The Great Awakening, which had spent its force in New England by the mid-1740s, split the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches into supporters--called "New Lights" and "New Side"--and opponents--the "Old Lights" and "Old Side." Many New England New Lights became Separate Baptists. Together with New Side Presbyterians (eventually reunited on their own terms with the Old Side) they carried the Great Awakening into the southern colonies, igniting a series of the revivals that lasted well into the nineteenth century.
Although not its most prominent preacher (that credit goes to the itinerant British evangelist George Whitfield) or the most outspoken (that palm goes to New Jersey's fiery Gilbert Tennant), Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who spent virtually all of his career in western Massachusetts, is the leader who we generally think of when we think of the Great Awakening. This identification is due to Edwards' extraordinary chronicles of the progress of the revival and his ambitious efforts both to frame it out as an historical event and to relate its methods and purposes to the mainstream of Enlightenment philosophy.
What had begun as a movement of God among the young people became "universal," and everyone, young and old, seemed to talk only of religion and salvation. Many more began attending the private meetings in homes for discussing spiritual topics, and church assemblies became energized with fervent singing. The fleeting pleasures of carousing and joking were replaced by what Edwards called "spiritual mirth."
In a very real, the Awakening was an essential preparation for the American Revolution. More than this, it oriented New England Protestantism towards collective action through popularly-based voluntary associations. For some, this meant challenges to "unGodly" ministers--and protracted struggles for the control of congregations. For others, it led to splitting away from the established tax-supported church altogether and the formation of congregation supported by the voluntary contributions of their members.
The Great Awakening had several results. It caused permanent divisions in some denominations as some members supported the revival, while others condemned its emotionalism. It weakened some parishes because many people gave their loyalty to wandering preachers instead of their home congregations. It inspired mission work among the Indians and stimulated the founding of schools. Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, and other colleges were a direct result of the revival. Another major impact was democratization and the downgrading of authority structures, which fed the rebellion that grew into the American Revolution.
The First Great Awakening also gained impetus from the wideranging 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.
Revivals are extraordinary religious events, and to flourish they require a particular context. First, they originate where there is a culture that expects a periodic showering of God's grace and recognizes the signs of a genuine revival when it appears. Second, they occur when people within that culture perceive a need for revival. Second, they occur when people within that culture perceive a need for revival, a time when the state of religion is thought to have sunk to a low point.
In the mid-1730s, colonial revivalists surveyed the religious landscape around them and found it to be in a deplorable state. They saw men and women attending worship services, but they witnessed little practice of genuine piety. They feared that, for many, faith had been reduced to an intellectual acceptance of certain propositions rather than a life-changing conversion experience. Rather than despairing, the awakeners took hope in the midst of spiritual decline.
The Great Awakening began in the 1720s and lasted for about 20 years. Its leading figures were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. It was part of a religious ferment that began in Europe and spread to the British colonies. The revival took place mainly among the Dutch Reformed, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The chief emphasis was fear -- the terrors of eternal damnation for nonbelievers. One of the most famous sermons of the time was "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," by Jonathan Edwards.
On Sunday evening, October 29, a terrible earthquake shook the homes of New Englanders, awakening many both physically and spiritually. This was followed by a long series of aftershocks, which kept the threat fresh in the minds of penitents. Immediately churches filled with seekers anxious to secure their salvation, lest they be caught unprepared for their own death.