A Great Awakening of Mass Philanthropy

  • Religion
  • 1740

In the first half of the 1700s, a crucial religious revival swept the American colonies. In addition to setting the stage for a political revolution based on the sovereignty of the individual, it sparked a vital transformation of American philanthropy. The so-called Great Awakening highlighted the importance of each person’s direct connection to God, unmediated by church or other institutions, and in the process fueled desires within the colonial population to live life as Christ would want, taking personal responsibility for the goodness of one’s behavior. This inevitably fueled charitable generosity and made it a mass phenomenon, even among the poor. “Of all the conversions wrought by the Great Awakening certainly the most remarkable was the transformation of do-goodism from a predominantly upper- and middle-class activity…into a broadly shared, genuinely popular avocation,” wrote historian Robert Bremner.

One of the strongest drivers of this new understanding of the importance of individual charity was George Whitefield, a charismatic 25-year-old Methodist preacher who set out in 1739 on a series of evangelizing tours that brought him into contact with thousands of everyday colonials stretched across a wide frontier. He excited his audiences with his vision of an intensely personal relationship with Christ and urged them to live out their internal convictions via generosity to fellow men. Whitefield took up collections at his meetings for many good causes: relief of victims of disaster (of which there were many in this raw land), assistance to keep debtors out of prison, funds to buy books for the hard-pressed new educational institutions of the colonies—Harvard, Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania.

Whitefield’s personal top charitable priority was an orphanage he founded in impoverished Georgia in 1740. It was modeled on an institution created by the German clergyman and philanthropist August Francke, and Whitefield labored to build it up over three decades. It never met his expectations, but as he described the effort during his seven preaching tours across the America, his charity became for many of his listeners a template for how a serious Christian might offer up money and energy to assist the abandoned, the ill, the poor, and victims of sickness, fire, or other misfortune. Individual humanitarian action became a distinctive mark of the American character.

  • Robert Bremner, American Philanthropy (University of Chicago Press, 1960)