Themes of The Great Awakening: And How They Relate to Current Mental Health Culture
When looking back at American history, we can see how strong of a presence religion has had in shaping the values that our current American culture is founded upon; many of these values reflecting messages spread by Christian leaders in crucial parts of American history. In this blog, I will be addressing the messages spread throughout the Great Awakening, and how they continue to live on throughout current mental health culture in America.
Before the Great Awakening, Christain sermons were focused on literature. There was very little (if any) emotion highlighted in sermons. Religious leaders would essentially stand in front of their congregation and read to them a scholarly article.
However, throughout the Great Awakenings we can see an increase in emotion being displayed in sermons, and as a result, being expressed among the congregation. Powerful figures throughout the periods of the Great Awakening highlighted a new importance on human emotion.
George Whitefield is noted as one of the celebrities of the Great Awakening, known for his emotionally-lead sermons. Breaking away significantly from the traditional readings of scholarly literature, Whitefield used his sermons to convey the emotions associated with following Christianity. One of his most famous quotes being “we can preach the gospel no further than we have experienced the power of it in our hearts” (Whitefield, 1760s). This quote alone expresses an emphasis on a shift between scholarly rationale to emotional experience. Whitefield’s sermons elicited strong emotions throughout his congregations, as well. For the first time in American history, mass conversions were taking place at George Whitefield’s sermons. 15–20 people would convert to Christianity at a time, and as a result of this success, Whitefield was invited to give sermons in several locations throughout the country.
This widespread elicitation of emotion made a large impact on American culture. For perhaps the first time in American Christian history, emotions were being actively welcomed in churches. People would express how they were feeling publically, which allowed for a sense of normalization of emotions, specifically in churches.
We can see elements of this normalization of emotions throughout current American culture. During Whitefield’s career as a religious leader, people would express emotions in the Church communities Whitefield preached in. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for people to continue to express their emotions in community settings. Specifically in American mental health culture, support groups are commonly developed to provide people with a space to experience and process their emotions, with mental health counselors and other members of the group serving as sources for emotional support. While we can not accurately say that Whitefield’s work directly lead to the creation of mental health support groups, the emotional social structure he created when presenting his sermons likely played a role in setting the grounds for American culture to embrace public expression of emotion.
Another extremely influential figure of the Great Awakening is Jonathan Edwards (author of Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God), who presented the idea that humans may not only have five main senses, but rather six. The sixth sense being “emotion”. Edwards even stated that emotion was “of the spirit”, which could be interpreted as honoring the presence of emotions.
Layers of this new-founded emphasis on emotions has survived into today’s world, particularly when looking at current mental health culture. Emotions are considered by modern mental health counselors to be an important indicator of psychological, as well as overall, personal well-being. Dr. Clara E. Hill writes in her 2019 book Helping Skills: Fifth Edition about the importance of emotions in therapeutic settings. “Emotions are a key part of our experience. They tell us how we are reacting to stimuli and what we need to do. When we ignore, deny, distort, or repress feelings…we grow apart from our inner experiencing and cannot accept ourselves or be ourselves” (Hill, 2019). While it may be possible that we as a society would have come to the conclusion that emotions are important sources of information on our well-being even without the perspective of Jonathan Edwards, his strong impact on the shift in how Americans view human emotions can not be ignored when considering how current mental health culture got to where it is today.
Finally, we need to address the overlying dominant philosophy that was present throughout the Great Awakening: That humanity is composed of both the mind and the body. Much of the rhetoric throughout the Great Awakening was that your mind consists of a person’s best, truest self.
This idea of someone’s “truest self” is replicated throughout the foundations of current mental health counseling. Today’s counselors utilize the teachings of psychologist Carl Rogers (1902–1987) in their daily work. Rogers taught the concept of “Actualization”, which is defined as a person being the best, truest version of themself. Rogers believed that as human beings, we have an inherent goal to be our truest selves, however we need unconditional positive regard from our support systems to achieve Actualization.
Through the work of Carl Rogers, we can see many parallels between his developments of the Person-Centered Therapy Approach (which encourages unconditional positive regard from the therapist so that the client can reach Actualizaion) and the values of becoming a person’s truest self in the time periods of the Great Awakening.
The Great Awakening’s ideals of placing importance on emotions, expressing emotions in a public setting, and validating the mind as the best, truest aspect of one’s self is consistently applied in the modern world’s mission to normalize a focus on mental health (which requires a focus on emotions), and allowing people to have social support to safely express their emotions and grow towards becoming the best version of themselves.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post about current mental health culture, and it’s mirroring of the ideals of the Great Awakening.
Great Awakening | Definition, Summary, Key Figures, Significance, Effects, & Facts
Great Awakening, religious revival in the British American colonies mainly between about 1720 and the 1740s. It was a…
History.com Editors. “Great Awakening.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 7 Mar. 2018,https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-ushistory1os2xmaster/chapter/great-awakening-and-enlightenment/
Clara E. Hill, “Helping Skills: Fifth Edition: Facilitating Exploration, Insight and Action” (2019) American Psychological Association