Lesson 2: The First Great Awakening

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The First Great Awakening

The Age of Reason or Rationalism

With the closing of the Renaissance philosophy (1350 AD to 1650 AD), the 17th century was actively engaged in three great moments:

  • The Reformation
  • The Scientific Revolution
  • The Beginning of Modern Philosophy

The Reformation had begun

Beginning with Martin Luther’s published work “The Ninety-Five Theses” in 1517, the reformation in the 17th century was about to come to a close, but not without some additional advancements in the Protestant movement.

I will be providing more information on this subject later, but as this was covered more in the last class, I will let that suffice for now.

The Scientific Revolution

Considered to have taken place between:

  • Galileo’s 1632 publication of “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”
  • Isaac Newton’s 1687 “Principia” formulating the laws of motion and universal gravitation.

Critical Advancements and Discoveries

Perhaps the most significant was the Scientific Method.  Sir Francis Bacon and John Lock both significantly contributed to this advancement.  One thing to realize, at this time, philosophy included theology and science.  Or in other words, a scientist was also, generally, a theologian and a philosophizer.  So while the religious reformation was underway, it gave way to brand new ways of thinking that were not dependent on the clergy for discovery, but encouraged self discovery and experimentation.  As a result of this movement, many significant advancements occurred during this period of time:

  • The Scientific Method (


  • William Gilbert, the father of electricity and magnetism
    • Determined that the Earth was a magnet explaining why the compass points north
  • Galileo Galilei, the father of observational astronomy and modern physics
    • One of the first modern thinkers to state that the laws of nature are mathematical
  • Sir Isaac Newton was perhaps the most influential scientist of the scientific revolution
    • Newton’s “Principia” formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation
    • Responsible for developing Calculus
  • Robert Boyle, regarded as the founder of modern chemistry
    • Developed Boyle’s law on the relationship between pressure of a gas and it’s volume
  • Robert Hooke, The wave theory of light and said matter expands when heated. Stated that air is made of small particles
  • Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler and Heliocentrism
    • His model would later be used to create the Gregorian Calendar
    • Advancements in optics, law of refraction, and inverse-square law
  • Andreas Vesalius, the founder of modern anatomy.
  • William Harvey provided detailed analysis of the heart and arteries.
  • Other significant contributors:
    • Edmond Halley – Halley’s comet
    • Otto von Guericke – electrostatic generator
    • Evangelista Torricelli – barometer
    • John Napier introduced logarithms
    • John Hadley – the octant (precursor to sextant)
    • Denis Papin & Thomas Savery – steam engine

The beginning of modern philosophy

Up to this point, philosophies were based on the likes of Plato, Aristotle and Catholic Church writings.  However, as with science and religion, the very nature of thought was in motion.  This movement is said to have began with

and his “I think, therefore I am”.  Rene Descartes took the approach of breaking things down until he discovered a single truth that he could not logically deny.  Which thought was simply that he existed. Effectively, if he did not, then how could he question his own existence.  This single statement lead to a new form of philosophy, one based on empirical evidence and logical reasoning.


Building upon this new enlightenment, John Locke, considered the father of Empiricism began a practice and philosophy based on the mode of interacting with the world through observation and searching for “natural” circumstances through reasoning, or Empiricism.  Empiricism would drive the scientific, religious, political, and philosophical discussions into the 18th century and the “Enlightenment era”.

  • John Locke
    • Father of Empiricism
    • Father of Liberalism
      • Liberalism is a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality.
        • The former principle is stressed in classical liberalism
          • while the latter is emphasized in social liberalism … Wikipedia
    • One of the most influential philosophers on the Enlightenment thinkers

In it’s earliest stages, Empiricism leads to a new line of Political philosophy.  This introduces new realms of thought:

  • Politics
  • Liberty
  • Justice
  • Poverty
  • Rights
  • Law & a legal code by authority
  • Even questions government legitimacy

Later this method of thought leads to:

  • Idealism / skepticism
  • Existentialism
  • Phenomenology
  • Pragmatism

The Salem Witch Trials

I’ve decided, things like the Salem Witch Trials don’t just happen.  Which is to say, while for most of my education, the Salem Witch Trials one just a chapter in history, no connection to either life before, or events after were made, it was just an event to learn about.  But now as an adult I didn’t buy it anymore and I wanted to discover what caused it, why did it happen.  In my research I was less interested in the event itself, I’m sure we’ve all heard the story, a few girls accuse some members of the community of witch craft, and before anyone knows what’s going on, 14 people are dead.  My effort here is not to discuss the what.  There are many historical websites that cover that in more detail than I would commit anyway.  What I do what to cover is why.

The topic of this blog post is The first great awakening, and if you notice, I haven’t even talked about it yet.  There is a reason.  To understand the first great awakening, you have to understand who the people were in the 17th century and who they were becoming in the 18th century.  Much like in modern times, we went from an agrarian society to one who put a man on the moon, a people who loved liberty, to one who more than flirts with socialism, the people of then were going through their own change, as evident by the three great movements just covered.

