The first Puritans who settled in New England brought with them a passion and conviction in their religious beliefs. Many also believed in the reality and efficacy of magic. Especially in New England, the culture of wonders was rooted in providentialism, a belief that God governs the world at each moment through His will and that all events occur as part of His ordained plan. Providentialism provides that one can best understand the natural world as the organic expression of God’s desire.
Subsequent generations of settlers remained tied to the church, but their piety weakened over time. As settlers turned their focus to the profitability and day-to-day management of their settlements, the number of conversions, or testimonials of God’s grace which gave them the right to join the church’s elite, decreased.
In an effort to reverse this trend, Puritan ministers developed the Half-Way Covenant in 1662. This declaration allowed for a new category of members who were converted but did not have full communion rights. In addition, this covenant allowed children of the converted to have church membership even if they had not been baptized. This partial church membership led to greater religious participation, but at the same time weakened the purity of religion. As members of the church’s elite grew increasingly frustrated and concerned about the effects of the Half-Way Covenant, these tensions spilled over into the events that would come to be known as the Salem Witch Trials.
As concerns about religious purity were at their pinnacle, members of struggling rural families began to accuse their more successful counterparts of witchcraft. Although primarily women were accused, some men also fell under the shadow of suspicion. Some of the accused received trials in 1691 and 1692, many others did not, and suspected witches were often burned at the stake, hanged, or drowned. The hysteria finally ended in 1693 when the governor’s wife was accused of witchcraft. The governor intervened, prohibiting further trials and pardoning those who had already been convicted, even pardoning some people posthumously. Facilitating the governor’s declarations was a changing mindset among the New England population that encouraged more rational thinking, as the Enlightenment spread from Europe to America.
The Enlightenment, also called The Age of Reason, is described by scholars as an epistemology (a method of thinking and knowing) based on the presumption that the natural world is best understood through the use of close observation by the human faculties coupled with a reliance on reason. Intellectuals began to see the universe as an ordered creation, a place of balance and order, which promoted the mathematical revolution found in poetry, music, art, and architecture from this period. Observation and reason began to supplant revelation, reliance on tradition or traditional authority, and inward illumination as the dominant means of acquiring knowledge.
The Enlightenment in Anglo-America was greatly influenced by two revolutionary English thinkers: John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton. Locke, an English philosopher, argued in 1690 the “tabula rasa” theory of human development. In his Essay on Human Understanding he proposes that the mind is a blank slate, formed and shaped by its environment and experiences. Newton published his theories on gravity in Principia in 1697, and defined a set of laws that govern nature. Few colonists read Locke and Newton directly, but popularized versions of their theories had a great impact. Colonists followed European developments with great interest in an effort to emulate and adapt them to the American environment.
The Enlightenment had a profound effect on religion. Many Christians found the enlightened view of the world consistent with Christian beliefs, and used this rational thinking as support for the existence and benevolence of God. Preachers incorporated the vocabulary of reason and natural law into their sermons to explain how God works through natural causes without giving up their postulates that He is the first cause of everything.
However, the Enlightenment led other Protestants in a very different direction. More liberal Congregationalists as well as Anglicans denounced traditional doctrines about the nature of God, arguing that He was a benevolent, rather than arbitrary, deity. They also disputed the divinity of Christ (some began to think he was entirely human) and the process of salvation, arguing that God saves sinners not because he predestines them to grace but because he foresees the good works they will perform through their own volition. These positions fostered Anglicans' complacency that the world was ordered in the best possible way, and generated liberals' distaste for the spiritual frenzies of religious enthusiasm.
Another outcome of the Enlightenment was deism, a belief held by some intellectuals that God functioned as a clock-maker, creating the universe and then stepping back to watch his creation function. Over time, this theory came to be known as the “Ghost in the Machine.” Rejecting most commonly accepted beliefs of Christianity, great thinkers of the Enlightenment, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Paine adopted deistic beliefs.
In the colonies, the Enlightenment was embraced by influential colonials who were intent on keeping up with the Europeans’ advancements. Among those responsible for spread of the Enlightenment in America was Professor John Winthrop, the long-time governor of Connecticut and a member of the Royal Society of London. His cousin, also of the same name and also a professor, brought calculus to the colonies. In Philadelphia, self-taught scientist David Rittenhouse built the first telescope in America, while fellow Philadelphian John Bartram made a lifetime study of American plant life.
Both Americans and Europeans identified Benjamin Franklin as exemplary of the age of Enlightenment. In the course of his life, Franklin owned a printing press, published Poor Richard's Almanac which he filled with his colorful maxims, founded a fire company and a library, and helped start a debating club. As a self-made scientist, Franklin published valuable theories on electricity, medicine, physics, and astronomy. He is also credited with several inventions, including the lightning rod, a glass harmonica, and the Franklin stove.
The Enlightenment also had an impact on education. Franklin helped found the College of Philadelphia, which later became the University of Pennsylvania. At the same time, a spate of other learning institutions arose, including the College of New Jersey, College of Philadelphia, Kings, Queens, Brown, and Dartmouth. Though these colleges’ primary focus remained to train ministers, the Enlightenment opened up education beyond that single purpose. The focus on education led to the establishment of public libraries and an increasing amount of social activism.
