The Great Awakening


*The Puritans believed they were building a City upon a Hill, but they also believed in a declension model of history:  mankind's history was the history of his Fall, and things had generally been getting worse since the expulsion from Eden.  Even in their Godly Commonwealth, the purity of their faith seemed in decline and full church  membership with it.


*Church membership was vital to the Puritan communities of New England, as only (adult male) church members could vote and only church members could have their children baptised and receive the Lord's Supper.  In such a religious society, to be outside the church was, essentially, to be outside the entire community.


*Church membership began with infant baptism, but it did not end there.  To be admitted to full church membership, a person had to testify to a conversion experience, a powerful moment when he had experienced God's grace.  For the first generation of Puritans, neither of these things was hard:  each had been baptised as an infant in the Church of England, and each had suffered persecution in England and made the sacrifices and endured the hardships involved in travelling to the New World--in those traumatic and emotional experiences, a person could find evidence of some point when God's grace had been apparent and the person had truly been converted into a visible saint.


*For the children of the first Puritans, though, it was harder to find that miraculous moment.  They had not grown up in a sink of depravity that they had rejected nor had they suffered for their beliefs or even made the perilous journey to the New World to seek the freedom to worship as they saw fit.  While they had been baptised into the church by their parents, who were full church members, many of them never were able to testify to their own conversion, and were not full church members themselves even though they believed in all the tenets of the Christian faith--believing was not enough by itself, though:  evidence of salvation was required.  They could attend church services, but could not partake in the Lord's Supper, and when they had children of their own whom they wished to have baptised, the Puritan ministers found themselves in a quandary.


*Not only were the children of the first settlers were less likely to have had conversion experiences, but more recent immigrants faced the same problem, and many could not achieve full membership in New England's churches either.


*Declining church membership (especially among men) endangered the souls of the unredeemed as well as the stability of the community, but admitting just anyone to the church would undermine its purity.  However, to exclude the infants of baptised but unregenerate people seemed cruel, as well as counterproductive, as declining church membership would lead to declining church influence.


*As early as 1634, Pastor John Cotton allowed a grandfather to present his grandchild for baptism on the condition that the grandfather raise him.  Later other ministers did (or considered doing) the same thing, and a series of synods discussed the issue, but did not reach a solution.


*In 1662, eighty ministers and laymen from most of the thirty-four Massachusetts churches met in Boston.  This synod could not command the various congregations to obey its decisions, but they could make strong recommendations, and their recommendation was known as the Half-Way Covenant.  Baptised non-members could also have their children baptised (but still not receive the Lord's Supper or vote), creating a large class of half-way church members.  It was hoped that being partial members of the church would eventually lead them to becoming full members, but many of them had the same problem of demonstrating a true conversion experience that their parents had.


*While some ministers and many older Puritans who had experienced personal regeneration felt that this was watering down the church, in time, church after church began to even allow full communion to people who had not had an obvious moment of saving grace.  This kept the Puritan church large, active, and significant, but less fervent and devout.


*The independent congregationalist spirit also began to decline among the descendents of the Puritans, as many, particularly in more conservative Connecticut, felt the need to organise themselves better to help out struggling churches and to work out theological debates more effectively (and also to preserve their influence).  Over time, their leadership became more centralised, especially in Connecticut, although there was never an absolute authority over individual ministers or congregations.


*In the late 1600s, many of the old standards of the Puritan community seemed to be weakening, and even Massachusetts' own independence was lost when it became a royal colony in 1691.  Preachers warned of the decline of society in fiery sermons of doom known as Jeremiads.  A growing merchant class also seemed to be gaining power at the expense of small farmers, and in general society seemed less equal and less cohesive.  In the midst of all this stress came a deadly accusation:  witchcraft!


*Most people sincerely believed that witches did exist--they were mentioned (and condemned to death) in the Bible, after all.  Although many educated people had doubts about how often or easily they might be found, and were often sceptical of accusations of witchcraft, not even they completely ruled it out, and there had been witchcraft trials and executions in New England on a few occasions throughout the 1600s.


*In February, 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris began to have fits, shake and scream uncontrollably, and report that they felt like they were being stabbed with pins.  Later other young women in the village began to show similar signs of torment.


*The first three people accused of witchcraft were a homeless beggar named Sarah Good who did not show the Puritan ideals of hard work and responsibility, Sarah Osborne who rarely attended church and who had recently remarried an indentured servant, and a slave named Tituba who was owned by Reverend Parris. 


