Enlightenment and Religious Revival

Compared to England's literacy rate, that in the colonies was quite high. But while about half the colonists could read, their appetite for books rarely went beyond the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, an almanac, and a volume of Shakespeare's plays. The better‐educated elites among them were attuned to the new ideas that flowed into the port cities along with the products of English factories and the immigrants, including the ideas of the Enlightenment. Drawing on the Scientific Revolution, which had demonstrated that the physical world was governed by natural laws, men such as English philosopher John Locke argued that similar laws applied to human affairs and were discoverable through reason. Proponents of the Enlightenment also examined religion through the prism of reason. Rational Christianity, at its extreme, argued that God created the universe, established the laws of nature that made it work, and then did not interfere with the mechanism. This conception of God as a watchmaker is known as deism.

Benjamin Franklin. The Enlightenment in America was best represented by Benjamin Franklin, who clearly believed that the human condition could be improved through science. He founded the American Philosophical Society, the first truly scientific society in the colonies, and his academy grew into the University of Pennsylvania, the only college established in the eighteenth century that had no ties to a religious denomination. Franklin's new wood stove (1742) improved heating and ventilation in colonial homes, and his experiments with electricity led to the invention of the lightning rod (1752). Although a deist himself, Franklin was curious about the religious revival that swept through the colonies from the 1740s into the 1770s.

The Great Awakening and its impact. The Great Awakening grew out of the sense that religion was becoming an increasingly unimportant part of people's lives. In practical terms, this may well have been true. In Virginia, the most populous colony, the supply of ministers compared to the potential number of congregants was small, and churches in the backcountry were rare. The religious revival's leading figures were the Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards and the English evangelist George Whitefield, both dynamic preachers. Edwards was renowned for his “fire and brimstone” sermons that warned sinners about the fate God had in store for them if they did not repent. On numerous trips to the colonies beginning in 1738, Whitefield brought his message about the need for each individual to experience a “new birth” on the path to personal salvation (what today's fundamentalist Christians call being “born again”).

In sharp contrast to the Enlightenment, the Great Awakening took on the proportions of a mass movement. Tens of thousands of people came to hear Whitefield preach as he moved from town to town, often holding meetings in the open or under tents, and he became a household name throughout the colonies. Moreover, the Great Awakening appealed to the heart, not the head. One of the reasons for its success was the emotion and drama that the revivalists brought to religion. The highlight of many of the services was the ecstatic personal testimony of those who had experienced a “new birth.”

There is little doubt that the Great Awakening contributed to an increase in church membership and the creation of new churches. Congregations often split between the opponents (“Old Lights”) and the supporters (“New Lights”) of the religious revival. Slaves and Indians converted to Christianity in significant numbers for the first time, and the more evangelical sects, such as the Baptist and Methodist, grew. A rough estimate puts the number of religious organizations in the colonies in 1775 at more than three thousand. At the same time, the Great Awakening promoted religious pluralism. As the road to salvation was opened to everyone through personal conversion, doctrinal differences among the Protestant denominations became less important.

The religious movement is also often credited with encouraging the creation of new institutions of higher learning. Princeton University, founded as the College of New Jersey in 1746, grew out of the early revivalist William Tennent's Log College. Others established during the Great Awakening include Columbia University (King's College, 1754, Anglican), Brown University (Rhode Island College, 1764, Baptist), Rutgers (Queens College, 1766, Dutch Reformed), and Dartmouth College (1769, Congregationalist).