How the Great Awakening Strengthened Individual Rights
When the Enlightenment emerged in Europe in the 1700s, rationalism—the application of reason as the primary basis for one’s understanding, opinions, beliefs, and dialogue about the world—became a widely accepted idea among many Europeans at that time. Americans (like the Enlightenment-era philosophers they read such as John Locke) took a God-oriented approach to rationalism. The Christian evangelical revival or “Great Awakening” in America during this period led American colonists to adhere to not only God-given reason but also to spiritual faith through a personal conversion experience.
Influential American theologian Jonathan Edwards agreed that humans are rational, and he saw that they are created that way by God. He also saw that people are naturally capable of reasoning in arguments for God’s existence. Edwards believed that people can discern some truth about God by reason and nature, yet a spiritual conversion experience can also convince a person about God. A conversion involves the Spirit of God birthing or instilling spiritual faith in a person’s heart and spirit. This new birth, Edwards asserted in his Doctrine of Original Sin, is indicated in John 3:3-6 where Jesus tells the Pharisee Nicodemus, “‘Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of Spirit is spirit.’” Being spiritually reborn or regenerated by God, Edwards explains (based on Romans 2:28-29), involves an internal change of heart, not just an external religion:
Regeneration is that whereby men come to have the character of true Christians, as is evident and confessed, and so is circumcision of the heart. By this men become Jews inwardly, or Jews in the spiritual and Christian sense…, just as old proselytes were made Jews by circumcision of the flesh.
Edward’s view of personal religious conversion emphasized a foundational aspect of Christianity in which the individual, practicing self-examination and private judgment, personally relates with and is responsible before God. This perspective of the importance of an individual’s relationship with God stimulated personal prayer, Bible reading, and Christian fellowship among Revivalists. While this idea weakened ties between individuals and the established state churches in the colonies, it helped to strengthened non-state churches and the notion of individual rights in American society, politics, and law.
Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.
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.
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
Activity: The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 5, Part 1, Activity 5: Jonathan Edwards Teaches Conscience, Morality, Individual Religious Conversion, Happiness, p. 179, 350. MS-HS.
Jonathan Edwards Teaches Conscience, Morality, Individual Religious Conversion, Happiness…
Purpose/Objective: Students learn about Great Awakening theologian Jonathan Edwards and his well-known teachings and writings on Christian belief, life, and doctrine regarding conscience, morality, religious conversion, and happiness which played an important role in educating colonists during the Great Awakening.
1) Chapter 5 of Miracle of America reference/text. Students read sections Introduction, 5.1, 5.2, 5.6-5.10.
2) Related blogs/videos (see above).
Close Reading Activity:
Students break into groups to analyze passages from Edwards that pertain to this section (see attached handout). Each group will share with the class a summary of the passage, an analysis of its philosophical and religious concepts, and an evaluation of how these ideas played out in society during the Great Awakening. The teacher can assess students’ grasp of Edwards’ message and its effects on the revival movement and society as a whole. See the “Jonathan Edwards Excerpts: Close Reading Activity” handout in the “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, p. 350.
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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