Two broad sets of ideas largely determined worldview in 18th century America prior to the American Revolution. While it is true that the Enlightenment more thoroughly influenced the Colonial elite, and the Great Awakening was most influential amongst common people, both found their nexus in America. Both influenced the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Early Republican period. The phenomenon was not inevitable, since the two sets of ideas were often antagonistic in Europe—particularly during the French Revolution. In America, piety and political philosophy mixed, Reason and Revelation married.
The Enlightenment was centered in Europe but came to the Colonies in books and from the travel of wealthy and influential citizens. It began in the 1690s but had its heyday between 1720 and 1780. Locke, Newton and Blackstone figured prominently in England; Hume and Adam Smith in Scotland; Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, Descartes in France; and Kant in Germany. Clearly all these folks in the same room would not produce agreement on much. Nevertheless, the Enlightenment held to a central tenet: the power of human reason to understand laws of nature, society, government, etc., and to direct progress in those areas. New assumptions dawned upon man’s consciousness: that man had the ability to control his environment; that man possessed immense rational faculty or cognitive ability; that objective Truth existed and that man could approach, if not actually know it completely. The Enlightenment naturally propelled men towards invention and the scientific method. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were leading proponents of Enlightenment ideas and lifestyle in the Colonies and after Independence.
The Great Awakening was centered in America. Indeed, except for the involvement by British evangels in the Colonies, the Great Awakening was an American phenomenon—arguably the first to provide some common experience amongst all Colonies. It began in the 1720s and peaked between 1740 and 1775. The Great Awakening affected most church denominations and helped knit the Eastern seaboard together socially. It witnessed the resurgence of old school Calvinism, so it had doctrinal affinity to earlier Puritanism. But what distinguished the Great Awakening were its new technique of revivalism, and its emphasis on itinerant preaching to backcountry areas and slave communities. This is what brought Christianity to the slaves and to backwoods pioneers. This is what challenged the staid Anglicanism of Virginia and gave rise to the Baptists. Indeed, the challenge posed to established churches by new preachers had the positive effect of reinvigorating faith in old churches too.
When preachers like George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards came to town or to the countryside, a 20-mile radius might be cleared completely of people. By word of mouth, the news spread and farmers dropped their implements and packed their families into wagons to go hear the Gospel! Thousands heard the Word for the first time; or else, they let it penetrate their hearts fully. America steeled its character, a character of righteousness for the Revolution to come. Although Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale had been founded by Congregationalists before the Great Awakening, Old and “New Lights” of New England, as well as Old and “New Sides” of the Middle Colonies, proceeded to found Princeton (1746), Columbia (1754), Brown (1764), Rutgers (1766), and Dartmouth (1769). They did it to produce clergy, as well as learned men of faith and faithful men of learning.
The Enlightenment and Great Awakening reinforced each other in America. The cooperation between them produced some of America’s greatest institutions of higher learning. That’s why it is so unfortunate that many universities today incline towards a studied hostility to religion and to the religious impulse. In our Founders’ day, we were likely to conclude that man’s ability to control his environment (and to properly steward it) depended on his ability to discover and to understand God’s laws—His laws of physics and math and history, as much as His law of Love. Truth and the Laws of Nature and God’s Law all came together. Men might well reason, and reason well. But God sets the standards we seek and defines Reason “out of the amplitude of His pure affection.”
Wesley Allen Riddle is a retired military officer with degrees and honors from West Point and Oxford. Widely published in the academic and opinion press, he serves as State Director of the Republican Freedom Coalition (RFC). This article is from his newly released book, Horse Sense for the New Millennium available on-line at and from fine bookstores everywhere. Email: .
... written by Bob Reagan , October 10, 2011
I have always understood Immanuel Kant to be a one of the Romantic movement intellectuals,not an Enlightenment figure. Why do you include him there.
... written by rosiegirl , October 13, 2011
You totally ignore the Colonialist Empire push that founded the various new worlds and conquered their natives...giving rise to the famous "White Man's Burden" concept of paternalistic transformation by force of the "savages".
... written by Buckmeister , October 14, 2011
I am a Christian but I find it offensive when others who call themselves the same confound history to suit their own theories. Most of the framers of our Constitution were Deists, not Christians and certainly not 'holier than thou' Baptists known for voting dry and drinking wet. Many of the so-called Protestants made sport out of oppressing the Quakers who were pacisfists [like Jesus] and today are known as the Society of Friends, some of the few who oppose war crimes among the Republicans of today who act more like Nazis of recent history. Indeed, the Southern Baptists fought tooth and nail against liberating their fellow man, certainly not the kind of behavior that Christ taught. By the way, Hitler claimed to be a Christian too. I guess that was the same God who Hank Williams Jr. prays to, with all his roudy friends.
... written by Bob Reagan , October 15, 2011
The "Colonialist Empire push" was part of the migration process. The indigenous inhabitants who were conquered had never formed institutions that enabled them to resist the newcomers. Those who welcomed or at least acquiesced in the conquest generally benefitted. Those who didn't were often destroyed, but their survivors ultimately benefitted. As the second generation scion of immigrants Frank Sinatra might have said "That's Life."
... written by Bob Reagan , October 15, 2011
Not all, or even most, Baptists are "holier than thou" types. And one of the major tenets of the Baptist social stance is separation of chruch and state. I'm not a Baptist, but I observe.
... written by Buckmeister , October 16, 2011
last time I saw a Baptist preacher on TV, he was praising Rich Perry and calling Mormons a cult, so you need to observe with your eyes open...