Sunday, September 22, 2019

The First Great Awakening

A few definitions
The Enlightenment: In the 18th century, there is a strong questioning of tradition and custom with an increasing emphasis on reason and science.  Much of the development of science owes itself to this period and people, some associated with Americans.  Ben Franklin makes an important discovery about the nature of electricity, not only by flying a kite in a thunderstorm (a deadly exercise for at least one other Enlightenment scientist), but also for his experiments with the then new technology of Leyden jars, a method of storing static electricity.  His research is so important that he is made a member of the Royal Society, the world's oldest scientific society, a very startling honor for a mere colonial.  He also invents the lightning rod which soon ends the problem of lightning burning down buildings.  He also invented bifocals, swim fins, the Franklin stove (a more efficient form of wood stove), the urinary catheter, and the glass armonica, a musical instrument that produces quite etheral music.

Franklin was of course also a signer of Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Another important early scientist was Englishman Joseph Priestly, one of the early chemists, theologian, and minister, who first isolated and identified the gas oxygen.  His political radicalism forced him to flee to America.
Physician Benjamin Rush was one of the first psychiatrists, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson was one of the more prominent scientists of the era, and the author of Declaration of Indepenence.
David Rittenhouse, astronomer and scientifc instrument maker, was part of the Revolutionary Committee of Safety in Pennsylvania (for a while the government of Pennsylvania at the start of the Revolutionary War).

Enlightenment thinkers in Europe were often very skeptical of religion including Christianity.  Some such as the philosopher Voltaire were atheists.    “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”  Charming guy.
In America, Enllightenment leaders were usually more questioning the edges rather than the core beliefs of Christianity.  Some examples:  Does the Bible really teach the Virgin Birth of Jesus?  Is a belief in Jesus the only way to salvation?  Will righteous pagans be saved?  Is the Trinity a part of Christianity, or the result of Greek philosophers after Christianity spread into the Roman Empire?  They questioned many of the dogmas of Christianity.
A Few More Terms
Deism is a belief in a God who created the universe, but played no direct role in human affairs: sometimes called “the divine watchmaker.”  They rejected the inerrancy of the Bible.  They usually rejected the Bible as God's revelation to mankind and Jesus as the Son of God; they denied that miracles had occurred or could occur.
Deism was outside the mainstream of Protestant and Catholic thought in the 18th century, although you can find Protestant churches today who have accepted these ideas.  Some historians insist that many or all of the Founding Fathers of America were deists.  There are many statements of the Founders that clearly show that while many were outside the mainstream of Christian thought, they were not deists.
At the Constitutional Convention Benjamin Franklin argued that the Convention should open day with an invocation by a clergyman:
“I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth -- t hat God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that 'except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.' I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel...” Ben Franklin at the Philadelphia Convention.
A letter Franklin wrote shortly before his death seems to show that he held some unorthodox religious beliefs (and he wanted them kept secret):  "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence.... That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them.”
Concerning Jesus' divinity  “[I] think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.”
And  Franklin was one of the least overtly pious of the Founders, leaving a string of illegitimate children. As U.S. ambassador to France during the war, he bedded many French noblewomen as part of creating a positive image of the U.S.  (John Adams who was also there; he was disgusted with Franklin's behavior.)
Some of the other prominent men of the time are certainly Deists, such as Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, but these seem to be the exception.  The state constitutions adopted during and after the Revolution impose religious tests that would exclude Deists from holding office (such as requiring belief in the inerrancy of Old and New Testaments; membership in a Protestant church).
Peter A. Lillback, George Washington's Sacred Fire (2008) pretty thoroughly refutes “Washington was a Deist," but is maddeningly poorly structured as a book!  Some of what is driving this reimagining of the Framers is current politics (America as a Christian nation would create big problems for the increasingly open atheism of the left) — and intellectuals are often unorthodox in their religious beliefs.
Church attendance in the early 1700s was relatively low, yet nearly all colonists thought of themselves as Christians.  Sometimes, this failure to attend was driven by not by disbelief, but by their intensity of faith and disagreement with the established churches.  If you attended a non-established church, your taxes paid for that church with which you disagreed.  Those non-established churches are less common because of lack of tax support, and that their members have less available because they are forced to pay for churches with which they disagreed.
The Great Awakening
This is the name of a 1735-1755 movement led by George Whitfield.  It emphasized a more emotional than intellectual faith.  Rituals were less important than introspection ;  it also emphasized a commitment to personal morality.  All men are equally responsible for their sins and thus equal in their status before God.  
As a sign of how important Whitfield was:  Before Betraying the U.S. Benedict Arnold was a very important and effective general.  While preparing to invade Canada, he stops at George Whitfield’s tomb on the Hudson, and takes parts of Whitfield's clothing for good luck.  I am sure Rev. Whitfield would have scratched his head and said: "You missed my point.  This is idolatry!"
Even though Rev. Whitfield was an Anglican, te movement mostly affects Protestants other than Anglican or Quaker; these two are the only denominations to oppose the Revolution
The individual matters; we are equal in the eyes of God.  This is an important Idea leading up to the Revolution.
The Great Awakening disrupted the notion that some are born to rule, and others to obey.
“[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” – Jefferson
It also disrupted the notion that some were born to be slaves
It leads to the idea of revolution and republican government
This idea of spiritual and legal equality does not mean that all are equal in abilities or should enjoy equal results.
A British officer taken POW was surprised at how “peasants” addressed their Revolutionary officers.  Their commander explained to him that “[E]very one who bore arms, esteemed himself upon a footing with his neighbour, and concluded with saying, ‘No doubt, each of these men conceives himself, in every respect, my equal.’”
The Idea of Progress and Collapse
John Adams wrote: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.  There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy."
I have been watching the razor blade approaching the wrist for several decades now.  Please help stop it.

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