Midterm Essay

 

Of the following, choose ONE to answer in a complete ESSAY. Your essay will be a minimum of one page, single-spaced, in 10 pt. Times Roman font. Please make sure to write an essay!  Do not use a header in your paper. 100pts.

Briefly compare and contrast the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening in British America. How did the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening create a revolutionary mindset within the population of British America?

 

The Enlightenment

Two social movements occurred during the 18th century that influenced Americans, fostered and independent spirit and planted seeds that would later lead to a revolution. One of these movements was intellectual, and the other was religious in nature.

The first development we shall discuss is the Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment was born out of the Scientific Revolution, which stated that the natural world, the physical world, ran according to a set of principles, i.e. laws that could NOT be broken. These laws governed everything; therefore, humans lived in a mechanistic and mathematically defined universe (the laws of physics are really just mathematical equations). For the first time, humans did not need a religious explanation of natural phenomena. Scientists such as Copernicus, Keppler, Galileo, Newton, Linnaeus, etc were formulating the natural laws of the universe.

Enlightenment writers built upon the works of scientists of the Scientific Revolution. If there were natural laws that ran the universe, they reasoned, then there MUST be laws that apply to government/politics, economics, judicial systems, social systems, religion and so on. The creator (most Enlightenment writers were Deists) had equipped humans with the intellect to discover these laws. In the Enlightenment, there was no room for the superstitious, or the supernatural. In a mechanistic universe, the creator, having made his immutable laws, could not change them. Indeed, the creator was outside his creation and could not interfere or intervene directly (i.e. no miracles). It was the responsibility of humans to discover the creator’s laws and implement them, thereby making the world the best of all places. Of course, the thinkers, writers and intellectuals of the Enlightenment had to figure out these laws, and they weren’t always in agreement. Some of the principles that they did agree on, however, was the emphasis on logic, reason and order. There was no room for emotion in Enlightenment Europe. Furthermore, they rejected any supernatural explanation for any event.

That being said, the Enlightenment in Europe affected only a very small portion of the population, namely the aristocracy and the middle class. The vast majority of Europe, peasant farmers, didn’t give two shakes of a rat’s behind about the best form of government or reform of the judicial system.

It was Benjamin Franklin who imported the ideas of the Enlightenment into British-America. Franklin was a Philadelphia printer by trade, but he also was an inventor and scientist. He promoted lending libraries so that the general public would have access to books. Franklin sponsored a literary club in Philadelphia where educated gentlemen (i.e. the politically connected) could gather and read and discuss Enlightenment essays and books (remember Topic 4 and the social consequences of tobacco, coffee and sugar?). These literary clubs spread to other cities in the colonies. A few of the authors that these educated Americans studied were:

John Locke, who wrote two influential books shortly after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In one, Locke embraced empiricism, and stated that all humans entered the world a “tabula rasa” or blank slate (we would say notebook). Immediately, our experiences, taken in through our senses, started filling this notebook, making us the individual that we are today. Since we all enter the world “blank”, then it makes sense that we are all born, or created, equal. Locke’s second work stated that there was a “social contract” between authority and the people; furthermore, it was the responsibility of authority to serve the needs of the people. The people did not exist to serve the whims of authority. If authority, or government, broke the contract, then the people had the right to replace the government.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, a Frenchman who advocated religious toleration, universal education and maintained that democracy was the best form of government.

Baron de Montesquieu, another Frenchman who wrote a political treatise that argued for separation of powers.

Of course, these great thinkers, among others, influenced the men who would establish the United States.

 

The Great Awakening

The Great Awakening was a religious event, in complete contrast to the Enlightenment, and as such there was tension between the two. In some ways, the Great Awakening was more important than the Enlightenment for it influenced more Americans than the latter.

Americans, especially young Americans, had grown dissatisfied with the state of religion in the colonies. The spirituality and fervor of the early generation of colonists had given way to the pursuit of wealth. People were no longer concerned about their spiritual health. Furthermore, with more of the populace migrating westward and the population spreading out, the inhabitants on the frontier had less contact with organized churches.

It was in this atmosphere that a new religious experience took place. Beginning in Massachusetts in the late 1730’s, a Calvinist minister, Jonathan Edwards, reminded his congregation about predestination. His most famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, was full of emotion and vivid imagery. Edwards exhorted the congregants to remember that salvation was not a matter of good works and church attendance. Instead, the individual took the responsibility of salvation into his/her own hands. How? By experiencing a public conversion, a “rebirth”. Edwards wasn’t the only minister preaching this new doctrine. George Whitfield, a circuit preacher, toured the colonies, spreading the word of personal salvation.

What was the appeal of this new religious experience, especially to the younger generation of Americans? Well, for one thing, it wasn’t boring. Great Awakening ministers preached in an emotional state, thundering at their congregation, reminding them of their sinful state. Conversely, ministers would cajole their charges to come before the whole church and be spiritually reborn, for there was no other way to redemption. These spiritual rebirths, enacted before the entire body of congregants, were not tame. To be fully reborn, a person had to fully open themselves to the Holy Spirit and be “overcome” by the violent emotions triggered by the rebirth. While being reborn, people would laugh, cry, sing, rave, roll on the floor, etc.

In addition, this new way of worshipping required no education; no book learning. The road to salvation was through emotional and spiritual rebirth, not through study of the scripture. This made salvation available to more Americans, as the poorly educated and the illiterate now could hope to be saved. This doctrine also made the Great Awakening antithetical to the Enlightenment.

The older, more conservative, members of the colonies were disdainful of this new style of preaching. They questioned if God really endorsed the Great Awakening. This older generation, known as the “Old Lights“, as opposed to the “New Lights” of the Great Awakening, resented the disruption to their well-ordered lives. The New Lights of the Great Awakening were extremely successful. Membership in their churches quadrupled. Princeton College was founded in 1747 by the New Lights to teach their doctrine.

Let’s take a walk in the woods: Shortly after Princeton was chartered, Brown (1764), Rutgers (1766), and Dartmouth (1768) were also established. Why were so many colleges founded in Colonial America (Yale and William and Mary were already up and running)? The answer is that the purpose of college was not to prepare young men for a career. Instead, young men went to college in order to train to become ministers. To that end, the curriculum would consist of Greek, Latin, theology, rhetoric, oratory, expository writing, maybe some history, etc.

What was the result of the Great Awakening? It enhanced the American idea of individualism. Salvation was now in the hands of the individual; it was the responsibility of the person, not the church. Furthermore, the Great Awakening was democratic. It spread among urban and rural communities, to the rich and the poor, and to the settlers on the frontier. Preachers would “ride circuit” to frontier settlements to administer to the religious needs of those groups that were far from any organized church. The Great Awakening even spread through the slave communities of the South, trying to bring the hope of salvation to the Negros there.

The Great Awakening also embraced religious toleration. To the New Lights, it didn’t matter what church you worshipped in, as long as you were spiritually reborn and saved. This toleration allowed other churches to gain acceptance in British-America, most notably the Methodist and the Baptist (it was the Baptist preachers who infiltrated the South to try and convert and “save” the slaves there).

Finally, the Great Awakening helped to create a common identity among the British colonists, who showed a willingness to defy traditional authority. That identity, of course, was American.

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