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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Twenty


By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 26, 2015)

E Pluribus Unum

The spiritual fires ignited by the First Great Awakening spread southward into Virginia and to points beyond during the exciting days of the 1750's. It was impossible to maintain the fervor of the new Christian zealots however, and the Awakening fires soon cooled.

Although somewhat short lived, the impact of this First Great Awakening was essential for the colonies as it created a bond between them, a spirit of e pluribus unum (i.e. "Out of many, one"). Those who deny the essential role of Judeo-Christian tradition on the United States and its founding principles need only consider this point. It was Judeo-Christian supremacy that established the United States as "One nation under God." When the American people uttered this phrase with newly found national pride, it was the God of the Bible, the Judeo-Christian God, that they were referring to. To them, He was the only true God. All of the others, to the limited degree that people knew of them, were the false gods of people in desperate need of "the Gospel." To this end an American missionary spirit was birthed that would reach out to the far flung corners of the earth (whether this was for good or ill is a matter of perspective of course!).

During this period between the first two American Awakenings a sense of national identity and a religious destiny for Americans as a distinct people developed (RAR 1). No longer did most Americans feel the need to look to Europe for their enlightenment. They now considered themselves to be the Chosen People of New Zion. Let the Europeans seek them if they would know the truth! God had largely abandoned the Continent for the New World! For New Zion! Together 'We the People' would establish New Eden! A nation of free and religious Christian people.

There is always anti-Semitism of course, however in New Zion the Jews found an inclusion they had seldom known. In the New World Jews could advance the Jewish goal of tikkun olam (repairing the world) by helping to build the new society. And the Jews excelled at this. They entered all walks of professional life and blessed the new nation in innumerable ways.

Protestant Americans now hailed the United States as the Protestant Promised Land (RNA 93). The presence of the Jews merely demonstrated that God was with this new people, the Americans. Most hoped that in time the Jews would embrace Christianity however until then they would be accepted as fully American. Synagogues were built and Jewish communities emerged everywhere, especially in the North east. Today there are far more Jews in America than in any other country besides Israel.

Even as American Christianity was different from European Christianity, so too American Judaism was reformed to American sensibilities. While Orthodox Jews found a mainly welcoming home here, as discussed above, the Reform Jewish Movement established itself as the dominant form of American Jewish observance. For Jews, this was a very different life than they had known in Europe.

Catholicism was also here of course and it contributed much, both to individuals and far strung communities. However while they continued looking to Rome for guidance the Protestants considered themselves Americans first. They tended to look down at the Catholics because of their loyalty to the Vatican. Protestantism, always a numeric minority when compared to Catholicism, was now coming into it own. The Protestants considered themselves to be God's anointed stewards by Divine Providence. The Catholics and Jews were here, but America was Protestant. Not surprisingly most of the excitement experienced with the American Great Awakenings occurred within the Protestant sectors of Christianity.

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