The Great Awakening arose at a time of questioning how an individual’s role manifested itself in religion and society. These ideas were brought about by Henry Thoreau and John Locke during the Enlightenment Era, which emphasized reason and logic and it allowed for one to realize the power of the individual and to view the universe in the light of scientific law.
In response to the current Enlightenment ideas the Great Awakening went against these current popular beliefs and affirmed that in order to be truly religious one must feel and think with their heart and not so much their head. Although the Enlightenment Era was one of quarrel and question, The Great Awakening unified colonists and helped to set boundaries further in the separation of church and state.
To better understand how this era came about it is important to know why it came about. During the 1700’s colonist were unhappy with how life was progressing. The Church of England had been established as the reigning church of the country. From a political standpoint having all the members of a society believe in one religion, made things easy, however this idea did not sit well with the people.
The dryness of the church and its old ways of teaching made its members feel complacent with no emotional attachment. With doubt and the ideas on Enlightenment spreading like wildfire, colonists began to now feel segregated from mainstream society. They also felt as if these Enlightenment ideals were allowing too much spiritual freedom with no emphasis on regular church attendance and rather on progression of the individual.
In a response to these ideas ministers and other church workers worked at creating a plan to underline how an individual could find heaven through work rather that predestination. These new ministers invited a more emotional approach to religion. Many people related to these teachings as it was stressed that in the eyes of God all men were equal.
This appealed to many as during this time in other countries people were often told what to believe and seeked out the New World for religious freedom. New Protestant denominations were sprouting up everywhere. This is what we know as the beginning of the Great Awakening and the first real sense of unity to be felt by the colonists while experiencing something new as a whole.
Jonathan Edwards played a key and leading role in the revival. Edwards emphasized a personal approach to religious teaching and dismissed many Puritan traditions that were being practiced in New England at this point. “He that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion,” (McClymond, 2011, p.312). Many of his sermons went directly against the beliefs of Puritans, which angered many.
George Whitefield also was important in the Great Awakening. Whitefield traveled to many of the colonies spreading word and emotional style of religion, which led to many new conversions as well as the circulation of these beliefs into the European continent. Benjamin Franklin a well-respected and educated man of his time was a supporter of Whitefield and in his autobiography states “The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous and it was matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers and bow much they admir’d and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half beasts and half devils (Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Chapter 10)
Franklin then speaks of how the manners of the people in the community have changed for the positive, “From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street” (Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Chapter 10). The colonies were beginning to feel uplifted and were feeling more responsible for their actions as it directly correlated with their salvation.
With this new found unity amongst colonists it allowed a break from the Church of England. Colonists were beginning to feel united and positive as a community and worked together for the first time to achieve a common goal for the good of the country rather than an individual basis. Gaining further popularity Whitefield established an orphan house were orphan children could go to be cared for and educated.
The Great Awakening brought about many positive things; the developing of many schools such as Princeton, Brown and Rutgers came about as a result. The sprouting of new churches and denominations required that many new ministers be trained. People of the community needed to work together to establish these new schools.
Perhaps the greatest feat to come as a result of the Great Awakening had not yet been seen. With the new found realization that the colonists’ freedom resided in their own hands rather than the Church’s, it led them to believe that they could attain freedom on a larger level and would later lead to their fight for independence.
The revival taught the people to be bold in their convictions and to stand up for what they believed and felt was right. They did not all share the same theological views but did share a hunger for independence both politically and spiritually. Without the Great Awakening colonists might not have ever found the strength to sever its ties with England. The Great Awakening opened the door for many religions as well as the revolution it is why our country is able to be the melting pot it is known as today.