How the Great Awakening Reinforced Human Dignity and Worth
The Great Awakening was a Christian evangelical revival in 1700s America that increased awareness among colonial Americans of Judeo-Christian beliefs and ideas. One idea that became more prominent among Revivalists was the dignity and worth of the human being. Revivalists indirectly supported human dignity by affirming important concepts in the Bible—that human beings are made in God’s image, possess immortal souls, and may be spiritually redeemed. Such concepts undoubtedly affected American values, culture, and political thought, including the American concept of individual rights.
One belief among revival-era Americans that affirmed human dignity was that mankind is created by God and made in God’s image. Genesis 1:26-27 states, “So God created man in His own image. Male and female He created them.” In God’s image, the human body and soul reflect godly aspects. Though man’s reflection of God is tainted due to man’s fall and sin, man still retains, albeit imperfectly, godly qualities. European reformer John Calvin, who Revivalists like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield studied, wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion about God’s reflection in the human body and soul. He noted the scientific wonder of the human body and the god-like abilities of the human mind, emotion, will, and conscience. Human beings, for example, can act freely, explore the universe, invent works of art, express love, remember things, and more. All these aspects, Calvin observed, demonstrate God’s agency in mankind—that “the human race are a bright mirror of the Creator’s works” and possess “excellent gifts with which God has endued us, attesting that He is our Father.” American theologian of the Awakening, Jonathan Edwards affirmed this view of mankind, writing in his Miscellaneous Observations that human beings are God’s “principal part of creation” who “have understanding, are voluntary agents, and can produce works of their own will, design, and contrivance, as God does.”
A particularly notable aspect of mankind that reflects God is the human conscience. Every person, Edwards explained in his The Nature of True Virtue, is born with a conscience, an internal sense of good and evil, right and wrong, that approves virtue and disapproves vice. This conscience substantiates God’s moral law in the universe, the Law of Nature, so that man might love God and others, and do what is right and good. Humans reflect God when they follow the conscience, act morally, and demonstrate love.
Another belief among Revivalists that strengthened human dignity was the immortal human soul. Revivalists, as Calvin, believed human beings are made alive by God’s own breath of life based on Genesis 2:7: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” In his Soul’s Immortality, Edwards cited numerous verses to affirm man’s immortal soul. In Ecclesiates 12:7, for example, Solomon says, “The dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” In Matthew 10:28, Jesus instructs His disciples, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear God who his able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, the Apostle Paul exhorts believers, “Whether we wake [live bodily] or sleep [die bodily], we should live together with Christ.” In Luke 23:43, Jesus comforts the repentant criminal hanging on a cross next to Him: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Edwards thus confirmed that the human soul is “capable of existence and thought, and according to abundant scriptural declarations, enjoys them both when the body is dead.”
Perhaps the most important revivalist belief to reinforce human dignity was that the human soul can be redeemed by God. As Edwards noted in his Wisdom of God, God in Christ was crucified and “endured so much to purchase salvation” for people in order to “bestow eternal life on them.” The notion of the individual’s potential for spiritual redemption, and the price Christ paid for it, highlights the worth of the human being in God’s eyes. American Founder Benjamin Franklin, in his 1758 The Way to Wealth, expressed well the growing understanding at that time of human worth:
If the globe were one mass of pure gold, if the stars were so many jewels of the finest order, and the sun a ruby, they were less than nothing when compared with the infinite value of one soul.
Though the Great Awakening was not an explicitly political movement, the revived awareness of human dignity and worth during this era was significant. It helped to strengthen the foundation for individual rights in American society, political thought, 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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