Colonial Culture
Colonial Culture
In eighteenth-century Europe, the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment championed the principles of rationalism and logic, while the Scientific Revolution worked to demystify the natural world. Upper-class Americans, including many of the colonists who would eventually lead the American Revolution, were heavily influenced by Enlightenment ideas and embraced reason and science, viewing with skepticism any beliefs that could not be proven by clear logic or experiment. Religion was a prime target for Enlightenment thinkers. The American most representative of Enlightenment ideals was Benjamin Franklin, who devoted his life to intellectual pursuits. Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanac, a collection of proverbs, in 1732. He created the American Philosophical Society in 1743.
The First Great Awakening
Perhaps in response to the religious skepticism espoused by the Enlightenment, the 1730s and 1740s saw a broad movement of religious fervor called the First Great Awakening. During this time, revival ministers stressed the emptiness of material comfort, the corruption of human nature, and the need for immediate repentance lest individuals incur divine fury. These revivalists, such as Jonathan Edwards and the Englishman George Whitefield, stressed that believers must rely on their own conscience to achieve an inner emotional understanding of religious truth. Jonathan Edwards gave an impassioned sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in which he proclaimed that man must save himself by immediately repenting his sins.
The Great Awakening was a revival movement meant to purify religion from material distractions and renew one’s personal faith in God. The movement was a reaction against the waning of religion and the spread of skepticism during the Enlightenment of the 1700s.
The Great Awakening is often credited with democratizing religion, since revivalist ministers stressed that anyone who repents can be saved by God, not just those who are prominent members of established churches. For this reason, the movement appealed to all classes and groups. Revival ministers reached out to the poor, to slaves, and to Native Americans. The Great Awakening divided American Protestants, pitting the revivalists, or “New Lights,” against the “Old Lights”—established ministers happy with the status quo. This division resulted in the formation of many new religious congregations and sects, and the founding of universities such as Princeton, Columbia, Brown, and Dartmouth to accomodate revivalist teachings.
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