America's Great Awakenings Date Back to Colonial Times

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 25, 1997 | Go to article overview

America's Great Awakenings Date Back to Colonial Times


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


When author Tom Wolfe wrote in the 1970s of a "Third Great Awakening" in which young Americans had a love affair with their own personality styles, he was taking liberties with a great American tradition.

Periodic "great awakenings" represent major turning points in American experience.

"The early awakenings shaped our participatory democracy and also the institutions of learning that had an impact on society," says Edwin S. Gaustad, a leading church historian.

He is referring to the so-called First Great Awakening and Second Great Awakening, widespread returns to orthodox faith to address social evils and revitalize society.

Given the power of the "awakening" idea, historians have posed two key questions: How many real awakenings have actually had an impact on American destiny? And did a thing so profound as an "awakening" really take place at any time in the American past?

The term "Great Awakening" was coined in 1840 by historian Joseph Tracy, eager to link revivals of his day to a great founding event in Colonial times. As many as four "awakenings" have been charted by various historians.

The earliest awakening tied to America was England's Puritan revolution, which motivated religious dissenters to settle on American shores.

What is called the first awakening had several stages between the 1730s and 1780s.

Some historians maintain the First Great Awakening converted from 4 percent to 8 percent of the Colonial population. Jon Butler, a Yale University historian, rejects such estimates because he says there were no reliable surveys at the time. …

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