The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening (1727–1746) was a period of religious revival in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies.  Itinerant evangelization generated enthusiasm and stimulated dramatic conversions and an increase in church membership throughout the churches of Massachusetts and Connecticut.  However, it created conflict with the established church since the doctrine of justification by faith endorsed by the “New Light” proponents contrasted with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination endorsed by the “Old Light” traditionalists.

In the Pioneer Valley, the Great Awakening was most vibrant in 1735 and in 1740–41.  Throughout 1735, Stephen Williams was witness to a groundswell of revival as far north as Northfield, as far west as Stratford, and as far east as Rhode Island.  Rev. Jonathan Edwards, the pastor of Northampton and also Stephen Williams’s step-cousin, was one of the first proponents of the “New Light” in the Connecticut River valley.  His brother-in-laws, Rev. Joseph Meacham, Rev. James Davenport, and Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, were also “New Light” preachers.

In October 1740, the urge for revival was renewed with the visit of George Whitefield, the famous itinerant preacher.  Stephen Williams travelled with George Whitfield during a portion of his journey and heard him speak in Springfield, West Springfield, and Suffield. 

Locally, religious fervor peaked in the summer of 1741.  Stephen Williams was present in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741 when Rev. Jonathan Edwards presented his “Sinners at the Hand of an Angry God” sermon in which he envisioned a sinner as dangling on a single thread over the caldrons of hell.  Rev. Williams wrote in his diary

and before ye Sermon – was done there was a great moaning – & crying out throughout ye whole House – what shall I do to be Sav’d – oh I am going to Hell  - oh what shall I do for a Christ – so that ye minister – was obliged to desist – shrieks & crys – were piercing and amazing – after some time of waiting – the congregation were still so that a prayer was made by Mr. W - & after that we descended from the pulpit and discoursed with the people.

News of the religious fervor at the Enfield meeting arrived in Longmeadow before Rev. Williams returned home the following day accompanied by Rev. Joseph Meacham.  “A great assembly” greeted them and they went into the meeting house where Rev. Meacham preached.  There “were considerably shakeing & trembling before ye revivle was finished.”  Over the next few days, many residents, including Rev. Williams’s wife, two of his sons, and his slave Phillis, were greatly affected.  Church membership swelled in the months following these sermons.

This religious “enthusiasm”, as it was called, reached its apex in New London, Connecticut when in March, 1743 Rev. James Davenport convinced his followers that they must burn their idols in order to be saved.  Singing psalms and hymns, the participants in this outburst burned their books on the street. Captured by Davenport's rhetoric, the enthusiasts built a second bonfire comprised of petticoats, silk gowns, short cloaks, cambick caps, red-heeled shoes, fans, necklaces, and Davenport's breeches.  This religious extravagance shocked the “Old Light” conservatives and embarrassed the “New Light” pastors.


by Elizabeth Hoff

Longmeadow Historical Society

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Longmeadow, MA 01106
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