Enlightenment philosophy and Great Awakening Christianity were very different, but both influenced the American colonies and American Revolution and both frame our thinking today. The Enlightenment — so named by its own practitioners, who didn’t lack self-esteem — is best thought of as a continuation of the Renaissance we discussed in Chapter 2, with a strong emphasis on the Scientific Revolution, reason, and progress. Its practitioners adhered to the scientific method of testing hypotheses through rigorous, repeatable experimentation. Ancient Greeks, inventors of the first organized sporting events (the Olympics), also promoted hard-nosed, constructive debate and organized competition in law, politics, philosophy, and science. Greeks like Thales, Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Heron, and Democritus took things in this analytical direction first — testing their ideas against each other — and Iraqi-Egyptian Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (aka Alhazen) honed the scientific method in the Middle Ages. Even in ancient Greece, though, thinkers were outnumbered: Athenians banished Anaxagoras for arguing that the Moon was a rock rather than a God.
The scientific method is really about both knowledge and ignorance — not just the ignorance of individuals you disagree with or the purported ignorance of other societies, but collective ignorance. It proceeds from the humble assumption that we really don’t know much — and that all of our supposed knowledge is subject to ongoing reexamination — to the bold (hubristic?) assumption that we can learn more through careful observation combined with the application of reason, math, and science. Good scientists have to know what they don’t know; for instance, physicists don’t know why the Big Bang happened and Charles Darwin didn’t fill in gray area by pretending to know about what we now call DNA. Scientific research, in other words, takes for granted the insufficiency of old knowledge. Research rarely plays out in a vacuum, though, instead being enmeshed in politics, ideology, and economics. Science and technology fused in the Renaissance when the Florentine Medicis patronized weapons research by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, leading to advances in optics and physics, and alchemists helped jumpstart legitimate chemistry by trying to make synthetic gold. Then, like now, war and money spurred science, with ramifications spilling over into medicine, astronomy, and even political science.
By the late 17th and 18th centuries, the Renaissance application of reason to the natural and social world morphed into various strands known collectively as the Age of Enlightenment. No one seems to agree exactly on what it was, and it cut a wide enough swath for some historians to blame it for slavery’s justification while others credit its emphasis on equality and justice as contributing to slavery’s abolition. Likewise, you could blame/credit Enlightenment science for both pollution and environmentalism to combat pollution. Enlightenment science ultimately brought us hydrogen bombs and the missiles to deliver them on. Yet Enlightenment philosopher Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (1764) helped convince America’s Founding Fathers to add the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Critics describe torture and the death penalty as “unenlightened.” America’s founders are often criticized for failing to live up to the Enlightenment’s ideals, but that could only have been possible if the ideals existed in the first place. Is partially unfulfilled idealism worse than no idealism at all? Like the Renaissance and Dark Ages, the Enlightenment is one of those historical tags that lends itself to biased agenda-driven oversimplifications, highlighting some themes while concealing others. Yet, people who lived through it were aware of a new age being ushered in.
The Age of Exploration (Chapter 2) was key to the Enlightenment because it opened up a global inventory of data to European scientists. Running overseas colonies required knowledge of the world’s geography, weather, cultures, economies, etc. Exploration also brought coffee to Europe — the signature drink of the Enlightenment. Historian Tom Standage points out that coffee, fittingly unknown to ancient Greeks and Romans, was the “drink of clear-headedness, the epitome of modernity and progress.” Most java of the era was thick, gritty and, by judgement of aficionados, downright nasty. Still, instead of starting off the day clouding their minds with ale or wine, scientists, writers, politicians, merchants, and clerks imbibed the Ethiopian plant/Yemeni invention/Turkish-Ottoman import to “play good-fellows [with] this wakeful and civil drink,” to quote one Englishman from 1660. Just as Europeans imported and modified gunpowder, printing, shipbuilding, and math to their benefit during the Renaissance, they imported and modified the Arabic coffeehouse during the Enlightenment. Standage calls these clubby establishments the “Internet of the Age of Reason,” serving as informal post offices, stock exchanges, and forums for ideas ranging from theories of gravity to political rebellion to poetry to commodity prices, along with news and gossip. Dutch merchants who grew coffee in Java (Indonesia) imported beans to New York in 1660 and coffeehouses assumed a social and political role in colonial America similar to taverns, even though most Americans drank tea in the home.
