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The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening was an outpouring of religious enthusiasm that occurred in the American colonies in the mid-18th century. Smaller local revivals had occurred in New Jersey in the 1720s with Theodorus Freylinghuysen of the Dutch Reformed Church and the father-and-son team of William and Gilbert Tennent.

The movement was fully ignited in 1739-40 by the dramatic preaching of George Whitefield, an associate of John Wesley in England. Whitefield conducted a revival tour throughout the colonies and drew huge crowds with his emotional sermons.

In New England, the Awakening was fired by the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, a minister in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards championed an unremitting Calvinism that contrasted sharply with the emotional messages being preached in other areas. His views differed from his congregation and eventually cost him his pulpit.

The initial enthusiasm of many colonial ministers later gave way to doubts. Many revivalists were not formally trained, rendering them suspect in the eyes of the old-line clergy. Further, the emotional services in many cases emptied the pews of the established churches. Older New England denominations like the Congregationalists and Presbyterians split into "Old Lights" and "New Lights". Newer denominations, such as the Methodists and Baptists, grew rapidly.

The central theme of revivalism was the need of sinful, undeserving man to undergo an emotionally charged conversion experience.

The Great Awakening led to efforts to convert Indian communities and also the establishment of new institutions of higher learning (Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton and Rutgers).

The impact of the Great Awakening was mixed. Thousands were brought into the churches by the wave of enthusiasm, but denominations and communities were split by doctrinal differences. The movements also served to lessen the hold of the Anglican Church and, in the process, weaken royal authority.

Not everyone was taken with the work of the Reverend Mr. Whitefield. One of the leading voices of restraint was Charles Chauncy, a minister of the First Church of Boston. He wrote to a Scottish minister in 1742, in part: "I deny not but there might be here and there a person stopped from going on in a course of sin; and some might be made really better. But so far as I could judge upon the nicest observation, the town, in general, was not much mended in those things wherein a reformation was greatly needed. I could not discern myself, nor many others whom I have talked with and challenged on this head, but that there was the same pride and vanity, the same luxury and intemperance, the same lying and tricking and cheating as before this gentleman came among us."

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