An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Great Awakening

A religious revival in the American colonies in the eighteenth century. It occurred episodically from about 1720 until about 1770. It was part of the religious fervor which swept western Europe during the latter part of the seventeenth century and most of the eighteenth century. This movement was called pietism in Germany and evangelicalism in England. In the New World the Great Awakening was one of the first great movements to give the colonists a feeling of unity and sense of special purpose in God's providential plan. It was a reaction against arid rationalism in New England, formalism in liturgical practices among the Dutch Reformed in the Middle Colonies, and neglect of pastoral supervision in the South. Because the revival took place especially among the Dutch Reformed, the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, and some Anglicans, it was largely a development toward evangelical Calvinism. Revival preachers tended to emphasize the “terrors of the law” to sinners, the unmerited grace of God, and a “new birth” in Jesus Christ. One of the movement's great figures was George Whitefield, an Anglican priest who was influenced first by John Wesley and then by Calvinists. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the great apologist of the movement, was a strong Calvinist and preached a doctrine of justification by faith. His chief opponent was Charles Chauncy (1704-1787), a Congregational minister of Boston. Chauncy preached against the revival, which he considered an outbreak of extravagant emotion. The Great Awakening was responsible for stemming the tide of Enlightenment rationalism in the colonies. It also led to divisions in some of the denominations between those who supported and those who rejected its tenets. It was responsible for stimulating missions to the Native Americans and the slaves, and for the establishment and growth of several educational institutions, including Princeton, Dartmouth, and Brown. The itinerant preaching associated with the Great Awakening helped to break up the old parish system in which everyone in an area belonged to a single church. It also led to a broader religious toleration and the democratization of religious experience. It contributed to the fervor that resulted in the American Revolution. Although the Anglican Church in America was not strongly affected by the Great Awakening, there was significant participation in this revival by individual Anglican clergy and laity. See Jarratt, Devereux; see Wesley, John; see Whitefield, George.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.