It is hard to overstate the significance of the Great Awakening: it was a cultural, social, and governmental change. Shelley called it the new order and perhaps its affects are best seen when viewed against the backdrop of the infant American nation (Shelley, 2013, p. 358). The Protestant Reformation had started something unavoidable; if men were to be bound by conscience to the Word alone, as Luther’s disquisition stated at the Diet of Worms, then men would have to think about what they believed. So what the Reformation started unintentionally could only lead denominations and volunteerism (Shelley, 2013, p. 358). This new order that was embodied in the Great Awakening was more than just a change in church structure. It is not a coincidence that the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, that gave the state no power over the church, followed hard on the heels of the Great Awakening (Gibaut, 2015, p. 216). With so many souls being awakened to their responsibility to know what they believed, naturally the last thing these people wanted was a repeat of history where the state had the power to tell the individual what to believe. So, by stuffing the pews with new converts who were being taught, in true reformed fashion, that they would stand before God for what they believed and they were captive only to the Word of God, the Great Awakening changed the course of a nation and solidified the age of denominations.
Two faces that come to mind in the American Great Awakening are that of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield. These two might be said to have done more to shape America and the church today than iconic names like Washington and Jefferson. Washington and Jefferson’s victories on the political field did not have the cultural impact that Edwards and Whitfield did with the common man. Winiarski tells the story of Edwards baptizing ninety-seven members into a church on one day (Winiarski, 2005, p. 684). Whitfield on the other hand possessed a homiletic eloquence that could stir the soul of every listener (Mahaffey, 2006, p. 12). Shelley notes that during the period of 1740 – 1742 as many as 25,000 new church members were added, almost doubling the number of church attendance (Shelley, 2013, p. 364). With this influx of new members the church became the largest voting body in the colonial New England. In England the King had already been declared as the leader of the church and the English state church was the official religion of the mother country. All these new thinking believers that did not want the state church telling them what to believe only added fuel to the revolutionary fire that erupted in 1777.
The social change that was planted as seeds in the Great Awakening also brought forth changes within the church. Shelley says that by 1760 there were as many as one-hundred and fifty new congregational bodies in the colonies (Shelley, 2013, p. 364). This is the cat that the Reformers let out of the bag, even though it is unlikely they intended any feline escape. However, with such an influx of personally responsible souls, disagreements about form and function were inevitable. When there are thousands of souls reading the Word for themselves in all fear of the God they have to answer to, there is no way to maintain a state sponsored status quo church. These disagreements supercharged the already present movement to denominationalism. With denominations came the need to find a ecumenical balance and the fundamentals of faith had to be laid out. This process is still underway in the church today and is a great example of just one of the ripples that spiraled outward from the epicenter of the Great Awakening
The Great Awakening was a catalyst in America for revolutionary change. As the pews overflowed and men learned of their personal responsibility to scripture, exemplified by Martin Luther and preached by Whitfield and Edwards, there was no going back to sleep. Men would have to deal with not being able to trust in a state church for the path to salvation or for cultural unity. The old system needed a makeover and The Great Awakening made two things very plain, these new congregational bodies would not be ruled by the state church of England and would not be able to agree with each other. The Great Awakening of men to their need for a personal savior made revolution, constitutional freedom, and denominations an outright necessity.
Gibaut, J. H. (2015). The Church: Towards a Common Vision. Journal Of Ecumenical Studies, 50(2), 216-248.
Mahaffey, J. D. (2006). George Whitefield’s homiletic art: neo-sophism in the Great Awakening. Homiletic, 31(1), 11-22.
Shelley, B. (2013). Church history in plain language (4th ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Winiarski, D. L. (2005). Jonathan Edwards, enthusiast?: Radical revivalism and the Great Awakening in the Connecticut Valley. Church History, 74(4), 683-739.