How the Great Awakening Affected Society: Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, & the Gospel

Phillis Wheatley by Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African-American artist, c1773. Image appears on the frontispiece of Wheatley’s book, Poems on Various Subjects.

The “Great Awakening,” the Christian evangelical revival that spread across colonial America in the mid-1700s, had a number of important effects on American life, society, and culture.  The revival, for example, continued the Puritans’ emphasis on education, propelled missions and humanitarianism, led to women’s increased participation in the church, and spread the Christian Gospel to many people.

Revivalists, like the Puritans, encouraged literacy and education in order to promote Bible reading, prepare ministers and missionaries, and train church laymen.  To encourage Bible study, revivalist ministers often provided basic reading education to their congregations, especially in rural areas with few schools.  The church Sunday School movement, initially a humanitarian endeavor, also began to grow.  Since education was Bible-centered, and Bible study required reading, colonists equated Bible knowledge with general knowledge.  Several evangelical colleges were founded in the mid-1700s for such Bible-based and missionary educational purposes including Princeton, Brown, Rutgers/Queens, and Dartmouth universities.  As such, New England in the late 1700s had one of the highest literacy rates in the world at that time.

The Awakening and Christianity further stimulated missions and humanitarianism which emerged in colonial America in the early 1800s.  Colonists who took up such humane causes often ministered to and helped the poor, sick, needy, and uneducated.  Humanitarian causes, says H. Richard Niebuhr in his The Kingdom of God in America, “became the rallying point of ardent souls who had been kindled by the gospel of the kingdom of Christ.”

During and after the revival, as churches and denominations grew, colonial women became more active in church and religious affairs.  Previously, women did not directly influence church life as men did.  They did not conduct formal meetings or hold church offices.  Such restrictions reflected secular life in which women could not vote and lost property rights upon marriage.  However, by the 1700s, women made up the majority of church membership in all denominations.  While men continued to exercise religious authority, women’s increased religious activities during this period led to greater participation of women in American churches.  Some churches supported greater women’s activism, giving women more direct church roles, the ability to vote on congregational matters, and management of philanthropic groups.

Though the Great Awakening did not resolve the issue of slavery, it brought the Christian Gospel more directly to all classes and groups of people, including the Native Americans and African-Americans, many of whom were slaves.  Some revivalists became missionaries to the Native Americans or evangelized among slaves.  The revival’s emphasis on personal religious experience resonated with many blacks and even resembled African religions.  Faith gave hope to slaves, some of whom found spiritual liberation even while in slavery.  Churches by and for blacks gradually appeared.  The first continuing black church was Silver Bluff Church in Aiken County, South Carolina, where African-American preacher David George established a congregation in 1773 or 1774.  When revivalist preacher George Whitefield died, Phillis Wheatley, an emancipated slave and America’s first published black woman poet, wrote her first published poem as a memorial to Whitefield.  It addressed the hope that Whitefield brought to African-Americans.  An excerpt from Wheatley’s 1770 poem, On the Death of… Mr. George Whitefield,  expresses Whitefield’s teaching about Christ:

Take HIM, “my dear Americans,” he said;
Be your Complaints in his kind Bosom laid:
Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you;
Impartial SAVIOUR, is his Title due:
If you will choose to walk in Grace’s Road,
You shall be Sons, and Kings, and Priests to GOD.

A major anti-slavery movement did not develop during the Great Awakening likely due to the impending American Revolution which occupied colonists’ attention and the growing use of slaves for crop labor.  At the time, evangelicals focused more on freeing slaves and providing for their needs than on addressing the institution of slavery.  Nevertheless, the Awakening, which supported human dignity and the idea that all men are equal before God, opened the Bible and Gospel to many African-Americans and helped to pave the way for freedom for all men.

The Great Awakening led to many positive and lasting effects in American society and culture, many of which are apparent in our time.  It supported important, Bible-based values like human dignity, education, missions, humanitarianism, inclusion, and equality which are largely valued by many in American life today.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Source for more information:  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 7:  Causes and Effects of the Great Awakening, p. 195.  MS-HS.

Causes and Effects of the Great Awakening

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, education, church and state, church organization, women’s roles in church, missions/humanitarianism, evangelism of the Gospel, free market, 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).

4-Column Effects Chart:
Consider important ideas or events related to the Great Awakening or time period and their religious, social, and political effects.  Write these effects in columns.  This activity has students recognize some main ideas of the Awakening and analyze the religious, social, and political effects of the movement with regard to these ideas.  See “Causes and Affects of the Great Awakening” 4-column chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, p. 353.  (This activity is also found in chapter 5 of the Miracle of America text/sourcebook, p. 148.)

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