Archive for August 26th, 2013

Overview: The First Great Awakening

The roots of the Great Awakening of the early 18th century lie in several places, not the least of which was the challenge that the Enlightenment posed to religious faith. Although the revivalism of the Great Awakening influenced England and all the American colonies, we will focus here on how the religious movement unfolded in New England. There, the Puritans were at the same time experiencing internal stresses as the number of people who met the requirements for church membership dwindled. Enlightenment thought challenged common assumptions and inverted the traditional primacy of faith over reason. The Great Awakening was a reaction to these challenges.

The scientific movement known as the Enlightenment spread from Europe to America. Common names associated with this time of flowering rationalism include Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke. Newton’s theories about the laws that governed the motions of celestial bodies showed that the tracks the stars and planets traced through the sky were predictable and could be understood by humans. Likewise, Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) argued that children were not born with innate knowledge planted in them by God, but were instead capable of reasoning and gaining knowledge by experience, which contradicted the prevailing view of many. Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers believed that people were capable of great progress and of improving the conditions in which they lived, especially through science and reasoning. This challenged the foundations of ideas like predestination, for the idea that one can change and improve the conditions of life implied that God had not created humans as cogs in a machine, but as active players in the universe. However, neither man challenged the existence of God. There was room for faith in a world of reason.

One attempt to reconcile faith and reason was called Christian rationalism, which stressed that humans were born with free will and through moral, rational behavior they could gain salvation. The rationalists accepted all into church membership who were trying to live Christian lives, instead of merely the “visible saints.” Thus rationalism directly challenged the core beliefs of Calvinism, especially predestination. Instead, some rationalist Puritans began espousing a belief in Arminianism, that humans had the freedom to choose salvation through good works and faith. Arminianism dovetailed very well with Enlightenment thought about how humans were free to influence their own destinies. Rationalists believed that salvation could be gained through actions, not just as a capricious gift from God. Traditionalists, of course, rejected these ideas as heretical. Arminianism became an influential theory in the early 18th century at Harvard College, which served as a training ground for Congregationalist ministers. The new generation of Puritan ministers began assuming leadership roles in the Congregationalist churches of New England. Thus, a tension between these two opposing factions caused great unrest among Christians in America.

Further complicating matters was the fact that the Puritans had experienced a serious reduction in membership. Since about 1650, membership had declined, especially among men, whom some ministers accused of being too worldly. Women definitely seemed to have an advantage in exhibiting what was called ‘regeneration’ after a believable conversion experience. In some congregations, women made up sixty to seventy-five percent of new members. In 1662, the Puritan clergy created the Half-Way Covenant, which allowed adults who had been baptized as children but not yet saved “half-way” membership. These members could not take communion, but could have their children baptized as long as they demonstrated understanding of Christian beliefs and lived in obedience to God’s laws. On a practical note, the Half-Way Covenant was also an attempt to keep influential people within the Puritan faith, for no matter how strictly the Puritans had attempted to wipe out dissenters and other denominations, the Puritans now faced competition from Baptists and Quakers, among others. But the Half-Way Covenant was not accepted by all congregations, and thus caused more dissension rather than growth.

The increasing stratification within society also affected the discontent felt by many within the second generation of Puritans. As the older generation increasingly concentrated upon attaining wealth, some churches also allowed a differentiation within the sanctuary itself, as wealthy families were given prominent pews within the church during services (during the early years of settlement in America, it was a common practice for a family to subscribe for a pew, thereby paying for the privilege of one’s seat). Naturally, some of the younger, less wealthy Puritans felt further estrangement, and soon stopped attending services. The Rev. Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, Massachusetts focused his attention upon this disaffected generation. He tried to reawaken their piety by appealing to their emotions in a series of sermons that sought to impel his congregants to examine their lives, come to grips with their fate as sinners unless saved by God. This appeal to emotionalism worked, and people felt reconnected to their faith. Soon Edward’s congregation was growing in membership. Revivals of religious feeling were also sweeping through the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in the colonies.

This effort by Edwards marked the beginning of the Great Awakening in New England. Into this time of crisis burst a new attempt to revive religious enthusiasm: the First Great Awakening, which erupted in New England between the years of 1734 and 1745. Those who supported the ideals of the Great Awakening became known as New Lights; traditionalists were called Old Lights.

