Philosophy & Religion of 18th c.
philosophy and Great Awakening Christianity both
shaped 18th century America and the 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, with a strong emphasis on the Scientific Revolution, reason and progress.
If the Enlightenment had a modern creed,
it might be extraordinary claims require
extraordinary evidence, even though its
proponents made plenty of their own
unsubstantiated claims. The Great Awakening was a religious revival that gave
birth to a less exclusive, but equally devout,
form of Protestantism than that of New England
Calvinism. Together, along
with the republican
politics we'll discuss
in the next chapter, these two contrasting
movements laid the foundation for the American
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 gradually reviving in England and a few small pockets in continental Europe. Along with free trade, representative government was a cornerstone of Classical liberalism. In England, physician/philosopher John Locke (right) wrote about the right to life, health, liberty and possessions 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 republicans (i.e. Cato’s Letters) wrote of the equality of all men. British Americans carried on this 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.
Enlightenment Religion & Science
The signature religion of the Enlightenment was deism, though there were plenty of atheist and Christian philosophers as well. Deists were religious, but they rejected the Scriptural revelation and father-figure model of Abrahamic religions (Judaism-Christianity-Islam) in favor of a more impersonal force having created the universe. Their revelation was nature itself, so science provided the path to the divine. Science and rationality, in their view, also provided 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 (or 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 the 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 dispersive prism (left), that could disperse white light into the colors of the rainbow. His work was typical of how 17th and 18th-century scientists tried to develop laws to codify nature's order in the same way the Bible provided a code for Christianity. Philosophes had faith that scientific laws were discernible (or perceptable), 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 grade school science classroom. The table not only lists known elements, but rather 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 catologued their findings so that others could challenge and build on their theories as part of a worldwide effort within the scientific community.
|Linnaeus' Table of the Animal Kingdom, from Systema Naturae (1735)||French Encyclopédie (1751)||Mendeleev's
Periodic Table (1869)
The Enlightenment’s American satellite was centered in 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 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. There, he turned the New England Puritan model of homogeneity inside out by inviting anyone interested to enjoy a Holy Experiment in religious pluralism and what we would today call cultural diversity. 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 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 relatively small numbers. They spearheaded abolitionism well into the 19th century and emphasized egalitarianism. They 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.
Pennsylvania was also home to Benjamin Franklin, a man who exemplified the Enlightenment spirit as well as any American. Franklin fled Puritan Boston as a teenager, finding refuge in Philadelphia. In his investigations into electricity, 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 of lightning 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. 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, even if they reject evolutionary theory, climate change, etc. 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, carcinogenics, 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. The Masons were, and are, an organization that includes people of many faiths, including Christianity, bound together by a commitment to community service. Many Americans were suspicious of the Masons because of their secretive meetings, rituals and codes (right), but their ranks included Founders like George Washington and Franklin, 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 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 even 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 of good news to followers of new Anglo-American denominations like the Baptists, Methodists and “New-Side” Presbyterians.
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 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 also reinvigorated the mainstream evangelical faiths.
While Christians and Enlightenment philosophers each had faith, the nature of their respective faiths differed. Christians emphasized faith in Scripture, while philosophes had faith in science. Nevertheless, they both demanded religious liberty and both 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 king of England, supported by the Church of England, had any 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."