3. The First Great Awakening

3. THE FIRST GREAT AWAKENING

Although the colonists stepped on the shore of the new Promised Land with optimism, eager to live in freedom, America’s geographical and demographical features proved to be a serious impediment in the materialization of their religious aspirations. The English parochial system supported by Anglicans and Puritans was hardly implemented in the New World. Unlike the compact communities of the Old World, the small farms of America spread into the wilderness, far from a parochial house. The individual was most of the time on his own, struggling to survive and to adapt to an inhospitable land. This aspect seriously affected the attendance to sermons and the ecclesiastical discipline of the common people and it heavily put to the test the secular and ecclesiastical structures. Almost 100 years after John Winthrop’s encouraging discourse, a large part of the population was outside the churches. It was a period of calm and a sort of tension; people were willing to live and share their beliefs, but they did not have the possibility of doing so. Thus, when the settlers finally had the opportunity to manifest themselves, the religious fervor was so intense and widespread that it took the shape of a mass phenomenon called “great awakening.”

The “religious awakening” (or the “religious revival,” this rather referring to local isolated phenomena) is an expression that designates a specific period of increased spiritual interest, a renewal in the religious life of a large area and the establishment of a fervent relation with God after a period of decline. Three great awakenings took place between 1700 and 1900 and all three were accompanied by widespread religious revivals, a surge of interest in the religious phenomena, mass conversions, alleged miracles, speaking in tongues, a deep sense of guilt and contrition, a rewriting of the religious dynamics and an outbreak of new groups and movements.

The First Great Awakening was not continuous or instantaneous because the means of transportation and communication of the time did not allow this thing. Instead, revivals occurred in many locations, at larger or smaller distance of time one from another. In addition, determining the spatial and temporal lines of such a large phenomenon is impossible. Hence, the First Great Awakening can be, vaguely, defined as a period of intense religious activity in the British colonies of North America between the years 1730-1740, with echoes until 1770. It had a permanent impact upon the religious life of the colonists and it was a decisive event for the establishment of the American nation. The awakening developed through the punitive type of preaching, which inspires listeners with a sense of personal guilt and a need of salvation through Christ. Unlike the evangelical imperatives of the European Protestantism, the preachers of the colonies focused on the divine gifts and the conversions that induced an intense love of God to believers. The First Great Awakening changed piety and self-consciousness, encouraged introspection and transformed religion into an intense personal experience by distancing the believers from rituals and ceremonies. It brought Christ to Afro-American slaves and challenged the dominant authority. It incited to rancor and division between the old traditionalists, who insisted on the importance of rituals and doctrine, and the new revivalists, who encouraged emotional involving and personal devotion. It remodeled the Congregational, Baptist and Methodist churches, but it had a minor impact upon Anglicanism and Quakerism.

The name “great awakening” is a bit misleading because in order for an awakening to exist there should initially be a state of religious sleep or inactivity. However, the emergence of the phenomenon was signaled by previous temporary revivals that faded under the pressure of the Enlightenment. The works of the Enlightenment stated that human beings have the ability to discover the secrets of nature and consequently they exercise some control over their own destiny. If human beings can think God’s thoughts, if they can discover and read the patterns through which God ordered and made the world, then the result is a tightening of the abyss that sits between man and divinity. The belief in the potentiality of human reason had an extremely corrosive effect upon the Calvinist determinism and favored the theory of the free will of Catholicism. Man was turning into a being responsible for his actions and his morality, guided by a religion that was becoming more rational and less emotional.

The First Great Awakening designates a religious phenomenon which occurred strictly on American soil, but in fact it was part of a larger movement of revival that took place on both sides of the Atlantic. In the Protestant cultures of Scotland, Germany and especially England a new age of faith rose to counteract the Enlightenment, to restate the vision of the religious truth based on emotion and not on reason, to feel rather than to think, to believe in divine revelations to the detriment of calculations and empirical observations. The Christian worship apparently became too formularistic: in the late colonial period most clergymen read their sermons, which were dense, complex and hard to follow. By contrast, the leaders of the First Great Awakening did not aim to capture the minds of the parishioners, but to trigger an emotional response in the audience. The sermons full of pathos and without too much theological elements were the essence of the movement; like a drug, they were inciting the audience to experience the enthusiastic worship and the emotional and spontaneous conversion. This approach decentralized religion and encouraged the listeners to become more emotionally involved in their own destiny and to study the Bible individually or in family groups.

One of the leaders of the First Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, Congregationalist clergyman in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards’s most important contribution to the awakening was the work A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton from 1737. For the young untrained clergy, this book was a sort of guide about how to successfully lead a sermon. His techniques were copied by many laymen and clergymen, who in turn became itinerant preachers, spreading the Great Awakening from New England to Georgia, among the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, in hamlets and big cities.987

Even though Edwards’s sermons were logical and coherent, his approach had a tremendous emotional impact on the audience. In order to describe the insignificant human destiny in front of a deity that controls all things, in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God from 1741 Edwards used the image of a spider that trembles on the web above a fire. His point of view was that, at any moment, the line of life can break and we fall into the fires of eternal damnation.988 During his sermons full of pathos Edwards began to witness waves of conversions accompanied by strange behaviors: people were barking, screaming, shouting, whistling, singing or convulsing. He analyzed and named these controversial phenomena “corporal effects” or indicators of the work of the Holy Spirit. In A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections from 1746 he came to the conclusion that the divine visit usually overwhelms the body, and therefore the uncontrolled emotiveness is the sign of the moral improvement of the individual. Accordingly, the revivalistic preachers aimed to obtain emotional responses from the audience by any means necessary, even through terrorizing sermons, and even from children.

This kind of manifestations came to be studied from a scientific and psychological point of view only …


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