The First Great Awakening

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How did the Great Awakening inspire ordinary citizens to assert their right to independent judgement? Did the movement expand freedom? Why or why not?

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The First Great Awakening was a period of the British colonies that lasted from 1730-1750. It was a movement that affected many of the religious communities in the New England colonies. The movement was sparked by concern over the ideals of the Enlightenment spreading from Europe into the new world....

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The First Great Awakening was a period of the British colonies that lasted from 1730-1750. It was a movement that affected many of the religious communities in the New England colonies. The movement was sparked by concern over the ideals of the Enlightenment spreading from Europe into the new world. People began to think for themselves, and their ideas about religion began to change. This change caused new preachers and revivalists to spring up throughout the colonies, promoting a return to faith. The revival movement was a push back against the traditional establishment religions that had come over from England including Anglicanism and Presbyterianism.

Preachers like Johnathan Edwards and George Whitfield propelled the movement forward with their philosophy about Christianity—but it had a significant impact on the way citizens of the colonies and eventually, Americans, began to view religion, authority, and social class. One effect of the First Great Awakening was the proliferation of religious denominations in the colonies. New preachers were establishing disconnected churches all across New England. The movement of people from a few churches to many diverse denominations meant that power was diluted from the mainstream religious authorities.

The proliferation of denominations gave citizens a choice. For the first time in years, people were able to choose their religious affiliation not because the government imposed it and not because the King represented it but because they believed it. Belief, when it comes down to the baseline, is an independent judgment of what the individual believes is right.

This break-away also secured toleration for minority religions, providing greater freedom of belief than existed previously in the colonies. In the past, even among splinter groups like the puritans, there was a church and government structure that enforced puritanism as the sole and correct religion. The First Great Awakening pushed back against that establishment and created a way for regular citizens to formulate and follow their own ideas, which is the basis of individual freedom.

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I think the Great Awakening you are most curious about took place in the 1730s and 1740s in New England.  Yes, the movement did lead to a movement to expand freedom.  The churches became even more powerful in the lives of the people due to a wave of dynamic preachers such as Jonathan Edwards.  People actually wanted to come to church in order to hear how their souls could be saved from eternal damnation.  It was not as important to be a preacher who used church-approved doctrine as it was to be a preacher who was filled with the Holy Spirit and was called to preach—this was especially true west of the established settlements along the seaboard, as the grandchildren of the Puritans spread out into the countryside in order to seek their fortunes.  This would eventually lead to slight doctrine changes and different denominations based on the will of the people.  The Great Awakening also allowed for people to have more autonomy in their church. They did not want to wait on a centralized body to tell them who could be a preacher or a deacon.  This had significant ramifications; if the people could govern their own spiritual lives, then there was a good chance they could govern their own secular lives as well.  This would lead to greater freedom for the colonists.

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There were two Great Awakenings (and some historians count several more) in the U.S. The first, which occurred when the U.S. was still a colony of Great Britain, took place in the 1730s-1740s in New England. This movement was a Puritan reaction to their perception that there was a decline in faith in the community, and it involved their attempt to recommit the community to the idea of predestination (that people's faith was in God's hands and that they could only be saved through their belief in God). There were several new types of enthusiastic preachers, including the Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards, who were called "New Lights." Some of these preachers challenged the older preachers, the "Old Lights" who were in the establishment of Puritan clergy, so in some senses, the first Great Awakening resulted in greater freedom and the right of people to assert their independent judgment.

The Second Great Awakening, which started around 1790 and developed into the 19th century, involved peoples' commitment to achieving salvation through doing good works, and it saw the birth of many new religions in the U.S., including Baptism, Methodism, and other religions (some of these religions were based first in England). As in the first Great Awakening, people wanted a personal, more enthusiastic, and emotional experience of religion, and many people turned afterward to reform movements such as abolitionism. The movement was particularly important in upstate New York, the so-called "burned-over" district, and in the west (in areas such as Kentucky). Revival meetings became en vogue. This movement definitely inspired individuals to express more independent judgement and more freedom in their choice of religion; in addition, many women, poor people, and African-Americans played vital roles in this movement as the new religions appealed to people with less power in society at the time. 

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