The Great Awakening and the American Revolution

August 10, 2016
by Daniel N. Gullotta Also by this Author


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America’s Colonial Odd Couple

Portrait of Jonathan Edwards (Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of Jonathan Edwards (Wikimedia Commons)

Scholars of Jonathan Edwards have continually compared him with Benjamin Franklin. Both were born in the early eighteenth century (Edwards in 1703, only three years earlier than Franklin), and both distinguished themselves as bright young thinkers. Yet the similarities stop there, as the two have come to embody very different kinds of American spirits. It is argued that, in Edwards, we can see a return to the Puritan roots of colonial New England, while in Franklin, we can observe the manifestation of enlightenment thought within the New World. Due to these dynamics, they have become America’s colonial odd couple. Franklin is seen as the dawning of the new and Edwards as the setting of the old.

Due to Franklin’s role within the American Revolution, he is remembered as a revolutionary, while Edwards is remembered as the so-called “last Puritan.”[1] But Franklin lived through the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), while Edwards died in 1758, so it must be asked whether this is a fair assessment. After all, much of our conception of Franklin is based on his life during and after the Revolution. If Franklin had died around the same time as Edwards (which he nearly did crossing the Atlantic in 1757), he would have died a fierce loyalist to the British crown.[2]

So what if the tables had been turned? Seated as the president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), how would Edwards have reacted to the revolutionary motto, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God?” In order to understand how men like Edwards would have felt about the American Revolution, we need to look at the deeper religious, political, and military background of colonial American history, particularly the First Great Awakening.

While revivals also took place in Germany and England, the American experience of the Great Awakening tended to cross class lines and take place in urban as well as rural areas. It was the first experience shared by large numbers of people throughout the American colonies, and helped shape the formulating American identity. Revivalists partook in large public meetings, openly criticized the elites of society, and prayed for the hastened arrival of Christ’s Second Coming and the establishment of his kingdom on Earth. Because of these factors and more, some scholars have come to see the First Great Awakening as a kind of “dress rehearsal” for the War of Independence.[3]

To be sure, the Revolution itself was not conceived during the revivals, but the Great Awakening did cause a shift that historians must take seriously. Revivals did contribute to the coming Revolution in important ideological, sociological, and religious ways. The revivals shattered the social order of church hierarchy, rejecting the existing power structures of the day and focusing instead on the individual. People who had normally had their voices marginalized or silenced were suddenly able to speak freely about God’s grace in their lives. It provided a millennial hope of a new age and promised damnation to those who imposed the tyranny of “popery.”[4] As John Adams would later write, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”[5] If we are to take this change of “religious sentiments” from before and after the Revolution seriously, we must take the phenomenon of the revivals seriously.

The (un)Surprising Work of God

The Great Awakening was America’s first major religious revival and was the most important religious event within the colonial period. While reporting on the revivals being experienced within New England, an astonished Edwards described the events as a “surprising work of God.”[6] But the First Great Awakening did not drop from heaven; rather, it sprang forth from a turbulent and formative time within the American colonials’ history. British colonial power had begun to shift following the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and in 1727, another war with the Spanish had broken out in Panama.[7]

Inter-colonial conflict had continued to brew which would culminate with the coming French and Indian War (1754-1763).[8] Less than one hundred years prior the English Civil War had broken out and climaxed with the execution of King Charles I in 1649.[9] Additionally, with the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 and the succession of William and Mary in favor of James II, the fear of royal persecution was resurrected among the Puritan colonies in America.[10] While the 1689 Act of Toleration granted Protestant dissenters the right of private religious conscience, its actual effectiveness remained ambiguous.[11] Yet in Massachusetts, a new charter in 1692 declared that “there shall be a liberty of Conscience allowed in the Worship of God to all Christians (except Paptists).”[12] With this more inclusive shift to extend further rights to Anglicans, Quakers, and Baptists within the New England colonies, “the age of exclusionary Puritanism had come to an end.”[13]

Traditionally, the revivals that make up the Great Awakening have been understood as a series of religious events that took place in the 1730s and 1740s. The revivals were the result of the colonial importation of Pietism, a German movement of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that emphasized intense, personal, and experiential contact with God. Pietism influenced British and Dutch religious cultures and crossed the Atlantic between the 1680s and the 1730s due to German, Scottish, and Scotch-Irish immigration.[14] Championed by Jonathan Edwards in Northampton and typified by the preaching tours of George Whitefield, Theodore Jacob Frelinghugusen, James Davenport, Samuel Davies, and Gilbert Tennent, the revivals emphasized the focus on “spiritual rebirth.” Those who had been “reborn” or “awakened” were called “New Lights,” stressed the individual and emotional experiences of conversion brought about by the workings of the Holy Spirit, and rejected any sort of understanding that included good works as integral to salvation. The “Old Lights,” most notably Charles Chuancy, saw the revivals as a dangerous display of religious “enthusiasm” (by which they meant excess and delusion).

