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Causes of the Great Awakening

Thomas Kidd takes the position that there was a Great Awakening. Kidd makes his argument by explaining the impact that George Whitefield had on the colonies in the early 1740s. Kidd mentions that at each stop Whitefield made, he had thousands of people waiting to hear him preach. He also uses two examples of people who converted due to the profound nature of Whitefield’s sermons. Overall, Whitefield’s style of preaching led to New England’s substantial revival tradition.

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Jon Butler takes the position that there was no Great Awakening. Butler’s argument revolves around the fact that the Great Awakening was heterogeneous and did not have a large impact on the colonies. Butler reveals that the Great Awakening was not only a Calvinist religious revival, but one that also included other religious sects. Butler also points out that while ministers such as Whitefield many have drawn large crowds, many of them had very little impact. After ministers preached, the communities largely stayed and the same and experienced little to no social and political change.

When analyzing the arguments presented by both Butler and Kidd, I would have to agree with Butler that there was no Great Awakening and that the religious revivals of the eighteenth century did not jump start the American Revolution. Butler’s argument is so convincing because he systematically breaks down the idea of a Great Awakening while attacking the idea with a multi-pronged approach. Kidd on the other hand, only focuses on the impact that George Whitefield had, which is not enough to convince me that a Great Awakening occurred.

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Kidd’s whole argument rested on the idea that because Whitefield was able to attract big crowds he must also be having a large impact. However, Butler dismisses this notion when he says, “his visits, however exciting, produced few permanent changes in local religious patterns”. There is also an argument to be made about the scope of the religious revivals. John Edwards and George Whitefield spent most of their time giving sermons in the New England states and rarely ventured outside of that geographical location. Butler also tells us that New York, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Maryland, and Georgia witnessed very revivals. How can there be a Great Awakening if only a handful of the colonies experienced it? Finally, an argument can also be made that the growth of population played a role in the increased numbers of congregations and denominations seen throughout eighteenth century colonial America. The colonial population ballooned from 300,000 in 1700 to 2 million by 1770. The increase in religious denominations can partially be explained by the fact that population increased almost sevenfold in seventy years.

The idea that the Great Awakening was a key factor in the American Revolution is quite silly. The only colony which may be able to point to the Great Awakening as a factor is Virginia. The Baptist revivals in Virginia took power away from the Anglicans hold on religion and politics. However, the fact that many members of Virginia’s Anglican aristocracy were leaders in the fight for freedom weakens the power that the religious revivals played. Ultimately, economic factors were the driving force behind the colonists’ decision to take up arms against the British in the American Revolution, not religious ones. I completely agree with Margaret when she articulates that the Great Awakening should instead be called, “a short-lived Calvinist revival in New England in the early 1740s”.

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