What was the social and political impact of the Great Awakening?

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The impact of the Great Awakening on colonial American social and political life was immense. Traditionally, American society was hierarchical, based as it was on the structures of English society. Though colonial America was generally thought to be a good deal more egalitarian in its outlook than the mother country,...

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The impact of the Great Awakening on colonial American social and political life was immense. Traditionally, American society was hierarchical, based as it was on the structures of English society. Though colonial America was generally thought to be a good deal more egalitarian in its outlook than the mother country, there was still a recognizable hierarchy in place, with political life firmly in the hands of a recognizable social elite.

The Great Awakening made American society much more open; less vertical, more horizontal. This mass religious revival took place from the bottom up, so to speak. It was a movement of the common people, not the elite. Indeed, the social elite, almost all of whom belonged to the established Church of England, looked down on those who participated in the Great Awakening, regarding them with contempt as religious fanatics.

The long-term political consequences of the Great Awakening were no less far-reaching. The common folk of colonial America had shown that they could come together in a largely spontaneous mass movement that neither sought for nor needed the involvement of the political and social establishment. That being the case, a growing number of Americans started to question the entire basis of British colonial rule, of which the established Church of England was such an essential component.

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The social aspects of the Great Awakening are tied to religion.  People became excited about attending church, and this also led to the formations of new denominations, especially west of the established seaboard communities of the Northeast.  The New Light preachers of the Great Awakening focused on clergy being "called" to preach, rather than waiting on someone from higher up in the church organization to provide the congregation a preacher.  

Politically, preachers of the Great Awakening increasingly tied secular goals with religious ones.  During the French and Indian War, many told their congregations that it was God's work to resist the French.  During the American Revolution, preachers were some of the most powerful members of the community. Many convinced members of their flock to help the American cause.  Churches of the Great Awakening were also more democratic—members could elect deacons and other leaders.  Since the people were capable of governing their own churches, it is not difficult to see that they might be capable of governing themselves politically as well.  

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The First Great Awakening, which swept across New England in the 1730s and 1740s, sought to renew a sense of religious fervor in people. A new type of ecstatic preacher, called "New Lights," preached on the frontier (which was then along the Connecticut River) and introduced audiences to an intense and personal form of religion that they had not experienced before. As a result, the power of the established Puritan church in Boston, comprised of preachers referred to as "Old Lights," diminished to some degree. In addition, the movement strengthened religions that were new to America, such as Methodism and Baptism. In the south, slaves who were swept up into the movement became converts to Christianity. The social and political impact of the movement was that it weakened the established churches and gave rise to what some historians believe was a more democratic form of religion in which each adherent could have a sense of personal salvation and connection with God. 

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The main social impact of the Great Awakening was, not surprisingly, related to religion.  The Great Awakening brought about splits in many of the major religious denominations in the American colonies.  Denominations ended up splitting between the “old lights” who held to the traditional religious ways, and the “new lights” who wanted to follow the ideas of the Great Awakening.  The Old Lights wanted highly educated preachers who taught their flocks to believe in the “correct” ideas from the Bible.  By contrast, the New Lights wanted preachers who could connect with people on an emotional level and who were not necessarily educated in the niceties of theology.  Thus, the Great Awakening created splits between newer, more evangelical and older, more hierarchical wings of the various denominations.

Politically, the Great Awakening is usually credited with helping (in the long run) to bring about the American Revolution.  The Great Awakening, historians say, helped make the colonies more democratic.  The New Light preachers were, in essence, preaching a democratic message.  Any person, they said, could understand what God wanted.  The word of God was not known only to the educated elites.  Instead, it was something that everyone could understand.  People did not need religious hierarchies, headed by the elites, to guide them.  This idea, we are told, carried over to political life.  Since colonists believed that they were capable of determining their own religious beliefs, they also started to believe that they were capable of guiding their own political destinies.  The Great Awakening, in other words, made people believe that they could and should have a democratic government in addition to a more democratic religion.

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