Religion and American Enlightenments

Jonathan Den Hartog

Last month I attended the Organization of American Historians' annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. I presented a paper and also took in several interesting sessions. One session struck me as worthwhile to bring back into conversation with this blog. The Session addressed "The Transatlantic Enlightenment in America," was chaired by Rosemarie Zagarri, and featured presentations from Joyce Chapin, Sarah Knott, Michael Meranze, Jason Opal, and Jose Torre.

If you want to get a sense of the event as it unfolded, John Fea live-tweeted the session. John later reflected on it more. Michael Hattem then offered some of his own reflections on the topic.

I realize this response is a bit slow, but I've been thinking much about the topic since, biding my time for my turn on the blog to come around again.

For my part, the panel's presentation frustrated me, because of all the topics the panelists touched on, religion was conspicuously absent. In fact, it took until halfway through the Q&A for anyone to broach religious subjects, and then it came from an ill-conceived question that tried to connect enlightenment to disestablishment.

So, let me ask rhetorically, could bringing in the religious dynamic help us understand enlightenment currents in early America? Of course to ask the question is to suggest the answer. What's breath-taking is how many answers could be provided.

Part of this protest could simply be arising from my belief about how much richer people's perspectives might have been had they attended my session earlier in the day. With Lily Santoro (Southeast Missouri State)  and Ashley Moreshead (University of Delaware), we considered the intersections of religion and transatlantic print culture. Not surprisingly, print was a key medium both for transmission of ideas and for serving as a site of debate for ideas about reason and faith. Lily located this debate in discussions of natural science, surely a concept related to enlightened thinking. Ashley connected print to British and American missionary endeavors and concepts of cosmopolitanism and trans-national religious identities. I considered religiously-motivated Anti-Jacobinism, responses to the French Revolution. In print, Americans attacked a certain type of revolutionary enlightenment, as well as the skepticism articulated by Tom Paine. In so doing, they entered into a transatlantic conversation about the true character and limits of human reason and forms of enlightenment. So, by picking alternate sessions to attend, scholars' consciousness about religion and enlightenment could have expanded.

Even more than just our panel, though, any moment of reflection could point to the various ways scholars of American religion have delineated and analyzed ideas about the impact of enlightened thinking in America.
Maybe worth considering for understanding American enlightenments?

Might, for instance, a study of Jonathan Edwards point to the intersection of reason and faith among an outstanding eighteenth-century thinker? George Marsden has clearly shown that Edwards was simultaneously sharing in some parts of enlightenment (think, "The Spider Letter"), while rejecting others, preferring "A Divine and Supernatural Light" to enlightened human reason alone. Edwards's masterworks on Original Sin and The Freedom of the Will both were meant to engage enlightened pretensions and contrast them to traditional Christian formulations.

Or, what about a study of theology in America, from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century? Feel free to reference either E. Brooks Holifield or Mark Noll. In Noll's America's God, the whole burden is to demonstrate how Christianity engaged with republican thought, which was itself a version of enlightened reflection.

Or, might some reflection on John Witherspoon help in thinking through the engagement of Reformed Christianity with Scottish Common Sense Philosophy? (Timothy Dwight might have something to say about this, too!) And that might help suggest why the themes of the Scottish enlightenment found a much more welcome home in American life.

Certainly not least, might Philip Vickers Fithian help us out? John Fea's book The Way of Improvement Leads Home touches on a number of the themes called for in the OAH Panel. It looked at non-elite voices who engaged with enlightenment ideas, in settings of sociability, in places beyond urban locales, in ways that could prove compatible with received Christianity. In fact, the book's subtitle indicates its interest in "The Rural Enlightenment (!) in Early America."

Even debates over biblical reliability and history in America come back to discussions about enlightened impulses. As Michael Lee has asserted, Americans could both argue with and accommodate to elements of enlightenment concerns.

And let me commend a very fresh article that suggests a similar way forward. In The William and Mary Quarterly (April 2014), John Dixon gives a retrospective review of Henry May's Enlightenment in America, a work that came in for much criticism at the OAH panel. Dixon makes the observation that for May Enlightenment discourse became a meaning-creating field, itself a religious movement in a Geertzian sense. As such, enlightenment was inherently a religious category that could both challenge American Protestantism and inspire religious innovations. A reading of Dixon, too, suggests that by failing to grasp the religious nature of enlightenment claims we miss a central component of the movement.

All of which is to say, many resources already exist. These not only could be integrated into an investigation of American enlightenments but need to be. Our understanding is poorer and thinner without accounting for the religious component of enlightened thinking in America. In fact, I would argue that ignoring religious debates about enlightenment misses one of the key sites for debate and dialogue for the movement in America, as well as the religious character of enlightenment claims themselves. If you want to understand America as partaking of a transatlantic enlightened movement, understanding formal and informal religious debates is essential.


Unknown said…
Just to add: Leigh Schmidt's Hearing Things offers a beautiful, innovative history of the American Enlightenment and religion/secularism, and Christopher Grasso's work on skepticism is also quite interesting, I think.
Jonathan said…

Thanks for those additions. With Grasso's work, you're probably thinking of his article "Deist Monster" in the _Journal of American History.
Jonathan said…
After posting this, I also had recommended to me an article by Douglas Sweeney, "The Biblical World of Jonathan Edwards," _Jonathan Edwards Studies_ 3, no. 2 (2013): 221-268.

Sure enough, the article really unpacks Edwards's ideas and relates them to the "enlightened" thinking of his day.

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