While some scholars have characterized the period of the First Great Awakening as a sort of “waiting period” before the Revolution, Richard Bushman’s studies have revealed that revivals affected the economic ambitions of the time period. Given that the revivals centered on the transformation of the individual, this self-consciousness and self-focus profoundly affected the social and communal aspects of day-to-day life within colonial America. Rather than operating through covenants and contracts, God acted through the heart and commitment of each individual, and therefore, the individual need not look beyond himself for any source of authority. This meant that God did not work exclusively through kings or bishops, the clergy or the magistrates, but through the people themselves. This did not only have religious implications, but also economic ones. As Bushman puts it, “in the expanding economy of the eighteenth century, merchants and farmers felt free to pursue wealth with an avidity dangerously close to avarice, the energies released exerted irresistible pressure against traditional bounds. When the Great Awakening added its measure of opposition, the old institutions began to crumble.”[15]

Speaking out against “Dead Men”

While the First Great Awakening occurred during the age of Enlightenment, it was also the age of the commonwealth man. The assumption at the time was that God did “ordain orders of superiority and inferiority among men.”[16] From the pulpit of Samuel Willard in Boston to the streets of London, “all-wise God … required all honor to be paid accordingly.” In its simplest expression, the colonial hierarchy was constructed on the godly subordination of women to men, of men to the ministers, and of the people to their magistrates. This pre-ordained hierarchy was clearest during congregational meetings. Seating arrangements reflected the rank of every person within the community, being assigned by wealth, age, and standing within the community.[17] While some might try and advance to more prominent seats within the church, this progress was slow and normally depended on the death of a superior. Despite being communal, worship reflected and played out the hierarchical “social drama” found within the colonial communities.[18] Or to borrow Stephen Foster’s reflection, “mutuality, subordination, and public service constituted a kind of sacred trinity of all respectable societies, Puritan or otherwise.”[19]

The revivals dramatically changed the landscape of hierarchal order and assumed respect for one’s betters. It this higher class of commonwealth men and clerics that Gilbert Tennent and George Whitefield would openly criticize as “dead men” leading “lifeless” congregations.[20] This is not to say congregations had never complained about their religious leaders before; far from it, but this was typically done in a more local and privatized fashion. Ministers were dismissed over economic disputes and the like, but rarely was the authenticity of their faith and ministry questioned. Preachers like Tennent and Whitefield shamed these ministers in front of crowds of thousands. The revivalists channeled the rhetoric of the gospels and called out “unconverted” ministers who behaved like “Pharisees,” “foxes,” and “wolves.”[21] The faculty of Harvard College, who looked at the effects of Whitefield in dismay and exclaimed that “the People have been thence ready to despise their own Ministers, and their usefulness among them, in too many Places, hath been almost destroy’d.”[22]

In observing and partaking in these public and damning criticisms of their so-called betters, the same generation that partook in the Great Awakening was already mentally prepared to defy the British crown. In other words, when the Revolution was ignited, many of its leading participants and advocates had already transgressed the bounds of the social order. Benjamin Franklin supported Whitefield’s revivalist endeavors. While a senior at Harvard, Samuel Adams heard Whitefield declare that the college’s favorite theologian, the Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson, “knew less of Christianity than Mahomet.”[23] Patrick Henry and James Madison studied the sermons of Samuel Davies, one of the Awakening’s greatest contributors and preachers in support of the Revolution.[24]

In addition to the Revolution’s leaders, its older patriots would have recalled the Great Awakening and transferred their rebellious spirit against the clergy to the king. Of course, other factors contributed to the individualism found within the Revolution, such as the increased use of print and the cooperate ideology within republicanism. But through the condemnation of the social hierarchy, the Great Awakening assisted in formulating the ideology that would spring forth in following years. What resulted from the Great Awakening was nothing short of the first widespread popular “yell of rebellion” against the established authorities in the history of British American colonies.[25] As some of Whitefield’s concerned critics articulated, “When Men strive so hard to dissolve the solemn Tye of the sacred Relation between Ministers and People under the Notion of Liberty, why may not they plead for the same Liberty in other Relations?”[26]

The Plain Style and the Public Space

Beyond the rhetoric of public criticism, the gatherings themselves manifested a new social order. While traditional congregational meetings reflected God’s supposed preordained hierarchy, the revivals altered this system due to their practice of open and public preaching. Whitefield could draw in a crowd of thousands, bringing in people from every socio-economic walk of life. Young and old, men and women, rich and poor, educated and unlettered shared common ground and undistinguishable space.[27] Additionally, the language of the revivals was encompassed by the “plain style.” “The revivals sought to transcend both the rational manner of polite Liberal preaching and the plain style of orthodox preaching in order to speak directly to the people at large.”[28] Overturning the conventions of the classical jeremiad and other ecclesiastical formalities, the revivalists spoke in everyday language among a large mixture of everyday people.

Preachers of the revivals also operated within a new dynamic framework. Because these preachers were neither employed by or in authority over any particular congregation, the ways in which the gospel message was communicated could be free from ministerial politics and local dramas.[29] Not only this, but the same preacher could move from town to town with the same message, and due to the fact that they would be preaching to strangers, their message would always appear exciting and unexpected. Even at the familiar local level, ministers began leaving their regular congregations to preach in neighboring towns.

