Wednesday, December 12, 2012
The Enlightenment and its influence on the U.S. Installment 7
The new born again Christianity that was beginning to appear in the west during the 17th and 18th centuries was frequently unhealthy. It was often characterized by violent and dangerous emotions and reversals. We can see this in the wave of religious fervor known as the Great Awakening that swept through New England during the 1730s.
This was inspired by the evangelical preaching of George Whitfield a colleague of the Wesley’s and the sermons of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). Edwards held his sermons in Northampton Connecticut. He described his parishioners there as being nothing out of the ordinary; they were sober, orderly, and good, but lacking in religious fervor.
They were no better or worse than the men and women living in the other colonies. That was until in 1734 when two young people died shockingly sudden deaths. This all changed suddenly as the people were real nervous and concerned.
This was reinforced by Edwards himself who was known for his hellfire and brimstone sermons. Edwards plunged the town into a frenzy of religious fervor. People could talk of nothing but religion; they even stopped working in order to spend the entire day reading the Bible.
In about 6 months there had been around 300 born again conversions in Northampton alone. They came from all classes of society. Edwards saw this craze as the direct work of God himself.
He meant this quite literally as he repeatedly said that God seems to have gone out of his usual way of behaving in New England. He was real pleased to see that this was moving the people in a most marvelous and miraculous manner.
It must be said however, that the Holy Spirit sometimes manifested himself in some rather disturbing ways. People would sink into deep despair thinking that God would not save them.
This would be followed right away with an equally extreme feeling of elation when they all of a sudden felt saved. They would break out with laughter while weeping and tears streaming down their faces at the same time.
Sometimes they would cry out in a loud voice expressing their love for God. We are obviously far from the calm control that was supposed to be the hallmark of true enlightenment.
These intensely emotional mood swings have continued to be the hallmark of religious revival in America. It was a rebirth attended by violent swings from anger and fear to instantaneous joy and laughter. This was a new version of the western struggle with God. The awakening eventually spread like wild fire to encompass all of the colonies. Eventually emotions died down until after a couple of years things were pretty much back to normal.
The new birth of the awakening was an evangelical version of the enlightenments ideal of the pursuit of happiness. It represented an existential liberation. It liberated the people from a world in which everything awakens powerful feelings of apprehension.
The awakening occurred in the poorer colonies where people had few expectations of happiness in the world. This happened despite the hopes of the sophisticated enlightenment. The experience of being born again resulted in a feeling of joy.
There was a perception of beauty that was quite different from any natural sensation. Therefore, during the awakening a God experience had made the enlightenment of the new world available to the poor as well as the successful people in the colonies.
The God of Jonathan Edwards also contributed to the revolutionary enthusiasm of 1775. In the eyes of the revivalists England had lost the new light that had shown so brightly during the puritan revolution.
To them England now seemed decadent and regressive. It was Edwards and his colleagues who led Americans of the lower classes to take the first steps toward revolution.
Edwards felt that human effort would hasten the coming of God’s kingdom. He believed that this was attainable and imminent in the new world.
From the outset I must say my intention of going through the period of the enlightenment was to show us exactly what the mood and level of morality was during the era of the founding of our country. It absolutely backs up what we found in book one.
However I am very surprised to find that it was the Colonists of the lower classes who led the way in the revolution. They had experienced
the enlightenment and its revival of morality and were driven to see the birth of a righteous nation. It was their religious fervor that actually took the first steps toward revolution.
The awakening itself made people feel that the process of redemption as described in the Bible had already begun. God, the people felt, was completely and firmly committed to the revolution. Edwards gave the Trinity a political interpretation.
The Son “was the deity generated by Gods understanding, and thus the blueprint for the new Commonwealth. The spirit, “the deity subsisting in act”, was the force that would accomplish this master plan in time.
In the new world of America, God would thus be able to contemplate his own actions on earth. The society would express the Excellencies of God himself.
The New England would be a shining city on the hill. It would be a light unto the Gentiles. It would shine with a reflection of the glory of God upon it which shall be attractive and ravishing to all.
The God of Jonathan Edwards would be incarnated in the Commonwealth, and Christ was seen as being embodied in a good society.
Life Today The Real Story "2005"