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Religion and Spirituality

During the Georgian period, Christianity experienced challenges from the philosophies of Rationalism and Humanism from such Enlightenment thinkers as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant and David Hume. In addition, Francois Marie Arouet (Voltaire) advocated anti-Christian liberalism in writings such as his popular novel, Candide. Despite such powerful forces, Christianity in America and Europe experienced revival in the First Great Awakening under the leadership of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. The Great Awakening made religion intensely personal to the average person by creating a deep sense of spiritual repentance and redemption. The movement also created Pietism in Germany, the Evangelical Revival and Methodism in England. It brought Christianity to the slaves and was an apocalyptic event in New England that challenged established authority. It incited rancor and division between the old traditionalists who insisted on ritual and doctrine and the new revivalists. It had a major impact in reshaping the Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and German Reformed denominations, and strengthened the small Baptist and Methodist denominations. It had little impact on Anglicans and Quakers. Unlike the Second Great Awakening that began about 1800 and which reached out to the unchurched, the First Great Awakening focused on people who were already church members. It changed their rituals, their piety, and their self awareness.

The revival began with Edwards, a well-educated Congregationalist minister from Northampton, Massachusetts, who sought to leave the Puritans' strict Calvinist roots but recognized the importance and power of immediate, personal religious experience. Edwards was a powerful speaker and attracted a large following; "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is his most famous sermon. The Methodist preacher Whitefield, visiting from England, continued the movement, traveling across the colonies and preaching in a dramatic and emotional style, accepting everyone into his audiences. The new style of sermons and the way people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America. People became passionately and emotionally involved in their religion, rather than passively listening to intellectual discourse in a detached manner. Ministers who used this new style of preaching were generally called "new lights", while the preachers of old were called "old lights". People began to study the Bible at home, which effectively decentralized the means of informing the public on religious manners and was akin to the individualistic trends present in Europe during the Protestant Reformation.

William Law penned his classic text, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, in 1728. The work deeply influenced the chief actors in the great Evangelical revival. John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Henry Venn, Thomas Scott and Thomas Adam all expressed their deep obligation to the author. Later, the Second Great Awakening swept across America, primarily led by Charles and John Wesley. Additionally, William Carey, the father of modern missions, served as a missionary to India during this period. Carey's oft-quoted motto was: "Expect great things from God; Attempt great things for God." The Moravians were also active in pioneering Christian missions around the world. In 1799, the Church Missionary Society was founded in London.