The best example of this was Jonathan Edwards and his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”[30] While it is known today as the defining sermon of the Great Awakening, it was originally preached to Edwards’ home congregation of Northampton, Massachusetts, to limited effect. This was because they had heard all of this before and they knew Edwards’ style intimately. Yet in Enfield, near the Massachusetts-Connecticut border, Edwards had been invited as a guest.[31] The reception of Edwards’ preaching was so intense that he had to ask for silence in order that he could be heard. But the congregation’s enthusiasm only increased as the “shrieks and cries were piercing and amazing.”[32] Later, it was reported that “souls were hopefully wrought upon that night and oh the cheerfulness and pleasantness of their countenances that received comfort.”[33] “Whitefield changed Edwards’ conceptions of how [preaching] was best to be done.”[34] Edwards was not alone: Whitefield’s influence on the clergy was felt far and wide in how they began to preach and present themselves.[35] After the revivals, what was expected of the clergy and their sermons was never the same.

In the years following the Great Awakening, the plain style would gain more traction within the literature produced by the British American colonies.[36] It was no accident that Thomas Paine wrote his most famous pamphlet, Common Sense, in the language of the plain style. Like Whitefield and the revivalist preachers of the Awakening, Paine sought to have his message read and understood as far and wide as possible.[37] Common Sense was such a success because it was a “kind of secular sermon, an extraordinarily adroit mingling of religion and politics.”[38] While Paine’s Common Sense marked the invention of a new mode of American political discourse, his use of common language and understandable prose can be traced back to the revivalist traditions of plain style preaching.

Not only did this change the pattern and behaviors of the clergy, but Evangelicalism presented a new challenge to social harmony. On average, New England meetinghouses only held up to 750 people.[39] Prior to the revivals, the largest forms of social assembly had been executions.  While these grim events filled up the meetinghouses to capacity, they were few and far between.[40] One notable exception was the execution of the murderer James Morgan in 1686. Morgan’s execution drew in a crowd of nearly 5,000, according to London bookseller John Dutton.[41] This was an impressive turnout, given that entire popular of Boston was 7,000 at the time.[42]

The revivals, on the other hand, regularly drew crowds of thousands. Nathan Cole’s description of the crowds gathering to hear Whitefield’s preaching in Middletown, Connecticut, best captures the size and excitement of the people:

… as I came nearer the Road, I heard a noise something like a low rumbling thunder and presently found it was the noise of horses feet coming down the road and this Cloud was a Cloud of dust made by the Horses feet. It arose some Rods into the air over the tops of the hills and trees and when I came within about 20 rods of the Road, I could see men and horses Sliping along in the Cloud like shadows, and as I drew nearer it seemed like a steady stream of horses and their riders, scarcely a horse more than his length behind another, all of a lather and foam with sweat, their breath rolling out of their nostrils in the cloud of dust every jump; every horse seemed to go with all his might to carry his rider to hear news from heaven for the saving of Souls. It made me tremble to see the Sight, how the world was in a Struggle, I found a vacance between two horses to Slip in my horse; and my wife said law our cloaths will be all spoiled see how they look, for they were so covered with dust, that they looked almost all of a colour coats, hats, and shirts and horses.

We went down in the Stream; I heard no man speak a word all the way three miles but every one pressing forward in great haste and when we got to the old meeting house there was a great multitude; it was said to be 3 or 4000 of people assembled together …[43]

Whitefield’s celebrity status during this period cannot be overstated. During his preaching tour of Boston, Whitefield drew crowds up to 8,000. Fifty-thousand people assembled to see him preach at Hyde Park. Cole commented that Whitefield’s preaching tour in Philadelphia had “many thousands flocking to hear him preach the Gospel, and great numbers were converted to Christ.”[44] By 1740, Whitefield had inspired thirty percent of the printed works published by the American colonies.[45] He preached in virtually every major town on the eastern seaboard of the North American colonies. Whitefield was so influential that before him “there was no unifying intercolonial person or event … But by 1750 virtually every American loved and admired Whitefield and saw him as their champion.”[46] On Whitefield’s impact Franklin commented, “It was wonderful to see the Change soon made in the Manners of our Inhabitants; from being thoughtless or indifferent about Religion, it seem’d as if all the World were growing Religious; so that one could not walk thro’ the Town in an Evening without Hearing Psalms sung in different Families of every Street.”[47]

“Enthusiasm for Liberty”

Looking at these large and wide spectacles of “enthusiasm” displayed by the supporters of Whitefield and those like it, Chauncy bitterly preached against the revivals in favor of rational obedience to the Scriptures, humility before God, and respect for church order.[48] Chauncy argued that the revivals’ lust for enthusiasm merely encouraged grand delusions, undignified displays of bodily convulsions, and the usurpation of ministerial privilege. What is noteworthy about Chauncy’s writings is that they reveal that enthusiasm was not just a religious affront but also a political one. To be an “enthusiast” was to be “inspired” or “possessed,” and it was usually an insult to call someone delusional or accuse them of being influenced by the devil.[49] Typically, those who refused to operate within the hierarchal norms of society were accused of “enthusiasm” and faced banishment, jail, or (albeit rarely) hanging. Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, those accused of witchcraft in Salem, the Quakers, and the early Baptists, were all charged with enthusiasm and were not tolerated by the wider social order.[50]

