The first Christian evangelical revival that spread throughout colonial America in the mid-1700s, known as the first “Great Awakening,” renewed among early Americans various ideas and values from the Bible and Judeo-Christian teachings. One idea that was taught by Revivalists during this time was that eternal happiness can be found in God. Interestingly, the idea of happiness would later turn up in a key founding document of the United States.
The sense of happiness was a reoccurring theme in the writings and teachings of well-known, widely-read revival theologian Jonathan Edwards. Edwards taught that happiness is important in religious matters and has a spiritual dimension. Like love, happiness, he believed, is found in and part of God. Happiness may consist not just of a person’s own contentment apart from God but of a deep joy and pleasure found in God. Edwards elaborates in his Miscellaneous Observations on Important Doctrines: …
The special end [or purpose] of man does not only respect him as consisting in his own happiness as separate from God, and as having nothing to do with [God], or in [man’s] own happiness consisting in the enjoyments of the visible world. The happiness of the greater part of mankind, in their worldly enjoyments, is not great enough or durable enough to prove such a supposition as that the end of all things in the whole visible universe is only that [kind of] happiness. Therefore, nothing else remains, no other supposition is possible, but that man’s special end, or that which he is made for, respects the Creator or is something wherein [man] has immediately to do with his Creator.
True, enduring happiness, Edwards believed, goes beyond the visible, temporal world and involves the eternal, spiritual one. It addresses a person’s eternal state with God and his need for salvation from his fallen moral condition and from eternal death separated from God. The purpose of human life, therefore, is to pursue eternal salvation as happiness. Humans are created, Revivalists believed, to seek and find eternal happiness in God. Regarding mankind’s call to seek God, Edwards cites Philippians 2 and Scottish Enlightenment theologian George Turnbull from his 1740 Principles of Moral and Christian Philosophy. Edwards writes in his Concerning Efficacious Grace, …
Turnbull’s explanation of Philippians 2:12-13, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure [or purpose],’ is this: ‘Give all diligence to work out your salvation, for God…has visibly made it your end [or purpose] to do so. Your frame [or being] shows that to prepare yourselves for great moral happiness…is your end [or purpose] appointed to you by your Creator. Consider, therefore, that by neglecting this duty and interest of yours, you condemn and oppose the good will of God towards you and His design in creating you.’
God in Christ Jesus, Edwards and Revivalists believed, is the key to eternal happiness. Christ’s suffering and death is for the happy redemption of man from sin and its punishment. Christ “procures a title to us for happiness,” says Edwards in his History of the Work of Redemption. “The satisfaction of Christ is to free to us from misery, and the merit of Christ is to purchase happiness for us.” The chief happiness of mankind, Edwards affirmed, is salvation, knowledge, service, and enjoyment of the living God.
Clearly, many early Americans prior to the American Revolution recognized and understood happiness not only in temporal, visible terms but in eternal, spiritual terms regarding their pursuit of and relationship with God. It is thus fair to say that the unalienable right to the “pursuit of Happiness” written into the Declaration of Independence at the founding of the United States in 1776 held deep spiritual, religious, and philosophical meaning for early Americans.
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 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.
Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation. All rights reserved.