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Published: June 28, 2011

The Great Awakening

A massive, 18thcentury eruption of evangelistic fervor that swept the American colonies, provoking a social and political, as well as religious, awakening that eventually fueled the American Revolution. The Great Awakening began in the 1720s, when such charismatic clergymen and evangelists as Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen, William Tennent, George Whitefield and JONATHAN EDWARDS developed an entirely new and liberating religious philosophy based on the simple, literal biblical precept that God created man in his image.
As Whitefield, Edwards and their fellow evangelists toured the East with their revolutionary message of equality before God, huge throngs crowded to hear them and receive assurances of universal salvation. The Great Awakening promised to the poor and the rich, the landed and the unpropertied and the unchurched as well as church members, redemption through personal conversion, that is, a deeply emotional, personal acceptance of and commitment to Christ.
The Great Awakening split communities and their church congregations into traditional “Old Light” and radical “New Light” groupings that propagated logarithmic increases in the number of churches and sects in the United States. Because the church remained the center of all spiritual and secular instruction, the new churches, with their all-encompassing democratic embrace of all who would join them, produced a popular lust for education among those who had previously considered schooling reserved for those of higher social stations. The sheer number of new churches expanded the reach of education and taught an entire generation of American-born children and their parents that they were the equals of their parliamentary rulers.
Although it created widespread discord and, in effect, destroyed the religious harmony and unity that the Puritans, Presbyterians and Anglicans had established, the Great Awakening produced a fervor that unified many colonists in rebellion against an oppressive class system. The burden of ever-increasing parliamentary taxes helped solidify that unity and eventually convert the fervor of the Great Awakening and the rebellion against the Church of England into a rebellion against England itself.