The First Great Awakening

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Why was the First Great Awakening important?

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The Great Awakening, sometimes called the First Great Awakening, occurred in the American colonies between the 1720s and 1740s, though some historians define it in broader terms and choose not to limit it to those decades. It was geographically widespread. Though influenced by the Pietism that swept across Europe in preceding years, the popular religious movement had its own American roots, context, and outcomes.

Often seen as a reaction against rationalism and formalism, the Great Awakening provided spontaneity, vigor, and the assertion of the validity and centrality of personal or individual religious experience. The revival and many of the popular preachers who spearheaded it (e.g. George Whitefield) crossed denominational lines and thus blurred the distinctions between Christian denominations; it also had an element of anti-authoritarianism. One could productively trace the importance of these religious and cultural shifts in the colonies with an eye toward the roots of the American Revolution.

The Great Awakening could have contributed to the American Revolution in another way: the crowds that came together to listen to popular preachers during this time gathered in fields and other open spaces, ostensibly because the local church buildings could not accommodate them. Could these open-air meetings have established a pattern or blueprint for revolutionary meetings and gatherings during the era of the American Revolution? Some historians believe that they did.

The spontaneous, personal, cross-denominational, anti-authoritarian, and communal elements of the First Great Awakening can be productively explored in connection with the context and roots of the American Revolution: the historical literature on the topic is vast.

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