Great Awakening in Virginia, The


The Great Awakening was the most significant cultural upheaval in colonial America. The term refers to a series of religious revivals that began early in the eighteenth century and led, eventually, to the disestablishment of the Church of England as the official church during the American Revolution (1775–1783). Triggered by the preaching of the Anglican itinerant George Whitefield, the Great Awakening began in New England and the Middle Colonies, where thousands converted to an evangelical faith centered on the experience of the “new birth” of salvation. It also featured intense, emotional scenes of penitential sinners and new converts being filled, as they saw it, with the Holy Spirit, with associated outcries, visions, dreams, and spirit journeys. The Great Awakening’s effects in Virginia developed slowly, beginning early in the 1740s. By the 1760s, evangelical Presbyterians and Baptists were making major inroads among Virginians, and challenging the established church in the colony. Perhaps the most notable historical result of the Great Awakening in Virginia was the end of the state’s establishment of religion, which was ultimately accomplished through the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786). The cause of religious freedom was championed politically by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but it depended on the popular support of legions of evangelicals, especially Baptists.

Early Revivals

George Whitefield's Moveable Pulpit

A small group of evangelical Anglican laypeople began meeting privately in Hanover County, Virginia, in or about 1740, inspired by the news of George Whitefield’s revivals. The group’s leader, the bricklayer Samuel Morris, often simply read Whitefield’s sermons at these meetings, to great emotional effect. The growing religious awakening attracted the attention of Virginia’s Anglican authorities, who wished to know why Morris and his followers had stopped attending regular Anglican services. Despite growing pressure against them, Morris’s group members continued meeting, and began receiving visits from Presbyterian evangelical preachers from New Jersey and Pennsylvania who carried with them the zeal of the revivals in the northern colonies. By 1745, Virginia lieutenant governor Sir William Gooch had begun to call for the suppression of illicit “ministers under the pretended influence of new light, extraordinary impulse, and such like fanatical and enthusiastic knowledge.” They were a threat to the stability of the colony, he believed, and might lead common people into wild delusions.

Anglican parsons often reacted badly to the evangelical interlopers. Among the most vocal Anglican critics was Patrick Henry, the Anglican rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Hanover, and the uncle of the future governor Patrick Henry. Parson Henry heard reports that people were flocking to the new evangelical meetings, which featured the emotional style of piety that Anglicans rarely countenanced. Henry also heard that some of the new evangelicals even questioned whether the Anglican ministers were actually converted believers. The staid Henry deplored the preachers’ behavior, writing that they screamed at their congregations that they were “Damn’d double damn’d, whose [souls] are in hell, though they are alive on earth, Lumps of hellfire, incarnate Devils, 1000 times worse than Devils &c and all the while the Preacher exalts his voice puts himself into a violent agitation, stamping & beating his Desk unmercifully.”

Reverend Samuel Davies and His Ministry

The revivals divided the Henry family. Despite the fact that her husband, John Henry, was an Anglican vestryman, young Patrick’s mother, Sarah Henry, took her twelve-year-old boy to the evangelical Presbyterian meetings in Hanover County, and always had him repeat back the Scripture passage and summarize the day’s message. Sarah Henry attended the church of Pastor Samuel Davies, whom her son reportedly later described as the greatest orator he had ever heard. Davies first came to Hanover County from Pennsylvania in 1747, and then settled as a pastor in Hanover in 1748. Davies was moderate in both style and theology, despite Anglicans’ accusations that he was a fanatic. Davies made his case to the Virginia colonial authorities, as well as officials in London, arguing that the Act of Toleration (1689) in England applied to the colonies’ religious dissenters, who should not be forced to attend Anglican services.

Davies gave special attention to enslaved people within his circuit of Presbyterian congregations. By 1755 he had baptized about a hundred of them. He sought to introduce them to the Christian gospel, which enslaved people had largely resisted because of Christianity’s association with the enslavers. Many enslavers were also reluctant to teach African Americans about Christianity, for they feared that it might give them radical ideas about equality and freedom. Davies did not criticize slavery per se—to the contrary, he himself was an enslaver—but he believed in integrating African Americans into the life of his churches. He reported that a group of enslaved people would gather at his house and sing hymns late into the night and “sometimes, when I have awaked about two or three a-clock in the morning, a torrent of sacred harmony poured into my chamber, and carried my mind away to Heaven.”

Many enslaved Blacks converted to Christianity as a result of the Great Awakening. Davies estimated that more than 1,000 Black people attended the various churches he established in Virginia, and the itinerant Methodist minister Francis Asbury estimated that more than 100 African Americans belonged to a Petersburg evangelical society. For many enslaved African Americans, one of the most important outcomes of the Great Awakening, with its emphasis on reading biblical texts directly, was an increase in literacy. Davies argued to enslavers that enslaved Blacks were capable of learning how to read as whites, arguing that Black people were ignorant of the Christian religion “not for want of Capacity, but for Want of instruction.”