During the Awakening, the Old Lights used the slur of enthusiasm not just against those whom they saw as delusional, but also against those who broke social norms.[51] James Davenport would be labelled non compos mentis (not sound of mind) in 1742 and was banished from Connecticut and Massachusetts, after inciting a public burning of books, clothing, and other “worldly” materials. Future Princeton College president Samuel Finley would also be banished from Connecticut after he preached to a church in Milford, after which he was arrested and “transported as a vagrant.”[52]

It was these extreme revivalists that inspired what was dubbed a “zenith of fanaticism,” causing further anxiety to the colonies’ social harmony. In an unsuccessful attempt to quell revivalists’ enthusiasm, the Connecticut General Assembly (controlled by the Old Lights) passed a law in 1742, “An Act for regulating Abuses and correcting Disorder in Ecclesiastical Affairs,” over the growing amount of “literate” men exhorting in public.[53] It is important to note that men were not the only participants in the First Great Awakening. Women, children, and the poor began to publically speak about their experiences of God’s grace and express their opinions about correct Christian theology.[54] “Educated white men listened to these usually silent or silenced folks and concluded that they were filled with the Spirit.”[55] During the Revolutionary war, in strikingly familiar language, a Philadelphia Lutheran pastor would complain that, “The whole country is in perfect enthusiasm for liberty. Would to God that men would become as zealous and unanimous in asserting their spiritual liberty, as they are in vindicating their political freedom.”[56]

An All-American Apocalypse

Along with anti-authoritarian principles, the First Great Awakening fostered strong millennial hopes across the entirety of the colonies. Seeing themselves as actors on the stage of salvation history, revivalists understood themselves to be playing a pivotal role in bringing about the Second Coming of Christ.[57] Like most apocalyptic thinkers, revivalists envisioned themselves as a part of an epic and age-old battle between Christ and Satan, the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Jonathan Edwards was optimistic that the revivals were the dawning of God’s final plans for the earth, a defining moment for America within salvation history. According to Edwards, “we can’t reasonably think otherwise, than that the beginning of this great work of God must be near. And there are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America.”[58] Likewise, Rev. Josiah Smith boasted in a sermon in 1740 from Charleston, South Carolina, “Behold! … Some great things seem to be upon the anvil, some big prophecy at the birth; God give it strength to bring forth!”[59]

Related to these millennial hopes was also a deeply rooted anti-Catholicism. At this time, the Protestant faith had become intrinsically linked to the ideas of spiritual and political freedom, whereas Catholicism had become associated with tyranny and bondage. In the words of the Massachusetts minister, Peter Thacher, Catholicism is “excellently calculated to make men slaves.”[60] Catholic influence or practice was typically decried as “the spirit of popery,” and the Pope and the Catholic Church were also almost universally named as “antichrist.”[61] Even though the excitement of the revivals began to die down by the mid-1740’s, the millennial enthusiasm against Catholic tyranny did not fade away. The onset of the Seven Years’ War furthered speculation about the coming of Christ’s Kingdom, with many colonists reading the conflict as an apocalyptic struggle between Catholics and Protestants. Boston pastor Isaac Watts wrote to his colleague, Benjamin Coleman, that “if a French war should arise,” it might hasten the arrival of Christ.[62] Watts theorized that “it is by the convulsion of nations that Antichrist must be destroy’d, and the glorious kingdom of Christ appear.”[63]

As American chaplain Theodorus Frelinghuysen told his troops, “Antichrist must fall before the end comes … The French now adhere and belong to Antichrist, wherefore it is be hoped, that when Antichrist falls, they shall fall with him.”[64] The British’s victory over the French was seen as another sign of God’s favor upon the American colonies. During the Revolution, this anti-Catholic rhetoric would be applied to the British Crown. The Stamp Act would be decried as “Infernal, atheistical, Popish” by the Boston Gazette, later the king’s supporters would be labelled “paptists,” and King George III called a “popish Pharaoh.”[65] The anti-Catholicism that was fostered in the revivals within the colonies would come in full force during the American Revolution.

            Additionally, the attempts by the British crown to place an Anglican bishop within the American colonies blended this anti-authoritarian spirit and the anxieties of popery. In 1749-1750 and 1760-1770, the Anglican Church made moves to establish an episcopal authority within the American colonies. These moves aroused fear among the non-Anglican colonists that they would be persecuted for their religious beliefs and that such an authority would inspire popish tyranny.[66] An infamous cartoon immortalized the reaction of Boston Congregationalists to the idea of a bishop arriving on their shore featuring the banner, “No Lords, Spiritual or Temporal in New England.”[67] John Adams would later recall that “the apprehension of Episcopacy, contributed 50 years ago, as much as any other cause, to arouse the attention, not only of the enquiring mind but of the common people …”[68]

The First American Revolution

In conclusion, while I would agree that it would be an overstatement to claim that without the Awakening there would have been no Revolution, the Awakening is a historical reality that more historians need to grapple with in understanding the Revolution’s origins. After the First Great Awakening, the so-called preordained order of society was completely tuned upside down. It was during the revivals that the colonists began to view themselves as capable of interpreting the will of God for themselves. While John Winthrop may have promised that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be like “a city upon a hill,” it was the First Great Awakening that truly provided the ground for the American colonists to begin to see themselves as a chosen people. They believed that God was working within the American colonies in a special way. Not only this, but the Awakening provided the means by which colonists could communicate this revolutionary ideology. The First Great Awakening was not the American Revolution, but it was an American revolution.

