The revival and transformation of America's Christians and thousands of others not Christian before the Awakening first took place in the 1730s. Prior to the Great Awakening in America, "backsliding," or a cooling down of religious fervency, had set in. Perhaps, many churches were still well attended, but the degree of faith had fallen and there was no real life in the meetings, so that people were attending more because it was an established custom or tradition rather than because it was their life to do so. The loss of a once burning religious fervor and faith so early on, however, threatened to undo the bright future ahead for American society.
Into this growing vacuum of piety and fervor came a new thing called "The Enlightenment," which was man's Reason and Intellectuality allied with science and freed from religious restraints.
Intellectualism, Enlightenment by Reason, Scientific Inquiry that together increasingly ignored and even proved hostile to scriptural revelation and light, is a bad philosophical base for human life that leads utltimately to disorder, meaninglessness, and destruction. This fact was not perceived in the beginning, of course. To many educated men it seemed to promise freedom from the shackles of Medieval age superstitution and ignorance. Reason and scientific inquiry would lead the way, they thought, to freedom and happiness for mankind.
Europe and then colonial American societies were swept by the exciting philosophical ideas known as the Enlightenment--a rationalistic, naturalistic philosophy which sought to center and ground man and society in the findings of the new science bassed on man's Reason and Logic and Scientific Method.
Descartes' catchy onotological phrase, "Cogito, ergo sum: "I think, therefore, I am," was the basis.
Man the Promethean Thinker had discovered a world of power and meaning within himself that did not draw from the Bible or a Christian God. With his innate faculty of scientific Reason and Rationality, man had discovered the means to achieve mastery of the Universe and his own destiny. By reason and science, man could liberate himself from the darkness of traditional, religionist herd's blind belief and superstition and become "enlightened" men, freed from the shackles of religion and custom, forging out beyond the old restraints, even surpassing the commandments of God or the very idea of His existence.
The proponents of the Enlightenment and the New Man appealed to Reason and the natural laws governing the universe, and argued that they could form a new basis for human life, providing happiness and security of individuals as well as nations.
Reason came to be regarded as the only sure means to apprehend the Universe, reason that was enlightened by science, not the Bible, which was formerly held as the primary authority and foundation for man's reason and his existence. In the Middle Ages, the Chain of Being held the center chair in the world of education and theology. God had made man to fit and function within a divine framework, in which every thing and creature had its divinely-appointed place, rank, use, and destiny. That whole idea of a divinely instituted Chain of Being was ridiculed and thrown out as sheer religious trumpery by a triumphant 18th Century Rationalism.
With reason based on science, Man, it was now presumed, could evolve to desirable higher states of being, and there seemed to end to the process by which mankind could improve itself by the increase of knowledge.
Mystery, faith, divine Providence, creeds--all that began to seem mere mumbo jumbo and humbug to an increasingly number of "enlightened" 18th century philosophers, thinkers, and skeptics. Utopia now seemed close within grasp--a return to the perfection of Eden, but it was a Paradise entirely of man's creation this time, not God's.
Strangely, man's reason, elevated above Christian Faith, God, and the Bible, was now exalted enough to think it had the right to examine, classify, accept or reject the things of religion, or reject religion altogether if that was the reasonable thing to do.
At first, few Enlightened dared that approach (unless you were a thorough, unabashed skeptic and atheist (and notorious libertine!) such as the Frenchman, Voltaire.