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A Visitor's Guide to Colonial & Revolutionary New England

The Great Awakening

“Jonathan Edwards, a Congregational minister who had succeeded his grandfather as minister in the Connecticut River valley town of Northampton, Massachusetts, noticed a great increase in religious enthusiasm among the townspeople in 1735. Most of the colonies responded to waves of revivalism, especially between 1740 and 1742. George Whitefield, one of the founders of Methodism, arrived from England in 1738 and proceeded to call the colonists to repent their sins and confess their faith in Jesus Christ. During a tour of Massachusetts in 1740, when Whitefield visited Ipswich, Salem, Newbury, Northampton, and Boston, huge crowds gathered, both in churches and in fields, to learn how they could be saved.

Edwards’s sermons, like Whitefield’s, were directed at raising emotions as well as ideas. His most famous sermon, delivered in 1741, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” painted a picture of hell that was graphic to the senses. Edwards, however, did not subscribe to the heresy that salvation could somehow be earned, adhering to the Puritan doctrine that it would come only to the elect through God’s grace. Edwards’ renown, though earned and genuine, was to prove ephemeral. In 1742 he insisted that those who took communion had to make a profession of faith. An uproar followed, eventually leading to his dismissal from the Northampton church in 1750. As the enthusiasm of parishioners waned, their focus returned to worldly interests, but one unintended aftereffect of the Great Awakening was greater toleration of diversity in religious beliefs.”