Why was Greek and Roman ignorance about coffee beans fitting? Scholars during the Late Renaissance and Enlightenment started to question all dogma — be it philosophical, scientific, political, or religious — building on rather than just revering and reviving Classical knowledge. Meanwhile, they continued to import ideas along with coffee from Arabia and Persia. A famous example is Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’ reconceptualization of the universe (really just our solar system) along the heliocentric model suggested by Abu Raihan al-Biruni (973-1048 CE) rather than the geocentric version inherited from the ancient Greeks (Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy) and Catholic Church (St. Thomas Aquinas). Biruni, who centuries ahead of his time hypothesized about the existence of the American continent, was in turn well-versed in Classical scholars like Aristotle and Ptolemy. Enlightenment engineers also imported ideas from ancient Greece and medieval Iraq, building toy automatons that were really the first robots. In Novum Organum (or New Instrument, 1620), Englishman Francis Bacon, the era’s most famous cheerleader, beseeched scientists to “start from the bottom-most foundations — unless we prefer to go ’round in perpetual circles at a contemptibly slow rate.”
While we can safely say that the Enlightenment valued reason and logic, historians disagree on its timeframe and even what it was exactly. The Great Awakening, on the other hand, spurs less scholarly controversy. This religious revival gave rise to a less exclusive but equally devout form of Protestant Christianity than that of “Old Light” (Puritan) New England Calvinism. Like the Enlightenment, Christianity was used both to support and denounce slavery. We’ll look at the Enlightenment more closely here in the first half of the chapter, then explore the Great Awakening and American notions of religious freedom in the second half. Together, these movements laid the foundation for the American Revolution that we’ll examine in the next few chapters.
The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are products of the Enlightenment, as the U.S. was created by politicians swept up in the movement when it was all the rage. Paris was the epicenter of the Enlightenment, but its philosophes lived throughout Europe, the British Isles, and small but enthusiastic outposts in colonial America. They rejected monarchs’ claim to the divine right of rule, turning the traditional political model upside down and arguing that power was a privilege bestowed by the people on their rulers. They disagreed that God chose certain people to rule over others and instead promoted representative government — an idea that had been mostly dormant in Western history since Classical times but had been reviving in England and a few small pockets in continental Europe during the Renaissance. England’s absolutist monarchy eroded in the 17th century in a series of revolutions. This is a vivid and important example of Enlightenment thinkers reexamining traditional wisdom.
Along with free trade, representative government was a cornerstone of Classical liberalism. In England in the late 17th century, physician/philosopher John Locke wrote about the “natural right” to “life, liberty and estate,” and helped draft the constitution for America’s Carolina colony. If these rights sound familiar, they morphed a century later into life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and protection against government denial of life, liberty or property without due process of law in the U.S. Constitution’s 5th Amendment. Locke saw it as part of a government’s social contract to secure such natural rights among free men of means (he was a major shareholder in the Royal African slave-trading company). Other English Radical Whigs, including the anonymous author of Cato’s Letters, wrote of the “equality of all men.”
British Americans carried on this republican, Radical Whig tradition in the 18th century, most famously Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Locke and Jefferson were concerned with the political representation of middle-class men and above, but their descendants applied democracy more broadly. You can see why Enlightenment critics see its philosophy as merely a self-serving justification for white male hegemony; yet, you can also see how its ideas contained the seeds of a more universal revolution. With the republican genie out of the bottle, white male elites found it increasingly difficult to explain why they should run roughshod over everyone else. That’s because, by the philosophes‘ own standards of justice and equality, there isn’t a good reason. Enlightenment political theory was also concerned with balance — reflected in the U.S. Constitution’s emphasis on checks and balances and equality among its three main branches. You could say that, via the Declaration and Constitution, the Enlightenment is built into the fabric or DNA of American politics. Politics, like science, was a vehicle for progress and making the world a better place. Though often not religious in the traditional sense, especially with their commitment to questioning tradition, philosophes had an undying faith in progress.
The Enlightenment’s signature religion was Deism, though there were plenty of atheist and Christian Enlightenment philosophers as well. Deists were religious, to be sure, but they rejected two central tenants of traditional religion. First, in the name of progress, they disagreed that everything important to know was already known. That notion is implicit in the very word enlightenment, along with future historical tags like Dark Ages to contrast the period behind them. Second, they rejected Scriptural revelation and the sovereign, father-figure conception of the Judeo-Christian God in favor of a more impersonal force having created the universe. Their revelation was nature itself rather than Scripture, so science provided the path to the divine. While Deist ideas are still around today, it never formed into an organized church. The closest it came was the Cult of the Supreme Being or Festivals of Reason during the French Revolution in the 1790s, but they never gained traction. Most Philosophes, after all, weren’t into “cults” and most French people were Catholics, not Deists.
