Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Influence of the First Great Awakening on the American Revolution

Today we’re finally getting back to Part 2 of our series on the First Great Awakening that we began on October 24, 2008.

In many ways, the religious upheaval of the First Great Awakening prepared an entire generation of colonial men and women to become involved in the political upheaval that followed in its wake. Some historians have seen the revivals as the means by which the poorer classes of society challenged the privileges of the upper classes, setting the stage for the political conflicts that led directly to the Revolution.

The spiritual climate became contentious, and religious conflict spread like wildfire from the church into politics. Because the colonists of the revolutionary generation had already made life-changing choices about their fundamental religious beliefs and loyalties, they were prepared to make equally crucial political decisions and did not hesitate to rebel against religious, social, and political structures that denied their right to self-determination.

Many Christian Americans believed that the colonies were a New Israel and that the colonists were God’s chosen people, views that steadily hardened defiance of the established royal governments and the ancient tradition of the divine right of kings. For these Americans, the rebellion became a holy war against Britain and her king, who were viewed as sinful, corrupt.

As traditions of radical Protestant dissent merged with a rising tide of republicanism, the spiraling conflict finally blossomed into full-scale revolution. The religious culture in the colonies, which held industry and frugality to be virtues and believed in consensual, contractual forms of church government, shaped the resistance to Britain’s colonial policies as well as the republican legislatures and constitutions that replaced the royal colonial governments during the war.

In colonies where one denomination received state support, other denominations increasingly lobbied their legislature to end the favored status of the established denomination. This freedom of religion was subsequently enshrined in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Adapted from “The First Great Awakening” by Christine Leigh Heyrman, Department of History, University of Delaware, © National Humanities Center.

The image above depicts a Lutheran church service. Watercolor with pen and ink by folk artist Lewis Miller (1796-1882), c. 1800, the Historical Society of York County, Pennsylvania.