The Great Awakening Emerges in Early America – Impacting Religion, Society, and Politics

The Great Awakening was a Christian evangelical revival that swept through the American colonies prior to the American Revolution.

In the early 1700s, the thirteen colonies in America, which had formed distinct religious identities, encountered population growth, geographic expansion, and new ideas.  The influx of European immigrants to America expanded settlements beyond existing boundaries and into the frontier where few ministers and churches existed.  Immigrants brought various beliefs and Christian denominations with them, and existing churches and parishes could no longer contain the settlers and their views.  In addition, many colonists became economically independent and prosperous by obtaining free or cheap land and by their labor and industry.  Such events at the time fostered a new attitude, says ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr in The Kingdom of God in America, of “practical individualism.”  These changes made the colonies more religiously diverse and pluralistic, introduced religious competition, and challenged assumptions about state church establishments.  The colonies, says Niebuhr, saw “a new world of emancipated individuals who had become their own political masters to an uncommon degree,” where “absolute individuals had replaced absolute kings and absolute churches.”  It was onto this scene that a Christian evangelical revival arrived that would significantly impact culture, society, and politics in colonial America:  the Great Awakening.

The Great Awakening was an evangelical revival of Christianity that swept through the American colonies in the early to mid 1700s and influenced societal changes in religion and politics.  The revival was called “great,” say historians, because it affected many regions and aspects of colonial life, and it was an “awakening because it led to increased spiritual life and devotion among Americans.  The Awakening, says historian Paul Johnson in A History of the American People, had European roots among German immigrants thankful “for their delivery from European poverty and their happy coming into the Promised Land.”  It was influenced by the European pietist movement that began in German and Prussian principalities and spread to the Netherlands and England at the turn of the 1700s.  It represented the first time non-English-speaking immigrants influenced American intellectual life.

Pietism, a German concept, emphasized a holy life (rather than doctrinal disputes), personal religious experience, self-examination, and individual transformation.  The Awakening had pietistic elements in emphasizing personal religious conversion and a godly life due to an inner change of heart.  Many colonists made personal decisions about their beliefs.  Individuals practiced prayer, Bible reading, and personal exhortation.  The Awakening crossed different theologies and denominations in its teachings.  Some revival views were new takes on Puritan views or new altogether.  The Awakening continued the Protestantism of the 1600s but added a new focus in a changing society.  As God’s sovereign rule was the focus of the first period of Protestantism in Puritan America, the heavenly kingdom of Christ became a dominant idea of the Awakening.  This spiritual kingdom had to do with Christ’s redemption and liberation of man from sin and His reconciliation of believers to God.

Several leaders were prominent in the Great Awakening.  It began largely with Puritan Congregational minister Solomon Stoddard of Northampton, Massachusetts, and German Reformist minister Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey.  Stoddard and Frelinghuysen held revival meetings that sparked many dramatic religious conversions.  Others then preached on being “born again.”  Two key “intercolonial” leaders of the Awakening were Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards and Anglican pastor George Whitefield.

Cutting across denominational lines, the Awakening spread through rural areas and towns in all regions.  During the peak of revival in the 1740s, churches grew daily.  In New England, 25,000 to 50,000 people joined churches out of a population of 300,000, with 3 out of 4 colonists likely affected.

The Great Awakening moved pre-revolutionary colonists toward greater regard for human dignity, equality, and individual rights; religious pluralism and religious tolerance; a democratic and independent spirit; and a shared identity rooted in Bible-based beliefs and values.

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 1, Activity 3:  Personal Connection to Spiritual Revival, p. 178-179.  MS-HS.

Personal Connection to Spiritual Revival

Purpose/Objective:  Students make a personal connection to the Great Awakening by reflecting on an experience in which their beliefs, values, thoughts, and/or feelings changed–perhaps even because of a person, message, or event.  Students consider how the experience affected them, what changed, and how internal change impacted their life, actions, and behavior.

Suggested Readings:
1) Chapter 5 of Miracle of America sourcebook/text.  Students read sections Introduction and 5.1, p. 129.
2) Related blogs/videos (see above).

Think-Aloud or Journal/Reflection Writing:
The teacher poses questions such as the following to invite reflection, and students discuss or journal:  Have you ever benefitted from personal reflection?  Ever experienced a beneficial transformation of feelings or beliefs?  Has a teacher, speaker, mentor, minister, or other influential figure in your life ever played a part in helping you choose a particular course of action?  How did this person’s influence change your actions, thoughts, or life?  Do you find yourself more moved by emotionalism or logic?

(Note:  Some students may be uncomfortable delving in to personal subject matter in writing that will be read by others including teacher and students.  Teachers may encourage reflection but respect personal limits of privacy and take into account individual student comfort levels with sharing personal reflections.)

As an alternative to the above prompt, students may address the following:  Historian Frank T. Lambert says in The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America that “by definition, revival follows decline.”  Have students explore, write on, and discuss this idea and its meaning as they understand it, and provide an example.  This activity allows the teacher to gauge, monitor, and ensure student understanding of key concepts.

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