While denying Scriptural revelation, Deists were nonetheless tapping into a strand of Christianity dating back at least to St. Augustine (354-430 CE) that revered nature. Within Enlightenment Christianity, there was the liberal Unitarian branch (now UU) and a thread known as “natural religion” that overlapped with Deism. Charles Darwin was a natural theologian as a young man, prior to his daughter Annie’s death, and nearly entered the Anglican ministry. Science and rationality, even if combined with a dash of mysticism, gave mankind its best hope for future progress in the eyes of Deists and natural theologians. Contrary to the way they’re often depicted in textbooks and dictionaries, most Deists didn’t believe that God was a mere “clockmaker” who wound up the universe only to vacate the premises. Like Thomas Jefferson, many adhered to what might better be termed pantheism: belief in a divinity infusing and animating all things. Jefferson wasn’t the only Enlightenment figure difficult to categorize religiously.
The most famous and emblematic scientist of the era, Englishman Isaac Newton, was a Biblical scholar (if not orthodox Christian) and eschatologist and had more than a passing interest in the occult. His use of the term natural law for forces like gravity implied a lawgiver (God). Newton and Locke both believed in witchcraft, as did Robert Boyle, founder of modern chemistry and a pioneer of the scientific method. Astronomer Galileo Galilei, telescope pioneer and early proponent of the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun, was motivated by a strong sense of wonder and mysticism. He said that philosophy was “written in the grand book” of the universe, which “stands continually open to our gaze” and that “The Sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it has nothing else in the universe to do.” You may have guessed from that last quote that Galileo enjoyed wine and you’d be right. He described vino as “sunlight held together by water.” Galileo’s predecessor, Giordano Bruno, might have leaned toward the heliocentric rather than geocentric view of astronomy not because he was a paragon of reason battling the irrational Catholic Church, but rather because he thought the Earth had a soul or “Holy Ghost” that powered its motion around the Sun. For its part, the Catholic Church initially supported the Copernican heliocentric theory until Galileo’s writings appeared to lampoon Pope Urban VIII and the Jesuits. Protestants also spurred science, indirectly by weakening the Catholic Church and directly by supporting education and literacy. Protestant Reformer Philipp Melanchthon was an early supporter of the Copernican, Sun-centered model of the cosmos. Albert Einstein said that “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Isaac Newton was most famous, though, as a scientist. He built on Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, and Kepler’s Renaissance theories of the aforementioned heliocentric, sun-centered universe (solar system) and developed the theory of gravity to explain the planets’ orbits. Newton was also the inventor of the reflecting telescope and co-inventor of calculus along with German Gottfried Leibniz. Newton formulated the general laws of motion and mechanics that dominated physics for the next centuries in Principia Mathematica (1687). His “cradle” of pendulums at the top of the chapter demonstrated conservation of momentum and energy. His optical research led to prisms that dispersed white light into the colors of the rainbow. Newton’s work was typical of how 17th and 18th-century scientists developed laws to codify nature’s order in the same way the Bible provided a code for Christianity. Enlightenment philosophers had faith that scientific laws were discernible (or perceptible) and provided the foundation for laws that governed other fields like politics and economics. Put another way, there was a rhyme and reason to nature that transcended science. Politicians like Locke and Jefferson based their beliefs in concepts like natural rights on Newton’s scientific principles, as did Scottish economist Adam Smith.
Enlightenment scientists’ passion for categorizing, collecting, and cataloging knowledge found its extreme expression in British and French modifications of the encyclopedia. Ephraim Chambers Cylopaedia (or Universal Dictionary of Arts & Sciences, 1728) and Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751) exceeded ancient and medieval compilations in their breadth and sophistication. Contributors included luminaries such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Because of its secular emphasis and denunciations of ecclesiastical power, the Catholic Church banned its 28 volumes, but they delivered to subscribers in secret. The Wikipedia entries linked to terms in these chapters are modern-day manifestations of the Enlightenment as are many of the courses one takes in school, and the way those courses are divided up into various topics and “ologies” (from the Greek logos, for study of).
