UU Minute #55

The Great Awakening

Almost 300 hundred years ago, the Great Awakening swept through the English colonies in America. It was a religious revival movement in the 1730s. Traveling preachers went from town to town holding revival meetings drawing large outdoor crowds for highly emotional experiences.

When you remember that the first colleges in the colonies – Harvard, William and Mary, Yale -- were founded with the main purpose of training clergy, and that the local minister was typically the only person in town with higher education, and that Sunday morning was the preacher’s platform for demonstrating his sophisticated training, then you get a picture of religion in the hands of the experts. Everyone else was supposed to quietly follow the expert’s instructions as best they could – as presented in sermons that were long, closely-reasoned, dry theological arguments read from manuscript.

The Great Awakening, however, encouraged ordinary people to make a personal connection with God instead of relying on a minister. At a time when religion in America was steadily declining, the Great Awakening reinvigorated interest in religion, and offered many people intense, emotionally consuming religious experience.

Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” exemplified the preaching of the Great Awakening. The implicit message was that a deity who was ruled by emotion demanded emotional worship.

The Great Awakening produced a reaction against its over-emotionalism and a renewed case for a rational approach. There were no known Unitarians in the colonies at this time, but the intellectual forebears of Unitarianism emerged out of this reaction to the emotionalism of the Great Awakening.

NEXT: Reaction to the Great Awakening: Beginnings of American Liberal Religion

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