Eddie Hyatt on How the Great Awakening Impacted the Civil Rights Movement

Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. (Public Domain)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and America’s black church are a vital part of the legacy of 1726 and the Great Awakening that began that year. As I have documented in my latest book, 1726, the Awakening had a profound impact on the black populace of Colonial America. Indeed, it was out of this Awakening that the American black church was born and the spiritual and moral resources were unleashed that eventually brought about the end of slavery on this continent.

From Evangelism to Social Transformation

At the beginning of the Great Awakening in 1726, outreach to the black populace was evangelistic in nature and not characterized by opposition to slavery. Those early preachers, such as Whitefield, Tennant and Edwards, saw their primary purpose as getting people ready for the next world, not necessarily improving their lot in this one. In their thinking, a slave on his way to heaven was far better off than a king on his way to hell.

Nonetheless, their insistence on sharing the Gospel with all people and their willingness to share Christian fellowship with blacks, both slave and free, breached racial and cultural barriers in Colonial America. Also, the inclusive gospel message they preached and their compassionate treatment of blacks created a climate conducive to the anti-slavery sentiments that would burst forth through those who would come after them.

Indeed, the revivalists who came after Edwards and Whitefield carried the message of their predecessors to its logical conclusion: If we are all creatures of the same Creator and if Christ died that all might be saved, then how can slavery ever be justified?

They, therefore, began a vicious attack on the institution of slavery. This is what historian Benjamin Hart was referring to when he wrote, “Among the most ardent opponents of slavery were ministers, particularly the Puritan and revivalist preachers” (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 92).

These “ardent opponents of slavery” included the followers of Jonathan Edwards who expanded on his idea of the essential dignity of all created beings and applied it to the blacks of Colonial America. They included Levi Hart in Connecticut; Edwards’ son, Jonathan Jr., also in Connecticut; Jacob Green in New Jersey and Samuel Hopkins in Rhode Island.

Showing the Hypocrisy of Demanding Liberty and Tolerating Slavery

Samuel Hopkins (1721–1803), who had been personally tutored by Edwards, pastored for a time in Newport, Rhode Island, an important hub in the transatlantic slave trade. Like Paul, whose spirit was “provoked” observing the idols in Athens, Hopkins was deeply grieved by what he observed in Newport. He began to passionately speak out against this “violation of God’s will” and declared, “This whole country have their hands full of blood this day” (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 92).

After the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1774, Hopkins sent a pamphlet to every member of the Congress, asking how they could complain about “enslavement” to Great Britain and overlook the “enslavement” of so many blacks in the colonies.

Indeed, as “liberty” became a watchword throughout the colonies, these second-generation Awakening preachers began applying it to the enslaved blacks in America. Like Hopkins, they pointed out the hypocrisy of demanding freedom from Great Britain while enslaving black Africans. One of the most vocal was the Baptist preacher John Allen, who thundered,

Blush ye pretended votaries of freedom! ye trifling Patriots! who are making a vain parade of being advocates for the liberties of mankind, who are thus making a mockery of your profession by trampling on the sacred natural rights and privileges of Africans (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 156).

The opposition to slavery thus mounted as other ministers of the Awakening began to speak out. For example, in a sermon preached and published in 1770, Samuel Cooke declared that by tolerating the evil of slavery, “We, the patrons of liberty, have dishonored the Christian name, and degraded human nature nearly to a level with the beasts that perish” (Hyatt, 1726: The Year that Defined America, 93).

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SOURCE: Charisma News, Eddie Hyatt