Events That Led to the Great Awakening


By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

During the second half of the 17th century, rulers in the colonized lands were unwilling to accept people’s desire to change. At the time, a string of events spanning several decades, gradually formed what came to be a turning point in American history. These included harsh and heart-breaking executions of very young girls and the Glorious Revolution in England. Despite all the oppression, the free-spirited Americans finally prevailed. Read on to learn more about the events that led to the Great Awakening.

A group portrait of the Militia Company.
A group portrait of the Militia Company, District XI, under the Command of Captain Reynier Reael, by Frans Hals and Pieter Codde, 1637. (Image: Everett – Art/Shutterstock)

Europeans who colonized North America had grand plans for its vast lands and resources. However, none of the American colonies ended up as intended. Pennsylvania did not turn into a Quaker paradise; Virginia did not become a profitable corporate enterprise; and New York did not become a Dutch wonderland. Americans also enjoyed more freedom and more prosperity.

Learn more about Europeans Settling in North America.

The Disappointments and Challenges of the Europeans

This freedom was not an exceptional gain without the pain. The pain came from the disappointment of European elites finding America so different to what they knew from Europe.

They believed the lands of America were plain, the temperatures were harsh, and everything in nature was against them. For example, John Smith described the coastline of New England in 1624 as “a country rather to affright than delight one.”

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The social conventions also disappointed the Europeans and even intimidated them.

Henry Mühlenberg was a German Lutheran missionary who came to Pennsylvania in 1742. He was shocked, disappointed, and challenged by how he was not treated as he was in Germany and how he faced disagreement. He did not like how people had their own voice in religious matters and how they could vote for big national decisions.

Preachers were not the only authorities facing these difficulties. In 1690, John Blackwell, William Penn’s deputy governor for Pennsylvania, complained to the proprietor that he had to deal with people that ‘neither God nor man’ can rule and control. He believed Americans hate the dominance of anyone and anything over them.

The efforts of these preachers and governors to gain control over a nation so different from what they knew and expected, was not a pleasant experience for the American people. Sometimes, these efforts led to unnecessary fear and killing.

Learn more about American Revolution-Washington’s War.

The Salem Witch Trials

In the 1690s, Salem, Massachusetts, was a backwater settlement north of Boston. In 1692, Salem had become a collection of frustration, economic conflict, political division, and constantly changing ministers. It was already losing population and power over six decades since the 1630s.

Witchcraft was a common religious practice in New England. However, Puritan ministers were uncomfortable with it, not because they believed in its powers, but because it was a threat to their own power and control.

February of 1692 marked the beginning of sudden and numerous accusations by a group of young girls in the town. Older women who seemed eccentric or quarrelsome were the first targets. However, the accusations soon spread all over the society, reaching higher social classes, even gaining the approval of the governor. In June of 1692, the new Massachusetts Governor, Sir William Phipps, instituted a special court to try the accused witches, where the state was the judge, not the clergy.

A drawing of a woman protesting her imprisonment during the Salem  witch tTrials.
Martha Cory was accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. She was among the 19 inncocent people who were hanged. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

In only four months, this court charged 150 people with witchcraft and hanged 19 of them. The trials were finally stopped when the Salem girls accused the very high class of Bostonians, including the governor’s wife. The fear and insecurity caused by the witch-hunting months, however, became one of the events leading to the Great Awakening.

The British Parliament Rebels

In 1685, King Charles II died without leaving a legitimate male heir; thus, his brother James, the Duke of York succeeded him on the throne. After only three years, in 1688, the Parliament had the ‘Glorious Revolution’ against James, who was a strict and heavy-handed Catholic politician. James was sentenced to exile before his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, the Duke of Orange, were invited from the Netherlands to become the King and Queen of England.

James, as the proprietor of New York, used his experience of North American affairs in his short reign to reorganize British America from the top down and govern it ‘right’. In doing so, he revoked the Massachusetts Bay colony charter and merged New England and New York into a single administrative unit. Next, he sent one of his favorites—Sir Edmund Andros—as the governor of this new unit. But the Glorious Revolution did not operate against James alone.

A portrait of Sir Edmund Andros
Sir Edmund Andros was made the governor of the newly merged unit of New York and New England. (Image: Creator: Frederick Stone Batcheller (1837-1889)/Public domain)

Andros had just arrived in Boston when news of James’s overthrow reached him and his people. Bostonians rose in revolt against James. They had no access to James himself, so they imprisoned Andros, his representative. In New York, Andros’s representatives were also overthrown by Old Guard Dutchmen under a militia captain named Jacob Leisler. This, however, did not augur well for Jacob Leisler. Since Leisler refused to return control of New York City over to the royal forces, he was executed by the next royal governor of New York, Henry Sloughter.

Learn more about The Rejection of Empire

The Final Events That Led to the Great Awakening

The witch trials, the rebellions, and all such occurrences made dealing with the American people even more difficult for the colonists. Although they knew change was inevitable, they were unwilling to accept and encourage it. At the time, those who promised to stop the change and identified fake culprits received more attention.

Despite the efforts of the rulers, the society was undergoing an enormous transformation. The events that took place between 1689 and 1692 looked relatively small and undersized compared to what was about to happen in 1739.

The year 1739 was the beginning of the most remarkable cultural riot, and the most determined attempt to relocate a source of certainty in American history. It was what we know as the Great Awakening.

Common Questions about the Events that Led to the Great Awakening

Q: Why did the Great Awakening happen?

The Puritan church was trying to gain full control over Americans. This was against the free-spiritedness of the American people and it started the course of events that led to the Great Awakening.

Q: Why is Salem famous?

In 1692 the Salem witch trials began, leading to the accusation of 150 people of witchcraft. Nineteen innocent people, mostly women, were hanged as a result. This is one of the events that led to Great Awakening.

Q: What was the leading cause behind the Salem witch trials?

The Salem witch craze was among the important events that led to the Great Awakening. It started in February of 1692, after an intense period of frustration in the area, by accusing numerous people of witchcraft.

Q: What happened after the Glorious Revolution?

The Glorious Revolution, also known as the “Bloodless Revolution,” was also one of the events that led to the Great Awakening. It replaced Catholic King James with his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William. It was the beginning of the constitutional monarchy of England as well.

Keep Reading
A Colony in Disarray: The Second Generation of Puritans
John Winthrop and the Settlement of New England
Explore the World and America before Columbus