George Whitefield was a leader of the First Great Awakening in colonial America.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
In the middle of the 18th century, a series of evangelical religious revival movements swept across colonial America. Known as the First Great Awakening, the movements were characterized by emotional religious conversions from a state of sin to a "new birth" and by dramatic and powerful preaching, sometimes outdoors, by itinerant preachers in front of crowds of thousands. The First Great Awakening also marked a new effort by European colonialists to reach out to Native Americans and African-Americans. By examining primary documents from the time, this lesson will introduce students to the ideas, practices, and evangelical spirit of the First Great Awakening.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to
In the middle of the 18th century, colonial America experienced its first major religious revival, a movement that historians would come to call the First Great Awakening. The Awakening was not the work of one man or a single organized group. Its various leaders, in fact, created no single set of doctrines or organizational structure. The Awakening was a more general series of religious evangelical revivals led by itinerant preachers who emphasized personal faith rather than conformity to doctrine. Preachers of the Awakening also taught that the essence of religious experience was a "new birth" inspired by the preaching of the Word of God—that is, a personal spiritual conversion in which the individual rejected his or her sinful past and was "born again" into a life devoted to Christianity. The Great Awakening was also characterized by the emotional enthusiasm of its participants (e.g. weeping, fainting), which stood in contrast to the more staid and formal worship of traditional Anglican and Congregational services.
The evangelical spirit of the mid-eighteenth century that animated the First Great Awakening also swept through parts of Europe. In the Protestant cultures of England, Scotland and Germany, enthusiastic faith rose in response to the rationalism of the time. As explained by historian Christine Leigh Heyrman, "a new Age of Faith rose to counter the currents of the Age of Enlightenment, to reaffirm the view that being truly religious meant trusting the heart rather than the head, prizing feeling more than thinking, and relying on biblical revelation rather than human reason." (from Heyrman's essay "The First Great Awakening," located at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource TeacherServe). The First Great Awakening might also be seen as a Christian appropriation of certain aspects of the Enlightenment, such as emphasis on the individual, reliance on experience instead of authority, and mistrust of tradition.
Five of the First Great Awakening's most important preachers were Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Theodore Freylinghuysen, and William and Gilbert Tennent. Because of their central role and importance, we shall limit our discussion here to Edwards (1703-1758) and Whitefield (1714-1770).
The only son in a family of eleven children, Jonathan Edwards succeeded his maternal grandfather as pastor of a church in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1728. In 1737, he published A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, his account of the extraordinary religious revival that began in his church in Northampton in 1734 and other nearly communities. That revival is considered to be a harbinger of the Great Awakening, which began in earnest a few years later. In 1746, Edwards published his first major treatise, Religious Affections, which both defended the Great Awakening and criticized what he considered to be the movement's excesses. These published accounts are why Edwards is considered to be "the principal intellectual interpreter of, and apologist for, the Awakening" (from "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource, American Memory). After being dismissed from his position as pastor at Northampton in 1750 (by a vote of one, for his discipline of young people for reading "immoral" literature and for his refusal to give communion to unconverted church members), Edwards supervised a boarding school for Indian boys and completed several major theological works. He is generally considered one of America's most important and most original philosophical theologians. Shortly after being appointed president of Princeton University, Edwards died after contracting smallpox in 1758.
One of the most popular evangelists of the Great Awakening, George Whitefield was born the son of innkeepers in Gloucester, England in 1714. In 1738 he traveled to Georgia, the first of seven trips to America. In 1739, after a year-long return to London where he was ordained as a minister in the Church of England, Whitefield traveled to Philadelphia. His popularity when he left the city was so great that his farewell sermon had to be moved to an open field in order to accommodate the enormous crowd. A sermon in Boston reportedly was attended by 30,000 people, which was more than the entire population of the city at the time. Whitefield was known for his lively and dramatic preaching. According to historian Harry S. Stout, "He was not 'acting' as he preached so much as he was exhibiting a one-to-one correspondence between his inner passions and the biblical saints he embodied" (Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 106). In his sermons, Whitefield spoke out against established churches, encouraging colonists to seek a revived form of Puritanism that did not require institutional churches. He also preached about the spirituality of American slaves, encouraging slave owners to acknowledge their slaves' spiritual freedom. He traveled throughout the colonies, from Georgia to New England, winning admirers and adherents, including Benjamin Franklin. After delivering over 18,000 sermons in his lifetime, Whitefield died in 1770 in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
The Great Awakening led several Protestant denominations to support missionaries who aimed to convert Native Americans to Christianity, especially in New England and the mid-Atlantic region. This marked something of a turn in many colonists' dispositions toward Native Americans, as evangelizing Native Americans was not a primary concern among seventeenth-century colonial churches in English North America. During that earlier time, many Native Americans were hesitant to embrace what they considered an alien religion. Often from the colonists' perspective, as historian James H. Merrell puts it, "it proved easier to kill Indians than convert them." (James H. Merrell, "'The Customes of Our Countrey,': Indians and Colonists in Early America," in Strangers Within the Realm: Cultural Margins of the First British Empire, ed. Bernard Bailyn and Philip D. Morgan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 152). Nevertheless, while there were some genuine efforts to convert Native Americans to Christianity, established churches showed relatively little interest in doing so as a long-term proposition, and ultimately only a small fraction of Indians abandoned their ancestral religions.
