UU Minute #56

Reaction to the Great Awakening: Beginnings of American Liberal Religion

In the 1730s, the Great Awakening revivalist movement swept through the colonies, with itinerant preachers going town to town whipping up religious enthusiasm, emotional excess and fervor, and promoting a reactionary dogmatism. The Great Awakening produced a permanent division between its supporters who saw in the revival the hand of God, and its critics who saw only madness and raw emotion.

Against the Great Awakening, the liberal clergy increasingly united in defining reason and tolerance as the basis of religion, increasingly turned to liberal books and colleagues for support, and thus, became increasingly liberal.

Liberalization in New England churches occurred gradually. Rather than explicitly renounce doctrines with which they disagreed, preachers stopped emphasizing them, then stopped mentioning them at all, and only eventually came to consciously abandon them. Because of Congregational Polity, control of the church was in the hands of the local congregation – and if a congregation liked their minister, there was no higher authority to enforce orthodoxy.

So, some of the clergy began drifting leftward, bringing their congregations along. One of these was Charles Chauncy. In 1727, at age 22, Chauncy was ordained as an assistant minister of Boston's First Church, one of the most important in churches in New England. In 1762, at age 57, Chauncy became that congregation’s senior pastor. He served First Church in that capacity for 25 years more – in all, a 60-year career at First Church, until his death at age 82.

Charles Chauncy never called himself a Unitarian, but his ideas paved the way for those did, so we’ll learn more about Charles Chauncy in our next thrilling episode.



UU Minute #55

The Great Awakening

Almost 300 hundred years ago, the Great Awakening swept through the English colonies in America. It was a religious revival movement in the 1730s. Traveling preachers went from town to town holding revival meetings drawing large outdoor crowds for highly emotional experiences.

When you remember that the first colleges in the colonies – Harvard, William and Mary, Yale -- were founded with the main purpose of training clergy, and that the local minister was typically the only person in town with higher education, and that Sunday morning was the preacher’s platform for demonstrating his sophisticated training, then you get a picture of religion in the hands of the experts. Everyone else was supposed to quietly follow the expert’s instructions as best they could – as presented in sermons that were long, closely-reasoned, dry theological arguments read from manuscript.

The Great Awakening, however, encouraged ordinary people to make a personal connection with God instead of relying on a minister. At a time when religion in America was steadily declining, the Great Awakening reinvigorated interest in religion, and offered many people intense, emotionally consuming religious experience.

Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” exemplified the preaching of the Great Awakening. The implicit message was that a deity who was ruled by emotion demanded emotional worship.

The Great Awakening produced a reaction against its over-emotionalism and a renewed case for a rational approach. There were no known Unitarians in the colonies at this time, but the intellectual forebears of Unitarianism emerged out of this reaction to the emotionalism of the Great Awakening.

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