*Later other accusations were made, a total of 165, many of them involving people who were social outcasts or involved in one of the many feuds and lawsuits for which Salem was already infamous as a quarrelsome town.  However, as time passed, even well-respected people were accused, undermining everyone's confidence, for if even fully covenanted church members could be a witch, anyone could be a servant of the devil.


*Those accused of witchcraft were jailed and offered the chance to confess.  Some did confess, and even accused others of having led them to the devil, but some refused to do so (and some who did confess later recanted).  During this time, hysteria grew.


*It took a while for a court to be held, and when it was held, no physical evidence could be found to witchcraft.  Reluctantly, the court began to accept spectral evidence based on the testimony of the afflicted girls about things visions they had seen or things they had felt done to them invisibly.  Although most legal and religious authorities were sceptical or completely opposed to this, it formed the basis of several convictions (and when it was finally forbidden in further trials, the conviction rate rapidly dropped).


*The trials ran until May, 1693, when enough religious and political leaders had turned against it (particularly after the governor's wife and sister were accused of witchcraft).  In total, nineteen people (and two dogs) were hanged and one man was pressed to death with stones.


*To this day there are debates about the cause of the accusations.  Some people believe it was a subconscious working out of social and political rivalries between the rich and the poor or farmers and merchants (and accusations always seemed to be made by members of one group against another, not against members of one's own group).  Others think it was a reaction of fear and uncertainty as the old Puritan faith seemed to be in decline.  Some have suggested that it was briefly a way for some young women to become the centre of attention and have the power of life and death over an entire community.  There was once a theory, largely discredited today, that the girls had been driven mad by eating bread made from wheat with a type of hallucinogenic fungus growing on it.  In any event, it was probably not a conspiracy, but an hysterical response to social, political, economic, and religious tensions--or maybe there really were witches at work.


*A later response to the stagnation of the Puritan church, and of religious communities across the English world, began in the 1720s in England and spread to the colonies in the succeeding decades, where it became the first experience that all the colonies had in common.  It was a new outburst of religious fervour known as the Great Awakening.


*The Great Awakening began with the preaching of several charismatic ministers who were able to reach out to people lacking spiritual leadership.  The official churches were often sceptical of them, so they would preach outdoors, which simply allowed even larger crowds to attend them.  One of the first and greatest of these preachers, George Whitefield, could supposedly speak to at least 30,000 (and perhaps as many as 50,000) people before the invention of the microphone, based in part on calculations done by Benjamin Franklin.


*The Great Awakening was a very individualistic revival, with its great preachers proclaiming that each person must seek God's salvation, repent of his sins, and depend entirely on God's grace and love.  Without those, humanity was doomed, but with them, anyone could be saved. 


*Jonathan Edwards warned his listeners that they were 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,' that 'God... holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire... and is dreadfully provoked... and there is no other Reason to be given why you have not dropped into Hell since you arose in the Morning, but that Godís Hand has held you up.'


*Those who heard these great speakers felt enlivened and touched by God.  Many were overcome by the Holy Spirit and wept, cried out, or even jerked their bodies or rolled around on the ground.  Thousands became deeply spiritual, regardless of their denomination, although some groups, like the Baptists and the Methodists were more open to emotionalism in their religious expression.  In fact, Methodism began as a branch of the Church of England at this time, but eventually separated from it and spread rapidly during the Great Awakening.


*The Congregationalists were split over the Great Awakening, with strictly Calvinist 'Old Lights' being sceptical of the spontaneity and emotionalism of this revival, while 'New Lights' welcomed a revival of religious enthusiasm even if it suggested a measure of Arminian free will. 


*New Lights founded new colleges, including the fore-runners of Princeton, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth, and even Harvard and the recently-founded and more conservative Yale debated its ideas.  On the other hand, the importance of personal revelation and an inward conversion made some denominations place less value on an educated clergy, and depend more on the depth of their leaders' convictions than the breadth of their educations.


*Some historians have even suggested that the Great Awakening's emphasis on the individual and a certain rejection of traditional religious leadership may have been an influence on the American Revolution, by promoting individualism, personal decision-making, a declining respect for authority, and as a unifying experience as Whitefield and others preached up and down the colonies.

This page last updated 10 August, 2016.
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