Another Look at the First Great Awakening -- By: John F. Thornbury

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 04:3 (Summer 1995)
Article: Another Look at the First Great Awakening
Author: John F. Thornbury


Another Look at the First Great Awakening

John F. Thornbury

There has been an astonishing lack of interest on the part of the evangelical church in the Great Awakenings of America which took place in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Oddly enough secular historians seem to place more value upon them than modern Christians. One can check the index in any reputable college library in America and he will probably find numerous studies of the Awakenings, often from a purely sociological and historical standpoint. For example, I have found much help in such volumes as The Great Awakening, 1787–1805, by John B. Boles, published by the University of Kentucky, and Revivals Awakening and Reform, by William G. McLoughlin, produced by the University of Chicago.

Students of American church history are unanimous in their opinion that the Great Awakenings have had a major role in the formation not only of the American church but of American culture as a whole. McLoughlin, referring to the Puritan movement, says that “America was born in an awakening.” 1 He also states that the American Revolution was in fact “the secular fulfillment of the religious ideals of the First Great Awakening.” 2 Martin Marty asserts that studies of colonial life reveal that “The Great Awakening was perhaps the most extensive intercolonial event,” and that “it relates to the unsettling of the established order and is related to the War of Independence and nation-building endeavours.” 3 He cites the contention of Puritan scholars Perry Miller and Alan Heimert that the First Great Awakening began “a ‘new era’ not merely of American Protestantism, but in the evolution of the American mind, that it was a watershed, a break with the Middle Ages, a turning point, a ‘crisis.’“ 4

There are many reasons we should study the Awakenings. For one thing, ignorance of the past accounts for mistakes of the present. The modern church has totally ignored its sources and is now adrift without a purpose. The revival accounts of

our country and in other parts of the world are a rich source of devotional material and encouragement for the battles we face today. The study of such treatises as Edwards’ Religious Affections provide a rich source of devotional material and can help us to analyze religious movements today. Interestingly, many of the same types of problems we contend with today in the charismatic and Vineyard movements cropped up in the G...

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