I would like to express my thanks to Dr. Harry S. Stout and Dr. Kenneth P. Minkema for their guidance in the formulation of this paper. A debt of graduation is also owed to the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, as well as Dr. David J. Gary in the Sterling Memorial Library for all his help during the research process. I would also like to thank Koray Er and Nicholas Patler for their insights.


[1] For the “last Puritan” conception of Edwards, see David C. Brand, Profile of the Last Puritan: Jonathan Edwards, Self-love, and the Dawn of the Beatific (Atlanta: Scholars’ Press, 1991).

[2] This point is echoed by George M. Marsden; see George M. Marsden, A Short Life of Life of Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 3.

[3] Susan Juster, “The Evangelical Ascendency in Revolutionary America,” in The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution, eds. Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 407.

[4] For more on the definition of popery during the eighteenth century, see Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 16-9.

[5] John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818, The Works of John Adams, vol. X, ed. Charles Francis (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1850-6). 282.

[6] Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the conversion of many hundred souls in Northampton, and the neighbouring towns and villages of New-Hampshire and New-England in a letter to the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Colman of Boston (Elizabeth-Town: Printed by Shepard Kollock, 1791).

[7] See James McDermott, England and the Spanish Armada: The Necessary Quarrel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[8] For more on the precursors to the French and Indian War (or the Seven Years’ War), see Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York: First Vintage Books, 2000), 11-66.

[9] See Michael Braddick, God’s Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars (New York: Penguin, 2009); Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982).

[10] See Owen Stanwood, The Empire Reformed: English America in the Age of the Glorious Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

[11] Scott Sowerby, “Toleration and Tolerance in Early Modern England,” in The Lively Experiment: Religious Toleration in America from Roger Williams to the Present (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 53-64.

[12] The charter granted by Their Majesties King William and Queen Mary, to the inhabitants of the province of the Massachusetts-Bay, in New-England (London, and re-printed at Boston: In New-England, by Benjamin Harris, over-against the Old-Meeting-House, 1692), 9.

[13] Kidd, God of Liberty, 44.

[14] Hartmut Lehmann, “Pietism in the World of Transatlantic Religious Revivals,” in Pietism in Germany and North America, eds. Jonathan Strom, Hartmut Lehmann, & James Van Horn Melton 1680-1820 (London: Ashgate, 2009), 13-22.

[15] Richard L. Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1890), v.

[16] Samuel Willard, The Character of a Good Ruler: As it was recommended in a Sermon Preached before His Excellency the Governour, and the Honourable Counsellors, and Assembly of the Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay in New-England. May 30, 1694 (Boston: Printed by Benjamin Harris for Michael Perry, 1694), 2.

[17] For more on the politics of Puritan seating arrangements, see Kevin Dillow, “The Social and Ecclesiastical Significance of Church Seating Arrangements and Power Disputes, 1500-1740,” (Oxford University, D.Phil., 1990).

[18] Joseph A. Conforti, Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006), 59.

[19] Stephen Foster, Their Solitary Way: The Puritan Social Ethic in the First Century of Settlement in New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 18.

[20] Gilbert Tennent, The querists, part III, or, An extract of sundry passages taken out of Mr. G. Tennent’s sermon preached at Nottingham of the danger of an unconverted ministry: together with some scruples propos’d in proper queries raised on each remark / by the same hands with the former (Philadelphia: Printed by B. Franklin in Market-street, 1740), 5; George Whitefield, A continuation of the Reverend Mr. Whitefield’s journal, from a few days after his return to Georgia to his arrival at Falmouth, on the 11th of March, 1741, containing an account of the work of God at Georgia, Rhode-Island, New-England, New-York, Pennsylvania and South-Carolina. The seventh journal. London: Printed by W. Strahan; and sold by J. Robinson, in Ludgate-Street; at the Tabernacle, near Upper Moorfields; and by Mr. John Sims, near Hoxton, 1744), 38, 48.

[21] Tennent, The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry, 72. Also see Michał Choiński, The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016),150-5.

[22] Harvard University, The Testimony of the president, professors, tutors and Hebrew instructor of Harvard College in Cambridge, against the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield, and his conduct (Boston: Printed and sold by T. Fleet, at the Heart and Crown in Cornhill, 1744).

