The Great Awakening and the Enlightenment are two periods of time with different views and objectives. The Enlightenment was a period of time where old ideas were challenged, and new ideas were considered. Philosophers and scientists believed that, through reason, changes could occur. These changes included new ideas about government and an increased belief in scientific concepts. People also began to look at religion differently.
The Great Awakening was a period of time with a renewed emphasis on religion and religious ideas. There was a growing concern that we were moving away from religious-based ideas. Some people felt that we were becoming too materialistic. These people emphasizing increasing the role of religion in the life of the people. They encouraged people to attend church and to listen to preachers. The Great Awakening was a reaction against some of the ideas being emphasized in the Enlightenment.
Both movements helped move us closer to the American Revolution. The Enlightenment encouraged new ways of thinking about the role of government. The Great Awakening led to some new beliefs that emphasized equality. Some of the ministers also didn’t favor the upper class.
When considering two very different movements like the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment, it is interesting to look at one individual who was affected by both movements: Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards was one of the major figures in the Great Awakening. Since the Great Awakening was an eighteenth century religious movement, it is could be easily, though erroneously, assumed that he did not have an appreciation for the scientific and rational focus of the Enlightenment thinkers.
Edwards was a Puritan. Many Puritans, with their strict adherence to literal Biblical teachings, felt a distrust of science and logic. The Yale educated Edwards, on the other hand, read and appreciated the works of Enlightenment stalwarts John Locke and Isaac Newton. He brought their rationalistic thought to bear on Christian doctrine as he saw it. It was permissible, in Edwards’ mind, to consider and explain divine ideas in a logical and orderly way, rather than in just an emotional or narrowly Biblical manner.
Of course this did not stop Edwards from whipping his parishioners into a frenzy with sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” during the Second Great Awakening.
For the most part, the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening were very different things. Most textbooks even talk about the Great Awakening as something of a backlash against the Englightenment. The Enlightenment was all about rationality and logic. It was about putting away superstition and, to some extent, emotion. By contrast, the Great Awakening was not at all rational. It called on people to have a personal and emotional connection to God. It argued that people needed to feel religion in their hearts rather than understanding it in their heads. These are very different ideas than those of the Enlightment.
The major similarity between the two is that both helped move the colonies towards the idea of democracy. Both movements emphasize the worth of individual human beings and the fact that they are essentially equal to one another. The Enlightenment argued against hereditary monarchies and aristocracies in favor of democracy. The Great Awakening argued against church hierarchies telling people what to do and in favor of people having their own relationships with God. In this way, the two are similar.