Moments in Church History 2: How Great Was the Great Awakening?

Alex Couch writes the latest post in our series entitled Moments in Church History. Alex analyzes the historiographical debate regarding how great the Great Awakening truly was. What, if any, was the connection between the revivals in New England led by Whitfield and those in Virginia led by Davis and Morris? Understanding the breadth and impact of the Great Awakening is important for Christians today; while we sometimes overestimate the degree to which Judeo-Christian values influenced the founding fathers, the influence, to the extent that it exists, is probably best found in the way that the Great Awakening revivals impacted American normative social values. For the rest of the paper this post is drawn from and for footnotes/sources, feel free to leave a comment.

The basic understanding for most of the 20th century was that there were several movements of spiritual revivals that swept through the American colonies in the mid-eighteenth century. These spiritual revivals have been coined the Great Awakening and this phrase has been widely accepted. In other words, the term Great Awakening was used to describe a series of events that spanned a number of years over a large geographic area that have been touted to be related and significant.

In 1982, Jon Butler wrote an essay that challenged the prevailing understanding of what the Great Awakening was. Butler credited Joseph Tracy as the first person to use the term “Great Awakening” to “evaluate all the prerevolutionary revivals” in his 1842 book, The Great Awakening. Butler argued that historians “should abandon the term…because it distorts the character of eighteenth-century American religious life and misinterprets its relationship to prerevolutionary American society and politics.” He noted the fact that, other than Tracy’s book, there had not been a true “comprehensive general history” written on the subject and that all the studies were regional or local in nature. His main argument against the term was that he viewed the revivals as unconnected and unrelated. His evidence included the large gaps in time between revivals and the regions and cities that were unaffected or did not experience any revivals at all. Furthermore, he found no evidence of organization or leadership that directed revivals.

The question is phrased accordingly: Were the revivals that happened in New England in the 1740’s related to the revivals that happened in Virginia in the later half of the 1700’s, and if so were those connections significant?

There exists a general consensus among the scholars that New England did have a unique experience with revivals during the early 1740’s. Butler wrote that “no one would seriously question the existence of ‘the Great Awakening’ if historians only described it as a short-lived Calvinist revival in New England during the early 1740s.” However, this event by itself is not significant or great in historical terms. In order to be significant there are two prerequisites that must be satisfied. First, there needs be a connection made that relates the revivals in New England to the revivals in other colonies and regions. Second, in order to be significant, the connections between the various revivals must be traceable and measurable both quantitatively and qualitatively.

The connection of the Great Awakening in the north to the first phase of the Great Awakening in Virginia is apparent and defined. Whitefield (influential in the New England revivals) had influence over Morris (Virginia revivalist) and was at least partially responsible for his success in the area of preaching. The Log College and the Tennent family’s connection to Whitefield is apparent through Whitefield’s request to Gilbert Tennent to go from the Pennsylvania to New England to assist in the revival taking place there in 1740. Gilbert toured New England extensively, with Whitefield and by himself. Another participant in the revivals at that time was Jonathan Edwards. Whitefield was fond of Edward’s father and he visited Edwards’ church during the Great Awakening in New England of the 1740’s. Edwards accompanied him to other churches nearby. It was after his encounter with Whitefield that Edwards wrote his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Edwards had developed quite a reputation primarily in the New England area, but also in the other colonies though not to the extent as Whitefield and Tennent. An example of Edward’s influence in Virginia can be seen in Davis’ appeal to Edwards. After experiencing much success in Hanover, Davis tried to recruit Edwards to go to Virginia. Edwards had practiced some itinerate preaching but never went to Virginia. Gilbert Tennent did however go to Virginia, which had an impact primarily on Hanover County. All of these men were intertwined in their impact on closing the gap between the revivals in New England and Virginia. Davis and his moderate movement in Hanover paved the way for the second phase of the Great Awakening in Virginia. The Baptists being more radical benefited from Davis’ first attempt at disrupting and penetrating the Anglican aristocratic movement. The Anglican Church felt threatened by the Baptists and over 30 Baptist itinerates were imprisoned in Virginia. This was primarily due to the Baptists’ “disregard for the colonies conventional hierarchies of race and gender.”

The Anglican Church represented lines between individual colonies and London. The growth of denominations blurred that line and it showed the colonies they had something unique and Americana. Virginians could appreciate the growth of the Presbyterian Church or any other denomination in New England and relate it to what was happening in Virginia. John Adams said “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the mind and hearts of the people: and change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” Connections between the awakenings in New England and Virginia are apparent but are most clearly seen in the leadership. That leadership was not rigid but that became a defining feature of the new American system of churches. The impact the growth of churches had is also significant in Virginia. The religious backdrop had started to drastically change. Surly some exaggeration has occurred in the past and Jon Bulter should be commended for his challenging essay. More research and discussion is needed to solve the issue with any finality but today it can be said with some degree of certainty, that in terms of their importance, the revivals in New England and Virginia were truly “Great.”

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