The Effects of the Great Awakening in America

From the Lecture Series—A History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

The Great Awakening in the American colonies happened as the result of a multitude of events that took place over several decades. This uprising was notable for its religious aspects but the effects of the Great Awakening were much more powerful than anyone anticipated.

A mural depicting religious figures in a church
A mural in a church of Florence, Italy, depicting religious figures. (Image: Conde/ Shutterstock)

From the Salem witch trials to George Whitefield’s rise to fame, many events and people came together to make the Great Awakening happen. The Great Awakening was a religious revival that later became a political movement. Its impacts on the American colonies were far-reaching and outlived its leaders.  

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Two Men Who Shaped the Great Awakening

Jonathan Edwards was a highly influential preacher in the Great Awakening. He was known for being a powerful thinker with a genuine talent for philosophical speculation.

Edwards aimed at giving the movement a philosophical and psychological rationale. He spent over six years to publish his justifications of the Awakening in a series of articles: The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God in 1741, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in 1742, and A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections in 1746. These treatises were the most sophisticated treatments of the essence of religious experience printed in the 1700s.

George Whitefield was a priest from the Church of England, who became the greatest preacher of his time during the Great Awakening. His magical voice and sermons gathered tens of thousands of people. One can argue that he was the face of the movement to a great extent.

Whitefield’s efforts were treated differently by two different groups of preachers. Some welcomed him as a help to their preaching of revival. In contrast, others saw him as an annoying person whose teachings misled the commoners. In particular, the ministers of Massachusetts were not at all happy with him. Many did not want to accept him as a primary leader of the movement. Whitefield was given names from ‘enthusiast’ to ‘son of Satan’ by his fans and enemies.  

Learn more about the Great Awakening.

The Fate of Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards was surprised by how the Awakening in Northampton exceeded even what he regarded as the bounds of propriety. “The people were exceedingly moved, crying out in great numbers in the meeting house,” Edwards wrote.

In an attempt to calm down the Awakening’s mad passions, in 1742, Edwards introduced a new test for membership in the Northampton church. The result, however, was exactly the opposite of what he planned. The Northampton congregation was embarrassed by this decision and turned on Edwards, forcing him to resign in 1750.

He rejected well-paid offers of clergies in New York and Scotland to become a missionary to the Mohegan Indians at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 1757, Edwards was elected president of the new College of New Jersey at Princeton. He did not reject this post and arrived at Princeton at the beginning of 1758 when smallpox was uncontrollably spreading.

Nassau Hall in Princeton University,
Nassau Hall in Princeton University. (Image: ssguy/Shutterstock)

Medical procedures in the 18th century were not sufficiently reliable. Although Edwards was vaccinated against smallpox, he was too weak to survive the vaccination. He died of complications on March 5, 1758.

The Fate of George Whitefield

George Whitefield always had a passion for good deeds. Since 1738, he had tried to build an orphanage in Georgia, where a large number of young children were left without guardians. Once the uprising had settled, Whitefield managed to establish that orphanage and traveled back and forth between England and America for the rest of his life. He finally lost the battle to asthma and died in Newport, Massachusetts (in 1770), where he was buried.

The Great Awakening Reaching the End

Like everything else, the revival could not continue forever. In 1758, a chastened Gilbert Tennent led the reunion of the Presbyterian churches he and his father had helped divide.

American historian Richard Bushman once described the Great Awakening as having “all the influence of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and the campus and urban uprisings of the 1960s, all put together as one.” At the same time, the Awakening’s connections with European Pietism and with English characters like Whitefield may imply that American colonies wanted to move closer to European and English models. The Awakening also promoted a vast questioning of traditional authority, offering a uniquely American way of dealing with tension and uncertainty about its national meaning and identity.

Institutional Effects of the Great Awakening

Almost 350 new churches were built as a result of the Awakening. About 50,000 American converts filled the new churches and the already established ones.

Furthermore, the pro-Awakening factions—the new lights and the new side—built new colleges: Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, and Princeton. They were all established by people who supported the Awakening and were eager to train clergy who would continue to support its principles.

Learn more about the Second Great Awakening.

Cultural Effects of the Great Awakening

The Great Awakening had substantial cultural impacts. The mass marketing of Whitefield’s sermons weakened the control of the colonial elite over the media of the 1700s. The movement also inspired religious conversion and encouraged Americans, principally through missionary work, to see themselves as exporters of ideas to other cultures.

As a result of the Great Awakening, citizens of New England, as well as other Americans, regained their sense of mission that had been dormant for years. The Awakening also sparked a change in the most authoritarian institutions in British North America: the church. This was because people were allowed to question and sometimes to dismiss their leaders.

Learn more about the Rejection of Empire.

The Lasting Effects of the Great Awakening

The Great Awakening was the first religious revival in American history. Since that time, Americans have relied on religious revivals to resolve the great cultural crises that they have encountered as a people. The effects of evangelical awakenings, such as those in the 1820s and 1858, are seen throughout the country’s history, including the Civil War.

Image of soldiers in the American Civil War.
Union soldiers sit in trenches awaiting the Battle of Petersburg, Virginia, 9 June, 1864. (Image: Everett Historical /Shutterstock)

The issues of industrialism in the late 19th century, and even the Cold War, were no exception. During these times, Americans have come to terms with all of the confrontation, sorrow, and pain of transition through evangelical revivals.

The pattern set by the Great Awakening of the 1740s may be its most enduring contribution to modern America. It may even be the most lasting cultural contribution that the colonial era made to the rest of American history.

Common Questions about the Effects of the Great Awakening

Q: What is the significance of the Great Awakening?

The movement reduced the higher authority of church doctrine and instead put greater importance on the individual and his or her spiritual experience. An important effect of the Great Awakening was the transformation of the religious climate in the American colonies.

Q: How long did the Great Awakening last?

The Great Awakening began in the 1730s and lasted less than ten years, until 1740. The effects of the Great Awakening, though, lasted much longer and, according to some scholars, still affect the American society.

Q: What was a leading effect of the Great Awakening?

The primary effect of the Great Awakening was that it encouraged people to rethink and renew their religious commitment and passion to develop a greater appreciation for God’s mercy.

Q: What was the Great Awakening summary?

The summary of Great Awakening was breaking the monopoly of the Puritan church since after the Great Awakening colonists began pursuing diverse religious affiliations and interpreting the Bible for themselves.

Keep Reading
American History: The Very First American Colonies
Meet the Puritans: Founders of New England