How did the Enlightenment and Great Awakening impact American thought?

Expert Answers
jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Many of the founders were affected by the ideas of the Enlightenment, including the importance of reason over superstition and a belief in science. Enlightenment ideas, such as the social contract formulated by Locke and others, played a defining role in the founders' drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Many of the founders were also religious and reconciled their religious beliefs with their belief in reason by becoming Deists. The essential idea behind Deism was that a so-called "watchmaker God" had created the world and then had stepped back to let it run on its own. With this belief system, the founders could continue to believe in reason and the idea that the universe was governed by science while still believing in God.

The First Great Awakening (there were several in American history), which took place in the 1730s and 1740s, was an attempt to assert the importance of faith in the context of the growth of Enlightenment ideals. In New England, so-called "New Light" preachers, such as Jonathan Edwards, whipped up audiences with their ecstatic preaching and called for a return to a belief in faith and predestination (the idea that your fate is decided before you are born). As a result, new religious sects such as Methodism (which came from England) took root in the American colonies, and people began to flock to less established, more ecstatic religions. The Puritan church, centered in Boston, lost ground to newer churches along the Connecticut River, which was then the frontier. To some degree, both strains of thought—the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening—are still influential in America, as the belief in reason and science coexists with the desire for a religion based on faith. 

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question