Culture of Enlightenment Births Evangelicalism

Through its culture of reason and progress, the Enlightenment created a new environment for Christian faith and practice, particularly expressed through the complicated birth of evangelicalism.[1]

The Enlightenment consists of multiple people, events, behaviors, and ideas that stretch across a large breadth of time and place. The eighteenth century in particular has been most notably known as the Age of Enlightenment.[2] This century had seen a greater “push for societies based on reason rather than religious confession.”[3] More legitimacy was given to the separation of church and state and “the will of the people rather than the will of God” was becoming the predominant voice of society.[4] There were significant advancements in science and technology, and new understandings of anthropology, sociology, and the modern economy.[5]

One could say that the “social imaginary” — “the way people imagine their social existence” — was ultimately transforming.[6] This transformation primarily took place through “the public sphere among educated elites in the eighteenth century” and the set of practices developed by the public sphere “gradually changed their meaning for people, and hence helped to constitute a new social imaginary (the ‘economy’).”[7]

These broad trends and cultural shifts were demonstrated in the heart of a local town in Newport, Connecticut. Documented in the life of Sarah Osborn, an eighteenth-century writer, she provides a “unique vantage point” of the changing times.[8] Her story illuminates three cultural tones of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: consumerism, capitalism, and humanitarianism.[9]

The economic social imaginary that was developing in the eighteenth century consisted of an abundance of material goods that were to be traded in the marketplace. Technological advancements provided a better means to living and thus a “consumer revolution” took place in Newport, where people “could savor the pleasures of buying a new book, choosing a new outfit, or investing in a matched set of Wedgwood plates.”[10] Sarah welcomed this consumer revolution and saw it “as a reflection of God’s beneficence toward his creation.”[11]

With an abundance of goods and a growing marketplace, mercantile capitalism began to take shape. New opportunities were offered by the marketplace and while “[Sarah] and other evangelicals saw nothing wrong with either making money or buying things in the marketplace,” there was a growing skepticism to some of the inherent values supported by capitalism. “Capitalism depended on a commitment to the values of acquisitive individualism, benevolent self-interest, and free choice.”[12] The merchants in Newport, “acted as though they were the master of their own fate” while Sarah fought against this value system that seemed to displace the providence of God.[13]

Related to this new economic reality was the cultural voice of humanitarianism. An emphasis on the will of the people over the will of God changed the narrative of the roles of humans in society.[14] The humanitarian movement was characterized by religious skepticism or even disbelief, viewed happiness as the greatest good, sought to abolish suffering, believed humans could make the world a better place, and ultimately claimed humans as essentially good.[15] These values stood in stark contrast even to the prior century.

Due to Sarah’s existing faith in God, she lived in tension when these economic and humanitarian values intersected with her beliefs and thus embodied the impact of the Enlightenment with Christian faith and practice.

Consumerism and the increase in material goods and standard of living created a temptation for the “the Powerful Love of the World and Exorbitant Reach after Riches.[16] The tension that arose was not with the materialism itself. When “people participated in the consumer economy, they were encouraged to imagine themselves as free agents who could fashion their identities however they pleased, gratifying their desires instead of repressing them.”[17] It was this kind of choice that Sarah saw sinful and the emphasis on the autonomous individual over and against her sovereign God.[18] While eighteenth-century ministers condemned the sin of covetousness, they were ironically “pioneers in using commercial techniques to spread the gospel. Like merchants who advertised their goods in local newspapers, they publicized their meetings in order to attract as many people as possible.”[19] While there was a prophet-like condemnation on luxury and corruption, ministers of the time “knew how to ‘sell’ religion.”[20] The effect of consumerism impacted both personal and public expressions of Christian faith and practice.

The capitalistic values of individualism, self-interest, and free choice may have had one of the biggest impacts on Christian faith and practice. This is most evidently seen by the evangelical emphasis on personal experience and one’s choice to believe. Catherine Brekus explains that

Enlightenment philosophers defended the right of the sovereign individual to … worship according to the dictates of his own conscience… Evangelicals were ambivalent about the individualism that was enshrined by the Enlightenment, but in response to the challenges of their time they crafted a new form of Protestantism that was based more on the converted individual than the covenanted community… [Even] though evangelicals agreed that both personal and communal transformation were important, they put their pronunciation more on the individual, arguing that one could not be a Christian without a personal experience of grace.[21]

While Sarah and other “evangelicals did object… to the model of selfhood that formed the bedrock of the emerging capitalist order,” the influence of the Enlightenment may have given greater significance to Sarah Osborn’s story and personal conversion, especially during a time where the female voice was a minority. Evangelicalism “gave women a new vocabulary of individual experience to justify their authority and leadership.”[22] This was clearly evident in Sarah Osborn’s life.

