How Did the Great Awakening Affect Religious Beliefs?

The fiery minister George Whitefield enthralled crowds during the Great Awakening.
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The Great Awakening was the period roughly from the 1730s to 1770s when religion in colonial America underwent a momentous and radical transformation. In a movement that began in Europe, the importance of an established church was de-emphasized, while personal piety and direct connection to the divine came to the fore.

1 Beginnings In England

The American Great Awakening had its origins in England and Scotland, where many lay people and religious figures felt that the Church of England had grown away from seeking a meaningful relationship to God. At the turn of the 18th century, preachers like Charles and John Wesley, who would found the Methodist church, sought truer religious connection in the Bible and preached that salvation lay only when a sinner personally sought God through prayer and soul-searching, and not through the church as an intermediary. The evangelical preaching of the Wesleys, along with that of the former Church of England minister George Whitefield, began the revivalist movement that would cross the Atlantic to the American colonies.

2 Fire And Brimstone

The Great Awakening in America spread via preaching of the Presbyterian minister William Tennent and his four clergymen sons, who founded the seminary that would later become Princeton University. Their evangelical sermons moved north to New England and took root among the Puritans there, in part because the style of the sermons was so different from the dry lectures churchgoers were used to hearing. The revivalist preachers, preaching to huge and enthusiastic crowds, used fiery and highly descriptive language, thundering that those who did not establish a personal connection to God would be damned to hell.

3 New Lights

The principal figure of the Great Awakening in America was pastor Jonathan Edwards, who is famous for preaching a sermon in Connecticut called “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” in which he argued that to be saved, people needed to become completely dependent on the Holy Spirit. The preachings of Edwards and other revivalist ministers split the established churches, dividing the congregations of the Congregationalists, Puritans and Presbyterians into competing factions. The supporters of the Great Awakening became “New Lights”; those opposed were “Old Lights.”

4 Multiple Religions

The number of religions that grew out of the 18th century was the most significant effect of the Great Awakening. Rather than having one religion gain enough power to become the major colonial religion, as the Church of England had in Great Britain, religious denominations splintered off from one another and religious debate remained strong. A more negative outgrowth of the Great Awakening, however, was the anti-Catholic bias of the movement -- since “New Lights” were anti-authoritarian in nature, they were suspicious of the structured nature of the Church hierarchy and worked to suppress Catholicism in America. With this notable exception, however, by the time of the American Revolution -- which many historians feel was in part caused by the independent thinking stirred by the Great Awakening -- religious plurality was an accepted part of American society.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.