[23] See Alexander Garden, Six letters to the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield: The first, second, and third, on the subject of justification. The fourth containing remarks on a pamphlet, entitled, The case between Mr. Whitefield and Dr. Stebbing stated, &c. The fifth containing remarks on Mr. Whitefield’s two letters concerning Archbishop Tillotson, and the book entitled, The whole duty of man. The sixth, containing remarks on Mr. Whitefield’s second letter, concerning Archbishop Tillotson, and on his letter concerning the Negroes. / By Alexander Garden, M.A. Rector of St. Philip’s, Charlestown, and commissary in South-Carolina, ; Together with, Mr. Whitefield’s answer to the first letter (Boston: Re-printed, and sold by T. Fleet, at the Heart and Crown in Cornhill, 1740).

[24] See Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution:The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 9-10; Andy G. Olree, “‘Pride Ignorance and Knavery’: James Madison’s Formative Experiences with Religious Establishments,” Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 36.1 (2013): 211-76.

[25] See: Kidd, God of Liberty, 21-3.

[26] A short reply to Mr. Whitefield’s letter which he wrote in answer to the Querists: wherein the said Querists testify their satisfaction with some of the amendments Mr. Whitefield proposes to make of some of the exceptionable expressions in his writings. Together with som farther remarks upon what seems exceptionable in the present letter; which seem to occur to the Querists (Philadelphia: Printed by Benjamin Franklin for the Querists, 1741).

[27] Kidd, God of Liberty, 135. Also see: Susan Juster, Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics & Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 24-5.

[28] Stout, “Religion, Communication, and the Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 34 (1977):526-7.

[29] Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 199.

[30] See: Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: A sermon, preached at Enfield, July 8, 1741, at a time of great awakenings; and attended with remarkable impressions on many of the hearers (New York: Printed by G. Forman for C. Davis, 1741).

[31] See George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 219-21.

[32] Stephen Williams Diary, Entry for the July 8, 1741, Storrs Library, Longmeadow, MA.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Marsden, Edwards: A Life, 219.

[35] John Howard Smith, The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725-1775 (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015), 1-3.

[36] See John Howe, Language and Political Meaning in Revolutionary America (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), 101-5.

[37] Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Revolution,” 536-7.

[38] Christine Leigh Heyrman, “Religion and the American Revolution,” Divining America, TeacherServe©, National Humanities Center:

[39] For more on the volume of congregations during the eighteenth century, see Harry Knerr, “The Election Sermon: Primer for Revolutionaries,” Speech Monographs 29 (1962):15-6.

[40] See Scott D. Seay, Hanging Between Heaven and Earth: Capital Crime, Execution Preaching, and Theology in Early New England (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009), 21-27.

[41] John Dutton, “Letter to George Larkin,” March 25, 1686 in The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings, rev. ed., ed. Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963), 414-20.

[42] See Lawrence Kennedy, Planning the City Upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630 (Amherst: University Massachusetts Press, 1992), 254.

[43] Nathan Cole, “The Spiritual Travels of Nathan Cole,” Thursday, October 23, 1740, ed. Michael J. Crawford, William and Mary Quarterly 33.1 (1976): 93.

[44] Cole, “The Spiritual Travels of Nathan Cole,” 93.

[45] Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton: Princeton University, 1994), 128.

[46] Harry S. Stout, “Heavenly Comet,” Christian History 38.2 (1993): 13-4.

[47] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1869), 253.

[48] See: Charles Chauncy, Enthusiasm described and caution’d against: A sermon preach’d at the Old Brick Meeting-House in Boston, the Lord’s Day after the commencement, 1742. With a letter to the Reverend Mr. James Davenport (Boston: Printed by J. Draper, for S. Eliot in Cornhill, and J. Blanchard at the Bible and Crown on Dock Square, 1742).

[49] See Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 13-9.

[50] Ibid., 20-46.

[51] William G. McLoughlin, New England Dissent, 1630-1833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 360-98.

[52] Richard Webster, A History of the Presbyterian Church in America: From its Origin until the Year 1760, with Biographical Sketches of its Early Ministers (Philadelphia: Printed by Joseph M. Wilson in 27 South Tenth Street, Below Chestnut St., 1875), 489.

[53] See Charles J. Hoadly, ed., “An Act for regulating Abuses and correcting Disorder in Ecclesiastical Affairs,” in The Public Record of the Colony of Connecticut, vol. 7 (Hartford: Press of the Case, 1874), 454-7.

[54] Kidd, The Great Awakening, 66.

[55] Kidd, God of Liberty, 22.

[56] Quoted in: Samuel Simon Schmucker, Retrospect of Lutheranism in the United States: A Discourse (Baltimore: Public Rooms, 1841), 14.

[57] See Ruth H. Block, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 22-53.

[58] Jonathan Edwards, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion in New-England, and the way in which it ought to be acknowledged and promoted: humbly offered to the publick, in a treatise on that subject. : In five parts; Part I. Shewing that the work that has of late been going on in this land, is a glorious work of God. Part II. Shewing the obligations that all are under, to acknowlege [sic], rejoice in and promote this work, and the great danger of the contrary. Part III. Shewing in many instances, wherein the subjects, or zealous promoters, of this work have been injuriously blamed. Part IV. Shewing what things are to be corrected or avoided, in promoting this work, or in our behaviour under it. Part V. shewing positively what ought to be done to promote this work (Boston: Printed and sold by S. Kneeland and T. Green in Queen-Street, 1742), 353.