Although the First Great Awakening lasted no more than a generation in New England, it brought with it lasting changes. It left a legacy of theological disputes and divisions between its supporters, "New Lights," and its opponents, "Old Lights," who criticized the emotional, non-rational aspects of the Awakening. The Awakening also led to the creation of new colleges—including Princeton, Brown, and Rutgers—to train "New Light" ministers. In the 1760s, supporters carried the spirit of the Great Awakening to the southern colonies, beginning a series of revivals there. The Baptist and Methodist churches were among its most important products.
Additional background information can be found at: National Humanities Center Toolbox Library - Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature, Religion II: The Great Awakening; "Divining America," from the EDSITEment-reviewed website TeacherServe including online resources on "The First Great Awakening"; "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project; "The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University," accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters; and under the "Jonathan Edwards" entry at the EDSITEment-reviewed Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Questions to consider while reviewing these materials include:
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF file.
Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in all three activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets.
The first activity will introduce students to Jonathan Edwards, a leading preacher of the Great Awakening. Students will analyze Edwards' sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in order to identify major themes of the Great Awakening.
The second activity will introduce students to George Whitefield, another leading preacher of the Great Awakening. Students will learn about how colonial Americans reacted to the preaching of the Great Awakening. Students will analyze a diary account of a colonial farmer who described hearing the news of Whitefield's approach to his Connecticut town.
This activity will have students examine Sansom Occom's short autobiography, in which he describes his difficulties in making a living, his experiences as an Indian minister, and his poor treatment at the hands of the religious establishment. Occom (sometimes spelled Occum) is one of the most historically significant Native Americans who converted during the Great Awakening. In 1740, at the age of sixteen, he met Eleazar Wheelock, an enthusiastic Congregational preacher and a notable missionary to Native Americans. At the age of twenty, Occom went to live with Wheelock. After four years under Wheelock's tutelage, Occom departed to start his own work as a Christian missionary to Indians in New England and on Long Island. Occom was officially ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1759 on Long Island. In 1769, with funds partially raised by Occom, Wheelock founded Dartmouth College. The founding charter of Dartmouth declared one of the college's purposes to be "the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land ... and also of English Youth and any others."
Having completed this lesson, students should be asked to write a five-paragraph essay that discusses and analyzes the ideas, beliefs, and practices of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield and that discusses the impact that the Great Awakening had on Samsom Occom and individuals like Nathaniel Cole. Students' essays should draw information from the three primary documents already used in this lesson: "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," "The Great Awakening Comes to Weathersfield, Connecticut," and Samsom Occom's autobiography, "I Believe It Is Because I Am a Poor Indian."
In addition, students should be asked to identify and explain the significance of the following:
Ask the class to discuss the implications and significance of Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" from EDSITEment-reviewed Voices of Democracy using such questions as: "Why did people listen to Edwards? Why did his preaching provoke such a response?" Students may reference the critical essay, Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (8 July 1741) by Jonathan J. Edwards of Northwestern University from Voices of Democracy to determine how this sermon is "grounded in the concerns and struggles of its time."
To deepen students' understanding of "The Great Awakening Comes to Weathersfield, Connecticut: Nathan Cole's Spiritual Travels," teachers may wish to use a role-playing exercise. Divide the class into groups of two, and have one member of each group take on the role of Nathan Cole, while the other plays the part of a farmer who did not hear Whitefield's sermon. The two should then hold a conversation in which the former tries to convince the latter that he or she should attend a similar sermon.
2-3 class periods