The first Great Awakening was a religious revival that swept through the American colonies between the 1730s and the 1770s. It was part of a much larger movement that took place in Europe at the same time, primarily in England, Scotland, and Germany.
Signs of revival first appeared in Pennsylvania and New Jersey among the Presbyterians, under the preaching of William Tennent, a Scots-Irish immigrant, and his four clergy sons. It soon spread to the New England Congregationalists (Puritans) and Baptists. By the 1740s, the revival was sweeping through the entire region, fueled by emotional sermons like Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which described the sinner like a loathsome spider who hung suspended by a thread over a pit of boiling brimstone.
One of the most effective and widely known preachers of the time was George Whitefield, who had allied with John and Charles Wesley to lead a reform movement within the Church of England that eventually became the Methodist Church. Beginning in 1739, Whitefield traveled to the colonies to preach several times, often attracting audiences so large he had to preach outdoors.
The success of these emotional sermons aroused opposition from both conservative and moderate clergy, who charged that the revivals disrupted church and community life. They especially opposed the itinerant preachers who traveled from one community to another to hold revival services because they often criticized the local clergy. The fact that not only women, but also African Americans spoke at these meetings especially outraged the opposition. Congregations and entire denominations split over the revivalists’ challenge to clerical authority and over the evangelical call for conversion from the heart rather than from the head.
Coming up: How the First Great Awakening Influenced the American Revolution