Number Fifty-One

Tealiberasophoterianistic Perspectives

The Great Awakening As a Case For Intellectual Honesty

with 6 comments

By Alex Couch

My post was inspired from one of the comments made by Jesse Philips earlier where he mentioned the “Great Awakening.” I have spent a lot of time researching the Great Awakening, mostly focusing on the theoretical impact it had in Virginia. My attempt here will be to share some of that knowledge and discuss the significance of such a topic in relation to intellectual honesty.

One of the cannons or pillars of American history has been the idea of a Great Awakening. It has been at the very least discussed and is usually given an entire chapter by almost every U.S history text book ever published. Being a history major, I was a little bothered by the fact that I didn’t understand what it really was other than the basics and knew very little about it and so when I was assigned the task of writing a research paper in a Colonial American class I made up my mind to find out more and write about it.

Before I go on, let me give the basic information usually associated with the Great Awakening. It usually goes something like this: In the 18th century there were wide-spread revivals where many people received salvation. The theory goes that those series of revivals had a marked effect on the cultural and political landscape and some would go as far as to claim that they were one of the major causes of the American Revolution.

So that was my basic understanding of what the Great Awakening was as I went to gather research. My first attempts at sifting through the vast amounts of information proved discouraging as I struggled to find a narrow enough topic to base my thesis on within the framework of the Great Awakening.  My professor encouraged me to focus on the impact of a specific colony. My research guided me toward Virginia were religion seemed to have the most impact.

As I read many articles and some books I came across an article by Jon Butler entitled “Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretative Fiction”Butlers essay challenged the prevailing understanding of what the Great Awakening was. Butler credited Joseph Tracy as the first person to use the term “Great Awakening” to “evaluate all the prerevolutionary revivals” in his 1842 book, The Great Awakening. Butler argued that historians “should abandon the term…because it distorts the character of eighteenth-century American religious life and misinterprets its relationship to prerevolutionary American society and politics.” He noted the fact that, other than Tracy’s book, there had not been a true “comprehensive general history” written on the subject and that all the studies were regional or local in nature. His main argument against the term was that he viewed the revivals as unconnected and unrelated. His evidence included the large gaps in time between revivals and the regions and cities that were unaffected or did not experience any revivals at all. Furthermore, he found no evidence of organization or leadership that directed revivals.[1]

Butler’s argument was well deserved.  More evaluation and discussion was needed to better understand something that had become a “familiar feature of the American historical landscape.”  Tracy may have been trying to tie an event that was theoretically happening around his time, known today as the “Second Great Awakening,” thus making his event more significant.

There exists a general consensus among the scholars that New England did have a unique experience with revivals during the early 1740’s. Butler wrote that “no one would seriously question the existence of ‘the Great Awakening’ if historians only described it as a short-lived Calvinist revival in New England during the early 1740s.” However, this event by itself is not significant or great in historical terms. In order to be significant there are two prerequisites that must be satisfied. First, there needs be a connection made that relates the revivals in New England to the revivals in other colonies and regions. Second, in order to be significant, the connections between the various revivals must be traceable and measurable both quantitatively and qualitatively.

The revivals under the umbrella of the Great Awakening were diverse in style, content, and theology. There are few characteristics that easily be presented that unite the different awakenings. Furthermore, the distance between the revivals was great in both time and location lasting about 100 years and taking almost 30 years to spread to Virginia from New England with any significance.

In the end, I concluded two things. First, the Great Awakening has been and continues to be over exaggerated in terms of historical impact and significance. Secondly, despite the hyperbole, the Great Awakening was historically important and great. For the sake of time I won’t go into all the evidence here but would love to share it with anyone who is interested.

The Great Awakening as an idea has been under attack for the last 30 years because many historians failed to do their due diligence.  There were few if any serious historical works on the Great Awakening as a whole and yet historians and publishers put it in text books like there was. Furthermore, it became common place to mention it when talking about the road to the Revolution and it was often considered one of the major causes. This was and is intellectually dishonest. Many historians have responded to Butler’s request that more attention be paid to the subject.[2] These historians have started to repair the damage done by the exaggeration and lack of research. The Great Awakening can once again be great.

A lesson can be learned here for our blog. We need to not be too quick in our judgments so that we exaggerate our claim. I myself am often too quick to respond to something I am passionate about and I am totally guilty of hyperbole and overstating my point at times. The worst part is that my main point is usually the true victim of my crime even if it is valid.  Let us be fair in our criticism and be intellectually honest in our posts and comments.

[1]Jon Butler, “Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretative Fiction,” The Journal of American History 69, no. 2 (Sept. 1982), 307. Found online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1893821

[2] For examples see:

Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) and Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999), 113-118 and Frank Lambert, “‘Pedlar in Divinity’: George Whitefield and the Great Awakening, 1737-1745,” The Journal of American History 77, no. 3 (Dec. 1990). Found online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/2078987.

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Written by Jake Phillips

May 27, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. I’m not sure what I said, exactly, but I don’t think the Great Awakening was a major cause of the revolution.

    I do think, that it had an impact on a smaller discussion of whether Americans were good and moral enough to self-govern. That was my only point.

    Jesse P

    May 27, 2011 at 8:43 pm

  2. Not sure that “the distance between the revivals was great in both time and location lasting about 100 years and taking almost 30 years to spread to Virginia from New England with any significance” is a valid argument against connecting multiple awakenings under a single “Great Awakening” umbrella. The Toronto Blessing, for example, took – by most accounts – 5 years to make it’s way from Riverside, NJ to Toronto and then back to the states to become something that nearly every Evangelical experienced or witnessed in 1994. Is it so hard to believe that in an age when emails, AOL, airplanes, cars, etc. didn’t exist, that it would take a much longer time for a move of the Holy Spirit to make it’s way through New England? I don’t buy that argument.

    Josh Phillips

    May 27, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    • Josh,

      The question isn’t “did the Holy Spirit make it’s way through New England.” I don’t think any of us could really have an opinion on that. The question is “does the term ‘Great Awakening’ actually apply to these events?” It means something more than just a “move of the Holy Spirit.” Given that, Alex’s argument is that it does not apply.

      Jake Phillips

      June 1, 2011 at 3:05 pm

  3. Alex, interesting peice. I am not sure that the two factors of gap in time nor the lack of a singular leader are Biblical or historical prerequisites for a revival. Both seem arbitrary criteria and merely one man’s opinion. For my sense of things the lack of singular leadership seems to validate the presence of genuine revival or awakening.

    john stemberger

    May 28, 2011 at 11:48 am

    • Mr. Stemberger,

      I don’t think the question is “was the Great Awakening a revival?” The question does the term, as it has come to be understood, actually apply? The Great Awakening, after all, means something more than just revival.

      Jake Phillips

      June 1, 2011 at 3:03 pm

  4. Excellent. Broad historical labels of this kind (scientific revolution, the enlightenment) are usually attempts to simplify terribly complicated historical phenomena. Forgetting that the label over-simplifies, we see exaggerate unity and breadth of the phenomena.

    Joseph Anderson

    June 1, 2011 at 6:58 pm


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