Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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American Protestantism has been marked historically by "revivals"—practices that sponsor and reinforce an enthusiastic, emotional, and evangelistic faith. Revivals have been the quintessential American religious practice, even spreading to American Catholicism (Dolan 1978).

However, scholars disagree as to whether revivals have been a more or less steady phenomenon (Butler 1990) or whether there have been periodic waves of revivalism. The latter idea is generally termed the "great awakenings" thesis. In this account, awakenings are periods of intense religious fervor, spreading over entire geographic regions. Large numbers of revivals renew the faith among the formally churched as well as gain new converts. Awakenings produce an emotion-based, experiential, immanentist faith. Many have credited awakenings with helping to foster religious pluralism, advance ideas sympathetic to political democracy and social reform, and forge an American national identity (e.g., Ahlstrom 1972, Hammond 1979, Hatch 1989, Mathews 1969, Smith 1980, Stout 1986).

More contentious is the claim that awakenings are cyclical, representing a religious response to social and cultural change. They help believers come to terms with the stress that change produces and adjust the culture to new modes of societal organization (e.g., Gordon-McCutchan 1981, Huntington 1981, McLoughlin 1978).

The first Great Awakening is generally placed in the 1740s, originating in western New England; Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were the major figures. The second Great Awakening occurred in approximately 1800-1830, spreading from the "burned over district" of upstate New York throughout the frontier and moving back again to the seaboard; the major figure was Charles G. Finney. A third Great Awakening is occasionally associated with the years 1890-1920.

The journal Sociological Analysis (now Sociology of Religion ) had a symposium on religious awakenings (Vol. 44, No. 2, 1983).

Rhys H. Williams


S. E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972)

J. Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990): J. P. Dolan, Catholic Revivalism (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978)

R. C. Gordon-McCutchan, "The Irony of Evangelical History," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20(1981):309-326

J. Hammond, The Politics of Benevolence (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1979)

N. O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989)

S. P. Huntington, American Politics (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1981)

D. Mathews, "The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process," American Quarterly 21 (1969):23-43

W. G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings and Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)

T. L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth Century America , rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980)

H. S. Stout, The New England Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

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