun in 1754 as an Indian mission school).


The revival of individuals, theology, piety, and education did not proceed without opposition.

In fact, the Great Awakening did nearly as much to promote controversy as it did to stimulate revival.

In the middle colonies, Presbyterians divided over the revival and its effects.

Most of the recent ScotchIrish immigrants, the "Old Side," favored a tightly organized church with traditional educational standards for ministers and great emphasis on the Westminster Confession.

Presbyterians from New England and the Tennent group, the "New Side" did not turn away from these traditional Presbyterian emphases,

but they did want to promote revival and vital piety even if it meant relaxing traditional standards.

A similar set of differences divided the Dutch Reformed in 1755 between a prorevival "Coetus" (following the path first established by Theodore Frelinghuysen) and a traditionalist "Conferentie'' (which sought direction from Amsterdam). Eventually, Presbyterians (1758) and Dutch Reformed (1771) reunited. In both groups the prorevival perspective became dominant.

Still, questions raised by the Great Awakening concerning church order and the nature of popular religion remained to trouble Presbyterians and Reformed into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries.

In New England, the Great Awakening sounded the death knell for the comprehensive Puritan conception of the world.

Its immediate impact was to divide the Puritan churches into four more or less distinct groups.

Proponents of revival were known as "New Lights,"

but this broad designation covered at least two distinct groups.

Jonathan Edwards represented the moderate New Lights who wished to remain within estalished Congregationalism, but who did not mute their evangelistic zeal, their renewed Calvinism, and their belief in pure churches.

To the left of these Edwardseans was a more radical camp. Many who had been quickened by revival found the established church sterile and oppressive. Such people ohen broke away to form "Separate" churches.

Historian C. C. Goen has painstakingly identified 321 separations of one kind or another by these New Lights. Some of these splits were healed rapidly. Others led to the continuation of "Separate Congregational', churches.

But most eventually became Baptist congregations. Baptists like Isaac Backus ofien appreciated Edwards and his theology.

But they grew convinced that the state had no business in the church and that the baptism of adult believers was the proper way to testify to God's saving work.

The Baptists were in fact the greatest beneficiaries of the Great Awakening. The number of Baptist churches throughout the colonies rose dramatically in the generation after the revival (from 96 in 1740 to 457 in 1780, a number in the latter year which exceeded the total of Anglican churches). And the renewal of the Baptists in New England eventually had great impact throughout the land. Baptist emigrants from New England moved as far south as the Carolinas during the 1750s to begin what would become a tremendous expansion of Baptist churches in that region.

Opposed to both the moderate and radical New Lights stood a group uneasy about the supernaturalism, the emotionalism, and the radicalism of the revival.

Charles Chauncy of Boston's First Church was the spokesman for this group. It had a higher view of human capabilities than the strict Calvinists, it feared for social chaos if "enthusiasm" should prevail, and it emphasized the natural evidences of God's power over the supernatural. These "Old Lights" were, in modern terms, more theologically liberal and more socially conservative than the New Lights. [See our Colonial Index for Chauncy]

Members of a final group, the "Old Calvinists," were caught in the middle.

With Old Lights they shared an uneasiness about the socially disruptive effects of the Awakening;

with the New Lights they held to a generally evangelical theology.

Ezra Stiles (1727-1795), who eventually became president of Yale College in 1778, was representative of this point of view.

He was a broad-minded and tolerant man by the standards of his day who did not like the dogmatism of New Light theology, the disorder of unruly revivalism, or the division of the churches.

Yet Stiles also did not appreciate the Old Light drift to rationalism and Unitarianism. These Old Calvinists found themselves faced with hard choices as the century wore on.

Some chose to tolerate revivalism in order to retain a more traditional theology, others chose to modify that theology in order to support social and ecclesiastical stability.

In the face of this ecclesiastical fragmentation, the older Puritanism had no chance. The New Lights, Edwardseans and Separates, urged individuals to turn in repentance to Christ.

They urged those who heeded their message
to purge the churches of all who were not converted.

Old Lights, on the other hand, feared for the safety of society. They wanted the churches, through the Half-Way Covenant,

to remain open to most citizens, and in so doing to exert a stabilizing effect on society.

The parts of the Puritan synthesis were going different directions. New Lights stressed the individual covenant of grace, Old Lights the social covenant.

Arguments over the church covenant divided the two main groups
rent also Baptists from New Light Congregationalists.

However great an impact elements of Puritanism would retain in American life, the Puritan synthesis was no more.

The fragmentation of Puritanism in New England and the growth of dissent in the South provided more elbow room for other Christian bodies. While the Church of England suffered in the South from the first onslaughts of Baptists and Presbyterians, it grew in the North as a haven for colonials upset with the emotions of revival.

Only after the Great Awakening did the Anglicans become in the North the church of the elite that it had always been in the South. Other denominations also were able to take indirect advantage of the revival. The subjective elements of the Awakening, for example, paralleled and strengthened emphases of the Pietists. In all, the Awakening made the American ecclesiastical situation much more fluid than it had been before.

The Great Awakening also had a profound impact on American society. Some of the hierarchism and authoritarianism common to all Western societies of the period gave way before the revival's theology and its practice.

The renewed Calvinistic emphasis on divine predestination, free grace, and the inability of position to insure salvation had social implications.

Gilbert Tennent, who in 1741 preached a famous sermon on "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry," showed how corrosive such a theology could be.

If conversion was the only condition for standing in the church,
then ecclesiastical office and social prominence must not be as important as once thought.

And what was true in church might also be true in society. Charles Chauncy was worried about the theology of the Awakening, but he was appalled by its effects on traditional social order.

He once complained that the lay "exhorters" which the Awakening spawned were "babes in age as well as understanding.

They are chiefly, indeed, young persons, sometimes lads, or rather boys; nay, women and girls, yea, Negroes,

have taken upon them to do the business of preachers."

Revivalists were not primarily concerned about the rights of laypeople, women, blacks, and youth. It is nonetheless the case that their concern to promote the glory of God also promoted the democratization of America.

The Great Awakening, then, retains great fascination for the historical imagination. It offers dramatic action and a complex web of causation. It presents dynamic and brilliant leaders. It left a direct and powerful impact on American religion, and a subtle but no less telling impact on America itself.

Of the Second Great American Awakening in Kentucky the following chart proves the point of no lasting effects.

Citizens of Zion: The Social Origins of Camp Meeting Revivalism by Ellen Eslinger shows that the pattern of growth is not based upon human performance which ignores the narrator's teaching role in the church. After the fact it was recognized that this radicalism hindered the growth of the Restoration Movement.


See the Divisive Effects of Cane Ridge and other Revivals.

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