December 7, 2012

The American Soul: The First Great Awakening-Part I

Although it is clear that a large outbreak of revival occurred in Europe in the middle of the 18th century, it is also clear that it happened within the formation of the American colonies during the same period. In these two geographical settings we see a phenomenon called the Great Awakening initiated around approximately 1726 and it stretches until the mid-1750’s. It is the general premise of this paper to describe its inception, key players and what caused its closure near the beginning of the French and Indian Wars in 1754. Although I’ll speak tentatively to European aspects I’ll focus mainly on the early American aspects to maintain a tight focus. Since avoiding discussion on the European aspects of the First Great Awakening are unavoidable I’ll present them first.

It appears the seeds of the Great Awakening had been sown as far back as the Reformation and its aftermath in Europe. The Reformation had shaken up traditional Christendom that had reigned in the Catholic Church for centuries. In a search for the true faith the Church scattered many disjointed Protestant denominations in Europe (Shelley 342).  In the face of a dithering Catholic Church and a disorganized infant Protestant movement came strong national leaders/princes that tried to maintain alliances of church/state in their realms for the supposed good of their subjects.

These alliances supported by state law, fluctuated between tyranny and moderation. This eventually led to things like the Thirty Years War (1618–1648). In the milieu of constant war and an inability to reconcile a standard orthodoxy/doctrine, nation-state religious alliances attempted to fix the problem through policies of inclusiveness. Doctrinally sound denominations in an attempt at ecumenicalism ended up watering down their doctrine and this movement found many opponents and created further division. In this disunity and unorthodoxy, church-state organizations often suppressed or ignored true faith (Noll-America's God 9-10, Shelley 342-343).

In addition, other reasons such as a weariness of war, religious persecution and political oppression forced people into pilgrimages to the New World. Although many left their socio-economic problems behind them in Europe, almost all brought their beliefs with them and the disunity that had been in Europe due to religious beliefs and arrived on American shores. So in essence, American theology started as European theology (Noll-America's God 19). To be able to maintain the freedom of one’s religion in this new land, religious groups finally understood that they needed to grant the same autonomy to all other beliefs. What arose was a nascent form of “freedom of religion”. Churches would now be on their own to evangelize the masses with no state sponsorship. Churches were forced into a situation where they would need to “win” converts, there was no longer a state sanctioned religion forced down the collective throats of the people as in Europe. Instead of the new freedom being a positive driving force for religious belief in general, it seems to have created complacency and spiritual ambivalence among believers. Religion became something of a banal ritual in which people would “go through the motions”. Because of past abuses and a new concept of American individuality, some Christians began to detach from “normal” approaches to worship. It is in this spiritual and cultural milieu that the Great Awakening surfaces.

As it is now, so it was then…the Word and the preacher reigned supreme in this environment for propagating the Gospel in a setting of voluntaryism. Voluntaryism being nothing more than the idea that the churches would now need to take on responsibility for evangelizing the unconverted and nurturing the believers with no state support (Shelley 343).  The Great Awakening seems to have been a genuine act of God initiated in multiple places simultaneously at this point. It resulted in the conversion of many that subsequently lived godly lives. In short it was a series of spontaneous and what appears to be unorganized awakenings led by a sovereign God (Noll-America’s God 19, Noll-Christianity in America 113, Shelly 365). Some of the more obvious secular factors were declining morality that had been allowed by the influence of the American frontier, a mobile population and a series of brutal wars or skirmishes with Natives Americans. This combined with a shift to urban setting may have produced a sort of religious nostalgia due to the abandoning of the “old ways” (Cairns 367, Noll-Christianity in America 114). These same factors drove the revival in Europe also, so it is not surprising to see preachers like Wesley and Whitefield in both locations (minus Native Americans).

[continued in Part II] 

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