[59] Josiah Smith, The character, preaching, &c. of the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield, impartially represented and supported in a sermon, preach’d in Charlestown, South Carolina, March 26th, Anno Domini 1740 (Boston: Printed by G. Rogers, for J. Edwards and H. Foster in Cornhill, 1740), 19-20.

[60] Quoted in James Byrd, Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 5.

[61] See: Thomas S. Kidd, “‘Let Hell and Rome Do Their Worst’: World News, Anti-Catholicism, and International Protestantism in Early-eighteenth-century Boston,” The New England Quarterly 76.2 (2003): 265-90.

[62] Isaac Watts, “Isaac Watts to Benjamin Colman,” in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston: Published by the Massachusetts Historical Society), 382.

[63] Ibid, 382.

[64] Theodorus Frelinghuysen, Wars and Rumors of Wars, Heavens decree over the World: A Sermon preached in the camp of the New-England forces. On occasion of the expedition to remove the encroachments of the French, on His Majesty’s dominions in North-America (New York: Published by H. Gaine, 1755), 36.

[65] See Francis D. Cogliano, No King, No Popery: Anti-Catholicism and Revolutionary New England (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995).

[66] See Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre: Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics, 1689-1775 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

[67] An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America. Engraving from the Political Register. London: September, 1769. John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, Providence, RI (86).

[68] John Adams, John Adams to Jedidiah Morse, December 2, 1815.


  • Excellent article – great to see a contribution by a grad student. I think your case would be even stronger if you referenced the Baptist preachers Isaac Backus and John Leland.

    Your thesis is supported by Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty! textbook, where he stated, “The revivals encouraged many colonists to trust their own views rather than those of established elites. In listening to the sermons of self-educated preachers, forming Bible study groups, and engaging in intense religious discussions, ordinary colonists asserted the right to independent judgment. “The common people,” proclaimed Baptist minister Isaac Backus, “claim as good a right to judge and act for themselves in matters of religion as civil rulers or the learned clergy.” The revivalists’ aim was spiritual salvation, not social or political revolution. But the independent frame of mind they encouraged would have significant political consequences.” (p. 160 Seagull 4th ed.)

    1. Thank you for your kind words. It is funny you mention Backus, because is going to be the focus of my next article. I wanted this to be a larger scale piece. Introduce people to the idea in an easy to ready way and zero in one more key figures and factors. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  • It’s my view that this article understates a case that other historians in the past have demonstrated more conclusively. Heimert’s, Religion and the American Mind should be the standard. Bailyn’s, Ideological Origins provides confirmation. Alice Baldwin’s, The NE Clergy and the American Revolution draws indisputable lines. Page Smith’s, Religious Origins of the American Revolution is a powerful source. The author makes use of Thomas Kidd, God of Liberty, but he makes a stronger connection than this author allows. The most glaring omission in this article is Mahaffey’s, The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America (2011).

    1. Thank you for reading my piece. Engaging with Heimert’s “Religion and the American Mind” was a life changing experience. It really opened my eyes up to a whole new world of possibilities. Having said that, it was not well received and has faded into the background. In fact, some scholars have completely rejected his thesis all together. From my own experience in the classroom and at conferences, religion and the American Revolution is not a common subject of discussion and is something I think requires more work and research. In terms of the JAR, I wrote this as a modified version of a much larger assignment I did at Yale University. It is my intention to write on more of these subjects. I noticed that little JAR articles had been done on the religious elements and backgrounds of the Revolution and I wanted to add this as a beginning piece for laypeople. If one goes online not a lot has been written for lay people and students to easily get their hands on. Please keep in mind that I was limited to 5,000 words. As I stated early, I plan to do more work on this.

  • In the original theories connecting the “Great Awakening” with the American Revolution, one big hole is that the New Light/Old Light controversialists don’t map neatly onto the political controversies of the 1760s and 1770s. Old Lights who disliked “enthusiasm” in religious revivals could cheer crowd actions against the Crown (e.g., Rev. Dr. Charles Chauncey).

    The argument that the revivals produced a general atmosphere of democratic and even anti-authoritarian thinking moves us beyond the question of picking sides to zeitgeist. Harder to trace and measure, but ultimately more credible.

    1. I completely agree, it is the fatal flaw of Heimert’s “Religion and the American Mind.” I wrote about this in my original piece, but it was edited out during the publication process. Heimert’s divisionary assertions that the Evangelicals (or New Lights) helped usher in the American Revolution due to the anti-clerical and anti-institutional preaching, while the Liberals (or Old Lights) were unenthusiastic for independence is not historically accurate. This is most clearly seen in the figure of Boston’s Charles Chauncy, an Old Light figure who bitterly opposed the enthusiasm of the New England revivals but also criticized the Stamp Act and supported the Revolution. This also holds true for Jonathan Mayhew, a Harvard graduate and Unitarian minister (and therefore a theological “Liberal” under Heimert’s categorization), who nonetheless coined the phrase “no taxation without representation.” Clearly such a strict binary of “Liberal” (anti-revolution) and “Evangelical” (pro-revolution) does not hold up under scrutiny.