Baptists and Methodists

The Dunking of David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River

While the Anglican authorities often perceived the Presbyterians as damaging to church and society, the Presbyterians’ attempts to portray themselves as moderate, serious Christians worked well, and by late in the 1750s the Presbyterians had become a grudgingly accepted presence within the colony. Colonial officials did not look so kindly, however, on the second wave of evangelicals to hit the colony: the radical and contentious Baptists. Baptists had existed in the colonies since the early settlement of New England, but the Great Awakening effectively spawned a new Baptist movement, born out of radical “Separate” churches that illegally broke away from the established Congregationalist churches of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Some of these Separates began to ask whether the widespread Christian practice of infant baptism was really biblical. Some decided to reserve baptism only for those old enough to experience conversion personally.

Some Separate Baptists in New England became interested in spreading their gospel to the South. Minister Shubal Stearns established the most influential Baptist congregation in the colonial South at Sandy Creek, North Carolina, in 1755. From there, Baptist preachers radiated into the rest of the coastal South, including Virginia, where Stearns’s brother-in-law Daniel Marshall began preaching late in the 1750s. A Separate Baptist congregation was founded in 1760 on the Dan River in Virginia. By late in the 1760s, the Baptists had begun to expand throughout the colony.

The quick growth of the Baptists, their challenge to the Anglican establishment, and their unwillingness to seek official licenses to preach brought down the wrath of Virginia authorities, leading to an intense season of persecution early in the 1770s. In 1771 an Anglican minister disrupted a Baptist service by beating the preacher at the pulpit and dragging him outside, where the sheriff of Caroline County gave him twenty lashes with a bullwhip. About thirty-four Baptist preachers were jailed for disturbing the peace and for holding unlawful assemblies. But this seemed only to steel their resolve. Pastor James Ireland was imprisoned in Culpeper, yet he continued to preach to followers through a grate. Ruffians harassed Ireland, however, and some even urinated on him as he attempted to address the crowd. His antagonists also burned brimstone and pepper to try to suffocate him.

William Byrd III

One of the reasons that the Baptists generated so much controversy was their loose handling of conventional social bounds of race and gender. They always included African Americans in their congregations, and some white Baptist leaders actually spoke out against slavery. The first Separate Baptist congregation in Virginia, albeit a short-lived one, may have been formed among enslaved people on the plantation of William Byrd III in 1758. African American and Virginia Indian men occasionally served as exhorters, deacons, and even elders (the highest office of leadership among Baptists) in mixed-race congregations. Women, too, found new positions of authority among the Baptists as “deaconesses,” and often received opportunities to testify about their experiences with God.

Blacks had the right to bring charges against whites in Baptist disciplinary proceedings. While these actions had predictable limitations and often seemed to favor whites’ testimony over Blacks’, they were the only judicial formats in colonial Virginia in which enslaved people could expect their grievances to be taken seriously. Occasionally, enslavers were punished for treating their enslaved laborers harshly, as in a 1772 case at the Meherrin Baptist Church in Lunenburg County in which Charles Cook was rebuked for burning one of his enslaved people. But Cook gained readmission to the congregation a month later when he asked for forgiveness before the membership, presumably including the Blacks members.

Anglican opponents of the Baptists saw them as violating the traditional social order. The Virginia Gazette expressed the fears of many when it claimed that because of the Baptists, “Wives are drawn from their Husbands, Children from their Parents, and Slaves from the Obedience of their Masters. Thus the very Heartstrings of those little Societies which form the greater are torn in sunder, and all their Peace destroyed.” Many women faced the unpleasant prospect of going against their husbands’ wishes to attend the Baptist meetings, and a Virginia law made clear that enslaved people could not join any congregation without permission from their enslavers.

The Baptists’ meetings offered a source of fellowship and emotional release unavailable in most of the established congregations. Rituals such as the baptism of believers by immersion and the laying on of hands on new converts, gave a tactile aspect to their religious practices that often produced fervent reactions. Pastor Daniel Fristoe recorded an outdoor service in 1771 with thousands of observers watching twenty-nine people receive baptism. The service led some to weep openly, with some “so affected that they lifted up their hands and faces towards heaven and discovered such chearful countenances in the midst of flowing tears as I had never seen before.”

The Revd. Francis Asbury

The Methodists were relatively late in coming to the religious scene in colonial Virginia, but by the eve of the American Revolution they too had added to the burgeoning spiritual diversity in the colony. In 1775 and 1776, the Methodists organized major revivals in south-central Virginia before the war hampered their efforts; the Methodists struggled to escape a reputation for Loyalism, and most of their ministers left America or went into seclusion during the conflict. The Methodists’ great era of growth began shortly after the war’s conclusion.

