American Philosophy & Religion 7
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
with a strong emphasis on the Scientific
reason and progress. They
adhered to the scientific
method of testing hypotheses though rigorous,
repeatable experimentation. Classical scholars first
took things in this direction, and Iraqi-Egyptian Alhazen
honed the method in the Middle Ages. But modern
science really took off in the Renaissance, when the Florentine Medicis
(Chapter 1) patronized weapons research by Michelangelo
and Leonardo, leading to advances in optics and physics,
helped jumpstart legitimate chemistry by trying to make
synthetic gold. Then, like now, war and money
spurred science, but positive ramifications spilled over
into medicine, astronomy and, as we'll see in this
If the Enlightenment had a modern creed, it might be that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, even though its proponents made plenty of their own unsubstantiated claims. The Great Awakening, on the other hand, was a religious revival that gave rise to a less exclusive, but equally devout, form of Protestant Christianity than that of New England Calvinism. Together, along with the republican politics we'll discuss in the next chapter, these philosophical and religious movements laid the foundation for the American Revolution.
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 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. In other words, they promoted representative government, an idea mostly dormant in Western history since Classical times, but that had been reviving in England and a few small pockets in continental Europe. The absolutist monarchy crumbled in England in the 17th century. For University of Texas historian James Vaughan, the central idea of the Enlightenment was the notion that people were responsible for the creation of their own world..."humans working together individually and collectively to transform the world around them."¹
Along with free trade, representative government was a cornerstone of Classical liberalism. In England, physician/philosopher John Locke (right) wrote about the "natural right" to life, liberty and estate, and helped draft the constitution for the Carolina colony. He saw it as part of a government's social contract to secure such natural rights among men of means (Locke 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 Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Locke and Jefferson were concerned with the political representation of middle-class men and above, but their descendents applied democracy more broadly. 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. Politics, like science, were a vehicle for progress and making the world a better place.
Enlightenment Religion & Science
The signature religion of the Enlightenment was deism, though there were plenty of atheist and Christian Enlightenment philosophers as well. Deists were religious, but they rejected the Scriptural revelation and sovereign, father-figure model of the Judeo-Christian tradition, 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. Science and rationality, in their view, also gave mankind its best hope for future progress. That's the stereotypical view of an Enlightenment scientist, at least, even though most didn't believe that God was a mere "clockmaker" who wound up the universe only to vacate the premises.
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. Newton built on Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler's Renaissance theories of the heliocentric, sun-centered universe and developed the theory of gravity to explain the planets' orbits. Newton was also inventor of the reflecting telescope and co-inventor of calculus, along with Gottfried Leibniz. He formulated the general laws of motion and mechanics that dominated physics for the next centuries in Principia Mathematica (1687). His optical research led to the prism that dispersed white light into the colors of the rainbow (left). His 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 English and French modifications of the encyclopedia. Ephraim Chambers Cylopaedia (or Universal Dictionary of Arts & Sciences, 1728) and Diderot and D'Alembert's 1751 Encyclopédie (1751-) exceeded ancient and medieval compilations in their breadth and sophistication. 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 example of an Enlightenment attempt at all-encompassing types of 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, his conceptualization of life forms as being related on a Tree of Life was the basis for Charles Darwin’s theories about natural selection later in the 19th century. Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, a contemporary of Linnaeus, was an early evolutionist. Another 19th-century outgrowth of Enlightenment categorizing was the study of elements at the University of Heidelberg, in Germany. Among the students there was Russian Dmitri Mendeleev, who is credited with developing the Periodic Table of Elements, familiar to anyone who's been in a 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 original was arranged differently than today's Periodic Table. Enlightenment scientists didn't just dig deeper into biology, chemistry and physics, they catalogued their findings so that others could challenge and build on their theories as part of a worldwide effort.
|Linnaeus' Table of the Animal Kingdom, from Systema Naturae (1735)||French Encyclopédie (1751)||Mendeleev's
Periodic Table (1869)
The Enlightenment’s main American satellite was Philadelphia, port and capital of America’s most religiously tolerant and scientifically oriented colony, Pennsylvania. “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 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 hair at the same time.
One of Penn's trials had a lasting impact, because a jury refused to convict Penn when the Lord Mayor of London charged him with violating one of 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.
Meanwhile, 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. Pennsylvania was diverse ethnically, as well as religiously. The Middle Colonies were the first to attract large numbers of non-British, European settlers, including the Dutch who founded New York, and Germans and Moravians who came to Pennsylvania. Quakers were the first Christian abolitionists in America, and tried to respect Indians within Penn’s borders. Indians reciprocated by not killing "Broad Brims" in battles with Whites, a reference to the Quaker’s distinct hats.
Quakers had an influence on American history disproportionate to their small numbers. After owning slaves themselves through the mid-18th century, they spearheaded abolitionism well into the 19th century and emphasized egalitarianism. Penn advocated equality for women far ahead of his time. Quakers called everyone Mr. and Mrs. regardless of wealth, and didn't address anyone of higher rank with thee or thou. In fact, they didn't believe in rank to start with among mortals.
