The First Great Awakening — the Beginning of a Common American Identity

18th Century

The First Great Awakening was a religious movement that took place in the American Colonies during the first part of the 18th century. It is most well-known for creating an emphasis on spiritual devotion, individualism, and freedom that contributed to the ideals of the American Revolution.

Jonathan Edwards, Preacher, Great Awakening, NYPL

Jonathan Edwards. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

First Great Awakening Summary

The First Great Awakening was the most significant religious movement of the Colonial Era, sparking an increase in Protestant denominations, including Methodists and Baptists, as well as the establishment of educational institutions like Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, and Rutgers. It also fueled the ideology of the American Revolution by emphasizing the power of the individual over the power of the clergymen or monarchs.

The First Great Awakening unfolded in the American colonies during the 18th century, from the 1730s through the 1760s, although some historians feel it continued into the 1770s. It grew out of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationalism, scientific investigation, and thought, which challenged the old authoritarian ideologies of the Puritans and Anglicans.

The movement was led by influential men like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. It challenged the old ideas that monarchs and clergy were the ones responsible for interpreting God’s will and passing it along to the people. Instead, the First Great Awakening focused on an individual’s ability to have a personal connection with God, allowing them the freedom to interpret the Bible.

The First Great Awakening led to a division in religious denominations as “New Lights” embraced new ideas about religion, and broke away from the “Old Lights.” However, it also created a sense of shared identity among denominations that bridged divisions and encouraged a shared experience of faith where the people were in control. As a result, they believed they had the right to dictate to their leaders — the clergy and politicians — what they wanted and what was best for them.

Despite the rise in the number of Protestant denominations and the spread of religious freedom, there was still fear and distrust of Catholicism. Americans considered the French Catholics living in Canada to be their enemies, and that idea continued through the French and Indian War. It was heightened when Parliament passed the Quebec Act, which is often considered part of the Intolerable Acts.

However, by the time of the American Revolutionary War, American sentiment shifted and the First Continental Congress and Second Continental Congress attempted — and failed — to convince Quebec to become the 14th Colony.

George Whitefield, Preacher, Great Awakening, NYPL
This illustration depicts George Whitefield. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Facts About the First Great Awakening

1. The First Great Awakening was a Protestant religious revival that occurred in the American Colonies during the 18th century. It was the first movement that was shared in all the colonies, helping transform colonial society and establishing a common “American” identity.

2. It was a response to the growing influence of the Enlightenment and the emphasis on reason and rationalism, which led to the idea that a person’s destiny was not pre-ordained by God — Predestination — or controlled by churches and monarchs.

3. The movement went away from traditional Calvinist ideas that God only provided salvation to an “elected” group, such as the Puritans, and challenged the idea that the Pope or the King of England stood between the individual and God.

4. The movement brought about a renewed interest in Christianity, resulting in increased church attendance and conversions.

5. Prominent leaders of the First Great Awakening included George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. 

6. Whitefield was an Anglican minister from Britain who traveled throughout the American Colonies, attracting people with his passionate sermons. Whitefield went on speaking tours from the late 1730s until he died in 1770. It is estimated that Whitefield drew as many as 30,000 people at the height of his popularity. Whitefield was inspired by John Wesley, a Methodist evangelist who traveled through Europe, speaking outdoors to large groups of people.

7. Edwards emphasized human sinfulness and divine judgment in his sermons, including “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” as he encouraged people to repent and ask God to save them.

8. The Great Awakening led to the formation of “New Lights” (embracing revivalist ideas) and “Old Lights” (adhering to traditional practices) within religious communities.

9. The First Great Awakening had a significant impact on the growth of religious denominations, including Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, leading to a decrease in the popularity and power of the New England Congregationalists (Puritans), Quakers, and Anglicans.

10. The movement contributed to the founding of several educational institutions, such as Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, and Rutgers universities.

11. The printing press made the ideology of the First Great Awakening more accessible to the common people, which allowed it to spread and gain acceptance.