There were several identifying features of this movement. New Light pastors thundered from their pulpits. Itinerant preachers roamed the countryside, sometimes speaking from the pulpits of churches they visited, but also drawing large crowds in fields or on the steps of meetinghouses. From 1739 to 1741, the youthful Rev. George Whitefield, an Anglican evangelist from England, toured around the Middle Colonies, and several of his sermons were printed by his friend Benjamin Franklin, who was known as a religious skeptic. He was invited to preach in the Connecticut River Valley by Jonathan Edwards, and from there he moved through New England preaching in various places to enthusiastic reviews. Crowds as large as 8,000 listened to him preach in Boston. Instead of dry, reasoned sermons, listeners were painted vivid pictures of the fires of hell in highly emotional language. Audiences often responded in kind, being driven to shrieks of horror, panic, and tears. People grew pale and sometimes collapsed in the arms of their loved ones; others cried out to God for mercy in the middle of a service. Those who experienced this step often moved to a state of euphoria as the last phase of their reawakening, as the feeling of God’s salvation gathered within their hearts and overwhelmed them.

Soon these different approaches to religious feeling flared into open confrontation. An implicit thread running through New Light sermons was criticism of mainline Protestantism as being spiritually dead and decadent. Clergy became subject to criticism and dismissal. Some churches broke into factions or split along doctrinal lines. In one congregation, the minister was asked to step down because he lacked the emotional fire his awakened congregants wanted. When he refused, he was pulled from the pulpit, assaulted, and thrown out the door of the church. . Ideas about education were also affected by this criticism of the “spiritual coldness” of unconverted ministers. A Presbyterian minister, William Tennent, established a school in New Jersey to train preachers in the New Light methods and theology. Originally called the “Log College,” this school was later christened the College of New Jersey and is today known as Princeton. Tennent’s son Gilbert Tennent became an influential New Light preacher.

These Presbyterian graduates of the Log College were soon making their way down the coastline to the southern colonies. By the 1740s, the revival had spread to the southern colonies, carried by William Tennent’s troops. Methodists and Baptists also reaped a windfall of converts, and during the Awakening in this era, many slaves were exposed to Christianity for the first time. Some churches even had both black and white members for a time. For the next twenty years, revivalism played a strong part in the religious experiences of many Southerners.

The Great Awakening also had political and educational consequences. Some Old Lights, particularly in New England, attempted to pass laws to quell the influence of the New Lights. This religious division had political consequences in New England, since the church and government were so tightly intertwined. The Connecticut Assembly passed a law forbidding a clergyman to preach from another’s pulpit without permission and repealed toleration laws passed in 1708. This heavy-handedness ultimately created a backlash in support of religious freedom that would resonate even to the present day. Higher education in the colonies benefitted from this religious revival. Besides Princeton, several colleges sprung up during this time, including Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth, for the purpose of meeting the increased need for preachers. These institutions introduced a new curriculum that emphasized mathematics, science, and modern languages in addition to the classical studies and theology which had prevailed previously in older schools. Students at Yale who were swayed by New Light theology began stirring up so much unrest that the Connecticut Assembly allowed expulsion for any student who attended New Light services. The Great Awakening pitted the New Lights’ call for a return to Calvinism against the Old Lights’ more liberal tendencies, which would eventually lead to the founding of the Unitarian and Universalist churches.

To this day, a split remains within American Protestantism, a split that was first articulated during the First Great Awakening. The Christian Charismatic movement, which emphasizes emotion, spiritual gifts such as prophecy, and shattering conversion experiences, still dominates some denominations, such as the Assembly of God based in Springfield, Missouri, as well as the work of evangelists such as Billy and Franklin Graham. The Great Awakening encouraged democratic tendencies and also promoted the separation of church and state, since New Lights were rebelling against the control Old Lights were able to wield through the administration of anti-revivalist laws. Although the religious fervor that was encouraged by the Great Awakening has experienced varying levels of influence throughout American history up to the present, the dichotomy between faith and reason has never completely subsided from the American social landscape.

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Christine Heyrman on the 1st Great Awakening

The First Great Awakening
Christine Leigh Heyrman
Department of History, University of Delaware

from http://www.nhc.rtp.nc.us:8080/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/grawaken.htm

What historians call “the first Great Awakening” can best be described as a revitalization of religious piety that swept through the American colonies between the 1730s and the 1770s. That revival was part of a much broader movement, an evangelical upsurge taking place simultaneously on the other side of the Atlantic, most notably in England, Scotland, and Germany. In all these Protestant cultures during the middle decades of the eighteenth century, a new Age of Faith rose to counter the currents of the Age of Enlightenment, to reaffirm the view that being truly religious meant trusting the heart rather than the head, prizing feeling more than thinking, and relying on biblical revelation rather than human reason.

