The third among the Methodist founders, George Whitefield (1714-1770), became one of the figures that set in motion a distinctly U.S. and British Protestant phenomenon known as the “Great Awakenings.” These were sweeping waves of popular religious enthusiasm that burst forth more or less spontaneously and among rural and marginal groups of society in response to powerful preaching campaigns by charismatic figures and incidentally spawned new denominations.
Although traditional histories speak of only two Awakenings, modern reassessments argue plausibly that there were four, each lasting several decades: 1730-1755, 1790-1840, 1850-1900 and 1960-1980.
They were instrumental in reshaping the Congregational church (the institutional successor of the Pilgrim Puritans) and changing the Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and the German Reformed denominations; at the time of the First Awakening, it boosted the then-small Baptist and Methodist Anglican denominations. None of the Awakenings, however, had much influence on most Anglicans, Lutherans and Quakers; save for the last one, and even then very briefly, they had no effect at all on Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
Notably for our present time, the Awakenings gave rise to the Protestant interdenominational religious movement known as Evangelicalism. The evangelicals—today associated with figures such as the Rev. Billy Graham—became significant in religion and politics in Britain and the United States; they should be distinguished from the Protestant denominations Evangelical Lutheran and Evangelical Reformed and similarly named churches. The movement’s name is also distinct from “evangelical” in theological or religious discourse about matters pertaining to the gospel, in Greek evangelion.
The original Great Awakening is traceable to the 1730s field preaching of John and Charles Wesley in Britain, but its North American origins go back to Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), with Whitefield contributing when he moved to the New World in the 1740s and the work of Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies (1723-1761), notable for preaching to African slaves.
The phenomenon was spurred by fiery preaching at public “revival” meetings, originally directed at church-going folk, to stir up or “awaken” their fervor. The preaching aimed to generate a personal experience that encouraged each person to look inward and commit to a new faith in Jesus Christ and standard of personal morality.
The mostly Calvinist-leaning preachers aimed to avoid formal ceremony and sacramentalism—still, the revival came to acquire a distinct performance art form, including preaching, followed by public declarations of conversion and even assertions of healing. Revivals also rejected hierarchy and denominationalism, yet notably pointed attendees to “Bible centered” churches—somehow these were never Catholic or Orthodox, the traditions that had put together and preserved the Christian Bible.
The Second Great Awakening began around 1790 in the United States. After 1820, the movement fed members to Baptist and Methodist churches whose pastors led the movement, then lost steam by the 1840s and 50s. The movement reflected society’s romanticism, with its appeal to emotion and an appeal to the supernatural that came in response to the skeptical rationalism and deism of the Enlightenment. It was during this period that Adventism emerged, the earliest African-American denominations were established and the earliest stirrings were felt leading to Mormonism, which arguably is not a Christian faith.
The Third Great Awakening has been proposed by historians looking back at U.S. religious activism in the latter half of the 19th century. As shifts in theology and church organization occurred, American Christians began progressive movements to reform society during this period, in particular antebellum abolitionism, temperance and women’s rights. As with the second outbreak, it led to further splintering of Protestantism, including several groups associated with the social gospel, Holiness and Nazarene movements, Fundamentalism and lastly Christian Science, which like Mormonism fell off the table of Christianity.
The idea of a Fourth Awakening—in the late 1960s and early 1970s—is also largely a hypothetical construct, one that is not widely accepted. The phenomenon supposedly takes in the Jesus Movement, the Pentecostal movement that crossed denominations and even outside Protestantism in the form of the Charismatic movement and possibly Messianic Jews (also known as “Jews for Jesus”).
In essence, the Awakenings, whether they were the traditional two or the arguable four, represent the ever greater fragmentation of Protestantism spurred by non-dogmatic and more or less spontaneous popular movements, mostly in the English-speaking world but particularly in the United States. They explain how the handful of “mainline” Protestant traditions spawned by the Reformation and its immediate aftereffects became the myriad of Protestant denominations, large and small, that exist today.