Enlightenment and the Great Awakening in Colonial America

The Enlightenment and the Great Awakening were two significant historical movements that profoundly impacted colonial America during the mid-1700s. These movements not only shaped the thoughts of the people but also played a crucial role in the development of American society and its struggle for independence. In this essay, we will explore the fundamental differences between the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening and examine any commonalities that may exist between these two influential movements.

The Enlightenment: A Rational Revolution

The Enlightenment, which emerged in the 1740s, marked a period of intellectual and philosophical transformation.

Prior to this era, religious beliefs often dominated people's understanding of the world, attributing every event to the will of God. However, the Enlightenment challenged this notion by advocating for reason, rationality, and individualism.

One of the key figures of the Enlightenment was John Locke, whose essay "Concerning Human Understanding" questioned the direct intervention of God in human affairs. Locke's ideas, presented in "Two Treatises on Government," challenged the concept of divine right, which asserted that monarchs were divinely chosen rulers.

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Instead, Enlightenment thinkers, known as deists, argued that God had created a perfect universe governed by natural laws, without direct involvement in human life.

These Enlightenment ideas had a profound impact on the American colonies. They contributed to the belief that the King and Queen of England were not inherently superior to the colonists, empowering them to challenge British authority and eventually seek independence.

The Great Awakening: A Religious Revival

Contrasting with the Enlightenment, the Great Awakening, which coincided with the Enlightenment era, aimed to enhance the role of religion in the lives of colonial Americans.

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It was a religious revival that transcended class, status, and education, emphasizing emotional commitment to faith.

One of the enduring legacies of the Great Awakening was its encouragement of ordinary people to engage with the Bible directly. This shift diminished the power of ministers who had previously served as intermediaries between the Bible's teachings and the general population. People no longer relied on clergy to interpret the scriptures, leading to increased independent thinking and, ultimately, contributing to the spirit of revolution.

Furthermore, the Great Awakening spurred the founding of academies and colleges such as Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth. It played a pivotal role in drawing African Americans and Native Americans to Protestantism, promoting the idea of equality among different racial groups. While the revivals did not directly lead to the abolition of slavery, they sowed the seeds for future efforts to eradicate this societal injustice.

The Great Awakening also elevated the role of women in colonial religion, emphasizing their embodiment of Christian piety. This shift empowered women and contributed to their increased involvement in religious and social activities.

Although the Great Awakening did not produce a distinct political ideology, it did empower ordinary people to critique those in authority. This sentiment laid the groundwork for later political revolutionaries who would argue that royal government in America had become corrupt and unworthy of obedience.


In conclusion, the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening were pivotal movements that significantly shaped colonial America. The Enlightenment introduced the concepts of reason and rationality, challenging the traditional religious beliefs that had prevailed for centuries. It paved the way for a more independent and critical mindset among colonists, ultimately contributing to the American Revolution.

On the other hand, the Great Awakening revitalized religion and promoted emotional commitment to faith, while also fostering independence from religious authorities. It played a crucial role in the education of ordinary individuals and encouraged the participation of women, African Americans, and Native Americans in religious and societal matters.

These two movements, though distinct in their goals and approaches, collectively contributed to the formation of the United States. They challenged the status quo and empowered ordinary people to question authority, setting the stage for the birth of a new nation that would value reason, freedom, and equality.

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Enlightenment and the Great Awakening in Colonial America. (2016, Jun 21). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/the-enlightenment-and-the-great-awakening-movements-essay

Enlightenment and the Great Awakening in Colonial America
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