The earliest manifestations of the American phase of this phenomenon–the beginnings of the First Great Awakening–appeared among Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Led by the Tennent family–Reverend William Tennent, a Scots-Irish immigrant, and his four sons, all clergymen—the Presbyterians not only initiated religious revivals in those colonies during the 1730s but also established a seminary to train clergymen whose fervid, heartfelt preaching would bring sinners to experience evangelical conversion. Originally known as “the Log College,” it is better known today as Princeton University.

Religious enthusiasm quickly spread from the Presbyterians of the Middle Colonies to the Congregationalists  (Puritans) and Baptists of New England. By the 1740s, the clergymen of these churches were conducting revivals throughout that region, using the same strategy that had contributed to the success of the Tennents. In emotionally charged sermons, all the more powerful because they were delivered extemporaneously, preachers like Jonathan Edwards evoked vivid, terrifying images of the utter corruption of human nature and the terrors awaiting the unrepentant in hell. Hence Edwards’s famous description of the sinner as a loathsome spider suspended by a slender thread over a pit of seething brimstone in his best known sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

These early revivals in the northern colonies inspired some converts to become missionaries to the American South. In the late 1740s, Presbyterian preachers from New York and New Jersey began proselytizing in the Virginia Piedmont; and by the 1750s, some members of a group known as the Separate Baptists moved from New England to central North Carolina and quickly extended their influence to surrounding colonies. By the eve of the American Revolution, their evangelical converts accounted for about ten percent of all southern churchgoers.

The First Great Awakening also gained impetus from the wide-ranging American travels of an English preacher, George Whitefield. Although Whitefield had been ordained as a minister in the Church of England, he later allied with other Anglican clergymen who shared his evangelical bent, most notably John and Charles Wesley. Together they led a movement to reform the Church of England (much as the Puritans had attempted earlier to reform that church) which resulted in the founding of the Methodist Church late in the eighteenth century. During his several trips across the Atlantic after 1739, Whitefield preached everywhere in the American colonies, often drawing audiences so large that he was obliged to preach outdoors. What Whitefield preached was nothing more than what other Calvinists had been proclaiming for centuries–that sinful men and women were totally dependent for salvation on the mercy of a pure, all-powerful God. But Whitefield–and many American preachers who eagerly imitated his style–presented that message in novel ways. Gesturing dramatically, sometimes weeping openly or thundering out threats of hellfire-and-brimstone, they turned the sermon into a gripping theatrical performance.

But not all looked on with approval. Throughout the colonies, conservative and moderate clergymen questioned the emotionalism of evangelicals and charged that disorder and discord attended the revivals. They took great exception to “itinerants,” ministers who, like Whitefield, traveled from one community to another, preaching and all too often criticizing the local clergy. And they took still greater exception when some white women and African Americans shed their subordinate social status long enough to exhort religious gatherings. Evangelical preachers and converts rejoined by lambasting their opponents as cold, uninspiring, and lacking in piety and grace. Battles raged within congregations and whole denominations over this challenge to clerical authority as well as the evangelical approach to conversion from “the heart” rather than “the head.”

So the first Great Awakening left colonials sharply polarized along religious lines. Anglicans and Quakers gained new members among those who disapproved of the revival’s excesses, while the Baptists (and, in the 1770s, the Methodists) made even more handsome gains from the ranks of radical evangelical converts. The largest single group of churchgoing Americans remained within the Congregationalist and Presbyterian denominations, but they divided internally between advocates and opponents of the Awakening, known respectively as “New Lights” and “Old Lights.” Inevitably, civil governments were drawn into the fray. In colonies where one denomination received state support, other churches lobbied legislatures for disestablishment, an end to the favored status of Congregationalism in Connecticut and Massachusetts and of Anglicanism in the southern colonies.

Guiding Student Discussion
Now let’s cut to the classroom. You’ve sketched out the story of the first Great Awakening–its beginnings in the mid-Atlantic, its transit to New England, and its culmination in the South, its legacy of debate and division. And you’ve emphasized that it was only the colonial manifestation of a religious revival of much broader geographic scope–it spread the length of British North America (where, indeed, the only public figure whose name was known to virtually all colonials was George Whitefield!) and reverberated throughout the Protestant countries of Europe as well.

So your next move might be to pose the question: What could account for the tremendous appeal of evangelical Christianity to men and women living on both sides of the Atlantic during the latter half of the eighteenth century?

Chances are that most students will simply look confused at this inquiry–although some Christians among them might suggest that divine providence inspired large numbers of people to embrace “true Christianity.” If that happens, you have a prime opportunity to point out that while such an explanation might well be persuasive from the standpoint of faith (that is, the perspective of a believer), historians (no matter what their personal religious convictions might be) strive to explain the IMMEDIATE causes of why things happened without reference to acts of God. (Otherwise they’d all be out of business, since the ULTIMATE cause of every historical event, from the standpoint of faith, is the will of God.)

