The Great Awakening was a Christian religious revival in America. There were actually several distinct periods of increased religious activity, but the term often refers to a period in the 1730s and 1740s, also known as the First Great Awakening. Characteristics of this period include increased church membership, fervent sermons from pastors, social activism, and new religious denominations.
The term itself refers to a perceived slumber in religious devotion; it was used by those who favored a resurgence of religious activity. English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton's 1687 publication of Principia offered widely-accepted arguments for a mechanic universe that followed natural laws. Many in the following Age of Enlightenment challenged religious claims and advocated human values more in line with those of Classical times than those connected to periods of strong Christian influence.
Two leading figures are believed to have sparked the First Great Awakening in the United States. While the revivals were part of a broader religious movement that was strong in England, Scotland, and Germany, ardent speeches by preachers in America were immediately followed by heightened religious activity. Jonathan Edwards is known to have evoked vivid images of hell in his best-known sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." George Whitefield, originally an English preacher, began to draw large audiences in America after 1739. Edwards' and Whitefield's speech style emphasized an emotional connection to everyday Christians rather than rational theological arguments and was imitated by many preachers and lay-Christians alike.
The Second Great Awakening extended from the 1790s to the time before the American Civil War broke out in 1860. Similar to the first period, there was a surge in preaching activity. A number of political movements also advanced during this time, including the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, prison reform, and alcohol temperance. It also coincided with the emergence of a number of new Protestant denominations, such as Mormon, Baptist, and Shaker.
Some historians recognize a Third Great Awakening. The American Civil War upset many religious activities in the northern U.S., but is believed to have stimulated revivals in the South. Following the war, there was an increase in social activism, including campaigns for better working conditions and the prohibition of alcohol, pornography, and prostitution. Missionary work, both domestic and international, was very active during this time period. Like the second movement, it saw the establishment of new Christian denominations as well.