A New Church Landscape: How the Great Awakening Changed American Religion

George Whitefield Preaching

The “Great Awakening” was the first Christian evangelical revival that swept across colonial America in the mid-1700s. A spiritual and religious movement, the revival affected church, state, and society in the American colonies in a number of important ways prior to the American Revolution. One effect of this event was the creation of a new church landscape in America.

The Awakening revitalized churches in America. While it led to church upheavals and splits, say historians, it energized both old and new churches across all denominations. American churches fell into two broad groups—Old Lights and New Lights—with respect to the priority of the individual, church, society, and/or state. Each group viewed itself as a part of the dissenting tradition.

Old Lights

Old Lights, or traditionalists, sought to protect and promote the Puritan concept of a unified Christian state and society and to uphold the church-state establishment. The Puritan church-state focused less on individual spiritual conversion and more on a covenanted society. 

Old Lights believed, as the early colonies, that national or state churches were necessary to promote faith, religion, and morality in society. They wanted churches open to the whole society to influence culture in godly ways. They saw unregulated religion as divisive, undermining order and stability in society. Some Old Lights appreciated the Awakening’s religious renewal but feared it might destroy a unified Christian, moral society. Others thought the revival was outdated and overly emotional. Old Lights held many pulpits.

New Lights

New Lights, or evangelical revivalists, sought individual spiritual conversions and to purify the church of unbiblical doctrine. They saw that government regulation of religion did not necessarily lead to more converts. Radicals supported separation of church and state, and they opposed government support of churches. They left state churches and formed new, independent ones. 

For the church, they believed, is governed not by the state but by God. The state has no jurisdiction over religious matters but should only enforce civil laws in society to maintain peace and order. While some moderates did not support church-state separation, they were willing to relinquish some church authority in society to purify the state churches. 

What Effect Did the Great Awakening Have on the American Colonies?

Consequently, the revival weakened the state-church establishment and religious laws and promoted greater religious freedom and tolerance in the American colonies. Due to political protest and debate in Connecticut, for example, non-state religious groups gained more freedom to preach and minister. Revivalists who opposed paying taxes to the state church were exempted from such taxes. Though colonists disagreed about religion and politics, many agreed on having the freedom to define or choose their religious beliefs. Colonists began to see religious freedom as an individual right.

Ultimately, the Great Awakening, notes Paul Johnson in his History of the American People, gave American religion and all churches in the 1700s a renewed spiritual life and a more American flavor. 

With the growing number of religious groups and churches, American religious society became, observes Frank Lambert in his Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, more pluralistic and a free “marketplace of ideas.” Americans now had voluntary religious choices. As a result, churches became more tolerant, evangelical, individualistic, pietistic, pragmatic, and egalitarian. 

These revived churches, says Mark Noll in his History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, pursued “security of structures and liberation in the Holy Spirit,” a combination of opposing forces that became “quintessentially American.”

The Christian church experienced exceptional growth during this time. New, independent churches grew alongside state churches, and many denominations expanded without government support. Over time, as the colonies became more religiously diverse, colonists of all beliefs increasingly preferred non-state churches to state churches.

Learn More About the Great Awakening from the American Heritage Education Foundation

The Great Awakening was an monumental period in American history that helped shape the nation’s identity. It was a time of spiritual renewal, political activism, and social reform. The American Heritage Education Foundation is dedicated to preserving this important part of our history by providing free educational resources to citizens and students of all ages. With these resources, you can learn more about this integral era in our nation’s history and gain a deeper appreciation of its impact on our culture today.

Contact us today for more information about our organization.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Source:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related posts/videos:
1.  An Introduction to Popular Sovereignty
2.  The Religious Landscape of the Original Thirteen Colonies in America
3.  The Great Awakening Emerges in Early America – Impacting Religion, Society, Politics
4.  Jonathan Edwards:  Theologian of the Great Awakening
5.  George Whitefield:  Evangelist of the Great Awakening
6.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Value and Dignity of the Human Being
7.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Are Equal Before God
8.  Great Awakening Principle:  “Born Again” Conversion and Individual Rights
9.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
10.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Unalienable Right to Freedom of Belief
11.  Great Awakening Principle:  Eternal Happiness Found in God
12. Great Awakening Principle:  A Godly Purpose for Just Civil Government
13. A New Church Landscape:  How the Great Awakening Changed American Religion
14. How the Great Awakening Affected Society:  Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, & the Gospel
15.  The Great Awakening Affected American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 5, Part 2, Activity 4:  Observing How Revival Impacted Society, p. 194.  MS-HS.

Observing How Revival Impacted Society

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn about the religious, social, and political effects of the Great Awakening, including effects on colonists’ views of personal and national identity, church and state, church organization, missions/humanitarianism, free market, democracy, and revolution.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 5 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections Introduction to 5.16 and p. 146.
2)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Historical Letter or Script:
Use may use either of these strategies or give students a choice between the two:
1) For the letter, the student will write a letter from the perspective of a colonist during the Great Awakening.  In the letter, the student must show through concrete details and examples how he or she sees revivalism changing society.  Through details and reflections, the student must demonstrate understanding of key concepts of this lesson.
2) For the script/dialogue, students may work independently, pair up, or work in small groups of three to write a script of a conversation between/among colonists during the revival.  The script may be performed in class or turned in as a written script.  Students must show revival effects on society through details and opinions.

Assess students based on the following:  vivid details and pertinent commentary that show effects of revival on society (60%), grammar and usage (20%), creativity (10%), focus and clarity of written expression (10%).

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