The Christian evangelical revival that occurred in America in the 1700s, known as the “Great Awakening,” helped to support and spread foundational ideas from the Bible in society. One important principle that Revivalists affirmed was the Judeo-Christian Law of Love.
Revivalists found the Law of Love in the two “Great Commandments” of the Bible—the commands in which people are called to love God and others. Great Awakening theologian Jonathan Edwards, in his 1746 Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, cited these commandments from the New Testament in Matthew 22:37-40 where Jesus tells the Pharisees, “‘‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’’” The second law is often referred to as the “golden rule,” of treating others as one wishes to be treated. In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says, “‘Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them.’” These two great commandments are originally found in the Old Testament (in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18).
In light of the Law of Love, Revivalists embraced religious affection and actions that express Christian love in worshipping God and serving others. Godly affection is desirable, Edwards thought, since true faith produces affections of the soul, and man’s affections are “the spring of men’s actions.” Edwards thus supported church practices of singing, praising, and prayer because he saw that they can affect the heart. In addition, Revivalists believed that love is expressed not only by affection but by action. “Love is an active principle,” Edwards declared in his 1738 sermon Charity and Its Fruits. “Reason teaches that a man’s actions are the most proper test and evidence of his love.”
Interestingly, a more rational acknowledgement of the Law of Love came from Enlightenment-era philosopher John Locke who was influential to founding-era Americans. In 1689, Locke had published an important treatise on civil governance—his Second Treatise of Civil Government—widely read by early Americans. In this treatise, Locke cited English Anglican theologian Richard Hooker’s 1593 work on church governance, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, to present a reasoned version of the golden rule. From the standpoint of Hooker, mutual love and respect among people in society is supported by the equal nature that all men share. Since all human beings have the same nature, people have a duty to love and respect one another. Locke writes in Second Treatise:
The Judicious [Richard] Hooker looks upon the equality of men by Nature as so evident in itself, and beyond all question, that he makes it the foundation of that obligation to mutual love amongst men on which he builds the duties they owe to one another, and from whence he derives the great maxims of justice and charity. His words are: “The same natural inducement has brought men to know that it is no less their duty to love others than themselves, for things which are equal all have one measure. If I wish to receive good at every man’s hands, …how should I look to have any part of my desire satisfied unless I myself am careful to satisfy the same desire in others who have the same nature. To offer them anything repugnant to this desire must grieve them as much as me. So that if I do harm, I must look to suffer. There is no reason others should show greater measure of love to me than I have shown them. My desire, therefore, to be loved by my equals in nature…imposes upon me a natural duty of bearing to them the same affection. From this relation of equality among men, no man is ignorant of the rules and canons which natural reason has drawn for direction in life.”
During the Awakening, Edwards and the Revivalists in America taught the Bible’s Law of Love as the foundation of godliness and virtue. Any religious or moral philosophy, Edwards believed, that lacks regard for God and others as its basis of virtue is flawed.
This Judeo-Christian principle of love would be upheld not only in American religion but later in the founding documents of the United States in their regard for the unalienable and equal rights of all people, Rule of Law, Due Process, and just civil governance.
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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