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How the Great Awakening Impacted American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution

April 27, 2018

The Apostle Paul exhorts believers in Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”

The “Great Awakening,” the Christian evangelical revival that took place in colonial America in the mid-1700s, had political undercurrents that notably affected American society prior to the American Revolution.  The revival impacted Americans’ views and values with regard to personal and national identity, unity, democratic equality, and civil freedom.

As America’s first inter-colonial or “national” event, say historians, the Awakening created a new national awareness and identity among colonists.  Inter-colonial preaching tours, increased communication, and shared religious and spiritual experiences during the revival facilitated connections and solidarity among colonists.  Previously, all colonies were fairly self-contained and had little contact with one another.  Charter conflicts were addressed directly with England.  (An exception was the 1643 New England Confederation of Puritan Colonies which united some colonies for safety.)  However, when the revival came, itinerant ministers like George Whitefield traveled and preached throughout all the colonies for the first time.  Colonists corresponded about and discussed revival with other ministers and residents in different colonies.  Due to greater travel and communication among regions, revival decreased geographical separation.  Though many churches and denominations became more fragmented, colonists in different regions forged a common identity based on their largely shared knowledge and experiences, beliefs and values—which led to a greater sense of unity as a people.  Indeed, the Awakening made the American colonies more spiritually, politically, and geographically unified and distinct from Europe.  The revival, explains Ellis Sandoz in his Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America, prompted the “experiential formation of the rudiments of an American community of shared convictions rooted in faith rising above and beyond colonial and merely British identities.”[1]  In his History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, Mark A. Noll elaborates:  … 

As such, the revival was not only an awakening to God but to national consciousness.

The Great Awakening also influenced democratic ideas before and during the Revolutionary War.  Revivalist beliefs that human beings are made in God’s image and equal before God supported human dignity, equality, and natural rights and thus more democratic thought.  The empowering of the church laity at this time also encouraged democratic thinking.  In America and England, H. Richard Niebuhr observes in his Kingdom of God in America, “the Christian enlightenment stood beside the rational enlightenment in the battle for democracy.”[3]  Mark Noll et al. in Search for Christian America describe the Awakening as the “democratic republicanism of the 1770s.”[4]

Moreover, the Revivalists’ quest for spiritual liberty benefited the American move toward civil liberty and democracy.  For Revivalists used terms in public discussion such as …

Indeed, the Great Awakening and the American Revolution—considered by historians to be the two most significant events in America in the 1700s—had important connections.  Revival was, some historians argue, the primary influence in the revolution.  It provided much of the philosophical, religious, and moral justification for the war.  Indeed, the revolution, they say, could not have occurred without the Awakening’s religious belief and thought.  The revolution was, as Paul Johnson asserts in his History of the American People, a religious event in its origins, a fact that would shape it “from start to finish and determine the nature of the independent state it brought into being.”  The revival, he elaborates, was the “proto-revolutionary event, the formative event preceding the political drive for independence and making it possible.”[7]  It helped to prepare colonists for the forming of a new kind of Christian nation.

To be sure, while the Great Awakening had unifying and democratic effects on the revolutionary-era colonies, it did not address, critique, or offer any Christian-oriented socio-political model for an increasingly diverse society in which no one religious sect ruled or dominated.  Revivalists focused on evangelism and spiritual life rather than on a framework for civil governance.  Revivalists “seemed to think,” says Noll et al., “that if they could be successful at evangelism, the problems of politics would take care of themselves.  But they didn’t.”[8]  The task of formulating a workable, Bible-inspired civil government for a new nation and a religiously diverse society would lie with the future American Founders of the United States.

[1] Ellis Sandoz, Republicanism, Religion, and the Soul of America (Columbia, MO:  U of Missouri, 2006), 17.

[2] Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 110-111.

[3] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Middletown, CT:  Wesleyan U Press, 1988), 124.

[4] Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America (Colorado Springs, CO:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), 49.

[5] Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, Search, 55.

[6] Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, Search, 49.

[7] Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York:  HarperCollins, 1997), 117, 116.

[8] Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, Search, 61.

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 articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty – Consent of the Governed
2. The Religious Landscape of the Thirteen Colonies in the Early 1700s
3.  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 Dignity of the Human Being
7.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
8.  Great Awakening Principle:  “Born Again” Personal Spiritual Conversion
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:  Happiness
12. Great Awakening Principle:  Purpose for Just Civil Government
13. Great Awakening Effects on American Religion:  A New Church Landscape
14. Great Awakening Effects on Society:  Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, Gospel
15.  Great Awakening Effects on American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 5, Part 2, Activity 5:  Effects of the Great Awakening on American Society:  Unity, Democracy, & Revolution, p. 195, 352.  MS-HS.

Effects of the Great Awakening on American Society:  Unity, Democracy, & Revolution…

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn about the religious, social, and political effects of the Great Awakening, including effects on colonists’ views and values of personal and national identity, church and state, unity, democracy, freedom, and revolution.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 5 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections Introduction to 5.16 and p. 146-148.
2) Activity Chart: Causes and Effects of the Great Awakening, p. 148 in Miracle of America reference book.
2)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Organizer Chart and Class Discussion:
Students organize notes/information on Great Awakening’s effects on American society.  See “Effects of the Great Awakening on American Society” Organizer Chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of the Miracle HS Teacher Course Guide, p. 352.  See also the Activity Chart, “Causes and Effects of the Great Awakening,” on p. 148 in the Miracle of America reference book.  Teachers may also use a spider diagram.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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