Mapping the Great Awakening

Eleazar Wheelock and Indian Students

by Margorie Marsoun

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Illustration from James Dow McCallum, The Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians (Hanover, New Hampshire, 1932)

Religion experienced one of its most prosperous revivals during the First Great Awakening.  Evangelical Christianity thrived in the thirteen colonies and abroad. The First Great Awakening took place in the early 18th century, although it peaked from 1740 to 1743 and lasted until the 1800s.  The reason when and why the First Great Awakening took place remains unknown.  This being said, author of The Great Awakening, Thomas Kidd speculates that it has to do with an advance in technology, the conflict between a Protestant Britain and a Catholic France, and the hard work of revivalists (Kidd xvii)[1].  New England had previously followed the Puritan religion.  They experienced a large decline in religious interest towards the end of the 1600s.  Consequently, religious leaders found themselves asking God to assist them in reaching the revival they desperately needed.  They felt their prayers were answered at the start of the 1730s when the revival first started to spread.  Key figures in the First Great Awakening include Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Eleazar Wheelock.  Eleazar Wheelock will be the main focus of my blog post due to the fact that he was a large contributor in the religious revival and education of the Native Americans.

Jonathan Edwards was the inspiration behind the Northampton revival of 1734-35.  He encouraged many revivals at his church in Massachusetts.  Kidd claims that he is “the greatest American articulator of the Evangelical view on God, man, and revival” (Kidd 2)[2].  Whitefield can be considered a superstar of the First Great Awakening.  His revolutionary outdoor preaching drew crowds by the thousands, and eventually grew to tens of thousands.   Whitefield traveled up and down the eastern seaboard preaching along his way.  Not only did he journal his travels, but they were published in newspapers locally and abroad demonstrating his vast fanbase.  Both Edwards and Whitefield were able to convince hundreds-and eventually thousands-of people to commit their lives to their religion and remain dedicated, enthusiastic followers of God.

Eleazar Wheelock decided to take a different approach to gaining revivalists.  After graduating from Yale, Wheelock became a pastor at the Second Congregational Church in Lebanon, Connecticut.  He spent most of his life in this town.  Although he was an active pastor and revivalist, he decided to focus his energy elsewhere.  Wheelock felt that his time would be most effectively used on the Native Americans.  As their numbers started to lessen due to the spread of colonists and the lose of their land, Wheelock saw the opportunity to help.  This later lead to him founding Moor’s Charity School.  This school was designed for Native Americans in hope to convert them to proper Christians.  Each students experience was different-some became ill, some became too homesick, and only a small amount went on to preach Christianity.  Although the school was not largely successful, it became the foundation and inspiration for Dartmouth College.  Dartmouth was founded by Wheelock in New Hampshire and named after the British earl who made a sizable donation.  The college transitioned to a mostly Euro-American school, although some Native Americans still attended.

Samuel Occom became Wheelock’s first Native American student in 1743.  Not only was Occom his first student, he was probably his most successful.  Occom eventually became a Presbyterian minister and was the inspiration behind the Moor’s Charity School.  Many of Wheelock’s Native American students had different experiences.  This can be seen in the well preserved letters found in The Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians.  For example, several letters from Hezekiah Calvin demonstrate that his experience was a rollercoaster ride.  On February 19, 1766, Calvin wrote Wheelock expressing his need to go home.  In contrast, on August 11, 1766 Calvin claims he convinced Native American children to go to school.  On March 3, 1767 Calvin discusses his gratitude towards Wheelock.  Little over three months later, on June 10, 1767, Calvin yet again discusses his desire to go home.  A similar letter follows on August 14, 1767.  On October 12, 1767, Calvin uses the excuse that he can not do good and must leave the school.  In November of 1767, Calvin asks for permission to visit Mohegan territory, but claims he rather go further.  The tone shifts again on January 29, 1768 when Calvin addresses his mistakes and the guilt he feels toward alcohol.  In March of 1768, Calvin once again writes to express his uneasy mind.  On May 5, 1768, Calvin once again discusses his bad thoughts and how he wants to go home.


[1] Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. Yale University Press, 2009

[2] Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: the Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America. Yale University Press, 2009

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