Carl Linnaeus’ biological taxonomy is a good Enlightenment example of an attempt at all-encompassing knowledge. The Swedish botanist took it upon himself to catalog all life forms under categories of family, genus, species, etc. While modern biologists have re-arranged his categories and don’t traffic in families of species, his conceptualization of life forms as being related on a Tree of Life was the basis for Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection later in the 19th century. Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, a contemporary of Linnaeus, was an early evolutionist.
Another example of Enlightenment categorizing was the study of elements at the University of Heidelberg, in Germany. Among the students was Russian Dmitri Mendeleev, who is credited with developing the Periodic Table of Elements familiar to anyone who’s been in a lab or science classroom. The table not only lists known elements, it predicts and explains their qualities based on its particular arrangement. Like Linnaeus’ taxonomy, Mendeleev’s 19th-century original was arranged differently than today’s Periodic Table. Enlightenment scientists didn’t just dig deeper into biology, chemistry, and physics, they cataloged their findings so that others could challenge and build on their theories as part of a worldwide effort. If the Enlightenment had a modern creed, it might be that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, even if its proponents made plenty of their own unsubstantiated claims.
Penn’s Woods & Quakerism
The Enlightenment’s main American satellite was Philadelphia, port and capital of Pennsylvania, the most religiously tolerant and scientifically oriented colony. “Penn’s Woods” was a relative latecomer among the colonies, but the region north of Maryland and west of the Delaware River made up for lost time by becoming one of the most important. William Penn, who had been arrested in England for practicing Quakerism with the Society of Friends, but whose father was a creditor of King Charles II, founded the colony after the English Civil War. Because of his family connection, Penn went from being imprisoned to being awarded a tract of land in America larger than all of England — quite a reversal of fortune. Given Penn’s noisy advocacy of religious freedom in England, it’s possible that Charles II gave him land in America just to get rid of him. That way he could pay off his debt and get an agitator out of his powdered wig at the same time.
Penn wasn’t typical of early Quakers, or “Children of Light,” insofar as he was born into the upper class. The denomination’s founders were from remote parts of northern England — so remote that not only were they illiterate themselves, they weren’t even within range of trained ministers. Consequently, they argued that Christianity could not only do without an established church, be it Catholic or Anglican, but that one didn’t need Scripture either to be blessed with the inner light caused by Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. This was a bare bones form of Protestantism that Martin Luther never imagined. Classic Quaker meetings have no ministers or planned sermons; Friends meditate and rise when moved to speak. Outsiders called the Society of Friends “Quakers” because their bodies would sometimes convulse or shake when enraptured.
Penn impacted history even before he left England. One of his trial juries refused to convict him when the Lord Mayor of London charged him with violating the Conventicle Acts dictating conformity to the Church of England. The judge then went after the jury but an ensuing trial and counter-suit resulted in English judges losing their right to imprison juries for awarding what judges deemed to be incorrect verdicts. Penn thus indirectly caused a major change in western legal history even before founding an important American colony. Imagine how different trials would be if juries had to worry about being imprisoned by judges.
In America, Penn turned the New England Puritan model of homogeneity inside out by inviting anyone interested to enjoy a “Holy Experiment” in religious pluralism, with no official religious establishment. Pennsylvania was diverse ethnically as well as religiously. Philadelphia was Greek for “city of brotherly love.” The Middle Colonies were the first to attract large numbers of non-British European settlers, including Dutch who founded New York, Swedes who founded Delaware and parts of New Jersey, and Germans and Moravians who came to Pennsylvania. Initially, wealthy Quakers owned slaves, but a small and militant handful became the first Christian abolitionists in America.
Foremost among them was a cave-dwelling, bee-keeping, vegan dwarf named Benjamin Lay, whose theatrical public protests against slavery (and tobacco and capital punishment) earned him fame as the “Quaker Comet” in the 18th century but dismissal from the Society of Friends. Lay, who’d seen a slave commit suicide in Barbados to avoid torture, called “man-stealers” the “literal spawn of Satan” bearing the “mark of the Beast.” Mainstream Quakers were starting to vindicate his radical abolitionist ideas when he died in 1759. Quakers founded the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society in April 1775, the same month as the famous rebel battles against British redcoats at Lexington and Concord (next chapter).
