1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Great Awakening

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GREAT AWAKENING, the name given to a remarkable religious revival centring in New England in 1740–1743, but covering all the American colonies in 1740–1750. The word “awakening” in this sense was frequently (and possibly first) used by Jonathan Edwards at the time of the Northampton revival of 1734–1735, which spread through the Connecticut Valley and prepared the way for the work in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut (1740–1741) of George Whitefield, who had previously been preaching in the South, especially at Savannah, Georgia. He, his immediate follower, Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764), other clergymen, such as James Davenport, and many untrained laymen who took up the work, agreed in the emotional and dramatic character of their preaching, in rousing their hearers to a high pitch of excitement, often amounting to frenzy, in the undue stress they put upon “bodily effects” (the physical manifestations of an abnormal psychic state) as proofs of conversion, and in their unrestrained attacks upon the many clergymen who did not join them and whom they called “dead men,” unconverted, unregenerate and careless of the spiritual condition of their parishes. Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Colman (1673–1747), and Joseph Bellamy, recognized the viciousness of so extreme a position. Edwards personally reprimanded Whitefield for presuming to say of any one that he was unconverted, and in his Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion devoted much space to “showing what things are to be corrected, or avoided, in promoting this work.” Edwards’ famous sermon at Enfield in 1741 so affected his audience that they cried and groaned aloud, and he found it necessary to bid them be still that he might go on; but Davenport and many itinerants provoked and invited shouting and even writhing, and other physical manifestations. At its May session in 1742 the General Court of Massachusetts forbade itinerant preaching save with full consent from the resident pastor; in May 1743 the annual ministerial convention, by a small plurality, declared against “several errors in doctrine and disorders in practice which have of late obtained in various parts of the land,” against lay preachers and disorderly revival meetings; in the same year Charles Chauncy, who disapproved of the revival, published Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England; and in 1744–1745 Whitefield, upon his second tour in New England, found that the faculties of Harvard and Yale had officially “testified” and “declared” against him and that most pulpits were closed to him. Some separatist churches were formed as a result of the Awakening; these either died out or became Baptist congregations. To the reaction against the gross methods of the revival has been ascribed the religious apathy of New England during the last years of the 18th century; but the martial and political excitement, beginning with King George’s War (i.e. the American part of the War of the Austrian Succession) and running through the American War of Independence and the founding of the American government, must be reckoned at the least as contributing causes.

See Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening (Boston, 1842); Samuel P. Hayes, “An Historical Study of the Edwardean Revivals,” in The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 13 (Worcester, Mass., 1902); and Frederick M. Davenport, Primitive Traits in Religious Revivals (New York, 1905), especially chapter viii. pp. 94-131. (R. We.)