The First Great Awakening

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Why did the Great Awakening indirectly challenge the British colonies' hierarchical social order?

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During the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, there was a widespread religious revival (centered in New England but also occurring throughout the American colonies) to bring a sense of enthusiasm to people's religious experience. During this movement, preachers (such as Jonathan Edwards) who were not part of the religious hierarchy traveled around the colonies to provide enthusiastic sermons that emphasized people's direct connection with Jesus Christ. These preachers were part of what was called the "New Lights," and they challenged the established order of "Old Lights," who were part of the hierarchy of established Protestant preachers. The movement attracted many people on the margins of society, including the poor, people on what was then the frontier (along the Connecticut River), slaves, and women. The movement changed established churches, such as the Congregational and Presbyterian churches, and strengthened newer churches such as the Baptists and Methodists. The First Great Awakening brought a democratic sense to the experience of religion, as people felt as though they could experience salvation no matter who they were, and it also challenged the established church hierarchy and social order. 

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The Great Awakening was a challenge to the hierarchical social order because it promoted the idea that people could have their own relationship with God and that top-down instructions from church leaders were not needed.

The preachers of the Great Awakening were typically not well-educated men.  These were not the elites who went to college and learned about religion in the "correct" way.  Instead, they were men who spoke about the emotional aspects of religion and did so in very plain language.

The Great Awakening promoted the idea that listening to such "regular" men could be beneficial.  By doing so, it helped to eat away at the more hierarchical aspects of society that were based on the idea that only elites were fit to make decisions and be listened to.

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