Franklin & Freemasonry
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 Philadelphia. 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 causes 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). He even hoped humans would someday be able to harness electrical energy for their own purposes, but didn’t live to see that happen.
Franklin also invented bifocals, the Franklin stove, the glass harmonica, daylight savings, the post office, and 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 he tried to bring progress to the world by inventing new solutions. For instance, his brother's catheter was uncomfortable, so he invented a more flexible one. He was constantly researching and coming up with new medical ideas. He helped make Philadelphia the first true city in America, with a hospital, paved and lit streets, fire and police departments, and libraries. Franklin established the colonies' first volunteer fire department there in 1736.
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 democracy, along with its endorsement of science and technology, the Enlightenment lives on in contemporary America. While Thomas 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 adherence to the scientific method. Very people would rush to a church instead of a hospital if injured or sick, and no one is advocating replacing EMS with ministers on the other end of 911 calls. We drive cars and trucks and live in homes 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 and weapons of mass destruction.
Deists never established a formal denomination or church of their own, but some of their emphasis on Enlightenment progress made its way into the Freemasons, a fraternal society that traced its origins to stonemason guilds. The "G" in the Masonic Square & Compass symbol (left) stands for "Grand Architect of the Universe" -- a Deist way to describe God. But the 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 (right), 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 there are famous American non-Masons. In addition, Masonic imagery worked its way onto American currency and iconic structures like the Washington Monument and Statue of Liberty, a gift of French Masons to America. 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.
The Great Awakening
While Enlightenment philosophers were disproportionally represented among the Founders, and Enlightenment politics is built into our Constitution, few Americans were attracted to Enlightenment religion. Traditional Christianity and religious indifference were much more common, and Christianity experienced revolutions of its own in the 18th century known collectively as the Great Awakening. The strictness and elitism of the Puritan’s Elect of God pre-destination-type of Calvinism wasn’t destined to survive the 18th century in mainstream form. It was too stuffy and complicated even 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 little re-branding after the first few generations of Puritans had served their purpose.
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. John Wesley, the English founder of Methodism, argued against pre-destination in favor of Arminianism, the idea that salvation came through good works. The Fire-and-Brimstone nature of Puritan Jeremiads lived on, but Protestantism opened itself up to all comers over the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming more heartfelt and user-friendly. New converts could be saved, and evangelicals carried that message to followers of new Anglo-American denominations like the Baptists, Methodists and “New-Side” Presbyterians. The Greek root of the word evangelical is connected to idea of good news, or bearer of good news.
The new faiths had an egalitarian bent, with no respect for hierarchies like the Church of England, which they viewed as Catholic Lite. Their preference, at first anyway, was for informal tent revival gatherings, where swarms of people communed and shared born again experiences similar to the Puritans’ regeneration. One camp meeting at Cane Ridge, Kentucky attracted tens of thousands of people -- a significant number given the sparse population of the frontier. The Methodists didn’t have any churches at first; their Circuit Riders rode around on horses and slept on the ground. Christianity had come a long way from the Vatican since Martin Luther first nailed 95 theses to his cathedral's door in 1520.
In the early 19th century, dozens more new denominations spun out of the 2nd Great Awakening, including the Church of Christ, Pentecostals, Disciples of Christ, Seventh-day Adventists, Cumberland Presbyterians, Millerites 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 2nd Great Awakening, or Latter Great Awakening (since it was really all the same movement), reinvigorated the mainstream evangelical faiths popularized in the 18th century.
Denominational growth in the early U.S. reflects well on the religious freedom Jefferson and 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." That explains the unlikely allegiance between Baptists and the non-Christian Jefferson. 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 cows helped make the cheese! Why would they? Because, in spite of his own unorthodox faith, Jefferson's co-authorship of the First Amendment provided New England Baptists legal protection in a region where they otherwise would've been outlawed. 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.
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 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. Others want to partially break down the church-state barrier and argue that the Constitution doesn't actually say anything about separating church and state. They're right...at least sort of. Contrary to popular opinion, 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 co-author Thomas Jefferson. Like the Cheshire cow farmers, another group of New England Baptists sent President Jefferson a thank you letter concerning his role in establishing religious freedom. In his response Letter to the Danbury [Ct.] Baptists, he explained how the framers intended to separate church and state. While interpreting original intent of Constitutional framers is a suspect enterprise most of the time, subsequent Supreme Court justices were confident in applying the church separation idea because Jefferson penned it himself.
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 and secular progress. Evangelicals mustered a more significant challenge to slavery than the Enlightenment philosophers, despite attempts by 18th-century philosophers to abolish slavery in the French Empire. Most Christians didn't challenge slavery, either, at least at this time. Nevertheless, Christians and philosophes both demanded religious liberty, and they shared 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 king of England, supported by the Church of England, had any inherent right to rule over the American colonies.
One historian 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 and democratic politics. 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. Many Americans 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: Jersey Devil: The Real Story (Center for Skeptical Inquiry) -- An Interesting Side of Benjamin Franklin