Greater Religious Freedom in the American Colonies

Despite the nagging presence of almost-continual war in the 1700s, the American colonies were doing pretty well. And as the colonists did better economically, they began to loosen up in terms of their religious beliefs, too. “Pennsylvania,” said a German observer, by way of example, “is heaven for farmers, paradise for artisans, and hell for officials and preachers.”

It wasn’t so much that Americans were becoming less devout, but more a function of their becoming less rigid and more likely to question the practice of most clergy to dictate exactly what they were to think and believe.

In the 1730s, a reaction to this shifting of religious attitudes resulted in what came to be known as the Great Awakening. Its catalyst was a genius named Jonathan Edwards. Tall and delicately built, Edwards entered Yale at the age of 13. By the time he was 21, he was the school’s head tutor. He was a brilliant theologian and wrote papers on insects that are still respected in entomological circles.

He was also — excuse the expression — a hell of a public speaker:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked,” he thundered in a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

But Edwards’s message, preached to mass audiences throughout New England in the 1730s and 1740s, was not just fire-and-brimstone yelling. Edwards believed that God was to be loved and not just feared and that internal goodness was the best way to be happy on this earth.

Edwards was eventually surpassed on the revival circuit by a Georgia-based minister named George Whitefield. Called the Great Itinerant because of his constant traveling, Whitefield drew crowds in the thousands.

On one crusade, he traveled 800 miles in 75 days and gave 175 sermons. Equipped with an amazing voice and a flair for the melodramatic, Whitefield quite literally made members of his crowds wild. He made seven continental tours from 1740 to 1770, and it’s safe to say he was America’s first superstar.

Although the Great Awakening had run its course by the time of the American Revolution, its impact was deep and lasting. It sparked widespread discussions about religion that in turn led to the development of new denominations, which in turn helped lead to more religious tolerance among the colonists.

Several of the new or revitalized denominations were encouraged to start colleges, including Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Columbia, to ensure a steady stream of trained ministers.

The Great Awakening also helped break down barriers among the colonies and unify them through their common experience with it. And as the first spontaneous mass movement in America, it heightened the individual’s sense of power when it was combined with that of others.

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