The Great Awakening, was not, as many believe a continuous spiritual awakening or revival in colonial America, instead it was a several revivals in a variety of locations (Matthews). However, The Great Awakening is an appropriate name. The new Americans had found their lives much different from their lives in England. In England the communities were compact, but in America people lived in great expanses of land. Because people had to fend for themselves, any type of authority -- governmental or ecclesiastical -- was met with resistance (Matthews). This and the fact that church was simply not easy to get to caused people to be "spiritually asleep."
The Great Awakening began with Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Initially the movement broke out in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1733 when Edwards preached to the youth of his church about the great sin of bundling. Bundling was a custom where young courting people would lie in bed fully clothed. He also called upon the youth not to attend worldly amusements such as dances (Great Men of God) In his view the people were "very insensible of the things of religion" (Edwards qtd by Prescott). By 1734 the revival had intensified and Edwards took his message on a preaching tour, putting the entire Connecticut River Valley into revival mode. In 1737 the revival declined in the area and the congregation fired him, but The Great Awakening had already begun to spread. Edwards' most influential sermon and also considered the most famous sermon in American history was "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in which he expounds God's judgment on sinners and then offers salvation to those who repent (Prescott). Another itinerant preacher/evangelist George Whitefield followed, introducing outdoor preaching and bringing his message to the lower classes -- a class the church typically ignored. His evangelistic tenure included seven evangelistic tours and covered each colony with an estimated attendance of 8,000 per sermon. In his sermons he accused pastors of speaking of an unknown, unfelt Christ. Many ministers opposed the Great Awakening for reasons that ranged from denying the deity of Christ to the belief that human efforts to bring revival was an affront to God (Prescott).
While the Great Awakening was a religious revival, its effects were social and political. The movement splintered established churches by giving people independence from the church. The Puritans used cooptation to accept new members. Cooptation involved the congregation voting in new members or appointing new members with or without their consent. In contrast, The Great Awakening ideals allowed people to join the church because of a personal experience with God and it was the person's own decision -- not a congregation's. The result was to create so many churches that no one church dominated as it had in the past. As the congregational structure lost importance two levels of social life became important -- the individual and the broader community, which for the converts was the nation (Bass). By individual participation in the process of salvation, religion had become democratic (McLoughlin 75). In addition, this new structure caused people to be more tolerant and to widen their view of the community (Bass). Tolerance had the effect of making people who were not a part of the American community to take their place. This included the poor and the slaves. McLoughin states that the Great Awakening drew people from the nonelite and rural culture into a communal bound, a communal identity. The stress on the individual's relationship with God emphasized the importance and value of each human being and paved the way for the American Revolution (Bass).
Another product of The Great Awakening was that people began to reject traditional authority, such as the authority of the British Crown. Scholars also say that the Great Awakening, a movement base on principles, made the American Revolution much different from the French Revolution, which was based on a reign of terror (Prescott).
Though the Anglo-American intellectual movement, known as The Enlightenment came to the forefront during the 18th century, the movement began long before this time. The name came about when thinkers and writers in London and Paris, held that they were more "enlightened." Their belief prompted them to "enlighten" others. Thomas Aquinas set the movement in motion when he began to defend every aspect of faith (Christianity) with reason. Humanists followed in the 14th and 15th centuries. These men argued that God not only created humans (the Almighty's crowning glory) in His image, but that humans also shared His creative powers. The movement continued throughout the 16th and 17th centuries with the thinking of philosophers such as Michel de Montaigne and Rene Descartes (Brian). The basic assumption was faith in the power of human reason. If it was possible to discover the God's universe's laws (as Issac Newton discovery of universal gravitation) then humanity could also discover the laws of nature and society (Tackett).
The most important political theory in the American Enlightenment came from John Locke's Two Treatises on Government and the work of a republican group, the commonwealthmen, making American political a mix of many forms of Enlightenment thought. As Locke had argued, the Americans argued that when the British government stripped them of liberties they broke the political bonds that held the Americans and British together. Americans also took their cues from English radicals who believed in natural rights, a contractual government and representation (American Enlightenment).
The influential thinkers of the American colonies, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and Paine believed in the English Enlightenment school of thought. The deist God these men worshipped was the type of God that philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau worshipped. The colonists formed the United States on a set of democratic beliefs. The beliefs were that equality was not only possible, but that inequality made decent government impossible, that absolute monarchies were dangerous and evil. The principles also preached natural law, God-given freedoms and self-determination (Brian). The Enlightenment movement in the colonies brought several ideals to the forefront and provided a basis for the new country. The three characteristics of Enlightenment are the emphasis on reason rather than authority, scientific inquiry and the belief that man can be perfected. (Benjamin Franklin and his experiments with electricity is a result of scientific inquiry).
When the colonists decided to unite against England there were varying religious beliefs among the founders (result of the Great Awakening) and it became obvious that none of the religions would win out. In a move to agree to disagree, the founders realized that no one church could dominate and thus, came the right of religious freedom -- the separation of church and state (Comtois).
It was in the 1770s that enlightened philosophers began to criticize, not only the church, as they had previously, but also politics and economics. The Declaration of Independence and the subsequent American Revolution signaled a shift from talk to action. America's desire for independence and the subsequent Declaration of Independence was the first time that a group of people actually put the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers to the test (Tackett).
Enlightenment thought can also be seen as highly influential in the writings of Thomas Jefferson. For example, The Declaration of Independence reads, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." The entire document is based on the contractual government put forth in Enlightenment ideals. The Declaration of Independence lays out all the British breaches of contract, which made all relationships between America null and void. The Declaration changed the war. Originally it had been one over grievances Americans had over taxes, legislation, authority over trials and garrisoning of troops. The Declaration of Independence, based on the ideals of Enlightenment turned the war into a war for America's Independence (American Revolution).
American Enlightenment." Washington State University Internet Classroom and Anthology. World Civilizations. 1 Apr 2004. http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/AMERICA/ENLIGHT.HTM.
American Revolution." Washington State University Internet Classroom and Anthology. World Civilizations. 1 Apr 2004. http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/AMERICA/REV.HTM.
Bass, Randy. "Religion and Community: The Great Awakening." Georgetown University. Center for Electronic Projects in American Culture Studies. 1 Apr 2004. http://www.georgetown.edu/centers/CEPACS/community.html.
Brian, Paul. "The Enlightenment" 17 Dec 1998. Washington State University web site. 1 Apr 2004. http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/enlightenment.html.
Comtois, Marc. The American Enlightenment. 2004. 1 Apr 2004. http://users.ids.net/~marcom/historint/Enlightenment.doc.
The Declaration of Independence. 4 July 1776.
Jonathan Edwards." Great Men of God. ChristiansinTouch.com. 1 Apr 2004. http://www.christiansintouch.com/greatMen_JE.cfm.
Matthews, Terry. "The Great Awakening." Lecture Four. Wake Forest University. 1 Apr 2004. http://www.wfu.edu/~matthetl/perspectives/four.html.
McLoughlin, William M.. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Prescott, Scott. "The Great Awakening. Updated 2003. Southeastern College at Wake Forest. 1 Apr 2004. South http://library.sebts.edu/sprescott/Church%20History_files/Great%20Awakening.htm.