In the 1730s and 1740s, a wave of religious revival swept through much of the American colonies, specifically the Northeast and New England. Enormous gatherings called revivals were led by brash, zealous preachers who sparked the American evangelical movement. During the period known as the First Great Awakening, revivalists challenged the Puritanical Calvinism that had preceded it, packed churches with tens of thousands of new congregants and fostered an attitude that some historians believe spurred the American Revolution.
In order to counter what they saw as the failure of their Puritan forefathers to establish a Christian utopia a century before, the revivalists rebelled against their strict, Calvinist style of worship. Instead of focusing on modesty and small, family meetings, zealous, firebrand preachers now injected fiery passion into emotional sermons in front of enormous crowds. In 1740, George Whitfield held outdoor sermons that drew between 15,000 and 20,000 people in Boston and Philadelphia.
Hell and Revolution
The recurring theme that bound the revivalists together was that a horrible eternity certainly awaited those who did not heed the angry God who was judging them. They claimed that the dry religious leaders who had come before had allowed America to be lulled into complacency. Their bold, brash sermons were designed to shock the colonists into saving themselves from an eternity in an unforgiving hell. Although the American Revolution was a complex, multi-faceted political and cultural movement that was not overtly religious in nature, many historians consider it rooted in the First Great Awakening. The willingness of revivalist preachers to attack the established authority and challenge the political establishment nurtured the rebellious attitude that some historians say drove America to revolt against the British crown.
The sermons of Jonathan Edwards drew huge audiences after the Yale minister refused to convert to the Church of England. A sermon by George Whitfield so impressed future Founding Father Benjamin Franklin that the famous religious skeptic praised the effect Whitfield's enormous revivals had on the people of Philadelphia. Gilbert Tennent's Nottingham sermon of 1739, "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry," was a blatant attack on ministers who had criticized the new emotionalism of the revivalists.
Old vs. New
The revivalists of the First Great Awakening can be broken down into two broad categories: the New Lights and the Old Lights, between whom a schism developed at the height of the First Great Awakening. Both parties believed in traditional Calvinist and Puritan theology, but the Old Lights were skeptical of the enthusiasm in the sermons and methods of the New Lights, professing that orthodox theology held more importance than Christian living. The New Lights, in turn, considered the old guard to be obsolete, and actually encouraged their congregations to seek spiritual guidance elsewhere. They believed that theology was less important than personal behavior, and that true godliness required total obedience to God's laws.