With a little luck, those remarks will return the class to thinking about the SPECIFIC HISTORICAL CIRCUMSTANCES that might have enhanced the appeal of evangelical Christianity, with its formidable array of emotional consolations and moral certitudes, to large numbers of people in the eighteenth century.

To keep the discussion on that track–and to make such connections more accessible to students–you might try tossing out the observation that religious culture in America today bears many resemblances to that of the eighteenth century. As many commentators, both scholarly and popular, have noted, recent decades have witnessed an evangelical revival–what some regard as yet another “Great Awakening.” Since the 1960s, membership in conservative evangelical Protestant churches has grown dramatically, while the membership of national organizations like the Promise Keepers and local bible study groups have also expanded at an astonishing rate. Some of your students will be aware of those trends–and therefore will have greater confidence when it comes to speculating about the social sources of contemporary evangelicalism’s popular appeal–the transient lives of many Americans as population shifts to the South and West, the high incidence of family fragmentation in the face of staggering divorce rates, the uncertainty over gender roles fueled by feminism, the threats that recent scientific discoveries and “secular humanism” are perceived by many to pose to “traditional values,” and so forth.

Okay, here’s the payoff lurking at the end of this seeming digression into the religious culture of the late twentieth century: by now at least some students will see the connection between popular religious inclinations and broader social trends. So this is the moment for you to steer them back into the eighteenth century by noting that this, too, was an era of extraordinary upheaval and crisis for ordinary people. Remind them that England was entering the Industrial Revolution and that evangelicals like the Methodists attracted large numbers of converts among miners and factory workers. Remind them that northern Ireland and Germany, other hotbeds of evangelical enthusiasm, were wracked by warfare, famine, or both–harsh conditions that prompted hundreds of thousands to migrate to British North America. And, finally, remind them that in the American colonies, the same epoch witnessed a massive internal shift of population to the embattled frontiers of the South and West, where ordinary families endured hardscrabble, rootless lives and the ever-present threat of attack from dispossessed Indian tribes. Such circumstances also thrust women into newly responsible roles for the survival of migrating households as families were fragmented by movement and death.

It follows that men and women faced with such stark challenges might have sought opportunities for fellowship, solace, and emotional release–and that is exactly what evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic offered. Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists touted their churches as havens from all the evils afflicting ordinary people–as islands of disciplined stability and Christian charity in a churning sea of social chaos and cultural confusion.

If you’d like more information about the First Great Awakening, the first book to consult is Patricia Bonomi’s Under the Cope of Heaven. This is probably the best overview of religious history in the American colonies, and it offers a superb discussion of both the First Great Awakening and how it bore upon the American Revolution. Another key source is J. M. Bumsted and John E. Van de Wetering, What Must I Do to Be Saved? For a vivid evocation of how revivalism flourished on both sides of the Atlantic during the eighteenth century, you could not choose a better book than Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Holy Fairs. Finally, for a magisterial survey of the sweep of spiritual awakenings throughout America’s past, you should take a look at William McLoughlin’s American Revivalism.

Historians Debate
There are two notable trends in recent scholarship on this subject. The first is represented by those historians who argue that the revivals became a means by which humbler colonials challenged the prerogatives of their social “betters”–both by criticizing their materialistic values and undermining their claims to deference and respect. The strongest case for this interpretation in the North has been advanced by Gary Nash in The Urban Crucible, a wide-ranging study of major seaports in the eighteenth century; a similar view of the Awakening in the upper South appears in Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790. Indeed, some scholars like Harry Stout (The New England Soul) have argued that the first Great Awakening radically transformed and democratized modes of mass communication, thereby setting the stage for the emergence a new popular politics in the revolutionary decades that followed.

But this interpretation has been sharply criticized by other scholars like Christine Leigh Heyrman (Commerce and Culture) and Christopher Jedrey (The World of John Cleaveland) who view the first Great Awakening, at least in the North, as an essentially conservative movement, a continuation of earlier religious traditions. As for the South, even those scholars who credit the potentially radical implications of early evangelical teachings in that region argue that challenges to slavery and class privilege faded quickly in the wake of the revolution; see, for example, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross, and Rachel Klein, The Unification of a Slave State.

That skepticism about the social and political effects of colonial revivalism is shared by another scholar who has offered the most sweeping rejection of the long-held view that the first Great Awakening marked a watershed in early American history: Jon Butler, in his essay, “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction,” Journal of American History, 69 (1982-83), 305-25.