How did the First Great Awakening compare to the Second Great Awakening?

Kevin DeYoung & 2 others
2 Min Read

GODFREY: The First Great Awakening was briefer. It is usually dated around 1740–1746. It tended to be in many places more emotional—outbursts, people crying out, falling down, weeping, and so on. George Whitefield was asked once: “Why don’t you control your meetings better? Why do you allow so much emotion?”—it was probably some Dutchman who asked that question. Whitefield’s response was: “No one is surprised at someone weeping at a funeral. Why should you be surprised at people weeping over the death of their own souls?” So, there was a great emotional intensity. The leadership of the Great Awakening in the British colonies . . .

DEYOUNG: He didn’t like the English any more than we did, I don’t think.

GODFREY: What I wanted to quote to Sinclair—this is all parenthetical—was Jonathan Edwards’ great statement that he looked forward to the coming of the millennium when the whole world will be as polite as Englishmen. Certain parts of Great Britain were apparently left out of that kind of vision of civilization. The outer Celtic fringe was sort of eliminated.

Anyway, the First Great Awakening was shorter, more intense, had more famous leadership, and was decidedly Calvinistic in its leadership, at least in the colonies.

The Second Great Awakening was a good bit longer. It lasted over several decades, was less often emotionally intense, and marked the beginning of a more mixed-American kind of revivalism in which some leaders were Reformed and some Arminian. Those are some of the differences between the two.

DEYOUNG: Do you find Iain Murray’s distinction in the classic book Revival and Revivalism to be a helpful marker between the two, or do we not want to be that negative toward the Second Great Awakening? I don’t think Iain Murray is negative toward it, but that sort of nomenclature indicates there were revivals that you couldn’t plan for because the Spirit came in the sovereign outpouring and work of awakening. Revival then gave way to a kind of revivalism in the nineteenth century, most egregiously with Finney’s new measures that you could plan for revival by following dedicated steps. Even in our times, we are used to people announcing a revival on a particular day—“revival this Saturday.” If only it were that easy: just hang a banner and then revival will come. So, Murray distinguishes between the Spirit-wrought surprising work of God in revival and then revivalism, which is something we think we can plan for and manufacture with just the right steps. At least in broad strokes, I’ve found it helpful to see the Second Great Awakening moving more in the revivalism direction. Is that fair?

FERGUSON: Yes, I think in the nineteenth century—maybe even more in America than in the UK—it was obvious that God used secondary means in awakening. He employed prayer, the preaching of the Word, and certain patterns that were seen to be conducive—that is to say, they were consistent with a biblical pattern of operation. However, that was turned around into, “If these are the means God has used, then let’s use those means and God will do this.” And that was really to reverse the divine pattern.

GODFREY: I do think Iain Murray’s book is very helpful.

FERGUSON: Yes, it’s very good.

GODFREY: It’s very stimulating. Part of what turned things around was that Finney was such a good self-promoter. There were less well-known, very fine Calvinist evangelists, like Asahel Nettleton, but he didn’t promote himself the way Finney promoted himself.

FERGUSON: It’s amazing, you can hardly pronounce Asahel Nettleton today, whereas everybody knows the name Finney. But Nettleton was a very powerful instrument in the Second Great Awakening.

This is a transcript of W. Robert Godfrey’s, Sinclair Ferguson’s, and Kevin DeYoung’s answers given during our 2018 National Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email or message us on Facebook or Twitter.