Against a prevailing view that eighteenth-century Americans had not perpetuated the first settlers’ passionate commitment to their faith, scholars now identify a high level of religious energy in colonies after 1700. According to one expert, religion was in the “ascension rather than the declension”; another sees a “rising vitality in religious life” from 1700 onward; a third finds religion in many parts of the colonies in a state of “feverish growth.” Figures on church attendance and church formation support these opinions. Between 1700 and 1740, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the population attended churches, which were being built at a headlong pace.
Toward mid-century the country experienced its first major religious revival. The Great Awakening swept the English-speaking world, as religious energy vibrated between England, Wales, Scotland and the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. In America, the Awakening signaled the advent of an encompassing evangelicalism–the belief that the essence of religious experience was the “new birth,” inspired by the preaching of the Word. It invigorated even as it divided churches. The supporters of the Awakening and its evangelical thrust–Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists–became the largest American Protestant denominations by the first decades of the nineteenth century. Opponents of the Awakening or those split by it–Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists–were left behind.
Another religious movement that was the antithesis of evangelicalism made its appearance in the eighteenth century. Deism, which emphasized morality and rejected the orthodox Christian view of the divinity of Christ, found advocates among upper-class Americans. Conspicuous among them were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Deists, never more than “a minority within a minority,” were submerged by evangelicalism in the nineteenth century.