Another impact of individualism and the larger socioeconomic changes were on the family dynamic, which as Mary Eberstadt argues, has a correlative effect on religious practice.[23] In the seventeenth century, ministers viewed the family as a “hierarchical ordering of both church and state.”[24] This began to change as the institution of the family began to have less influence on its members. “[Whether] or not evangelicals understood the underlying historical forces that were changing the family, they were disturbed by their effects.”[25]

The humanitarian movement had a more direct effect on Christian faith and practice, as one of its characteristic traits is religious skepticism. The view of the essential goodness of humanity inevitably brought the doctrine of sin into question. “Ordinary Protestant” believers found the language of total depravity, corruption, and evil “extreme, perhaps even absurd.”[26] As seen in her writings, Sarah did not adopt this particular message of humanitarianism and in numerous occasions highlights her sinfulness. Nonetheless, there was a growing popularity in “a new gospel of human goodness.”[27]

A very complex dynamic that arose between humanitarianism (and the broader changes of the Enlightenment) and Christian faith and practice is through their birth of the antislavery movement. Interestingly, it was neither of these two forces alone that ultimately addressed the inherent wrong of owning and selling another human being. First century Christians up until the early eighteenth century have coexisted with slavery.[28] While Sarah had a tremendous heart to welcome slaves and free blacks into her home to sing, pray, and listen to their stories, she was more concerned with their salvation than their bodily freedom.[29] Most Enlightenment philosophers “imagined reason as the sole property of white European men, denigrating all other peoples as ‘racially inferior and savage.’”[30] Historians have studied how the antislavery movement picked up particular strength in the late eighteenth century. Explanations include how “it emerged in tandem with the humanitarian movement, revolutionary rhetoric, and mercantile capitalism.”[31] It was this complex dynamic of these cultural forces along with a strong Christian ethic that gave breadth to “a powerful indictment of slavery.”[32] For Sarah, because of “her zeal to save sinners she sometimes turned a blind eye to the entrenched evils of her time, especially slavery.”[33] However, through the radical change in the late eighteenth century and the influence of abolitionist Samuel Hopkins, she also had a change of heart seeing the “horrid sin” of slavery.[34]

One other particular impact of the Enlightenment on Christian faith and practice, worth mentioning in brief, is how the overall trend toward reason and knowledge as well as the evangelical emphasis on personal experience may have both contributed to the demise of the authority of Scripture. “[Evangelicals] did not view conversion as an intellectual assent to the truths of the Bible or as a slow, imperceptible turning to God; for them it was a ‘new sense’ that was as real as the physical senses of seeing, hearing, or tasting.”[35] And through the elevation of scholarly study, the Bible became like any other ordinary ancient text examined for its truthfulness and usefulness to contribute to the broader pool of knowledge.[36]

It is clear that the Enlightenment and its cultural values had a significant impact on Christian faith and practice, particularly seen through the eyes—or rather words—of eighteenth-century writer, Sarah Osborn. Although it was a brief review of the complex interactions occurring at the time, this exploration of history provides, as John Fea argues, “one small way of cultivating the virtues necessary for a thriving democracy.”[37] He continues, “We can attend religious services with people who share our socioeconomic status, skin color, theological beliefs, and style of worship… ‘How can we take responsibility for our society if we remain in such a state of isolation, growing fat in our ideological enclaves?’[38]

While Sarah Osborn—nor any person in history for that matter except Jesus Christ—was not perfect, she did exemplify a life that most definitely reached across different skin color and socioeconomic status, and attempted to live a life most pleasing to God as she wrestled within the tension of the growing values of the Enlightenment and her own expression and practice of Christian faith. She reminds modern day Christians to do the same.

[1] Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 9.

[2] Iain Provan, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017), 391.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 392.

[5] Ibid., 391-2.

[6] While outside the scope of this essay, there is a strong case for the argument of an eighteenth-century social imaginary, as presented in Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[7] Taylor, 30.

[8] Brekus, 5.

[9] Ibid., 7. While these words and the modern understanding of the concepts did not develop until later, “language often lags behind reality” as demonstrated through the life of Sarah Osborn.

[10] Ibid., 193.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 213.

[13] Ibid. 193.

[14] Provan, 392.

[15] Brekus, 218.

[16] Ibid., 44.

[17] Ibid., 193.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Brekus, 187. Charles Taylor corroborates this point in his analysis of the “disembedding” of individuals. He notes that Protestant—or perhaps more specifically, evangelical—churches “operated, where one was not simply a member by virtue of birth but had to join by answering a personal call. This is turn helped to give force to a conception of society as founded on covenant, and hence as ultimately constituted by the decision of free individuals.” See Taylor, 62 (emphasis added).

[22] Brekus, 183.

[23] See Mary Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2013).

[24] Ibid., 45.

[25] Brekus, 45.

[26] Ibid., 46.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 287.

[29] Ibid., 269-70. E.g., Jonathan Edwards did not view slavery as a sin even referring to Scripture. See Brekus, 268.

[30] Ibid., 267.

[31] Ibid., 284.

[32] Ibid., 287.

[33] Ibid., 219.

[34] Ibid., 287.

[35] Ibid., 94.

[36] Provan, 401.

[37] John Fea, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 117.

[38] Ibid. Fea quotes Nicholas Kristof, “The Daily Me,” New York Times, March 19, 2009.