What Was the Great Awakening?
Two scholars debate this question.
Written by: (Claim A) Thomas Kidd, Baylor University; (Claim B) Frank Lambert, Purdue University
- This Point-Counterpoint should be accompanied by The Great Awakening Narrative.
Issue on the Table
Was the “Great Awakening” a coherent religious movement or is it a construct of historians looking back at the time period?
Read each historian’s argument in response to the question presented, paying close attention to each author’s supporting evidence and reasoning. Then, complete the comparison questions that follow. Note that the views in these essays are not necessarily the views of the scholars themselves, but illustrative of larger historical debates.
Some scholars have argued that the “Great Awakening” never happened, but rather was invented by evangelical historians in the nineteenth century. In 1982, a modern historian, Jon Butler, argued that some writers had exaggerated the cohesion and influence of the eighteenth-century revivals, which had been regional, short-lived, theologically diverse, and of limited importance. Above all, according to Butler, the revivals did not lead to the American Revolution. Although Butler’s argument challenged historians to think more carefully about the nature of these revivals, his notion that the Great Awakening was a fiction is not supported by the evidence. When considered in a larger chronological and geographic framework, it becomes clear that eighteenth-century revivals were interconnected, inclusive of several denominations, and long lasting. A closer look shows that these revivals had the potential to be radical and posed a strong challenge to the existing social order. Although the Great Awakening hardly caused the American Revolution, it helped to prepare colonists for a revolutionary movement against the British, because of the struggle for religious liberty by dissenters. Most importantly, the Great Awakening gave birth to the American evangelical movement, a development of enormous consequence in American life.
It is true that people in the mid-1700s did not call the revivals The Great Awakening, but they did recognize that a significant event had transpired in the “late revival of religion.” The revivals of the eighteenth century can be called an awakening because even as they waned in one region, they spread throughout others. What began in New England and the middle colonies in the 1740s continued through the southern colonies in the 1750s, and revivals continued to regularly occur regionally through the end of the American Revolution. These revivals involved a wide range of denominations, including Anglicans, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, and Moravians. Even though they were spread out over distance and time, they were profoundly interconnected, not only by itinerant preachers (especially George Whitefield) who traveled far and wide, but also through a robust religious print culture, which spread news of revival throughout the colonies.
The revivals can also be called “great” because they affected so many people in the colonies and because they often contained seeds of religious, political, and social equality. The more radical among the evangelical revivalists gave leadership roles to a surprising number of women and nonwhites. For example, women engaged in public speaking and exhorted groups of men and women to convert. This role for women had little parallel elsewhere in colonial America. Although white evangelicals held out an ambiguous message to African Americans—some speaking against slavery and others affirming it—the revivals contributed to the beginning of the nearly wholesale conversion of African Americans to some form of evangelical Christianity. Among the Indians and African Americans who underwent evangelical conversion were the Mohegan pastor Samson Occom and the poet Phillis Wheatley.
The revivals were also “great” in the significant challenge they posed to the existing religious and political hierarchy. The debates that raged over revival were, in part, debates over order. Revivalists also undermined the relationship between church and state by speaking against the official churches. For example, when Presbyterian minister Gilbert Tennent called for true Christians to leave behind their ministers and join the dissenting church, he was challenging the monopoly of the established church. More than anything, the revivals threatened the power of the established churches as Congregational and Anglican ministers denounced the new, dissenting denominations. This led to a split between the pro-revival “New Lights” and conservative “Old Lights.”
Most significantly, the revivals were “great” to the extent that they created the American evangelical movement. In particular, the eighteenth-century revivals led religious dissenters such as the Baptists and Methodists to challenge the authority of the established churches in several states and thus set the stage for the flowering of religious liberty. Many evangelicals were pivotal in bringing about the end of American religious establishment, such as Virginia’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson and adopted in 1786 as a critical precedent for the natural right of freedom of conscience. The evangelical ethos of civil and religious liberty clearly contributed to the rhetoric and ideology of the Revolutionary movement.
Evangelicals in colonial America had long hoped for an extraordinary outpouring of God’s grace akin to that of the Day of Pentecost, described in the Bible as a great outpouring of God’s Spirit. They found the mighty “Work of God” they were looking for when large, enthusiastic crowds began attending preaching services during the revivals of 1740–1745. But they selected and arranged the facts into a story, and thus they set about fabricating the “Great Awakening.” However, not all Americans were convinced that the revivalists’ narrative reflected a factual rendering of events. Although revival leaders concluded that the evidence added up to a “great and general awakening,” an equally vociferous group contended that the revivals were only scattered, local events not uncommon among Protestants, and that they amounted only to a “small Thing.” These critics believed that the so-called Great Awakening was attended by more “Noise” than substance and that the narrative was the overblown creation of self-promoting enthusiasts.
An important moment in the fabrication of the Great Awakening occurred in 1754, with the publication of the first history of the revivals. Written by John Gillies, a Scottish evangelical and historian, the Historical Collections Relating to Remarkable Periods of the Gospel proclaimed that the “general and great awakenings” were both extensive and extraordinary. Gillies explained his editorial method as one of piecing together accounts of local revivals into a coherent whole. He wrote in the preface, “When similar facts, that were so dispersed, and sometimes mixed with other subjects in different books . . . are now united, [and] laid before the reader in one view, . . . they may be read and compared with much greater advantage.” The facts that he collected had already been arranged to tell the desired story of a unified great awakening. In 1743, Thomas Prince, a Boston revival supporter and publisher, had solicited from like-minded ministers particular accounts of “the most remarkable Instances of the Power and Grace of God.” He provided an outline of the script that he sought, which emphasized the extraordinary nature of the revivals, including the size of crowds, the number of converts, and the nature of conversion experiences. As a result, when Prince received the almost two dozen narratives of local revivals, they bore a striking similarity, one to the other. It is not surprising that, when Gillies arranged his facts, they fit together and suggested a cohesive movement.
Opponents insisted that the facts did not add up to a “great and extensive awakening.” One outspoken critic, Reverend Charles Chauncy of Boston, asserted that the extent of the revivals had been exaggerated by loud rhetoric and “romantick Representations.” He claimed that the much-publicized local revivals gave the impression of a movement much larger than the evidence supported, noting that only one in four New England congregations participated in the revivals. Furthermore, Chauncy argued, the awakening was not “great” if measured by the changes it wrought, asserting that followers of the revivals did not live more moral lives or show greater devotion to God: “Tis not evident to me, that Persons, generally have a better Understanding of Religion, a better Government of their Passions, a more Christian Love to their Neighbour, or that they are more decent and regular in their Devotions towards God.”
The Great Awakening as a historical fabrication assumed its final form in 1841 with the publication of Joseph Tracy’s The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield. Tracy, an historian and evangelical, wrote his account to inspire other evangelicals of his day to work for and expect a glorious revival that would rival the documented awakening of one hundred years earlier. Tracy’s work continues to define how Americans discuss the eighteenth-century revivals. Nonetheless, the Great Awakening has found a permanent place in American religious history and continues to evoke profound disagreements over its meaning and even its reality.