The Leaders of the Great Awakening

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

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

The Great Awakening was first a religious, and later a political movement, which revived interest in religion in the English colonies in America. Although it was most prominent during the 1730s and 1740s, the movement was indeed the result of numerous events spanning several decades. What was the spark that ignited this dramatic upheaval? And who were the leaders of the Great Awakening?

Illustration of a church from the 1750s
A street view of Arch Street between Third and Fourth Streets, depicting the Second Presbyterian Church, built 1750-1753, post the split between the Old and New Light Presbyterians. (Image: Library Company of Philadelphia/No restrictions)

Since the 1680s, many events in the British colonies had brought the desire for change and a better life. This desire was primarily expressed in defying common religious beliefs of the time.

The Great Awakening was, in fact, a religious revival. It was a rejuvenation of both personal and corporate religious concerns and interests. This vast Awakening took place in at least three of the major epicenters of British North America: New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Religious concerns were common in New England, with its long pattern of interest in personal religious renewal. But the Great Awakening was beyond a mere individual spiritual crisis among scattered congregations. For this reason, what started as a religious movement soon turned into a political upheaval. The political effects of the Great Awakening in New England even ignited Pietism, a larger pattern of evangelical Protestant renewal movements in Europe.

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As unlikely as it may seem, both Pennsylvania and Virginia had high potentials to become sources of considerable religious revival. From 1680 until 1740, they were the destination of numerous Scots-Irish Presbyterian immigrants, many of whom had the same religious attitudes and stances as the New England Puritans.

Therefore, it’s easy to see that society was eager for religious renewal. It was during this time that several key individuals became the catalysts that sparked an irreversible reaction.

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Jonathan Edwards

Image of Jonathan Edwards
An image of Jonathan Edwards, one of the leaders of the Great Awakening. (Image: Themadchopper/Public Domain)

In 1729, Jonathan Edwards became the pastor of the community church of Northampton in western Massachusetts. Despite being a powerful thinker with a genuine talent for philosophical speculation, Edwards was not a captivating or entertaining preacher. Later, in the winter of 1734, a sudden upsurge of religious interest in the town of Northampton rewarded his ministry and his efforts.

Edwards was very content with the outcome and described this revival in a letter to friendly sources in England. He wrote in the letter of an astonishing “blessing of heaven falling on the Northampton congregation.” He spoke of how more than 300 souls of this congregation were ‘savingly’ brought home to Christ in this town.

This divine ecstasy did not last long and lost colors in the shadows of a suicide. A prominent Northamptonite, who was also a relative of Edwards, committed suicide because he had lost all hope of ever achieving salvation the way other people in the town seemed to do.

Northampton Situation

As different as it looks, the Northampton revival in 1734 was similar to the Salem witch craze in that they both started with young people and challenged the authorities. Northampton was also a town in transition, whose new generation had lost much of their plentiful lands to private ownership by the 1730s.

People of Northampton were left both landless and restless. However, due to the influence of Jonathan Edwards, they looked for the cure in revival rather than witch trials.

Jonathan Edwards was only one of the leaders of the Great Awakening. At the same time as the Northampton revival, Theodore Frelinghuysen—a Dutch pastor in northern New Jersey—also commenced religious enthusiasm in the Dutch-speaking churches of the Raritan River Valley, under the influence of European Pietists. The impact was so significant that in the 1730s, the Pennsylvania Presbyterian, William Tennent, organized a small theological school in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, to promote Pietist teachings and train Presbyterian ministers. His son, Gilbert, was the first student of this school.

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Did George Whitefield ignite the Great Awakening?

A portrait of George Whitefield
A portrait of George Whitefield, one of the initiators of the Great Awakening. (Image: Belcher, Joseph/Public domain)

Interestingly, neither a Congregationalist nor a Presbyterian ignited the actual Awakening. The main spark was a priest from the Church of England: George Whitefield. Whitefield was a graduate of Oxford University in the 1730s when John and Charles Wesley had made an evangelical splash at the institution.

Whitefield was almost immediately ordained in the Church of England. Unlike Edwards, he was born to talk and preach. His powerful and touching sermons came not only from his ‘most beautiful’ speaking voice but also from the techniques of the stage he used to get his message across.

A prominent Shakespearean actor of the time, David Garrick, once said that Whitefield could throw an audience into a frenzy merely by pronouncing the word ‘Mesopotamia.’ Another time, he said he would give 20 guineas if he could say ‘Oh’ as Whitefield did.

In 1738, Whitefield, who had a passion for good deeds, set sail for Georgia, with the wish of founding an orphanage there. Despite a large number of orphans living in Georgia, there was not much support for building an orphanage. To raise money, Whitefield offered to go personally to every possible benefactor in British North America. As he called at Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, he was invited to preach: what he was celebrated for.

Whitefield’s preaching was an automatic sensation in these cities, which allowed him to collect money for the orphanage. But shortly after, the preaching overshadowed the orphanage in people’s minds. The enormous crowds attracted to Whitefield were there not for the orphanage, but Whitefield himself.

Benjamin Franklin

In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin joined the crowd that blocked Market Street to hear Whitefield. Considering how far Whitefield’s marvelous voice carried, that day, George Whitefield could easily have been heard by 30,000 people.

Despite declining to join Whitefield’s converts, Franklin became Whitefield’s American publisher. His vast network of connections made Whitefield as powerful in print as he was in person. When Whitefield arrived in New York City, even people who disliked sermons were charmed by him. One observer wrote that when Whitefield spoke, one could feel authority, demonstration, life, and power in his voice.

Whitefield arrived in Boston as a celebrity. That led to a huge crowd trying to fit themselves into the old brick church that Whitefield was preaching in. Jonathan Edwards invited Whitefield to preach in Northampton. He then watched Northampton and the Connecticut River Valley glowing with an even greater revival than the one of 1734. Edwards was one of the leading preachers of that revival.

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Other Leaders of the Great Awakening

The Great Awakening was a vast cultural upheaval that could not be sustained by a single individual. For instance, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, William and Gilbert Tennent confronted the Presbyterian Old Guard over the revival. As a result, the Presbyterians of the middle colonies were divided into two warring factions: the old side and the new side.

Moreover, despite efforts by Virginia’s Church of England to suppress the Awakening, evangelical Presbyterians and Baptists carried the revival torch into Virginia in 1744. These led to riots and demands for religious freedom.

Common Questions about the Leaders of the Great Awakening

Q: Who started the Great Awakening?

The Great Awakening was sparked by George Whitefield, one of the leaders of the Great Awakening, who dazed people by his heavenly voice and melted hearts. He traveled to the American colonies and spread the word, leading to the big revival.

Q: Who were the leaders behind the Great Awakening?

Moderate evangelicals, such as George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Dickinson, and Samuel Davies, who preached Puritan traditions, were the foremost leaders of the Great Awakening.

Q: What were the goals of the leaders of the Great Awakening?

The leaders of the Great Awakening, including Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, aimed to revive man’s relationship with God. Their purpose was to convince people that religious power was in their own hands, not the hands of the Church.

Q: Who were the preachers trying to inspire the Great Awakening?

The two religious preachers of the Great Awakening, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards inspired the masses. They argued for religious authorities not having control over the ordinary people.

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