The First Great Awakening

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How did the First Great Awakening affect the colonies?

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The First Great Awakening was a period of Christian revival that occurred in Great Britain and the Thirteen colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. The movement was largely a response to a "stale religious state" that had grown out of the Enlightenment period's focus on secular rationalism. In the colonies, the movement also developed in response to a lack of a central religious focus. The New England colonies belonged to Protestant congregational churches established by early Puritan colonists. Middle colonies were more diverse, belonging to Quaker, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, as well as Dutch Reformed and Congregational churches. The Southern colonies had officially established themselves as Anglican, however there were also Baptist, Presbyterian, and Quaker churches.

To combat this disjointed diversity, preachers influenced by evangelism began emphasizing a revival of piety and a focus on salvation. Their sermons were characterized by an intense religious fervor, in stark contrast to the existing complacency. While sermons differed based on the religious leanings of the individual preachers, they contained several of the same themes: that all people are born sinners, salvation through confession, and a direct and informal communicative relationship with God. Preachers promoted a sense of equality; that everyone could join in religious discourse and maintain an emotional connection with God regardless of class or education. The message extended to slaves, who were drawn to the concepts of equality and education, and influenced the establishment of the first black churches in the colonies. This drew a stark contrast between "old light" preachers and congregations, who looked down upon the "new light" sermons and favored intellectual discourse over demonstrative emotion.

Despite these intra-religious differences, the Great Awakening ultimately worked to unite the evangelical churches, who chose to overlook minute differences in doctrine in favor of broad-scale beliefs. This connected churches across the colonies; promoting a sense of unity in formerly distinct religions and regions, and invigorated colonial society with new ideas. The movement also led to the establishment of several evangelical educational institutions, including Princeton University and Dartmouth College. Some historians argue that the emphasis on the individual and the increased sense of unity among the colonies influenced the American Revolution, which occurred only a few decades after the First Great Awakening.

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