Religion in what was to become the United States changed forever during the decade of the 1740s. It did so at the hands of a half-dozen or so powerful preachers, most of whom were Anglican, though few of the changes actually impacted the Anglican Church, itself. But, it didn’t start here.
Throughout the 1730s, Protestantism in Europe underwent a series of religious revivals, and as a result, the whole Protestant movement changed somewhat. The revivals in Europe were not, however, either so sudden or so sweeping as the one in America. Over here, revival came like a bolt of lightning, or so it was remembered, in later years. John Wesley had already come and left, responding to a call from James Oglethorpe, in Georgia, in 1735. Wesley’s influence, especially in the South, continued to be felt in later decades.
But in 1741, a Congregationalist preacher named Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, in his native Massachusetts. Edwards was the descendant of Puritan forbears. The Puritan movement had pretty much died out by the early 1700s, or morphed into several equally protestant religious bodies. Congregationalists were one of those. Theologically, the Congregationalists were pretty much ordinary Reformed, or Calvinist Church of England people, but they believed in congregational independence rather than membership in a national Church. Neither they nor Edwards believed in fiery, emotional sermons or worship. Edwards spoke evenly and distinctly, but his words were powerful.
An Englishman, George Whitefield was quite a different sort of preacher. Whitefield was an Anglican priest, but preached by preference in outdoor venues, and in an extremely emotional manner. Critics accused him of being overly “enthusiastic”. Whitefield was taken with Edwards’ sermons, and began to preach up and down the colonies, often mirroring Edwards’ messages. The “Great Awakening” started with the work of these two men, and soon spread through the colonies.
A notable fact about the first Great Awakening was that it was aimed overwhelmingly at people who were already converts. Few if any “unchurched” came to religion based on the sermons of Edwards and Whitefield, but many who were becoming lackadaisical returned to Church with renewed vigor. Interestingly, though Whitefield was an Anglican, little change in Anglican worship occurred as a result of his preaching. Nor was there much change in Lutheran churches. But in Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Reformed bodies, tremendous changes soon became apparent.
Likewise, the relatively new Baptist and “Methodist” Anglicans were deeply affected, in terms of style if not substance, and the direction that those denominations took was forever changed by the Great Awakening, along with the whole nature of Christianity on the American Continent. In fact, it can be argued that Americans first began to be “Americans” during the Great Awakening. Such ideas as local independence and self-government, dignity of the individual, and God-given human rights came out of the sermons of Edwards and Whitefield just as surely as congregational singing and personal conversion came out of John Wesley’s unusual “Method” of conducting Anglican worship.