Quakers also tried to respect Indians within Penn’s borders. Indians reciprocated by not killing “Broad Brims,” a reference to Quaker’s distinct hats. Though white Pennsylvanians ultimately succumbed to disputes among themselves and struggled to maintain peace with Indians along the frontier, they built a prosperous colony on the strength of Delaware Valley wheat and Philadelphia’s inland deep water harbor. They’d grown successful in England, as well, founding Barclay’s and Lloyd’s banks and Cadbury chocolates, and influential enough politically that some historians suspect their rise motivated the gentry to overthrow Cromwell’s Puritan republic and restore the crown to Charles II.
Historian Barry Levy described how, despite their small numbers — no more than 1% of Christians for most of their history — Quakers had a disproportionate impact. They were pacifists, which got them in trouble during times of war but helped spark the modern ideal that war, even if sometimes necessary, should be avoided if possible (modern hawks now talk about using war to maintain or restore peace). They advocated progressive child-rearing and equality for women ahead of their time; contemporary European men joked at taverns and in popular culture about beating their wives and children. Quakers argued that children should be cultivated, persuaded, and talked to rather than just having their “wills broken” like draft animals with intimidation and physical punishment. While some parents today might violate that ideal, it’s not only out-of-date to beat one’s children but also illegal (e.g. NFL player Adrian Peterson). Quakers helped define motherhood as the “ethical center of American socialization,” yet also believed that women had an equal role to play in the public realm. Future reformers Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and Jane Addams were all born Quakers. After owning slaves themselves through the mid-18th century, Quakers spearheaded abolitionism well into the 19th century and emphasized egalitarianism. They believed in simple, unpretentious clothing and architecture. Quakers called everyone Mr. and Mrs. regardless of wealth and shook hands rather than bowing or doffing caps to superiors. In fact, they didn’t believe in rank to start with among mortals, though they also shook hands to feel the pulsing of “the Light” in others. To this day, Americans use Mr. and Mrs. for rich and poor alike and people of all economic classes commonly greet by shaking hands. Quakers also believed that, since humans could carry the Light and “radiate God’s word,” they should never lie or engage in any uncouth or ungodly behavior, including haggling for prices. Thus, this small Protestant denomination invented set prices for goods and egalitarian handshakes, helped to abolish slavery, and launched the women’s movement and widely accepted, modern ideas of raising children. If we’re really more “enlightened” today than medieval Europeans, it might owe as much to Quakers as philosophes.
Pennsylvania was also home to Benjamin Franklin, who exemplified the Enlightenment spirit as well as any American. Franklin fled Puritan Boston as a teenager, finding refuge in comparatively cosmopolitan Philadelphia. He was a printer by trade — most famous for his own fact- and wisdom-filled annual Poor Richard’s Almanack (PDF) — and a true polymath with multiple interests and a strong curiosity. As a sixteen-year-old, Franklin anonymously contributed to his brother James’ New England Courant under the name “Mrs. Silence Dogood,” boosting circulation with opinionated witticisms (without James’ knowledge) while also typesetting and selling papers on the street. Franklin also published Quaker Benjamin Lay’s All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates (1738), that historian Marcus Rediker called a “founding text of Atlantic antislavery.”
As an adult, Franklin became a serious scientist. He rejected the traditional interpretation of lightning being a manifestation of God’s anger as being lazy and superstitious, choosing instead to investigate the real cause using science. He arrived at the theory of lightning being caused by electricity and even developed a tool to control its destructive force through his modification of the lightning rod (lightning strikes were a common cause of fires and, without pressurized water hoses, people had no effective means to douse fires). Franklin laid the groundwork for batteries by storing electricity in a Leyden jar, developed the concepts of positive and negative charges, coined the terms conductor and electrician, and hoped that humans would someday be able to harness electrical energy for their own purposes. That, too, was in the Enlightenment spirit.
Franklin invented bifocals, the Franklin stove, the glass harmonica, daylight savings, and the post office, and properly theorized about how the Gulf Stream from the Caribbean warmed Europe. He pioneered demographics in his study of colonial Americans’ migration patterns. Franklin asked questions and, when confronted with practical problems, furthered progress by inventing new solutions. For instance, his brother’s catheter was uncomfortable, so he invented a more flexible one. If that’s not practical, what is? He was constantly researching and coming up with new medical ideas, some useful others less so. When he was eleven, he invented swim fins. Franklin helped transform Philadelphia into the first true city in America, with a hospital, fire and police departments, libraries, and paved, numbered and lit streets. Franklin established the colonies’ first volunteer fire department there in 1736. Philadelphia’s grid street system influenced cities throughout America and it started the first medical colleges in the colonies, named for Penn and Jefferson.
