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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Great Awakening

Jonathan Edwards, minister of the Congregational Church of Northampton, Massachusetts, wanted to reawaken religious devotion in a society where moral principles seemed to be declining along with church membership, a problem occurring throughout the colonies. In 1734, Edwards led a small revival to "bring the sinful to a knowledge of God and to the experience of spiritual rebirth."¹ Upon hearing Edwards and other ministers preach, audiences felt extreme despair over their sinful behavior followed by a sense of God's forgiveness. Those with a reawakened religious fervor were said to have been saved or "reborn." Over a six-month period there were more than 300 "conversions." Nonetheless, by the end of 1735, this religious resurgence began to die down.

Then George Whitefield, a young, charismatic, English Methodist preacher, began traveling up and down the colonies. Whitefield's unique method of preaching involved dramatically depicting the horrors faced by sinners condemned to Hell. His fearful audiences became hysterical as they realized their sinfulness and their peril. Recognizing their utter dependence on Christ for their salvation, hundreds of members of Whitefield's audience underwent conversion and were reborn. Through his passionate sermons, George Whitefield revived the religious enthusiasm Jonathan Edwards had stirred and helped it to spread.

After preaching in some of Boston's churches, Whitefield went to Northampton, Massachusetts to preach in Edwards' church. The congregation wept and moaned, and Edwards was as taken as his congregation with the dynamic preacher. He and several other ministers, including the young Joseph Bellamy, a minister in Connecticut, spent most of 1741-1742 riding about New England preaching impassioned sermons meant to bring sinners back to the fold of the church. The movement spread throughout the northern and central colonies.

The Great Awakening, as this period of religious resurgence came to be called, appealed to all levels of society, but particularly to the common man. Instead of sitting in a meeting house with a local congregation listening to a highly intellectual sermon, worshippers stood in open fields filled with thousands of other people to hear sermons preached in emotional and simple language. For people who led lives based on hard work and sincere worship, these were profound religious experiences.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What problems with the Congregational Church troubled Jonathan Edwards? What action did he take to solve these problems?

2. Who was George Whitefield? How did he inspire a religious revival in the American colonies?

3. What was the Great Awakening? How did it appeal to common people?

Reading 1 was compiled from Bernard Bailyn, Robert Dallek, et al. The Great Republic, Vol. 1 (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992); James A. Henretta and Gregory H. Noble, Evolution and Revolution (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1987); and general references on the Great Awakening.

¹Bernard Bailyn, Robert Dallek, et al. The Great Republic, Vol. 1 (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992), 169-70.

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