This brings us to the Salem Witch trials.  The first thing you need to realize is that the Salem Witch trials, in my opinion, is merely a symptom or manifestation of the changes taking place and nothing more.  But to understand let us first recall the Puritan Movement:

  • The Puritans desired to cleans the Anglican church, especial from Catholic influences.
  • Another group, Separatist, choose instead to remove themselves from the Anglican body.
  • And in 1620 they settled in the new world, the Separatist / Pilgrims, found Plymouth.


The religious practice of the Pilgrims

Note, this list is in no way intended to be critical.  In fact, it is inspiring, the devotion to their faith, these people performed while struggling with the difficulties of building a new nation and taming a new continent.

  • By nature, the Separatist were more strict observers of their faith.
  • Their practice consisting mainly of outward ordinances.
  • These outward ordinances were necessary to prove ones piety in order to experience full communion with their fellow believers.
  • They maintained a strong belief in witchcraft through the power of the devil.
  • They believed that God was directly involved in the affairs of men.  Not as we believe today that a loving Heavenly father directs and cares about our choices today, but more in the way of, if a tree falls in the forest it’s God’s will.  If your neighbor robs you, it was God’s will.  That kind of direct interference.
  • In fact, from Infancy were raised to distrust private will (and original sin)
  • As a result, they firmly believed in a strong “moral” community as being essential to salvation of everyone.
  • And finally, they believed they were building a new Jerusalem

A perfect storm

In the mid 1600’s the colonies were growing and people began to spread out, no longer as dependent on the town center for protection, but much more self-reliant.  This Resulted in a weakened piety, as those further out could not make it to the frequent sermons, causing the church leadership to create a new “Half-way” Covenant in 1662.  The Half-way Covenant allowing for membership without full communion.  This put the towns in moral and religious opposition with the outer settlements. This was not about political power or economy, this was a strong and sincere concern for the very soul of the community.

To complicate matters, the reforms of the Scientific Revolution and modern philosophies were making their way to America.  Without the constant reminder of the pulpit, those in the outer community began to rely on a more inward, a more personal practice of religion, in opposition to the outward Puritan practice.  This began to cause distrust between the outer communities and the inner communities.  Ultimately this conflict and distrust, lead to the events of the Salem Witch Trials.

The Dawn of the 18th Century

The Salem witch trials came to an abrupt halt when the Governors wife was accused of witchcraft.  The Governor was forced to intervene and immediately put an end to the prosecutions and investigations.  He further, post-humorously, in the case where the accused were already put to death, Pardoned all accused of witch craft.  This would eventually put an end to the strict Puritan movement.

18th Century Powers

18th Century powers

By Rebel Redcoat - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6730591

United Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland
The Dutch Republic
The Expansion of Prussia
1740 Frederick the Great takes power
The Holy Roman Empire
The Ottoman Empire
began to decline unable to keep up with Europe technological advances
The Russian Empire
St. Petersburg founded by Peter the great.
Catherine the Great
Kingdom of Sweden
The end of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Having been divided, against their will, between the Ottomans, the Russians, the Prussians, and Austria

A new way of thinking

With the end of the Scientific Revolution and the birth of Modern Philosophy, the people began to question established beliefs and rely on their own experiences for answers.  All this advancement in thought, lead to a new religious moment.  Empiricism made its way to the new world.  Again, and I can’t emphasis this enough, at this time, science, philosophy, and religion, were for all intents and purposes, the same thing.  Therefore, religious leaders began adopting the new language of science and philosophy and incorporate them into their sermons.  They began to teach the philosophies of personal liberty, equality, Natures God, and the separation of abusive government from religion, from the pulpit. The politics of liberty became the philosophies of religion.  As a result, the people began to experience a more personal relationship with God.  It no longer mattered that they lived outside the city boundaries, they could negotiate their own salvation, personally, with their Savior.  This also lead to more and more people reading the Bible for them selves and making their own interpretations.

The First Great Awakening

Jonathan Edwards

The First Great Awakening, at least in America, was said to have started, at least in part, by Jonathan Edwards, a congregationalist protestant theologian with Calvinistic Puritan roots.

An interesting side note, Jon Edwards is the grandfather of Aaron Burr, our 3rd Vice-President and the man responsible for shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel, fatally wounding Hamilton.

Jonathan Edwards had developed a style of preaching that elicited a strong emotional response from his audience.  This was the birth of the Firebrand Preacher.  It was Jonathan Edwards who helped organize George Whitefield’s revival tour of the thirteen Colonies.

George Whitefield

George Whitefield started out in college, to poor to pay for his own tuition, so in line with the custom of the time, he paid his way by acting as the man servant for several of the wealthier students.  He would take care of their clothing, tutor when necessary, and other such jobs.  It was during this time that a young George Whitfield found God and decided to dedicate his life to Him.  He decided to study theology and eventually was became an Anglican cleric.  While at school he became a member of the Holy Club, started by John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodist movement in England.  Later, upon the graduation of John and Charles, George took over the Holy Club.  After his own graduation he was given a church to help preside over.  Feeling a calling to preach to anyone and everyone, he arranged his revival tour of the 13 Colonies with the help of Jonathan Edwards.  While, despite being an Anglican cleric, he was at first welcome at the pulpits of the various denominations, eventually those who once welcomed him turned a cold shoulder, and without a formal assignment from the Anglican church, he was forced to preach in the parks and fields.

