Christianity and the “enlightenment” in America

For a Friday in July, this is a good article to flash-back to.

Back in May, I wrote up a blog post on “Religion and American Enlightenments” and posted it to the Religion in American History site.

The piece grew out of a presentation I had heard this spring, in which some academics attempted to describe the “enlightenment”* in America, while bracketing religious belief in the period. This seemed to me the wrong way to go, and I think the post became a little cantankerous–and maybe more entertaining to read–as a result.

[*The term “enlightenment” is itself problematic, and I’d be happy to explain why, at length, to anyone interested.]

After I posted the piece, I was alerted to a recent article published by Douglas Sweeney on “The Biblical World of Jonathan Edwards” (for those curious, it’s in Jonathan Edwards Studies 3, no. 2 (2013): 221-268). Sweeney argues that Edwards’s ideas were deeply shaped by his Biblical study. Edwards was no simple reader of the Bible but instead used all of the linguistic, exegetical, and even historical tools at his disposal to explicate the biblical text. Edwards owned over 800 works relating to the Bible and theology. Edwards was truly a cosmopolitan reader, keeping up with the intellectual trends of Britain and the Continent. With his own contributions, Edwards was part of the transatlantic republic of letters. In fact, Edwards was “central to what some now call the religious–or the Christian–Enlightenment” (Sweeney, 263). A Christian Enlightenment?!? It’s almost as if those categories need to be brought together, contra the champions of the European Enlightenment as skeptical and humanistic.

Relevant.

Sweeney’s piece is well worth reading and does expand on the points I was trying to make. And for those who want to go really deep, his footnotes 108-135 are well worth mining. He’s demonstrating the vast literature undergirding his claims about Edwards and the intellectual world of the 18th century. It’s almost as if there was an academic blindspot at the previous conference.

So, if you missed my piece earlier this spring, here’s some meaty material for the middle of July!

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