First Great Awakening

Edwards, Rev. Jonathan (July 8, 1741), Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, A Sermon Preached at Enfield

The First Great Awakening (sometimes Great Awakening) or the Evangelical Revival was a series of Christian revivals that swept Britain and its Thirteen Colonies between the 1730s and 1740s. The revival movement permanently affected Protestantism as adherents strove to renew individual piety and religious devotion. The Great Awakening marked the emergence of Anglo-American evangelicalism as a transdenominational movement within the Protestant churches. In the United States, the term Great Awakening is most often used, while in the United Kingdom, it is referred to as the Evangelical Revival.

Building on the foundations of older traditions—Puritanism, pietism and Presbyterianism—major leaders of the revival such as George Whitefield, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards articulated a theology on revival and salvation that transcended denominational boundaries and helped create a common evangelical identity. Revivalists added to the doctrinal imperatives of Reformation Protestantism an emphasis on providential outpourings of the Holy Spirit. Extemporaneous preaching gave listeners a sense of deep personal conviction of their need of salvation by Jesus Christ and fostered introspection and commitment to a new standard of personal morality. Revival theology stressed that religious conversion was not only intellectual assent to correct Christian doctrine but had to be a "new birth" experienced in the heart. Revivalists also taught that receiving assurance of salvation was a normal expectation in the Christian life.

While the Evangelical Revival united evangelicals across various denominations around shared beliefs, it also led to division in existing churches between those who supported the revivals and those who did not. Opponents accused the revivals of fostering disorder and fanaticism within the churches by enabling uneducated, itinerant preachers and encouraging religious enthusiasm. In England, evangelical Anglicans would grow into an important constituency within the Church of England, and Methodism would develop out of the ministries of Whitefield and Wesley. In the American colonies, the Awakening caused the Congregational and Presbyterian churches to split, while it strengthened both the Methodist and Baptist denominations. It had little impact on most Lutherans, Quakers, and non-Protestants.[1]

Evangelical preachers "sought to include every person in conversion, regardless of gender, race, and status."[2] Throughout the colonies, especially in the South, the revival movement increased the number of African slaves and free blacks who were exposed to and subsequently converted to Christianity.[3] It also inspired the creation of new missionary societies, such as the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792.[4]

Events in continental Europe

Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom sees the Great Awakening as part of a "great international Protestant upheaval" that also created pietism in the Lutheran and Reformed churches of continental Europe.[5] Pietism emphasized heartfelt religious faith in reaction to an overly intellectual Protestant scholasticism perceived as spiritually dry. Significantly, the pietists placed less emphasis on traditional doctrinal divisions between Protestant churches, focusing rather on religious experience and affections.[6]

Pietism prepared Europe for revival, and it usually occurred in areas where pietism was strong. The most important leader of the Awakening in central Europe was Nicolaus Zinzendorf, a Saxon noble who studied under pietist leader August Hermann Francke at Halle University.[7] In 1722, Zinzendorf invited members of the Moravian Church to live and worship on his estates, establishing a community at Herrnhut. The Moravians came to Herrnhut as refugees, but under Zinzendorf's guidance, the group enjoyed a religious revival. Soon, the community became a refuge for other Protestants as well, including German Lutherans, Reformed Christians and Anabaptists. The church began to grow, and Moravian societies would be established in England where they would help foster the Evangelical Revival as well.[8]