Franklin’s Deism was typical of the Founders, as was his Enlightenment politics. Since America was born at the height of the Enlightenment, the Revolution presented its founders with an opportunity to ensconce representative government in a country starting from scratch. Through republicanism, along with its endorsement of science and technology, the Enlightenment lives on in contemporary America. While Jefferson was wrong that orthodox faiths would soon give way to Deism or Unitarianism, people of all faiths live in a technologically advancing world and share at least some subconscious belief in the scientific method. Few among us would rush to a church instead of a hospital if injured or sick, and no one is advocating replacing First Responders with ministers on the other end of 911 calls. We drive cars and trucks and live in homes and talk on phones invented and improved on by application of the scientific method. But gone is the philosophes’ blind faith in progress as a uniformly good thing since people today realize that science will never solve all our problems and can even create new ones of its own like pollution, carcinogens, overpopulation, cyber-attacks, and weapons of mass destruction.
While Deists never established a formal denomination or church of their own, some of their emphasis on Enlightenment progress made its way into the Freemasons, a fraternal society that traced its origins to stonemason guilds and the masons who built Solomon’s Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. The “G” in the Masonic Square & Compass symbol stands for “Grand Architect of the Universe” — a Deist way to describe God. But Masons were, and are, an organization that includes people of many faiths, including Christianity, bound together by monotheism and a commitment to community service. Many Americans were suspicious of the organization because of their secretive meetings, rituals, and codes, but their ranks included Founders like Franklin and George Washington and dozens of future prominent politicians, inventors, entertainers, and theologians. A cursory glance at this list makes one wonder if there aren’t more famous American Masons than famous American non-Masons. While not up to no good, as wrongly suspected, Masons were obviously networking long before LinkedIn®.
In addition, Masonic imagery worked its way onto American currency and iconic structures like the Washington Monument and Statue of Liberty, a gift from French Masons to America to celebrate the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The political structure of Masonic lodges, with their system of checks-and-balances and one-man-one-vote, is similar to the U.S. Constitution — likely because they both developed during the Enlightenment.
Contrary to conspiracy theories, the Eye of Providence on the back of the American one-dollar bill comes from the original Great Seal of the United States (1782) and dates to Christian iconography, adopted later by Masons. Franklin Roosevelt, one of 14 Masons to have served as president, added it to the dollar in 1935.
The Great Awakening
While Enlightenment philosophers were disproportionately represented among the Founders and in Masonic Lodges, and Enlightenment politics is built into our Constitution, few Americans were attracted to Enlightenment religion. Traditional religion or religious indifference were far more common in the 18th century among farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and slaves, and Christianity experienced revolutions of its own known collectively as the Great Awakening. Historians usually refer to the First and Second Great Awakenings in reference to big bursts in the 1730s-40’s and 1790’s-1850’s. The First took place mostly within the old Congregational denominations of New England and in Philadelphia, while the Second was associated with tent revivals and missionaries around the country and launched new denominations.
The Puritans’ Elect of God predestination-oriented Calvinism wasn’t destined to survive the 18th century in its original form, at least not administered by ministers delivering erudite “Old Light” sermons to a passive audience. It was too stuffy and complicated for New England, least of all the frontier and rest of the country. Many Americans couldn’t read let alone dive into John Calvin’s Commentaries. Puritanism was too exclusive. What was the attraction if you couldn’t prove to insiders that you, too, were among the Elect? To put it crassly, American Protestantism was in need of a reboot or rebranding after the first few generations of Puritans had served their purpose. In New England, the key bridge between the older Calvinism and more emotional, less formal “New Light” variety was Jonathan Edwards. Despite appealing to the masses, Edwards was an intellectual who embraced Enlightenment science and his books and sermons are still read today at colleges and divinity schools (Yale Collection). Edwards was one of the most influential Christian theologians in American history.
But the most popular and dynamic of the new ministers was George Whitefield, who preached throughout the colonies outside of churches, in the streets. While Ben Franklin didn’t share Whitefield’s religious views, he appreciated the social role of religion in supporting society’s moral fabric and published Whitefield’s sermons, helping to trigger the Great Awakening. Others were less enamored, as suggested by the engraving below where two women named “hypocrisy” and “deceit” support Whitefield. The jester’s staff and monkey in the bottom right corner indicate that this artist viewed Great Awakening ministers like showmen in a carnival.
