The Great Awakening

The very first settlers to the USA came to Florida and Jamestown, VA to establish trading colonies and to find riches for their home countries.  Soon following were people seeking more eternal riches, those of spiritual blessings by freely worshiping God as they saw as Spirit and Truth.

In September, 1620, 102 Pilgrims and colonists fled the religious persecutions of Europe and hired the Mayflower to carry them to Virginia.  Conditions, weather, and corruption of the crew led them to be dropped off on Cape Cod instead.  God brought them to a friendly landing point to keep them safe as there were less Indians and other difficulties.  They sought to start a society honoring God with all surviving colonists signing the Mayflower Compact on November 11, 1620.  They lived in peace for awhile serving God as they chose as they were a small community who were unified in beliefs.

Soon, Puritans followed who shared similar beliefs, but desired to reform the Church of England from the inside rather than separating from it.  Each group that came from Europe after this fled religious persecutions, but they brought their bad habits with them and set up state churches to protect their way of worship and persecute those who could upset their perfect religion with perceived heretical beliefs.

Fleeing religious persecutions, the first colonists became religious persecutors.  The website reports that “civil government dealt harshly with religious dissenters, exiling the likes of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams for their outspoken criticism of Puritanism, and whipping Baptists or cropping the ears of Quakers for their determined efforts to proselytize.  Official persecution reached its peak between 1659 and 1661, when Massachusetts Bay’s Puritan magistrates hung four Quaker missionaries.”

With 13 colonies acting as theocracies supporting state pastors with tax dollars, apostasy started to enter the country as pastors no longer acted as called messengers of God’s truth, but merely filled state positions.  Protected by the state, others had to obtain licenses to preach from the state ministers and were jailed if they were refused and preached anyways.  Baptists suffered the worst across the colonies as they refused to accept infant baptism that all state churches demanded.

As religious fervor waned and the enlightenment spread over all the world, science falsely so called ascended with alchemy and astrology examined to determine how to get rich and find truth.  Witchcraft was used in many places.  The Anglican Church reigned in the south and the Congregational Puritans in the north worked more to keep other religions from ascending over correcting these errors.  Religion in the new colonies looked more and more like the dead, persecuting religions that they had recently fled from Europe.


Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Dutch Reformed preacher came to preach in New Jersey in the 1720s and was shocked by the spiritual coldness of the churches in America.  For the first time since the Pilgrims and original Puritans came, people heard about repentance, sin, Hell and a personal conversion and relationship with Christ.  George Tennent was influenced by his preaching and brought a starting revival to Presbyterian churches.  He believed the deadness of the churches was due to the fact so many pastors were unconverted themselves.

As the sparks of revival flew up in the mid-Atlantic states, Jonathan Edwards took the pulpit of the Northampton, MA Congregational church and found a spiritually dead congregation.  In 1734, he preached a series of sermons on justification by faith alone and wrote that by December he saw “the Spirit of God begin extraordinarily to set in. Revival grew, and souls did as it were come by floods to Christ.”  In six months, he recorded 300 conversions.

Other sparks came from the south where Samuel Davies evangelized Virginia and points south.  So successful was he that local officials, desiring to hold onto their old, comfortable, dead ways disputed often and tried to abridge his right to preach.

George Whitefield, a persecuted dissenting preacher without license form England, came and energized the Great Awakening even more.  He noticed the same thing Frelinghuysen saw saying “Congregations are lifeless because dead men preach to them.”  A lively evangelist, he preached with emotional fervor to large crowds desiring the old time preaching of Hellfire, repentance, and salvation through faith alone.  Benjamin Franklin who built a preaching hall for him, said he surveyed a crowd in Philadelphia for a sermon in 1739 and estimated 30,000 people were in attendance.  The amazing thing was that in America’s first census in 1790, only 28,532 lived in Philadelphia!  God was continuing to fan the flames of revival!  Whitefield visited Jonathan Edwards and preached at his house October 18, 1740.  According to Sara Edwards, Jonathan’s wife, workers dropped their tools to come hear him.  Both men encouraged each other in their different roles of evangelist and pastor.

Building on this meeting and stoking the flames of revival, Edwards was invited to preach at Enfield, CT to a dead congregation on July 8, 1741.  Desiring God’s power, he fasted and prayed for three days saying “Give me New England.”  Taking the pulpit, he read his sermon in a monotone voice, not with the emotionalism shone by Whitefield.  As he preached, men started crying “What must I do to be saved?!?” as others held tightly to their pews literally fearing they would be swept straight to Hell.  The Great Awakening picked up steam from this point and fully 10% of all New England was converted.

As other pastors continued preaching the same way, the Great Awakening continued to spread.  As it did, defenders of the status quo (old lights) were offended at the perceived over-enthusiasm and unrestrained vigor of the “new lights,” or those stressing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ over obedience to a state-sponsored church.  They desired to retain Europe’s model of state support even as they had originally fled Europe’s tyranny.  New light pastors were not always ordained, were not of noble classes as the old lights were and were seen as upsetting proper worship and social order.  Even so, the new lights started universities and people of differing Christian religions continued to expand and flourish.  Methodists following John Wesley and Baptists of many stripes were the greatest beneficiaries, but there were many more ensuring a single religion could no longer dominate.  People would follow their consciences as the Spirit led rather than needing the sanction of an elected state bishop.

Freedom of religion would eventually remove all state support even as the state recognized the need for Christianity to keep a moral base in government.  James Madison was the prime mover in the separation of church and state.  He did so not to destroy religion, but that it might flourish as government would not longer restrain the free exercise thereof.  In separating religion from state-run tyranny, flourish it did.  Writhing in “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things.  In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions.  But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country…I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state.  I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point” (308).  Seeing the success of the Great Awakening and how it influenced America in its founding, he also observed “The sects that exist in the United States are innumerable.  They all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man.  Each sect adores the Deity in its own peculiar manner, but all sects preach the same moral law in the name of God.  If it be of the highest importance to man, as an individual, that his religion should be true, it is not so to society.  Society has no future life to hope for or to fear; and provided the citizens profess a religion the peculiar tenets of that religion are of little importance to its interests.  Moreover, all the sects of the United States are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same” (303).


