The American Revolution
Summary & Analysis
Religious Freedom: The First Great Awakening
The First Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept North America in the early and middle years of the eighteenth century, marked a pivotal moment in the history of the American colonies. In ways that could scarcely be understood at the time, the Great Awakening prepared the British subjects of North America for a radically different ideology and society. Throughout the colonial period, and even in the early years of the independent United States, most colonies or states had established churches—churches legally recognized as the official state church. Different colonies privileged different Christian sects, for example, Congregationalism (the descendent of Puritanism) was the official state church for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire; and Anglicanism was the established faith in most colonies, including Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. Along with official recognition came special privileges, like financial support from public taxation. Before the Great Awakening, colonial Americans harbored no expectation that there should be any separation between church and state.
The Great Awakening changed that, as fervent Christian revivalists attacked state-supported religion as an obstacle to true faith. Up and down the continent, stirring evangelical sermons roused the masses to a more impassioned expression of their faith, and in the process these converts deserted from the established churches in droves. The religious revival of America's common folk combined theological revolt with social uprising, as lower-class evangelicals abandoned the wealthy established churches of the elite. As historian Gordon S. Wood writes, "Hundreds of thousands of Virginians... found the established Anglican church unable to satisfy their emotional and moral needs and began forming new ordered evangelical communities that rejected outright the high style, luxurious living, and the preoccupations with rank and precedence of the dominant Anglican gentry."95
The Church of England lost members—most of them ordinary people who owned little to no property—to the Separate Baptists, New Light Presbyterians, and Methodists. Many of these new splinter sects fostered an even more individualistic philosophy than that which was first embraced during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. That initial Reformation had already persuaded people to question authority and think for themselves; when such behavior was reinforced and further radicalized in the Great Awakening, it did not bode well for a monarchy that relied upon submissive, deferential subjects to obey its laws and do its bidding. Of course, the social tensions heated by the Great Awakening did not immediately boil over but rather simmered for decades; more than 40 years passed between the Awakening and the coming of the Revolution.
And even the Revolution did not end the tradition of established churches in America; while state legislatures challenged the existence of these churches during the period of Revolutionary ferment, in many states these entrenched religious institutions persisted well into the early nineteenth century. Still, the new sects recognized the radical potential of the Revolution, and pressed for more reforms against the established churches to reduce public taxation for their support and to ensure more freedom of worship for all colonists. Freedom of worship for individuals—and freedom from government influence for churches—led to a flowering of Christian spirituality in America. The radical anti-establishment sects of the Great Awakening eventually grew to become America's largest churches. By the 1840s, the Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest denomination in the country, with over one million members, and the Baptists weren't far behind.96