An American Identity Rooted in Religious Revival

To explain the difficulty colonies had finding official ministers, Chris stated in his most recent post, “Costly and time-consuming, I assume that many priests either lacked the funding or didn’t want to risk the long journey.” I definitely agree with Chris and would like to add that the colonists did not really try to train new ministers in America either. Geography also contributed to the decline in full church membership, since churches were often long distances away from southern communities separated by miles and miles of farmland. Although full church membership decreased, church attendance still increased, demonstrating how religion still played a large role in the colonists’ lives.
The dwindling church membership cultivated a split between evangelicals and rationalists, between the old and the new. The evangelicals aimed to convert as many people as they possibly could, as well as revive religious fervor among the colonists in what was known as the Great Awakening. “To stimulate revivals, energetic ministers preached “soul-searching” sermons meant to shock their listeners into recognizing their impending and eternal sentence in hell” (Taylor, p. 345). Taylor emphasizes how evangelicals used fear and despair in their revivals, which were often dangerous and caused harm to the weak-hearted. It was shocking to discover some people actually resorted to suicide to escape the anguish they experienced after an evangelical revival. The fear of not attaining salvation that evangelical ministers employed in their revivals could have its origins in the witchcraft trials, which took place a few decades earlier. The New England colonists believed witches were connected to the devil, fostering this fear of hell in place of salvation.
Perhaps the greatest outcome of the Great Awakening was the large-scale dissent from traditional English Anglicanism. Some looked at America as a religious mess with all the different churches that split into different religions. Conversely, America was finally able to distinguish itself from England as a land that fostered many religions and backgrounds; I believe this religious pluralism was the beginning of a common American identity among the colonies. In the end, the Great Awakening had succeeded in reviving faith and religion in America, while fueling a revolutionary break from England that would occur a few decades later.

Shocking Similarities and Awakening

After nearly a century on the continent, European colonists in America had gradually become more proficient in maintaining settlements in the New World and were well on their way to establishing their own nation independent of European influence. Before this could happen, the Salem Witch Trials and The Great Awakening took place, radically altering the religious and supernatural mindset of the inhabitants of the Americans before the Revolution.

In Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, he described the process of this religious revival best when he wrote “after significant lags and regional exceptions, we find a dramatic, widespread, and increasingly synchronized outburst of revival religion.” (Taylor, 339). In a sense, this rebirth of religious devotion in the 1700s has set the tone for the relatively conservative and widespread religious devotion that still exists strongly in the Unites States today.

I found it interesting how the readings were divided between Taylor’s description of The Great Awakening and the four external essays concerning the Salem Witch Trials. Much like EVFRASER, WIROBERTSON, ROMANGONE, CHMASONE and SHCALLAWAY, I too believe that the two events were absolutely interrelated. For better or for worse, religion (particularly Christianity) overtime has used scare tactics as a means of gaining support (e.g. the fear of going to Hell, natural superiority). I believe the Salem Witch Trials and the fear of being persecuted in such a harsh manner was an extension of this scare tactic in an attempt to homogenize society. In her essay “Confess or Deny? What’s a “Witch” to Do?” Elizabeth Reis writes “ministers made it perfectly clear that intimacy with Satan ended one’s chance attaining saving grace and damned one to enter an eternity in hell.” Ministers could easily take advantage of this fear in their sermon. They could use it to not only add members to their church, but to strengthen the congregation’s devotion. By persecuting supposed witches for their supposed worship of Satan and other occult practices, churches in the Americas made it clear how they viewed those with different spiritual views, and how through their preaching they are simply trying to save them.

Finally, I found Taylor’s section on George Whitefield especially interesting. His description of him “drawing immense crowds too large for churches” (Taylor, 347) and as a “charismatic and moving speaker” (Taylor, 347) who would move across America delivering his sermon would be just as accurate in describing a notable 21st century Evangelical preacher today as it was back then. Whitefield in a sense almost set the archetype for modern-day “megapreachers” (as we call them in Canada) all the way down to their association with political figures (in Whitefield’s case it was Benjamin Franklin) and strong concern with their public image.