Essay 3, Unit I


Compare and contrast the impact of the Great Awakening and the Englightenment on American colonial life, including a description of the main tenets of each movement.

    The Great Awakening was a religious revival movement which originated in Europe and spread throughout England and the American colonies in the middle decades of the 18th century. It grew out of concern that church members had lost their religious zeal and were backsliding into spiritual apathy. Church leaders felt the need for preaching that would stir the conscience and touch the heart of the masses. Many local ministers and itinerant preachers responded with sermons that appealed primarily to emotion rather than reason. This new form of preaching was called evangelism.

    The first prominent American preacher of the Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, a Congregational minister of Northhampton, Massachusetts. Edwards stirred his congregation with powerful sermons stressing man's utter dependence upon God and the need for God's gift of grace. Men were, in the words of one of Edward's most famous sermons, "Sinners in the hands of an Angry God" held over the fiery pit of eternal damnation by a slender threat in God's fingers. Without God's grace they would be plunged into that pit forever. From Northhampton the movement spread through Massachusetts into all of New England and beyond.

    A young minister from England, George Whitefield, used his dynamic personality and effective preaching style to sustain and spread the Great Awakening. Touring the colonies from New Hampshire to Georgia he "converted" thousands in his revival meetings. Those who emphasized a powerful, emotional religion were known as New Lights. Other itinerant ministers like Gilbert Tennent, a Presbyterian from the middle colonies, helped extend the impact of the revival throughout the colonies. No one denomination or sect dominated the Great Awakening and all the colonies were effected although Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia were those most influenced by the movement.

    The message of most of the itinerant preachers who led the revival was a simple, straightforward one. God loved everyone and wanted all to be saved. All man had to do was to open his heart to God's love, accept the gift of Grace, and be saved. All groups and classes in colonial society, young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, churched and unchurched, rural and urban, responded and were caught up in this wave of evangelical enthusiasm. Thousands of Americans in all the colonies shared a common religious belief and experience. Thus the Great Awakening had a unifying, "nationalizing" effect on the American colonies long before they were a nation.

    Like the Great Awakening the Enlightenment originated in Europe and then came to the colonies. It emerged as part of the 18th century "Age of Reason," a movement which stressed man's rational capacity to understand the natural laws which governed the Universe. As such the American Enlightenment appealed to men's minds rather than to their emotions. It caught on primarily among the intellectuals, among the better educated of American society. The common people did benefit from the Enlightenment's "practical" emphasis on "useful knowledge" such as inventions and scientific experiments that would enhance the quality of colonial life.

    Enlightenment figures shared certain basic ideas about the nature of God, man, and the universe. A benevolent God created the universe and the natural laws which govern it. The image of God most commonly used to depict this creator-God is that of the "cosmic clockmaker" who constructed the universe like a very complex clock, set it in motion, and then let it run by itself. This God was an impersonal deity, not a personal God to whom men could pray and who took a personal interest in every creature. The Enlightenment God was not a redeemer God who was concerned about man's conduct or the salvation of his soul.

    From the Enlightenment point of view God created man with the capacity to reason, to use his mind to comprehend the natural laws by which the universe operated. Man could employ his intellect to channel and use these natural laws to improve, even to perfect, human society. Man and his society, then, for the Englightenment were infinitely perfectible. An optimistic, buoyant view of life characterized the Enlightenment thinkers who saw the use of man's reason as capable of solving all human problems and meeting all human needs. There was therefore no necessity for God's continued intervention in the world.

    While the common people did not share these assumptions about God and the universe they did accept and benefit from the "practical applications" of knowledge which men like Benjamin Franklin, the epitome of the American Englightenment, provided. Franklin embodied the Enlightenment ideal of man using his reason to pursue useful knowledge for the benefit of mankind. His scientific experiment in electricity, for example, resulted in such useful inventions as the lightning rod. While the Enlightenment did not have the popular appeal of the Great Awakening it nonetheless had an impact on American colonial society.

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