In Europe, the 18th century was about Progress. Technological advances were only one aspect of that progress, the most important elements being intellectual and spiritual. The Age of Enlightenment was at its peak, and philosophers envisioned a future time when the knowledge, virtue and diligence of Mankind would usher in a golden era of educated populations working together for self-actualization and evolutionary development.
It's easy to think the American Colonies, and later the fledgling United States of America, were different, that the distance of oceans removed them from the influence of secular humanism. In fact, the Founding Fathers were thoroughly sons of the Enlightenment, and it was their commitment to the same kind of Progress espoused by men like Hegel and Voltaire that led them to break with England.
Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin were probably the most outspoken defenders of Enlightenment idealism, but there were plenty of others. There were also plenty of Christians, men whom today's Enlightenment heirs would prefer we forgot, but the fact remains that the American political experiment was largely undertaken with the goal of reshaping government to advance the people further on the path toward perfection.
Essentially, the primary tenets of the Enlightenment were that man can know all there is to know, that through education all men can acquire enough knowledge to become virtuous and produtive, and that together we can all make the world a better place. It's basically a mirror-image of the Christian doctrine of history: that man is helpless, that only God knows everything, and that history is moving along the path God set for it to fulfill His ultimate ends and glorify Himself through Jesus Christ.
As in any era, God raised men to proclaim the latter truth despite the humanism engulfing so much of Western society. The wisdom of God is foolishness to those who are perishing (as He says in His Word), and many rejected the calls to repentence, but there were plenty who accepted and turned to Christ, enough to start a revival called the Great Awakening.
Men like George Whitefield, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards preached the Gospel in direct opposition to the wisdom of this world that was spreading so quickly and thoroughly. Even today, their sermons are remembered and read, and even today men and women are converted through their doctrinally sound and spiritually edifying writings.
In the end, the tension between Christianity and Enlightenment rationalism that swept the newly settled North American continent was indicative of the same battle that has raged ever since Adam declared war on God by eating the forbidden fruit. For Christians, the most important event in 18th century America was the Great Awakening, not the AmericanWar for Independence. It's essential when studying the period that we keep this in perspective, appreciating the good things the Revolution and its advocates accomplished while measuring everything agains the truth of Scripture.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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