Question: "What was the First Great Awakening? What was the Second Great Awakening?"
Answer: The First and Second Great Awakenings (c. 1735-1743 and c.1795-1830, respectively) were theologically significant in that they helped to shape Christian thinking by the intense revivalism they created. Each had leaders who were noteworthy in history, with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield being two of the prominent names in the First Awakening (which was characterized by Calvinists), and Nathaniel Taylor and Charles Finney in the Second (far less Calvinistic and more closely attuned to the Arminian beliefs of many in the newly-formed United States).
Whitefield and Edwards believed churches should be organized to be entirely distinct from New England governments. They preached that salvation was only of God and that humans did not possess any ability whatever toward salvation; it came only as a result of God’s saving call. In other words, man’s “righteousness” would not save him no matter how many good deeds he has done. Furthermore, the doctrines of predestination and election (Romans 8:28-30) were regularly espoused, which upset many as well as drew in many, for God’s decreeing from eternity past who would be saved and who would not was an electrifying concept to them. Edwards’ propounding of these biblical truths as he saw them was the longest-lived theological result of the First Awakening.
The Second Great Awakening gained much interest by its support of important theological themes such as salvation and the church’s role in society. Nathaniel Taylor moved away from the beliefs of Whitefield and Edwards, maintaining that man possessed a “power to the contrary” when faced with moral choices, which strengthened the belief that man had a free will and therefore did play a part in his own salvation.
At the same time, “voluntary societies” sprang up, which were separate from church denominations; they were formed to help Christianize and reform America. Their successes moved many people to great feats of Christian service. In turn, this overall atmosphere caused many to believe that the end of the age was approaching, which generated even more good works and seemed to validate the concept of these societies even more.
In summary, the First Great Awakening stimulated a revival in Calvinism, due in no small part to the preaching and teaching of Jonathan Edwards. The Second Great Awakening is characterized by its stressing Arminianism rather than Calvinism, and its encouragement of revivalistic and democratic theology, which were seen to be essential ingredients in the shaping of American Protestantism. Ever since those days, both Awakenings have provided an enduring legacy for modern evangelicalism.