Religious Freedom

The conditions of religious pluralism, and the persecutions of the early 1770s, helped to galvanize the movement for religious liberty in Virginia. James Madison and Patrick Henry helped to draft the sixteenth article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, which assured dissenters that they would enjoy the right to free exercise of religion. During the Revolution, the Virginia government stopped funding the Anglican Church, but this came about more as a wartime exigency than as a clear decision for disestablishment. Henry parted ways with Madison and Jefferson over the issue of religious establishment in the 1780s. Henry favored a general assessment for religion, where Virginians would have to pay taxes to support a church, but they could designate the recipient. Madison, backed by the state’s Baptists, supported full religious freedom and no state support for religion.

A Bill for establishing Religious Freedom

Riding the momentum supplied by hundreds of petitions from Baptists and other non-Anglican groups, Madison passed Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. (Jefferson had authored the bill in 1777, but he and Madison could not generate sufficient support until nine years later.) The law banned state financial backing of churches and guaranteed religious freedom to all Virginians. Madison’s ideal of religious freedom soon took national form in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in 1791. These legislative and constitutional victories for religious freedom were the most direct political outcomes of the Great Awakening.

October 30, 1739
The Anglican itinerant George Whitefield arrives at Lewes, Delaware, where he begins a preaching tour of America that sparks the Great Awakening.
December 14, 1739
The Anglican itinerant preacher George Whitefield visits Williamsburg.
About this year, inspired by the Anglican itinerant preacher George Whitefield's writings and sermons, the bricklayer Samuel Morris helps initiate evangelical revival in Hanover County.
February 1740
"Letter to the Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina" by the Anglican priest George Whitefield is published by Benjamin Franklin in Three Letters from the Reverend Mr. G. Whitefield.
Evangelical Presbyterian pastors from New Jersey and Pennsylvania begin preaching in Virginia.
General Baptists from Maryland found Mill Creek (Opequon) Baptist Church in far western Frederick County, the first of two such foundings.
By this year, Lieutenant Governor Sir William Gooch has begun to call for the suppression of illicit "ministers under the pretended influence of new light, extraordinary impulse, and such like fanatical and enthusiastic knowledge."
February 19, 1747
Evangelical Presbyterian preacher Samuel Davies is ordained and accepts a mission to Hanover County, where several years earlier some residents had begun to challenge tenets of the established Church of England.
May 1748
Samuel Davies moves to Virginia and becomes a settled minister in Hanover County.
Philadelphia Baptist Association dispatches four ministers, including Benjamin Miller, John Thomas, and John Gano, to Ketocton and Mill Creek churches in Fairfax and Frederick counties respectively, where they bring these congregations into Regular Baptist fellowship.
Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall migrate from Frederick County to the Sandy Creek region of Guilford County, North Carolina, where they promote a Separate Baptist awakening.
By this year, the Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies, in Hanover County, is regularly preaching to about 300 slaves, about 100 of whom he has baptized.
Late 1750s
The first preaching tours of Separate Baptists to Southside Virginia from Sandy Creek, North Carolina, take place.
More than forty Baptist ministers (both Regular and Separate) are imprisoned for license violations and disturbing the peace. Many other Baptists encounter critics and mobs during this same period.
A church affiliated with the Sandy Creek Baptists is established on the Dan River in Virginia.
April 1765
Robert Bolling hears George Whitefield preach at Bristol Parish in Blandford and satirizes his revivalistic style.
The General Association of the Separate Baptists of Virginia is formed out of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association.
Francis Asbury, the future bishop of the American Methodist Episcopal Church, comes to America, beginning what will become a forty-five-year American ministry.
An Anglican minister disrupts a Baptist service by beating the preacher at the pulpit and dragging him outside, where the sheriff of Caroline County gives him twenty lashes with a bullwhip.
Robert Williams, one of the first licensed Methodist preachers, moves from Pennsylvania to Virginia.
Methodist preacher Robert Williams begins to work with Devereux Jarratt in south-central Virginia.
Robert Williams organizes the Brunswick Circuit (first organized as the Petersburg Circuit), the first Methodist preaching circuit in Virginia.
The first major Methodist awakening in Virginia takes place. During this time, Virginia's population of Methodists nearly doubles.
A second major Methodist revival engulfs Virginia.
The General Assembly passes the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which effectively disestablishes the Church of England and gives dissenters full and equal legal privileges.
Separate and Regular Baptists unify in the General Committee of Baptist Associations.
  • Gewehr, Wesley. The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740–1790. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1930.
  • Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
  • Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007.
APA Citation:
Kidd, Thomas. Great Awakening in Virginia, The. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/great-awakening-in-virginia-the.
MLA Citation:
Kidd, Thomas. "Great Awakening in Virginia, The" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2023, February 14
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