In the Great Awakening, to avoid persecution, the new lights had to learn to organize, mobilize, and come together as one to defeat political tyranny in their spiritual ranks.  As the old lights tried to banish them, they were all the more encouraged to follow their beliefs even if it meant discarding state clerical authority in matters of spiritual practices.  As they did so, they also focused their objections of British tyranny in civil matters and used what they learned in defeating religious tyranny to accomplish the Revolutionary War to defeat British rule over American government.

Many of the grievances against the British Empire were similar to their grievances in religious matters within the country.  The new lights hated paying taxes to support state ministers of religions they fundamentally disagreed with; American patriots hated taxation without representation to support a government they disagreed with.  The new lights hated the persecutions from the old lights as the patriots hated the persecutions from the Crown.  The new lights demanded freedom of conscience and liberty to preach the gospel; the patriots demanded freedom of action and liberty to govern themselves.  The seeds of revolution were planted with the Great Awakening and our great nation sprouted those seeds after “the shot heard around the world.”

Breaking the tyranny of the state churches allowed us to fight British tyranny as one.  The website wrote “Perhaps the greatest fuel added to the revolutionary fire that began burning in the latter half of the 18th Century was religious pluralism within the colonies. Unlike England, which after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had become spiritually stagnant under the Church of England, the colonists adhered to no single denomination. The splits in churches that revivalism had caused prevented uniformity in religion from becoming a reality. While groups such as the Quakers and Anglicans still existed in areas, none could rise to dominate the religious scene and become the primary American religion. So long as the colonists did not become complacent, their religious zeal would continue to burn strong. Eventually, this religious zeal turned to revolution and sentiments of self-governance. That the religious spirit of the colonists was a necessary component to the drive for independence is confirmed in the sentiments of those who lived during the period of fighting. As British statesman William Knox noted about the American drive for independence, “Every man being thus allowed to be his own Pope, he becomes disposed to wish to become his own King”. John Adams gave credit to the Great Awakening as the source of motivation behind the war, and in certain parts of England the revolution was even called the “Presbyterian Rebellion”. The religious revival of the Great Awakening melded the colonists in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. Eighteenth Century Americans thought of religion as something communitarian – a form of social cooperation – rather than a competitive endeavor of individuals that the world of commerce envisioned. Christians were told to be benevolent and to make self-sacrifices, and many were bound together by way of their shared mass conversions. Thus, they could afford to make sacrifices for their land in times of need.” (, Significance of the Great Awakening: Roots of Revolution).

God used the Revolutionary War not only to establish our nation as one blessed by Him, but also to break down all or the petty jealousies that had plagued Europe with its state religions and dead Christianity. George Washington knew his rag-tag, underfunded, under armed, out gunned army could never defeat the British Empire without God’s blessings and an army fighting as one.  Banning the elitist attitudes of state religions, he focused the army on proper Christian practices serving God without bigotry.  Steve Waldron writes “Washington knew he had to damp down anti-Catholicism.  On September 14, 1775, he banned the practice of burning effigies of the pope once a year.  Moreover, he told (Benedict) Arnold, the troops had to move considerably beyond keeping their bigotry under wraps; they had to convince Catholics that they’d be welcomed into the colonial union and would flourish under the American approach to religious freedom.  ‘Prudence, Policy and true Christian Spirit, will lead us to look with Compassion upon their Errors without insulting them,’ Washington wrote.  His condescending comment about Catholic ‘errors’ notwithstanding, Washington was one of the first to recognize that a revolution based on ‘liberty’ would need to encompass a new approach to religious freedom.  ‘While we are contending for our own Liberty,’ he wrote, ‘we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of men, and to him only in this Case, they are answerable’” (65).

George Washington prayed to God for guidance and victory, established chaplains to bring in morality and comfort, and demanded all fight as one under the banner of freedom for the honor of country and of Christ.  God used the Great Awakening to prepare a people to serve Him.  God used the Revolutionary War to glorify Himself giving us the victory and cast off the stain of man-made religious law.  Without the Great Awakening, the Revolutionary War probably would not have been fought or would have been a grand failure.  Without the Revolutionary War, the old light, new light disagreements would have devolved into focusing on man’s wisdom and split different colonies into different camps.  There would not likely have been a unifying idea of serving Christ but instead self-interest in positions leaving us in the pattern of Europe’s dark ages with new lights winning some states and probably persecuting old lights while the old lights continued persecuting new lights in their colonies.

 This country is not a theocracy, but a secular nation based on Christian principles. The result of the Great Awakening and the Revolutionary War did not leave us with a perfect Christian religion nor a perfect country. The church, led by imperfect men, could not solve all of fallen man’s incorrect ideas or problems but gave us a religious tolerance where man could approach God and let God be the judge of his heart rather than another imperfect man. After the war, the country was full of Calvinists, Armenians, Reformed, Fundamentalists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Catholics all seeking to serve God in Spirit and in Truth. With various degrees of error, they all agreed as one that man was sinful and coming to Christ was the only way to receive the forgiveness of sin and avoid Hell. Our Constitution was written by these same fallen men recognizing their sinful condition leading them to put the checks and balances into our country to avoid Europe’s tyranny. We pray that God will send a Third Great Awakening!


de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America, Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, Inc. 1945, 20th edition.

Waldman, Steven, Founding Faith, Random House, Inc, New York, 2008