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The Great Awakening in America and Spiritual Concerns During the Enlightenment Period

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The eighteenth century is characterized by radical change with respect to the economy, demography, religion, philosophy, and politics. As a result, America emerges as a more pluralistic society with evolving thought in religion, upheavals in politics, revolutionized European theory which influence and change the face of America. However, tensions deepen and mar diplomatic relations between England and America which presage unravelling ties and imminent independence from England. Back then in the 18th century, America wrestled with problems concerning equality, prejudice and greed and I posit that America continues to grapple with these perennial issues today. The Enlightenment period and the Great Awakening alert the American people to spiritual concerns on the destiny and salvation of man. These movements unite America for as theories are proposed, great thinkers, philosophers seriously sound themes on man’s identity and in the process, forge their own identity as humans and Americans. These movements are fuelled by the premise that an increase in human knowledge elevates man as he determines his own future. Other issues which come to the fore are the rights of man, woman and non-whites. These considerations pave the way for the drafting of the American Constitution of 1776.

John Woolman in his document, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754) discusses the Christian principles of love, brotherhood upheld only in theory in America which contrasts with the practice of cruelty, systematic oppression, inhumanity and hostility. Woolman argues that a Christian should never be a slave-owner for doing so put at detriment his own soul and contravenes the founding principles of his faith. He urges the equality and brotherhood of Negroes and Whites according to the Christian doctrines. Woolman wonders at White Christian hypocrisy. To add force to his arguments, he quotes numerous scriptural texts from the Bible from the words of Christ, Paul and Isaiah. To enslave one’s brothers is not only unchristian but also unethical. God’s unconditional and impartial love is a perfect example of the love that man must have for his brother. Woolman laments greed, selfishness and prejudice that have poisoned the heart and turned it from human compassion. Vices such as sloth, lassitude and materialism are other adverse effects of slavery on slave-owners while virtues such as peace, humility, integrity and honesty are ignored. The fixation on earthly possessions does not accord with the expectations of the Christian. Heavenly inheritance is more important and more lasting in nature than passing earthly material goods.

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Johnathan Edwards is a fervent preacher of fire and brimstone who preaches and warns the people during the Great Awakening where a religious revival is set in motion where there is a renewed consciousness of issues of the soul of man, his destiny and man’s choice in either going to heaven or hell. Edwards paints a horrific picture of the unconverted man’s lot in hell should he choose to forfeit God’s offer to salvation. Man has the freedom of will which determines his ultimate end. Man is naturally predisposed to evil and God’s wrath always hangs above his head. However, the one option open is to accept God’s offer of salvation from earthly doom. On one hand, there is the burning anger of God and on the other, there’s the tyranny and terror of Satan. In his passionate homily, Edwards tactic is to terrify sinners into believing in God and accepting salvation making appeal to man’s desire to be saved and hell and eternal damnation. It is very interesting to note that Edwards makes his conversion appeal after having given an in-depth description of God’s wrath against Man, man’s fallen nature and the infernal horrors of hell. Without converting to Christ, man is lost and fallen sunken in a decadent mire of sin whose consequence is eternal death and fiery torment. Edwards bases his reasoning and conclusion on scriptural authority and draws his examples from observing references to the children of Israel and God’s attitude when his people sinned against Him.

The Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather (The Devil attacks the people of God) This account of the alleged rise in the practice of witchcraft among the colonizers contains preliminary comments on the birth and rise of the occult in America and justifies the Salem witch trials. There is a perceived proliferation of evil. The puritans claim themselves to be the victims of evil forces and supernatural attack. Before the court, the accused must confess to his wrongdoing and incriminate another in testifying against him. The alleged spiritual darkness which Mather discerns is due to the weakening power of the Church and declining/waning fellowship of believers. Supernatural attacks, superhuman phenomenon, mysterious loss of stock, sudden sicknesses, reports of witch conventions are all a threat to Puritanism (Christianity) therefore the early settling colonizers make a decisive, concerted effort to extirpate witchcraft by summarily trying and executing accused witches without justice. Mather affirms that the trials are divinely sanctioned by God himself against the enemies of His people and at the same time draws distinction between believers and non-believers, the people of God and the children of the devil.


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