Whitefield followed in the same style as Edwards, and his ability to preach powerful sermons was soon bringing in crows of upwards of 30,000 people of all denominations.  This ability to cross denominational lines was part of the rift between him and the local clergy, that denied him the use of their pulpits.  But it also had an interesting effect on the people of America.  During this time, and thanks to widespread dissemination of print media, nearly half of all colonists were eventually exposed to his sermon.  As a result, he became, as one historian put it, “The American Idol” of his time.  His sermons even caught the attention and eventually impressed a skeptical Benjamin Franklin.  Of Whitefield and the times, Franklin said:

“In 1739 there arrived among us from Ireland the Reverend Mr. Whitfield who made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preached .. he was obliged to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung .. in every street..” – Benjamin Franklin


The First Great Awakening resulted in several important and significant contributions to a growing nation, namely:

  • Encouraged a personal relationship with God, removing some of the barriers between clergy and lay-members
  • The movement, while mostly focused on strengthening already converted Christians, focused and converted many black including slaves, including Phillis Wheatley (first published black poet)
  • Revitalized religion in America, participation became passionate and emotional.
  • People began to study the Bible at home.
  • The movement effected the Calvinist denominations the most. Schisms arose from the “old lights” Calvinists who used governmental authority to suppress revivals, and the “new lights”
  • The major effect of the Awakening was a rebellion against authoritarian religious rule which spilled over into other areas of colonial life.
  • A shift from 40% of the population being Puritan and Anglican, to 2.5% by 1790

Towards an American Identity

As a result of efforts of Whitefield, Edwards, and others, denominational walls were broken down and, for the first time, they began to see themselves as a single people with one Divine destiny—“one nation under God,” as Whitfield had prayed.  The results was that everyone was equal in the colonies, no longer where they Anglican or Puritan, rich or poor, they were all sinners in need of faith in Jesus Christ.  As a result of the new thinking, the number of unique denominations was growing in America.  However, despite this growth, the Country was uniting under a “national consciousness”.  In fact, this prevented any one sect form gaining domination over the others, as was in place in England.

Furthermore, the idea that the chain of authority ran from God, to the rule, to the people was broken.  People began to recognize that true authority ran from God to the people who then loaned that power to the ruler.  It was through the this revivalism that the colonists were able to step out from under the protectorate of the established churches and assert religious control over their own nation’s destiny.  Again, the focus was on the personal relationship with God.

A Covenant Nation

Now this advancement in mind and thought did not mean they abandoned everything.  They still held strongly to the notion of covenants.  Under the new influence though, the notion of covenant grew, first in relationship between parishioner and church, the prior able to break away from the latter if they felt the covenant was broken, but then without the boundaries that exist today, the link to religion translated into a link to politics in the colonies.  This lead to the notion of state rule as a contract with the people.  The idea of a Covenant Nation, first found in the scriptures, then introduced by the Mayflower Compact, was strengthened by the First Great Awakening and would lead to the “social compact” of the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of The United States of America as a Covenant nation with God.

The Age of Enlightenment

As we enter the 18th Century, the Great Awakening gave way to a new age in America, namely the “Age of Enlightenment”.  And with it many more advances.  Having profited by the unification of science, religion, and philosophy, the time had come for each to advance independent of the other.  Therefore natural philosophy was divided into physics and chemistry and natural history (anatomy, biology, geology, mineralogy,, and zoology).  It’s at this time other great thinkers enter the stage such as Adam Smith and his advances in Economic theory as well as Leonhard Euler and James Watts in the areas of Mathematics and science.  While these later advancements would have less effect on the American Church, they still would play a significant role in it’s future.  But not to be left out, a wealth of political breakthroughs were being made that would have a direct impact on the Colonists.

Political Enlightenment

  • Voltaire
    • Famous for his wit, and his attacks on the established Catholic Church,
    • Advocate for of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau
    • Self-evidence that “all men are created equal,”
    • Citizens of a republic be educated at public expense
    • The concept of the “general will”;
    • Both Robespierre and Saint-Just would later credit Rousseau as an inspiration
    • His influence on American founding fathers is disputed.
      • Example, The idea that all men are create equal probably came from the British “Charter of Liberties” a century earlier
      • Noah Webster, on the other had, structured his Speller in accord with Rousseau’s idea’s about the stages of a child’s development.
    • Famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers
      • The administrative powers were the executive, the legislative, and the judicial
    • Three forms of Government (Monarchies, Republics, Despotism)
  • Cesare Beccaria
    • Had a great influence on American Law, through his philosophies on penal codes, crime and punishment

With the Great Awakening and the surrounding movements covered.  We are just about ready to embark on the American Revolution.

Midnight Rider

Served a mission in Ukraine for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In collage, served in the Guard as a Russian Linguist; deployed in ’03 to Iraq. Founded a Tea Party, have been a PCP and vice-chairman of a local republican party. Active in the BSA, Freedom First Society & home-schooling. Husband & father.

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