      1. I’m dubious about the assertions linking Mayhew to the phrase “No taxation without representation,” which I haven’t found in any of his writings or any publications before his death. Here at this site I published an article with what seems to be the earliest appearance of that rhyming phrase, in an English magazine. I’m of course curious about any further evidence.

  • It’s great to see a publication by a former student in print. I’m not a student of this area, but there is one insight from studies in African theology which might provoke some reflection. It is this. There seems to be a binary opposition set up between Old and New Lights. African methodological reflection asks if this binary lens, so beloved of Western/Northern analysis, is always helpful or useful. So, might the issue looked differently if this is put aside?
    Follw this line of thought in Robert Heaney’s “From Historical to Critical Post-Colonial Theology” (Wipf & Stock, 2015). Semper aliquid novum ex Africa

  • Daniel, thank you for this careful and very well thought out “overview”. I look forward to future articles laying out some of the details! I share your opinion that the role of religion in the evolution of colonial society before and during the Revolution has been under-explored, as have many, many other massive societal changes at the time that can generally be attributed to “the Enlightenment”. You raise the question of what Jonathan Edwards’ position on the Revolution would have been had he lived; the same question might be raised about Whitfield, of course. As a Methodist, I wonder if he would have temporized and/or sided with the Crown as John Wesley did?

    1. Thank you for the very kind words, Ron. It’s funny you mention John Wesley and the Revolution, that was a subject I was looking at tackling as well. As for Edwards, a lot of scholars have speculated about this. George M. Marsden (University of Notre Dame) thinks he would have, I tend to agree. I might write this into a larger article but here is my logic. While Edwards clearly respected the authority of the king, he does not mix his words when it comes to the sins and failures of leaders. Given all the happenings in the colonies that would have angered people in New England, I think Edwards would agree with the logic of the revolutionaries. Almost all of Edwards’ students became revolutionaries, such as Samuel Hopkins, Joseph Bellamy, and most notably his son, Jonathan Edwards Jr (in fact there is a great letter from Edwards Jr to Washington about how he thinks the language of the Indians can be connected to ancient Hebrew, believing like many at the time did, that the Indians were Jews in America). Not only that but Edwards was the president of New Jersey College, a hotbed revolutionaries, and anti-Crown thinking. Finally, Edwards’ theology of the self and the will makes sense in the light of the Revolution. He was an advocate for the revivals because of the change believe he saw in the lives of others. He was not against change. It is hard to know exactly how he would have felt, he might have been more reversed but when the conflict was set he might have hardened his stance. He might have hardened on the Jersey boys talking about revolution while he was President of the College thus making him more skeptical of its ultimate good. In the end, I think he would have but its all speculation.

  • Outstanding, rich context. Jonathan Edwards inherited the Northampton Mass pulpit from his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard – my 7th great-grandfather. In what was the western colonial frontier in the 17th century, Solomon was not bound by strict adherence to unyielding Puritan dogma in the east. He conducted lifelong debates with Boston’s Increase and Cotton Mather – who thought many of Solomon’s liberal practices to be blasphemous, thus earning him the derisive nickname, the Pope of the Connecticut Valley.

    1. As soon as I saw your surname I thought to myself, “Hmm, I wonder he if he is related to Solomon Stoddard?” That is amazing history you have in your blood sir. Thank you so much for the kind words about my article, I hope to be producing more in the future.

  • Hi, I recently wrote my master’s thesis on this subject. My professor told me that I have to be able to have a direct link between the Awakening and Revolution through referencing sermons, papers etc. As far as I saw in my research that is not really possible to do. Am I correct? It seems like there can be an strong argument made for how the Awakening laid the foundation for the American Revolution but it seems my professor feel through his research that the Great Awakening was really not that “Great”. Would appreciate a response ASAP. My thesis in due in a couple of weeks and my professor just sent me back his critiques today.


  • Thank you for the wonderful analysis. I note that this link between the Great Awakening and the Revolution is also taught in California schools. While I’m in South Carolina teaching state history to 8th graders, I’ve taken the…opportunity…to depart from our state standards and teach this to the children. It’s important for them to see the connection between religion, economics, industry/agriculture, jurisprudence, military, technology, class, politics, etc., etc., etc. at an early age, as well as critical thinking and analysis instead of merely parroting back “when, where, who” information.
    So thank you, thank you! I have my students read this (primary sources? in 8th grade?!?) and create a powerpoint. It will, respectfully, be used for years in the future!

  • One more recent book on the role of Religion is “Revolutionary Religion” w/ Five radical Patriotic sermons not commonly available. This 40 page pb essay, along with the sermons, emphasizes the extent to which the “common people,” not the elite, were motivated by a belief that they were the New Israel, defending their Canaan against an English Egypt. The theological liberals like Mayhew have often been used as examples of religion’s role. Less attention has been paid to what today we would recognize as the evangelical role. Sermons like Nicholas Street’s “The American States Acting over their part as Israel in the Wilderness” did much to stir up the people who actually fought the Revolution’s battles.

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