12. The term “Great Awakening” was not used until the 1830s, during the so-called “Second Great Awakening.”

Causes of the First Great Awakening

The First Great Awakening was influenced by several factors that grew out of the Enlightenment, including advances in navigation tools, the printing press, and vaccination against diseases. The scientific work of Sir Isaac Newton, along with the writing of John Locke, also played an important role in explaining how the world worked.

These advancements and changes challenged traditional beliefs, which were perpetuated by the clergymen and monarchs. The Enlightenment contributed to a growing dissatisfaction with the rigid requirements of the Puritans and the Anglican Church, leading to a decline in church attendance and overall interest in religion.

Leaders of the Great Awakening

Key figures in the First Great Awakening included Jonathan Edwards, whose powerful sermons emphasized human sinfulness and the need for repentance, and George Whitefield, an Anglican minister known for his charismatic preaching style and ability to draw large crowds.

Solomon Stoddard, a Puritan Congregational minister from Northampton, Massachusetts, and Theodore Frelinghuysen, a German Reformist minister from New Jersey, also held revivals that helped start the movement. Gilbert Tennent was another leader. He was a Presbyterian who was close to both Frelinghuysen and Whitefield.

Sermons and Revivals

Notable events included Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which vividly portrayed the consequences of sin, and George Whitefield’s extensive preaching tours that attracted thousands of listeners. 

Large-scale revivals and conversions were common, as well as the establishment of new colleges focusing on the principles of the First Great Awakening. 

Because sermons and meetings were held outside, they were mobile. They were held in large cities, like Philadelphia, but also in the rural areas throughout the countryside.

Theology of the Great Awakening

The theology of the First Great Awakening centered around the belief in personal salvation through repentance and faith in Christ. It emphasized the concept of spiritual rebirth and the idea that all individuals, regardless of social status, could have a direct and emotional connection with God. 

The movement rejected formalism and encouraged a more intimate and heartfelt religious experience between the individual and God. It also rejected the idea of “predestination,” which was a cornerstone of the Puritan theology.

For many Americans — farmers, merchants, and craftsmen — many who had made their own way in the world, the new theology confirmed what they already believed — they controlled their own destiny.

The Great Awakening Spreads Through the Colonies

The movement initially began in the Middle Colonies, particularly New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where Presbyterian leaders sought to revitalize religious devotion. It then spread to New England and the Southern colonies through itinerant preachers like Whitefield, who traveled extensively, delivering passionate sermons that resonated with diverse audiences.

Impact of the First Great Awakening

Social, Cultural, and Political Impact

The First Great Awakening fostered a sense of unity among colonists, as people from different colonies and social backgrounds shared a common religious experience. It also challenged existing hierarchies and contributed to the democratization of religion by emphasizing individual spiritual experiences. The revival’s emphasis on self-determination and personal transformation also had lasting impacts on political and cultural attitudes.

Changes to the Religious Landscape in Colonial America

The First Great Awakening marked a departure from the religious complacency of the time. It brought about a surge in religious enthusiasm, prompting individuals to seek personal connections with God beyond the confines of established churches. This led to increased church attendance, conversions, and the rise of new denominations.

New Religious Denominations 

The movement led to the growth of new religious denominations, such as Methodism and Baptism, which prioritized individual spiritual experiences and rejected rigid institutionalism. Existing denominations also experienced revitalization and growth as a result of increased conversions and renewed interest in religious matters.

Ideology of the American Revolution

The First Great Awakening encouraged individuals to think independently and challenged the traditional authority of established religious institutions. This newfound sense of personal agency extended to political and social matters, laying the groundwork for the revolutionary spirit. The emphasis on spiritual equality and individual connection with God also contributed to evolving notions of democracy and individual rights.

Timeline of the First Great Awakening

Early 18th Century — Colonial America sees a decline in religious dedication as the Enlightenment challenges traditional beliefs, and churches become more formalized and institutionalized.

1720s —  Presbyterian leaders in New Jersey and Pennsylvania initiate efforts to revitalize religious devotion, leading to the establishment of the “log college,” which later becomes Princeton University.

