Colonial North America and the early USA (along with other parts of the British Empire) experienced a series of "great awakenings" or revivals of religious spirit among Christian leaders and people. The numbers of these movements (i.e., First, Second, Third, etc.) become debatable and confusing, but the first two are definite.
The (First) Great Awakening: a trans-Atlantic Christian revival of the 1730s-40s, starting in England and spreading to its colonies, including New England and New York in North America. The English evangelist George Whitefield traveled to America, stimulating local enthusiasm.
The most famous literary product of the (First) Great Awakening in colonial America was Jonathan Edwards's sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (1741).
Social and theological Effects: Popular religion becomes more emotional and expressive, less theologically formal and less institutionalized. Religion centers more in believers than in churches and clergy, de-institutionalizing religion—a process continuing today with the Emerging Church movement or new denominations that describe themselves as "non-denominational."
(This pattern is consistent with Protestantism's impulse to return to the worship of the "Apostolic Church" that existed in the generation after Christ's ministry, when His imminent return was expected.)
Recent movement toward non-denominational churches—or denominational churches downplaying their denominational identity—conforms to growing political identification as "Independents" and increasing mistrust of institutional or centralized authorities.
Popular movement + emotional worship lead to de-emphasis of educated ministry, instead emphasizing "spirit" or "calling."
Emphasis on personal, inner religion resumes earliest doctrines of Protestant Reformation and may have led to more popular voice in politics as well, supporting goals of the American Revolution in 1770s.
Between the First & Second Great Awakening (app. 1750s-1790s): Continuity between the two revivals at a popular level should not be underestimated, but the later 1700s witnessed a cooling-off period for American religion. Evangelical and Fundamentalist religions continued as usual in many areas, but much of the Western frontier remained "unchurched," so that early Americans often grew up with little religious training, and others who moved west lived beyond their earlier religious environments.
Of greater significance among the nation's founders was a reaction against the dangers of religious excess represented by the Wars of Religion in Europe and events in America like the Salem Witch Trials. The intellectual-religious-philosophical movements of Deism and the political movement of "Free Thinking" influenced Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, though some early American leaders like Samuel Adams maintained more traditional religious faiths.
An outcome of these mixed developments was the United States Constitution's provision (Article 6.3) that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" and its Bill of Rights' First Amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The United States's official hands-off policy toward religion has resulted in a general prosperity of religion beyond that in nations with a state religion. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787, para. 10), religions "flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough . . . ." Instead of being supported and manipulated by government, religion enters a free market of ideas corresponding to the free market of goods, in which people support or neglect according to their personal needs.
For American literary and cultural studies, however, separation of church and state raises questions of how to influence national policy morally. For conservatives, the answers range from "family values" to electing "godly men." For liberals and conservatives, moral influence is sometimes exercised through "civil disobedience" or passive resistance, sometimes through mass demonstrations also authorized by the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The Second Great Awakening (app. 1800-1850s?)
(The following article is adapted from the U.S. Department of State publication, Outline of American History; copied from http://www.america.gov/st/educ-english/2008/April/20080407113519eaifas0.3545038.html)
By the end of the 18th century, many educated Americans no longer professed traditional Christian beliefs. In reaction to the secularism of the age, a religious revival spread westward in the first half of the 19th century.
This “Second Great Awakening” consisted of several kinds of activity, distinguished by locale and expression of religious commitment.
In contrast to the Great Awakening of the 1730s, the revivals in the East were notable for the absence of hysteria and open emotion. Rather, unbelievers were awed by the "respectful silence" of those bearing witness to their faith. The evangelical enthusiasm in New England gave rise to interdenominational missionary societies, formed to evangelize the West. (e.g., the Beecher family moved to Cincinnati as part of this movement.)
Members of these societies not only acted as apostles for the faith, but as educators, civic leaders, and exponents of Eastern, urban culture. Publication and education societies promoted Christian education. Most notable among them was the American Bible Society, founded in 1816. Social activism inspired by the revival gave rise to abolition-of-slavery groups and the Society for the Promotion of Temperance, as well as to efforts to reform prisons and care for the handicapped and mentally ill.
Western New York, from Lake Ontario to the Adirondack Mountains, had been the scene of so many religious revivals in the past that it was known as the "Burned-Over District." Here, the dominant figure was Charles Grandison Finney, a lawyer who had experienced a religious epiphany and set out to preach the Gospel. His revivals were characterized by careful planning, showmanship, and advertising. Finney preached in the Burned-Over District throughout the 1820s and the early 1830s, before moving to Ohio in 1835 to take a chair in theology at Oberlin College, of which he subsequently became president.
Two other important religious denominations in America—the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists—also got their start in the Burned‑Over District.
In the Appalachian region, the revival took on characteristics similar to the Great Awakening of the previous century. But here, the center of the revival was the camp meeting, a religious service of several days' length, for a group that was obliged to take shelter on the spot because of the distance from home. Pioneers in thinly populated areas looked to the camp meeting as a refuge from the lonely life on the frontier. The sheer exhilaration of participating in a religious revival with hundreds and perhaps thousands of people inspired the dancing, shouting, and singing associated with these events. Probably the largest camp meeting was at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801; between 10,000 and 25,000 people attended.
The great revival quickly spread throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio, with the Methodists and the Baptists its prime beneficiaries. Each denomination had assets that allowed it to thrive on the frontier. The Methodists had a very efficient organization that depended on ministers—known as circuit riders—who sought out people in remote frontier locations. The circuit riders came from among the common people and possessed a rapport with the frontier families they hoped to convert.
The Baptists had no formal church organization. Their farmer-preachers were people who received "the call" from God, studied the Bible, and founded a church, which then ordained them. Other candidates for the ministry emerged from these churches, and established a presence farther into the wilderness. Using such methods, the Baptists became dominant throughout the border states and most of the South.
The Second Great Awakening exercised a profound impact on American history. The numerical strength of the Baptists and Methodists rose relative to that of the denominations dominant in the colonial period – Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The growing differences within American Protestantism reflected the growth and diversity of an expanding nation. (religious development in the USA)
Some theologians and historians of religion posit a "Third Great Awakening" associated with the Pentecostal movement beginning in the early 1900s, which gave rise to the Assemblies of God and other denominations who emphasize "gifts of the Holy Spirit" such as speaking in tongues, often seen as a sign of the Millennium or End-Times.
The early 20c Pentecostal movement was initiated by Charles Parham, an African American preacher in Kansas and Missouri who moved to Houston to found a Bible School in 1905. One of Parham's students, William J. Seymour, moved to Los Angeles, where in 1906 his preaching sparked the racially-integrated Azusa Street Revival, which continued for three years and recently celebrated its centennial. Like other revival or renewal movements, the Azusa Street Revival dispensed with orders of worship and allowed participants to testify or preach as moved by the spirit. In addition to racial equality, the Pentecostal movement's institutional and liturgical informality increased women's participation.