The First Great Awakening
Kirsten McKenzie

The First Great Awakening

In the 1720s the American Church was being attacked by two foes; apathy and the enlightenment. The Puritan fervor of the previous generation had waned as time went on and the younger people were less likely to hold to the beliefs of their parents. They were barraged by the thoughts of the enlightenment, which moved people away from religion and toward reason as king. While some scientists of the time were God-fearing men who wanted to know more about God’s world, some began to take Jesus out of the picture and moved toward a deist or even atheist point of view. 

During this time there was also a lot of division in the church as new denominations began to crop up and old denominations hardened. The American colonies were a perfect breeding ground for denominationalism because there was no state church that was enforced by the government. This led to a lot of freedom of worship in most colonies and because people tend to divide themselves into tribes, denominations formed. 

Into this time came several vibrant preachers who emphasized, not new ideas, but a new passion for old ideas in the church. Jonathan Edwards is considered by some as one of the fathers of the Great Awakening. He was a pastor in New England who was convinced that salvation came from faith alone and without faith, sinners (which is every person) would spend eternity in hell.  This concept wasn’t new and certainly wasn’t unfamiliar to the audiences, but Edwards’ passion for the salvation of souls cut his congregation to the core and they became passionate for it too. Hundreds of young people began to flock to hear Edwards preach and joined his church. 

He also wrote several books, one of which was the history of David Brainerd, a missionary who died young in the care of the Edwards household. This missionary biography inspired hundreds of young people to go into missions, looking not only to their peers but to people around the globe. 

George Whitfield was another dynamic preacher during this time. An Englishman, he started his ministry in Gloucester, but soon came to the American colonies, starting in Georgia. His emotional style of preaching drew crowds and instead of taking the multiple offers of churches to pastor, he lived the life of an itinerant preacher, loving the life of an evangelist. 

Both of these men and others like the brothers, John and Charles Wesley, preached a personal relationship with Christ. They balked at the formal religion of the traditional church and urged a more direct connection with God. They made sure the people knew that salvation was a free gift from God because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Without that salvation, eternal separation from God in hell is the end. This galvanized the church and many came to know the saving grace of Jesus.