But their theology was substantive. John Wesley, the English founder of Methodism, argued against predestination in favor of Arminianism, the idea that salvation came through good works. With its emphasis on free will and salvation, Methodism was the most popular denomination in America by 1830. Jonathan Edwards downplayed Arminianism and promoted the Calvinist idea of salvation coming through inner reflection and God’s Grace in “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: a Sermon” (1741). The upshot was that the Fire-and-Brimstone aspect of Puritan Jeremiads lived on, but Protestant Christianity opened itself up to all comers in the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming more heartfelt and user-friendly. In the upgraded Calvinism 2.0, new converts could be saved and evangelicals carried that message to followers of German and Dutch Reformed churches, Scottish “New-Side” Presbyterians, and Anglo-American Baptists and Methodists. The Greek root of the word evangelical means good news, or bearer of good news.
The new faiths had a democratic or egalitarian bent, with no respect for hierarchies like the Church of England, which they viewed as “Catholic Lite,” or even the formal organization of the Old Light Puritan Congregations or Old Side Presbyteries, with their insistence on college-educated ministers. Their preference, especially at first, was for informal tent revival gatherings where swarms of people communed and shared born-again experiences similar to the Puritans’ regeneration. Charles Finney, president of Presbyterian Oberlin College, described his conversion as “waves of waves of liquid love.” Barton Stone’s camp meeting at Cane Ridge, Kentucky attracted tens of thousands of people, a significant number given the frontier’s sparse population. The Methodists didn’t have any churches at first; their Circuit Riders rode around on horses and slept on the ground.
In the early 19th century, dozens more new denominations spun out of the Second Great Awakening, including Pentecostals, Disciples of Christ (part of the Restoration Movement), Seventh-day Adventists, Cumberland Presbyterians, Millerites, Jehovah’s Witnesses (later in 1870s) and, most famously, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) – by far the most successful denomination invented in America and the fastest growing in the world today. The Puritans’ old Congregational Church lives on today, too, mainly in the form of the post-1957 United Church of Christ. The Second Great Awakening also reinvigorated the mainstream evangelical faiths (Baptist, Methodist, New Side Presbyterian) popularized in the First Great Awakening of the 18th century.
Denominational growth in the early U.S. reflects well on the religious freedom James Madison ensconced in the Constitution’s First Amendment, that forbids Congress from making any “law respecting a religious establishment or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Madison consulted with Jefferson on the First Amendment and Jefferson authored its forerunner at the state level: the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. That explains the unlikely allegiance between Baptists and the non-Christian Jefferson when he became president. Politics “makes for strange bedfellows” as the saying goes and, in the case of the Mammoth Cheese, the Baptist congregation from Cheshire, Massachusetts so appreciated President Jefferson that they sent him a block of cheese weighing 1,230 lbs. Nine hundred bovines contributed to the gigantic chunk of coagulated milk.
Why would Christians bestow so much coagulated milk on an infidel? Because, in spite of his own unorthodox faith, Jefferson’s consulting role on the First Amendment helped provide New England Baptists legal protection in a region where they were outlawed and persecuted by Congregationalists. It’s safe to say that scarcely a single reader viewing this textbook espouses religious beliefs that wouldn’t have been outlawed somewhere by somebody at some point in time. That’s why Jefferson and Madison thought that, far from hindering religion, separation of church and state would benefit religion in the long run. History provides an interesting perspective because today many people assume that supporters of church-state separation oppose religion when often they just oppose government involving itself in religion. Those are two very different things. Jefferson and Madison’s viewpoint “flips the script,” suggesting that it’s advantageous for religion — all religions in the long run — to disassociate from politics (not issues, necessarily, but from legal political grounding).