1730s–1740s — The First Great Awakening sweeps through the American Colonies, emphasizing personal salvation, an emotional connection with God, and the rejection of formalism.

1739–1740 — George Whitefield arrives in Georgia and embarks on a preaching tour along the Atlantic Coast, attracting large crowds with his charismatic and theatrical sermons.

1741 — Jonathan Edwards delivers his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” vividly depicting the consequences of sin and urging repentance by the members of his congregation.

Mid-18th Century —  The First Great Awakening fosters unity among colonists, challenges social hierarchies, and democratizes religion by emphasizing individual spiritual experiences.

1750s — The fervor of the First Great Awakening begins to wane by the mid-18th century, as other cultural and intellectual shifts take hold.

Late 18th Century — The First Great Awakening’s emphasis on personal transformation, individual agency, and emotional spirituality leaves a lasting impact on American religious identity and culture.

Why was the First Great Awakening Significant?

The First Great Awakening is important to United States history because it transformed the religious landscape in the 13 Original Colonies. It spurred the establishment of new denominations while emphasizing the ability of individuals to have a say in their destiny, establishing the concept of self-government among Americans.

First Great Awakening APUSH Notes and Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Colonial Era, the New England Colonies, the Middle Colonies, and the Southern Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

First Great Awakening APUSH Definition

The First Great Awakening was a period of religious revival that took place in the American Colonies in the 18th century. The movement, which was characterized by emotional preaching and conversions, had a significant impact on the religious landscape of the colonies and played a role in the development of Protestant denominations in the United States and a common American identity. It was led by ministers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, who were known for their powerful and emotional sermons.

First Great Awakening Video for APUSH Notes

Religion in America — Related Terms and Definitions for APUSH Study

The following Terms and Definitions are related to the First Great Awakening and will help provide a deeper understanding of the subject for AP US History studies.

Act of Toleration — The Act of Toleration was a law passed in Maryland in 1649 that granted religious freedom to all Christians living in the colony. The act was a response to the religious conflict that had arisen in the colony, which was originally founded as a haven for Catholics. The act stated that all Christians, including Catholics, Protestants, and Quakers, were allowed to worship freely and were exempt from persecution. The Act of Toleration was one of the first laws in the English colonies to grant religious freedom and was an important precedent for the development of religious toleration in the United States.

Roger WilliamsRoger Williams was a Puritan minister and founder of the colony of Rhode Island. He was a strong advocate for religious freedom and believed that the Church of England, which was the official church in the colonies, had no right to impose its beliefs on others. Williams was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for his beliefs and founded the settlement of Providence, which later became the colony of Rhode Island. Williams also played a key role in the establishment of the Baptist Church in America.

Roger Williams, Banishment, Painting, Detail
Roger Williams. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Rhode Island — Rhode Island is a state located in the northeastern United States. It was founded in the early 17th century by Roger Williams, a Puritan minister who believed in religious freedom. The colony, which was initially called Providence, was established as a haven for people of all religious beliefs and became known for its religious tolerance and diversity. Rhode Island was one of the original 13 colonies and played a key role in the development of the United States.

Cotton Mather — Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister and scholar who played a significant role in the early history of the English colonies in North America. Mather was a prolific writer and was known for his work on theology, science, and history. He was also involved in the Salem Witch Trials and was a strong advocate for the use of smallpox inoculation to prevent the spread of the disease.

Anne Hutchinson — Anne Hutchinson was a Puritan religious leader who is best known for her role in the Antinomian Controversy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hutchinson was a strong advocate for religious freedom and believed that individuals should be free to interpret the Bible for themselves. She also believed that salvation was a matter of faith, not good works, which was at odds with the beliefs of the Puritan leaders in Massachusetts. Hutchinson was eventually excommunicated from the church and was forced to leave the colony.

Antinomianism — Antinomianism is a belief that Christians are not bound by moral laws or rules, but are saved by faith alone. The belief was held by some members of the Puritan community in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, including Anne Hutchinson, who was excommunicated for her antinomian beliefs. The belief was seen as a threat to the authority of the church and the social order in the colony, and those who held these beliefs were often ostracized or punished.

