Reference Entry

Great Awakening

Graham Russell Gao Hodges

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Great Awakening

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The Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s saw an emphasis on a felt religion and opened up the possibilities of salvation without attention to religious doctrine or education. The religious revival occurred in public settings where dissident Anglican clerics such as George Whitefield, inspirational interpreters of new faiths such as the Methodists John Wesley and Francis Asbury, and revivalist Presbyterians such as the brothers Gilbert and Edward Tennant of New Jersey brought new hopes of salvation as well as fears of eternal damnation to converts. The inclusiveness of the preachers' appeals meant that African Americans were among the participants at the massive rallies and spiritual love feasts. Slaves and free blacks joined indentured servants, white wage laborers, and women at services. There were reports that blacks even ventured forth to preach at such gatherings. The egalitarian methods of Great Awakening revivals matched the ideology behind them. The Reverend Samuel Hopkins of Newport, Rhode Island, railed against slavery in his sermons. Whitefield, the giant of Awakening preachers, attacked slaveholders in a letter: “I think God has a quarrel with you for your abuse and cruelty to the poor Negroes.” Whitefield blasted masters for refusing to let their bondpeople attend catechism school and become baptized. Yet, like other Anglican clerics, he did not oppose slavery and in fact owned a slave. Whitefield related one occasion in rural New Jersey when a black woman “was filled with a love of Christ & being too fond of the instrument would fair have gone with me. Her master assented but I bid her go home & with a thankful heart to serve her present master.” In South Carolina, Whitefield responded to the loud taunts played on a French horn by John Marrant by pointing a finger at the bondman and shouting, “Jesus Christ has got thee at last.” Marrant fell into a faint and on awakening became a devout Christian. Ignoring orders to the contrary from Whitefield and other white preachers, blacks interpreted their words as distinguishing good Christians, who opened the word of God to them, from false Christians, who denied them access to services. Blacks exalted Whitefield despite his refusal to denounce slavery publicly. Phillis Wheatley wrote an elegy on his death, recalling that he offered hope to the black nation: “Take him, ye African, he longs for you. Impartial Savior is his title due.” In words that alarmed slave masters and orthodox clerics, Protestant clerics marveled at the effects of the Great Awakening on blacks. John Moorhead, Boston's fiery Presbyterian minister, observed the “wonderful things God is doing and has already manifested amongst Indians, Negroes.” At the local level white churches began accepting more blacks into their congregations—even as equals during services. Inviting blacks into services and memberships mandated their enrollment in church schools, which significantly increased literacy among enslaved people and made those whose masters forbade education more alienated from their educated peers. The Great Awakening increased egalitarian attitudes among blacks by convincing them that they could gain salvation as surely as could whites, elevating their self-esteem, fostering independent thought, and inspiring black leadership. Runaway notices throughout the colonial period indicate the rise of a black clerical leadership, which appeared in prominence during the American Revolution and afterward. It was described that Mark, who ran away from his master in 1775, “reads well, is a Negro Preacher.” Anthony, who fled his master in 1783, “pretends to be a preacher, and sometimes officiates in that capacity among the blacks.” The Great Awakening increased the numbers of blacks adhering to Protestant faiths. During the eighteenth century the Atlantic slave trade brought tens of thousands of Africans to North America, creating the potential for the establishment of a vast unacculturated population hostile to its condition and foreign to the master class; the Great Awakening softened these divisions. Whites attempted to instill docility among slaves through religious instruction, while blacks, often creatively misunderstanding the possibilities of emancipation through church membership, readily joined the Pentecostally oriented Methodist and Baptist faiths and the orthodox denominations, particularly the Church of England. The existence of such religious memberships provides greater understanding of the choices made by blacks during the American Revolution to side with the British in the hope of gaining freedom. The Great Awakening did not wash away African retentions among enslaved blacks; throughout the colonies and into the founding of the new nation the freer expression of services therein allowed blacks to respond in a style closer to the ecstatic spirituality common in African folk religions. In Virginia two white observers noted, “Their religious services are wild, and at times almost raving.” Such comments were common among whites who found black services amusing and irreligious. One Long Island minister sourly noted in 1743 that blacks “who were lately called Heathens, seem many of them now a miraculous compound of Paganism and Methodism.” Such remarks became the scaffolding for racist ridicule over the next century. After the American Revolution and through the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s, the long-term effects of the Great Awakening became even more apparent. Inspired by the egalitarian rhetoric of the Revolution and determined to create a black community, African American clergy and congregations sought to establish their own churches. Founding separate branches of Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian (formerly Anglican) denominations, African Americans created a unique theology, hymnody, and style of observance. Animated by the individual expression implicit in Great Awakening messages, black narrators, along with their white counterparts, composed autobiographies and spiritual narratives that formed the core of an emerging black nationalist intellectual tradition. Because so much of Christianity was literally a religion of the book, the effect of the Great Awakening combined religious fervor, education, and autobiographical identity with a drive for organization and a need to find respectability in a hostile world. The Great Awakening opened the hearts of African Americans to Christianity and made them aware of how to become acculturated to Anglo-American mores and gave them hope for a better future. The evangelical appeal of the antislavery movement owed much to the egalitarian and warm heart of the Great Awakening. By 1830—nearly a century after the Great Awakening—African Americans demanded the equality and freedom underlying its messages. See also Africanisms; American Revolution; Autobiography; Baptists and African Americans; Black Church; Black Nationalism; Emancipation; Episcopalians (Anglicans) and African Americans; Fugitive Slaves; Indentured Servitude; Marrant, John; Methodist Church and African Americans; Presbyterians and African Americans; Religion; Trickster; Wheatley, Phillis; and Women.

Reference Entry.  1142 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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