The Enlightenment’s influence on eighteenth-century America was profound. Advances in science and the arts, along with increased religious freedom, carried over into modern society. Furthermore, the focus on balance and order set the groundwork for an American governing system that included a balance of power.
The Enlightenment brought logic and reason into the way colonists thought about the natural world. However, religion remained a critical aspect of each colonist’s daily life. The biggest issue the church faced at the beginning of the eighteenth century was the fact that many settlers lived outside the reach of organized churches.
Isolated from their seaboard peers, the pioneers were often too far away to attend churches and religious gatherings. They, too, were caught up in the pursuit of wealth, defending their land holdings, and exploiting labor. It was a common opinion in the eastern settlements that the westerners had become as "savage" as their Native American neighbors. Churches still used traditional means of gaining new members, including building new churches and teaching children the articles and liturgies, but ministers were inching toward the discovery of a new mechanism—the revival—that would recruit not just an individual or a family but hundreds of people at once. The stage was set for a series of religious revivals, which would collectively become known as The Great Awakening.
As American thinking grew more scientific and settlers grew more prosperous, the colonists began to desire a more relaxed way of life. As a result, the dependency on strict religious tenets eased. Harsh Calvinist beliefs began to fall by the wayside as preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield began taking over the pulpits.
Jonathan Edwards, besides being a superb preacher in his own right, became his generation’s greatest theorist of revivalism. His most famous speech, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, preached at Enfield, Connecticut in 1741, is arguably the most famous American sermon of all time. But the model Edwards perfected—the traditional New England revival in which a pastor awakens a spiritual outpouring in his own congregation—did not become the American standard.
That honor fell to George Whitefield’s technique of “field preaching” that gathered hundreds, even thousands of people into a public space and subjected them to highly emotional, dramatic sermons. When performed by someone with Whitefield’s charisma and theatrical flair, dozens of people at a time were excited to experience conversion. Even logic-ruled Benjamin Franklin could not resist emptying his pockets into the offering plates at a Whitefield sermon.
Whitefield’s practice fit even better with conditions south of New England, where religious pluralism was greater, ecclesiastical organizations often weaker, and a greater percentage of the population were not church members. Reaching all thirteen colonies in 1739-41 and returning to many of them a few years later, Whitefield captivated audiences, who followed his movements through newspaper articles and journals that he wittingly published in order to advertise his journeys and their accomplishments. This was the first time a religious leader had done such a thing.
In the short run, the Great Awakening accelerated church membership, dropping the age of conversion and temporarily increasing the percentage of converts who were male. It also increased competitiveness among American churches for the new converts brought in by preachers like Edwards and Whitefield. In the long run, it had the effect of recruiting people who would likely have joined churches anyway, though more gradually. It also represented the first concerted effort to convert African Americans and native peoples living within the boundaries of colonial settlement, which brought about a new emphasis on missionary work by these people. Revivalists’ appeal for all to take Christ crossed ecclesiastical lines and reinforced the evangelical position that salvation could not be obtained without conversion.
The Awakening also spurred enormous controversy. Many ministers were influenced by the Enlightenment to distrust spiritual claims based solely on personal revelation. Thus, they doubted the authenticity of conversions, shuddered at traveling preachers luring people out of their own congregations, and disliked the self-righteousness displayed by converts who claimed to be able to determine whether their ministers and other church members enjoyed grace or not. As a result, many Congregationalists and Presbyterians split off from their churches and joined the Baptists, Methodists, and other moderate sects. The need for ministers of these new and emergent sects spurred the growth of colleges and universities throughout the colonies.
Some traditionalists rejected the teachings of Whitefield, Edwards, and other preachers of the Great Awakening as too radical, which divided their churches into two distinct groups. The traditionalists became known as “Old Lights” in the Congregational Churches and “Old Sides” in the Presbyterian Churches. Their counterparts who were accepting of the new doctrines became known as “New Lights” and “New Sides.” Both sides agreed on the need for living a life that glorified God, but the New Lights and New Sides took the view that salvation was man’s responsibility, rather than God’s. The New Light influence during this time brought about the foundation of several colleges, including Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, and Princeton.
The Great Awakening was the first true “American” event. Even as those with differing beliefs developed new religious organizations, the shared experiences of the revivals encouraged settlers to begin identifying themselves as Americans. The Awakening established revivalism as a major recruitment tool for many American Protestants.
The Awakening and the Enlightenment interacted in complex ways. The Enlightenment had its greatest impact among colonial elites, who in years to come would write a national constitution that balanced power among agencies of the government, protected religious liberty, and prevented the establishment of a national church. Most colonists, however, continued to subscribe to Protestant views of grace and salvation.Both the Enlightenment and the Awakening fostered religious liberty, albeit in different ways. The Enlightenment underlined an individual’s natural rights to choose one’s faith. The Awakening contributed by setting dissenting churches against establishments and trumpeting the right of dissenters to worship as they pleased without state interference. During the Great Awakening, a coalition of enlightened liberals and evangelicals would write religious liberty into the law of the land.