American Literature Great Awakening(s)
Zachary Hutchins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0013


In the 19th century, religious historians coined the term great awakening to describe a series of widespread evangelical revivals concentrated in the British colonies between the years 1740 and 1743. During this period, now known as the First Great Awakening, thousands of individuals claimed to have experienced the new birth, a datable and often dramatically emotional conversion experience. Subsequent eras of revival noted for their longevity and fervor have since been dubbed the Second, Third, and Fourth Great Awakenings. This bibliography primarily catalogues texts associated with the First Great Awakening. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, individual preachers and congregations enjoyed isolated surges of religious fervor that led to the incorporation of new church members, but in the 1730s and 1740s, congregations throughout the British colonies, together with congregations across the Atlantic, in Scotland and England, reported a sustained increase of God’s grace (and church attendance). This transatlantic groundswell of evangelical activity originated in Northampton, Massachusetts, during the winter of 1733–1734, when Jonathan Edwards’s affective preaching and the untimely deaths of several residents caused many of the unconverted to fear for the state of their souls. Edwards recounted the religious excitement and conversion of his congregants in a personal letter that he eventually expanded for publication in London, which provided a template of successful, community-wide religious revival for English preachers, such as John Wesley and George Whitefield. Both became famous for preaching in the open air, where crowds numbering in the thousands would come to hear them speak. Many of the converts in those crowds experienced the emotional roller coaster of the new birth and sanctification by the Holy Spirit physiologically; these new believers moaned, shrieked, and shook their limbs uncontrollably. Social groups at the margins of colonial religious culture, including youth, women, impoverished families, and people of color, embraced this form of Christianity, in which they could participate with fewer restrictions. Critics of the revivals, commonly known as Old Lights, verbally attacked supporters of the revivals, or New Lights, for these emotional excesses. The most radical revivalists—men like James Davenport and Andrew Croswell—justified their defiance of social and religious conventions by appealing to the Holy Spirit, claiming that it caused and, therefore, excused the unusual behavior of their congregants. By the mid-1740s, thanks in part to Davenport’s inflammatory accusations that Old Light ministers, and even moderate evangelical preachers, were “carnal unconverted men,” the tide of public opinion had begun to turn against the excesses characteristic of radical revivals. Prominent preachers, such as Edwards and Whitefield, denounced the behavior of Davenport and other radicals, aligning themselves with moderate revivalists, such as Benjamin Colman and Jonathan Dickinson. In response, many radical evangelicals left the coalition of Congregational and Presbyterian churches at the crux of the North American revivals to become Baptists. This schism both marked and, in part, caused the end of the First Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening commenced in Kentucky, with the 1801 Cane Ridge revival, and wound to a close shortly after William Miller’s failed prediction that Jesus Christ would return to the earth before 21 March 1844. This period of revival launched several major new religious denominations, including the Miller-inspired Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the “Mormon” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the Disciples of Christ. The Third Great Awakening began with the 1857–1858 holiness revival and was characterized by the social gospel movement, a push to combat social problems, such as poverty, racism, substance abuse, and crime, with Christian activism. No clear end point has been identified for the Third Great Awakening, but Dwight L. Moody, the period’s most famous preacher, died in 1899, and most scholars agree that the revivals diminished significantly in the early 1900s. The Fourth Great Awakening is a period whose dates are still contested. Some scholars, however, have pointed to a sustained period of elevated evangelical conversion rates between 1970 and 1990 as empirical grounds for identifying beginning and end points for the Fourth Great Awakening. Others have identified the early 20th-century ministries of Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson as an earlier, fifth period of awakening.

General Overviews

Although many books addressing one of the four commonly identified Great Awakenings have appeared, relatively few writers have attempted a comprehensive account of the three-hundred-year history of these recurring religious revivals. Sweet 1944 is one of the earliest attempts and predates the late-20th-century revivals some have identified as a Fourth Great Awakening. Balmer 1999 is a history of evangelicalism, not an account of the Awakenings, but the two topics overlap so frequently that this text is a suitable introduction for the general reader. Hardman 1983 approaches the topic biographically. Ahlstrom 2004, McLoughlin 1978, and McClymond 2004 provide the best scholarly overviews; McClymond’s introductory, bibliographic essay is the place that every scholar interested in awakenings and revivalism should start. Blumhofer and Balmer 1993 places the American Awakenings in an international context, whereas Taves 1999 examines 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century explanations for the physiological and supernatural excesses associated with revival.

  • Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

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    A comprehensive history of American Christianity that provides a single narrative linking the first three Great Awakenings and situating these periods of revival with respect to other periods and movements in American religious history.

  • Balmer, Randall. Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America. Boston: Beacon, 1999.

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    Balmer, a religious historian, provides a history of the American evangelical movement that combines intellectual rigor and brevity; the ideal introductory text for students, despite several historical divergences between evangelicalism and Christian revivals in America.

  • Blumhofer, Edith L., and Randall Balmer, eds. Modern Christian Revivals. Papers presented at the conference “Modern Christian Revivals, a Comparative Perspective,” Wheaton College, 30 March–1 April 1989. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

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    A collection of essays on various periods of revival in colonial North America, Britain, Norway, China, Latin America, Canada, and the United States; these essays place American Awakenings in a global context.

  • Hardman, Keith J. The Spiritual Awakeners: American Revivalists from Solomon Stoddard to D. L. Moody. Chicago: Moody Press, 1983.

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    Brief cultural biographies of more than a dozen influential preachers emphasize the role that individuals played in promoting the Awakenings. Portraits of George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, and Samuel Mills situate the Awakenings in terms of an international evangelical movement.

  • McClymond, Michael J., ed. Embodying the Spirit: New Perspectives on North American Revivalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

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    McClymond, a professor of theology, extends McLoughlin’s foundational work and challenges several of his premises. McClymond’s introduction to this edited collection is the most comprehensive survey of the field in the early 21st century, and the essays offer new perspectives on revivals from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

  • McLoughlin, William G. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977. Chicago History of American Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

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    An essential text for any serious student of the awakening as a recurring religious phenomenon in American history. McLoughlin’s accounts of the Third and Fourth Great Awakenings continue to shape much of the subsequent scholarly discourse.

  • Sweet, William Warren. Revivalism in America: Its Origin, Growth, and Decline. New York: Scribner’s, 1944.

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    Sweet’s history of the Awakenings and revival culture is notable because it was one of the first to forecast an end to the Awakenings, predicting that a surge of secularism and science would forever discredit the emotional religion at the heart of evangelicalism.

  • Taves, Anne. Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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    A history of the involuntary physiological behavior and supernatural phenomena associated with revivals, focusing on ecclesiastical, scientific, and psychological attempts to explain them.

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