Today’s church-state debates are a key part of our culture wars, especially those regarding the proper place of Christianity in public schools. “Separationists” argue that it has no place whatsoever and that any inclusion violates the First Amendment rights of non-Christians or Christians who don’t want the government in that part of their lives. It’s simple: keep religion out of the public sphere and keep it a private affair. As Jefferson put it, his neighbor’s religion neither “picked his pocket nor broke his leg.” No one wants to override the First Amendment altogether, but some Christians want to partially break down the church-state barrier and argue that the Constitution doesn’t actually say anything about separating church and state. Contrary to a popular misconception, the phrase separation of church and state isn’t in the Constitution. But it does come from a very reliable and important interpreter of the First Amendment: its virtual co-author Jefferson. Like the Cheshire cow farmers, another group of New England Baptists sent Jefferson a thank you letter for his role in establishing religious freedom. In his response, the Letter to the Danbury [Ct.] Baptists, the new president explained how the framers intended to separate church and state. What about the First Amendment’s primary author, James Madison? In an 1819 letter, Madison wrote that even Virginia’s clergy had benefited from “total separation of church and state.”
While interpreting original intent of Constitutional framers is a suspect enterprise most of the time, future Supreme Court justices were confident in applying the separationist idea because Jefferson and Madison penned it themselves in letters. Thus, you should think for yourself about the Texas State Board of Education’s decree in 2010 that the First Amendment “didn’t intend for separation of church and state.” Here’s who thinks it did: it’s author, co-author/chief consultant, most trained judges, historians, and political scientists.
Finally, what’s most ironic about America’s church-state separation is that it inadvertently enabled religion to infuse politics more than in most countries. Permit me to explain. All denominations and ideas were free to thrive or die out in America’s free religious marketplace. The national government, at least — and states after the 14th Amendment — neither collected taxes for, favored nor outlawed any denomination. Diverse theologies flourished that could be widely interpreted, especially after the invention of steam-powered printing presses allowed for more sermons, pamphlets, and Bibles. In that uncensored marketplace, religion was (and is) used to argue both sides of political debates. For instance, Christianity was the primary ideological force behind both slavery and abolition. Liberals and conservatives employed Christianity to argue for and against Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. God rewards the rich in Prosperity Gospel while Jesus favors the poor through the Social Gospel. Political scientist James Morone pointed out that today’s evangelicals warn their flocks that to cast a “blue” (Democratic) vote would be a sin against the Almighty, while black churches bus their mostly Democratic congregations to voting booths. In the few Western countries even more religious than the U.S., such as Croatia and Ireland, virtually no one makes any connection whatsoever between religion and politics. Perhaps that’s because, in the long run, moral principles don’t sit well alongside the realities of political power, amorality, compromise, and expediency.
While Christians and Enlightenment philosophers each had faith, the nature of their respective faiths differed. Christians emphasized faith in Scripture while philosophes put their faith in science, nature’s God, and secular progress (natural theologians bridged the gap between them). Evangelicals and Quakers mustered a more significant challenge to slavery than their Enlightenment counterparts despite attempts to abolish slavery during the French Revolution. Yet, most Christians didn’t challenge slavery either, at least in the 18th century. Nevertheless, Christians and philosophes both demanded religious liberty and they shared a disdain for political or religious leaders who claimed superiority over others by virtue of divine right. As such, neither accepted the basic premise of why the British king, supported by the Church of England, had any inherent right to rule over the American colonies.
Historian Nathan Hatch referred to this period in religious history as the democratization of American Christianity, implying that the increasingly democratic politics of the time paved the way for the growth of denominations. Still, it’s difficult to see which came first, the chicken or the egg, as far as democratic religion or democratic politics (having already discussed coffee, wine, and cheese in this chapter, I thought we’d toss in some chickens and eggs). Despite their different takes on reason and faith, Great Awakening Protestantism and Enlightenment politics reinforced each other as twin streams that fed into the American Revolution. Americans of both stripes understood what Jefferson and Franklin meant when they suggested that the motto for the new country’s Great Seal read: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” It never caught on as the official motto but, in 1801, the Cheshire Baptists inscribed it in their Mammoth Cheese.
Optional Reading & Viewing:
Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs (Monticello)
Papers of Benjamin Franklin (Yale Univ.)
Exploring the Republic of Letters (National Endowment for the Humanities)
Jamelle Bouie, “The Enlightenment’s Dark Side” (Slate, 6.5.18)
Art & Identity in the British North American Colonies (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Lisa Gensel, “The Medical World of Benjamin Franklin” (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine)
Jersey Devil: The Real Story (Center for Skeptical Inquiry) — An Interesting Side of Benjamin Franklin
Marcus Rediker, “The ‘Quaker Comet’ Was the Greatest Abolitionist You’ve Never Heard Of,” Smithsonian, 9.17
Kwame Anthony Appia, From “Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason,” New York Review of Books (5.9.19)