Great challenges to the 17th century beliefs began to be posed by scientists and philosophers. Charles II founded the British scientific academy known as Royal Society. The scientists of the age, like Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and philosophers like John Locke (1632-1704) saw no conflict between their discoveries and traditionally held Christians truths. Reason would help to comprehend the laws of the world, and so people gradually paid less attention to revealed religion. The new scientists and philosophers were called Deists; they deduced the existence of a supreme being from the construction of the universe itself, rather than from the Bible. They assumed that humankind was naturally good, that the universe progressed and that God was benevolent, unlike in the Puritan doctrine. Locke said that we are not born with a set of innate ideas of good and evil and the mind is a “tabula rasa” on which experiences are inscribed.
A conservative reaction against the worldview of the new science was bound to follow, and the first half of the 18th century witnessed a number of religious revivals in both England and America. They were sometimes desperate efforts to reassert the old values in the face of the new and, oddly enough, were themselves the direct product of the new cult of feeling, a philosophy that argued that our greatest pleasure was derived from the good we did for others and that our sympathetic emotions (joy, tears,...) should not be contained.
Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin represent these contrasting principles; one the idealist, the Puritan preacher, speculative thinker looking back to the past, the other the materialist, the political activist, scientific and inventor, the new spirit of Yankee mercantile practicality and ingenuity, looking forward to the future.
Many people believed that the present age was more enlightened than the past , and that we understand nature through the use of our natural faculties, through deduction and empiricism. They concluded that revelation could not establish truths which were contrary to human reason. There were those, however, who, like Edwards, thought that the surest guide for the human being is revelation, tradition and illumination. Revelation was a useful supplement to reason and the Bible the safest foundation for all essential truths.
Henry F. May proposes four categories of division for the period: Moderate or Rational Enlightenment (which preached order and religious compromise, dominant in England from the time of Newton and Locke to mid 18th-century), Skeptical Enlightenment (developed in Britain and France in the 1750s; the master was Votaire; its dogmas were usually negations); Revolutionary Enlightenment (Rousseau, Paine and Godwin; they believed in the possibility of constructing a new world); Didactic Enlightenment (opposed to both Skeptical & Revolutionary; its chief center was Scotland in the mid 18th-century). (see Henry May’s The Enlightenment in America).
Rationalism VS Puritanism
Belief on the natural world Belief in the supernatural power of God
Dualism spirit and body unified
Rationalism VS Romanticism
Didactic Emotional/Self exploration
Literature during the Enlightenment had a social purpose and was used to communicate the new social values. There is no place for subjectivity, irrationality or the cult of imagination. Everything is clarity, precision and logical thinking. There are no fictional genres, only mainly essays and papers written by politicians and intellectuals who address all kinds of topics to create a new national identity. It is the age of the newspaper and journals.
Another type of writing is travel-writing, which seek to explore ideas as well as lands. There is a sense of adventure written in a basic plain and utilitarian style. The American novel is born with a strong didactic vein and much dependent on the English. The early reflections upon the society (Washington Irving), and sentimental stories (Hanna Forster’s The Coquette, Susanna Rowson’s Chralotte Temple) gradually become a quest of a pure American identity.
Edwards was born in Connecticut, the son of a reverend and grandson of the influential Reverend Stoddard on his mother side. A dutiful son, educated at home, he was admitted to Yale when he was 13. He studied 13 hours a day and reserved part of the day for walking. Edwards graduated in 1720 and helped his father in the church until his marriage six years later. His grandfather died and he succeeded him as pastor of a growing congregation. The emotional power of his sermons helped spark the The “extraordinary circumstances” that occurred in Northampton, Massachusetts, under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards in the 1730s have been known as the “Great Awakening”.
Edwards’s open minded study of doctrine led him to the Lockian psychology of subjective experience and so to anticipate the transcendental Romanticism of the next century. Locke confirmed Edwards’s conviction that we must do more than comprehend religious ideas; we must be moved by them, we must know them experientially: the difference, as he says, is like that between reading the word fire and actually being burned. Edwards’s prose is calmed, carefully reasoned and harmonious; he uses adjectives that suggest that the best analogy is to what can be apprehended sensually, not intellectually.
Fifteen years after his great success starting in 1734, Edwards tried to reassert “the old New England way” and demanded accounts of conversion before admission to church membership. He began to name backsliders from his pulpit, including the children and parents of the best families in town; he permitted the sacrament only to be taken by those who had publicly declared themselves to be saved, the people of the town turned against him . He was accused of being a reactionary who thrived on hysteria, was removed from his pulpit, and effectively silenced. He spent his last years as a missionary to the American Indians in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a town forty miles to the west of Northampton. His death in Princeton was the direct result of his willingness to be vaccinated against smallpox and so to set an example for his superstitious students.
Works: History of the Work of Redemption, A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions that Freedom of Will is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency (1754), Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame, Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746), Personal Narrative (1743), Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England (1742), The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1758), The Nature of True Virtue, Concerning the End for Which God Created the World (1765).
The Enlightenment. Jonathan Edwards