Halfway Covenant — The Halfway Covenant was a policy adopted by the Puritan church in the late 17th century in response to the decline in religious piety among its members. The policy allowed people who were not fully converted, or “halfway saints,” to participate in certain church functions, such as baptism, but not in others, such as communion. The Halfway Covenant was seen as a way to encourage more people to become fully converted, but it was also controversial because it allowed people who were not fully committed to the church to participate in its rituals.

Quakers — Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, is a Christian denomination founded in the 17th century by George Fox. Quakers believe in the “inner light,” or the presence of God within each individual, and place a strong emphasis on social justice and equality. They are known for their commitment to nonviolence and their refusal to take oaths. Quakers played a significant role in the abolition of slavery and were instrumental in the development of the American prison system.

William Penn — William Penn was an English Quaker and the founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, which later became the state of Pennsylvania. Penn was granted a charter by King Charles II in 1681 to establish a colony in the New World as a haven for Quakers and other religious minorities. Penn also played a key role in the development of the concept of religious freedom in the colonies and was instrumental in the passage of the Charter of Liberties, which granted religious freedom to all inhabitants of the colony.

Holy Experiment — The Holy Experiment was a term used to describe the founding of the Province of Pennsylvania by William Penn in the late 17th century. Penn established the colony as a haven for Quakers and other religious minorities and implemented a policy of religious tolerance and freedom. The colony became known as the “Holy Experiment” because it was seen as a test of the idea that a society based on religious freedom and tolerance could succeed.

Charter of Liberties (1701) — The Charter of Liberties, also known as the Charter of Privileges, was a document issued by William Penn in 1701 that outlined the rights and privileges of the inhabitants of the Province of Pennsylvania. The charter granted religious freedom to all inhabitants of the colony, regardless of their faith, and established a system of representative government. The Charter of Liberties was one of the first documents in the English colonies to guarantee religious freedom and was an important precedent for the development of religious toleration in the United States.

Religious Toleration — Religious toleration is the principle that individuals should be free to practice their own religion without interference from the state or from other individuals. The concept of religious toleration developed in the early modern period as a response to religious conflicts and persecution. It became more widely accepted in the English colonies in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and played a significant role in the development of religious freedom in the United States.

Established Church — An established church is a state-supported church that has a privileged legal status and is recognized as the official church of a particular state or region. In the English colonies, the established church was typically the Church of England, although other denominations, such as the Congregational Church in New England, also had established status in some areas. The concept of an established church was controversial, as it gave the state a role in religious matters and often led to persecution of minority religious groups.

Jonathan Edwards — Jonathan Edwards was a Puritan minister and theologian who played a key role in the First Great Awakening. Edwards was known for his powerful and emotional preaching, which was focused on the idea of the depravity of human nature and the need for conversion. He was also a leading figure in the development of the Calvinist theology that was dominant in the early American colonies.

George Whitefield — George Whitefield was an Anglican minister who played a key role in the First Great Awakening. Whitefield was known for his powerful and emotional preaching style and was one of the first ministers to use the new medium of the printed sermon to spread his message. He traveled extensively throughout the colonies, preaching to large crowds and helping to spark the revival known as the First Great Awakening.

Sectarian — Sectarian refers to a narrow or exclusive focus on the beliefs and practices of a particular religious sect or denomination. Sectarianism is often characterized by a lack of tolerance or acceptance of other religious beliefs and practices and can lead to conflicts and divisions within a society.

Non-sectarian — Non-sectarian refers to an approach or organization that is not affiliated with or limited to any particular religious sect or denomination. Non-sectarian institutions, such as schools or hospitals, are open to people of all religious beliefs and do not promote or prioritize any one particular faith. Non-sectarianism is often associated with a commitment to inclusivity and diversity and is often contrasted with sectarianism, which is characterized by a narrow or exclusive focus on the beliefs and practices of a particular religious sect or denomination.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The First Great Awakening — the Beginning of a Common American Identity
  • Date 18th Century
  • Author
  • Keywords First Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 29, 2023