The First Great Awakening of the 1730s-40s was a period of great religious fervor in the colonies during which Americans rededicated their lives to God. Large numbers of African slaves converted in large numbers for the first time to Christianity. Church services focussed on fostering heartfelt experiences of personal salvation rather than the formal theology that had been the staple of the religious diet of the Puritan and other churches. People wanted to be caught up in God; a new generation of ministers sought to revive authentic piety.
To some, the world seemed to have been turned on its head as wives exhorted husbands to piety, children evangelized their parents, and some women even began speaking out in public. As one Reverend put it, “…multitudes were seriously, soberly, and solemnly out of their wits.”
God was an omnipotent power to be feared and followed if one were to achieve salvation and avoid Hell. Click the link below to hear a famous sermon of this period which gives you a sense of the fearsomeness of belief at that time:
Women were not allowed to preach in church but during the First Awakening, women began to exhort their fellow parishioners to righteousness, often to powerful effect. Martha Stearns Marshall moved her whole church to tears. Margaret Meuse Clay was considered so pious that she was asked lead the public prayer in her church.
But these female 'exhorters' had to be careful not to cross the line of what was socially acceptable--Clay's exhortations proved so strong that she was sentenced to a flogging for 'preaching.'
Other times it was the quality of a woman’s ‘passivity’ that made her a vessel for the spirit in the eyes of others. Mary Reed, for example, had visions which she communicated privately to her minister. He, then, related these to his parishioners while Mary sat quietly in the pews. Her meekness gave her words great authority over the congregation.
The main purveyors of the First Great Awakening were the itinerant preachers who evangelized, inspired, and terrified local people into being reborn in Christ to avoid damnation; some of these itinerants were women.
Bathsheba Kingsley, known as the “brawling woman,” climbed onto her husband’s horse and rode from town to town, evangelizing in homes, public squares, and churches. She rebuked townspeople for their sinfulness and warned ministers of a wrath to come.
Jamima Wilkinson considered herself to have been re-born without a gender. She wore long robe which covered her entire body. Her preaching was intensely powerful and elicited both excitement and revulsion. People derided her for her ‘manliness’—she was a woman who had truly stepped out of her proper place and who emasculated men by making them kneel before her. It was not her theological claims but her subversion of femininity that caused the most anger and mockery. This mix of influence and infamy followed her as she travelled the countryside attracting passionate followers.
To learn more about Jamima Wilkinson, click the documentary below at 16:45:
To learn more about the preaching women of the Awakenings, go to "The Calling" on this site under the 'Work' tab