In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Great Awakening

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Religion in Colonial and Revolutionary America
  • Evangelicalism in Atlantic Context
  • Historiography
  • Documentary Histories
  • New England’s Religious and Social History
  • New England and the Great Awakening
  • Middle Colonies
  • Southern Colonies
  • African Americans
  • Native Americans
  • Women
  • Baptists
  • Moravians
  • Evangelical Radicalism
  • Millennialism
  • Religion and the American Revolution
  • Biographical Studies
  • Charles Chauncy
  • George Whitefield

Atlantic History Great Awakening
Thomas S. Kidd
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0175


The Great Awakening was the most profound social, cultural, and religious upheaval in the North American British colonies prior to the American Revolution. The most intense phase of these evangelical Christian revivals transpired in New England and the Middle Colonies in the early 1740s, but revivals associated with the Great Awakening began in the 1730s and continued through the American Revolution and beyond. There were similar, and often associated, revivals happening in Britain and Europe in the same time period, but the term “the Great Awakening” is usually understood to apply to revivals in the American colonies. The key figure in precipitating the Great Awakening was the English revivalist George Whitefield, who became one of the greatest media and marketing sensations of early modern history. Since the 1980s, debates over the Great Awakening have primarily focused on the significance of the revivals in colonial American history, and their effect (or lack thereof) on the American Revolution. Since the nineteenth century, scholars had largely assumed the Great Awakening’s existence and importance, but some modern scholars have raised serious questions about how “great” the awakenings really were. A rough consensus seems to have emerged that we can accurately speak of a “Great Awakening,” but that participants and later evangelical historians were undoubtedly eager to promote its “great” significance. Moreover, many historians have suggested that while the revivals hardly caused the American Revolution, the Great Awakening did help make American colonial culture more receptive to an uprising against British authority thirty years later.

General Overviews

As Butler 1982 (cited under Historiography) notes, Tracy 1976 (originally published in 1842) helped establish the common use of the term “the Great Awakening” and was the first attempt at a synthetic history. Kidd 2007 is the first major scholarly treatment of the Great Awakening as a whole. Smith 2015 likewise seeks a more comprehensive approach. Other overviews have focused on particular aspects of the awakenings, such as Bumsted and Van de Wetering 1976, which emphasizes evangelical radicalism, Hall 1994, which is framed by itinerancy, and Lambert 1999, which considers the Great Awakening within the burgeoning print culture of Anglo-America. Smith 2012 provides a finely grained analysis of the role of colonial newspapers in promoting the revivals.

  • Bumsted, J. M., and John E. Van de Wetering. What Must I Do to Be Saved? The Great Awakening in Colonial America. Hinsdale, IL: Dryden, 1976.

    A short, sympathetic overview of the Great Awakening that gives particular attention to the radical evangelicals. A lack of footnotes restricts the scholarly value of the book.

  • Hall, Timothy D. Contested Boundaries: Itinerancy and the Reshaping of the Colonial American Religious World. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780822399643

    Itinerant ministers, of whom George Whitefield was the archetype, were vital conveyers of evangelical faith in the Great Awakening. In this work, Hall explores prorevival and antirevival attitudes toward itinerancy and how itinerancy destabilized the traditional world of parish-based colonial religion.

  • Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

    A broad-ranging history of the Great Awakening, this book examines the revivals from Continental, Scottish, and English roots, to Whitefield’s prodigious American meetings, to the cascading revivals of the era of the American Revolution. It especially highlights the social and theological tensions between moderate and radical evangelicals.

  • Lambert, Frank. Inventing the “Great Awakening.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691223995

    A study of the revivals and how participants promoted them as a highly significant, unitary transatlantic event. Through analysis of the developing networks of print and transatlantic communication, Lambert concludes that leaders of the revivals invented the Great Awakening, not later evangelical historians such as Joseph Tracy (Tracy 1976).

  • Smith, Lisa. The First Great Awakening in Colonial American Newspapers: A Shifting Story. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012.

    Offers a detailed overview of the role that print media, especially newspapers, played in the unfolding of the revivals from 1739 to 1748. Smith especially focuses on the coverage of Whitefield and the critical role of Benjamin Franklin in promoting news of the awakenings.

  • Smith, John Howard. The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in British America, 1725–1775. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015.

    Provides a good overview of previous scholarly approaches to the revivals, emphasizes the radical dynamic within the awakenings, and attempts to take a “secular” interpretation of the Great Awakening.

  • Tracy, Joseph. The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1976.

    First published in 1842, this pietistic book originally gave the name “Great Awakening” to revivals of the 1730s and 1740s. As the chief 19th-century religious history of the awakenings, it remains useful, at least for historiographical purposes.

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