This essay is drawn from Andrew Wilson’s forthcoming 1776: The Origin Story of the Post-Christian West (Crossway, 2023).
The year of the American founding provides us with an origin story for the post-Christian West. It was a year in which seven distinct transformations (some would call them “revolutions”) took place in parallel, and they have permanently changed the way we think about God, ourselves, the world, and our place in it.
These transformations explain all kinds of apparently unrelated features of our culture. They explain why we believe in human rights, free trade, liberal democracy, and religious pluralism; they ground our preference for authenticity over authority, and self-expression over self-denial; and they account for all kinds of phenomena that our great-grandparents would have found inconceivable.
We are who we are because of 1776. That involves a combination of two claims. One relates to the world we inhabit today, and the other to the world of two and a half centuries ago.
The first claim is that the most helpful way of identifying what is distinctive about our society, relative to others past and present, is that it is WEIRDER: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic. We may not embrace all of those labels as individuals. We may be African or Asian, get by on very moderate incomes, have no history of Christianity, or live without any romantic attachments. But the broader culture within which we live is characterized by all seven of them.
What is distinctive about our society is that it is WEIRDER: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic.
We frequently refer to it as the West, which needs definition but is widely accepted. Education for children is widespread, free, and usually compulsory, with literacy at virtually 100 percent. Recognized qualifications carry significant social and economic prestige. We are clearly industrialized, with only a tiny percentage of the population still working in agriculture, and unprecedentedly rich: the diet, amenities, healthcare, and leisure options available to someone working on minimum wage today are in many ways better than those available to Mansa Musa or Louis XIV.
We are democratic, not only in our system of government but in our assumptions about society. We are ex-Christian, with formal adherence to the Christian faith diminishing both in public and in private. Still, our civilization remains saturated with Judeo-Christian assumptions that show no sign of fading; as such we are decidedly ex-Christian, as opposed to ex-Communist, ex-Islamic or even pre-Christian.
And we are romantic, in the sense that our beliefs and practices have been indelibly marked by the Romantic movement, from our concept of selfhood and identity, to our expectations of art, music, and literature, to our erotic and sexual habits. For better or worse, we live in a WEIRDER world.
Influence of 1776
The second claim is that all seven of those things are true because of 1776. This may sound like pure hyperbole. No year creates a future world on its own. History does not consist of Big Bangs, with new worlds and laws appearing out of nowhere, but rather of little evolutionary steps, each one building on the thousands before it and dependent for survival on the thousands after it. Yet some evolutionary steps matter a lot more than others. Some become game-changers (the camera eye, for instance), while others turn out to be a cul-de-sac. The year 1776 was the former. It was an astonishing year of innovation and upheaval, and the world has not been the same since.
All seven of those things are true because of 1776.
Telling that story would take an entire book. But we can see it in outline by considering just 10 prominent events from that year.
- In January, Thomas Paine released his pamphlet Common Sense in Philadelphia, arguing that the American colonies should pursue independence from British rule; it caused an immediate sensation, and became one of the fastest-selling and most influential books in American history.
- In February, Edward Gibbon published the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which set new standards in writing history, while also challenging the established church and providing a skeptical narrative of early Christianity that endures to this day.
- James Watt’s steam engine, probably the single most important invention in industrial history, started running at the Bloomfield colliery in Staffordshire on March 8. The very next day, Adam Smith released the foundational text of modern economics, An Inquiry into the Natures and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
- The best-known transformation of the year took place in the American summer, with the establishing of a nation that would play an increasingly dominant role in the next two centuries: the signing of the Declaration of Independence (July 4), the ringing of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (July 8), the Battle of Long Island and the taking of Brooklyn by the British (August 27), and the formal adoption of the name United States (September 9).
- On the other side of the Atlantic, Captain James Cook was sailing southward in the Resolution in the last of his three voyages to the South Seas, the effect of which can still be felt throughout the Pacific islands, New Zealand, and Australia.
- Immanuel Kant was in Königsberg, writing the outline for his Critique of Pure Reason, which would bring about a “Copernican revolution” in philosophy.
- In Edinburgh, David Hume finally completed his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, one of the greatest arguments against Christian theism ever written, before dying on August 25.
- The Autumn saw Friedrich Klinger write his play Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”), which soon gave its name to the proto-Romantic movement in German music and literature.
- And in December, Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris on a diplomatic mission to bring France into the war against Britain. It would eventually prove successful, and lead ultimately to the American victory at Yorktown (1781), and the collapse of the French ancien régime into bankruptcy and revolution (1789).
Between them, those 10 events represent a series of transformations that inaugurated the WEIRDER world. Some are so prominent that they have passed into everyday speech. People freely refer to the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, the Romantic Revolution and the Enlightenment. Others are less recognized but no less significant.
You could argue that the long-term influence of Cook’s voyages, or what Gibbon or Hume said about Christianity, or what Smith said about markets, have been just as revolutionary in the realms of geography, religion, and economics as American independence was in politics.
Those are just the best-known examples; there are many others, even if we confine ourselves to the West. The same year saw Laura Bassi, the first woman to work as a professional scientist, appointed to the chair of experimental physics at the Bologna Institute of Sciences. Mozart wrote his Concerto for three pianos in Salzburg. Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman to publish a book, presented her poetry in person to George Washington. The Illuminati were founded in Bavaria, and Phi Beta Kappa started in Williamsburg, Virginia. Toussaint Louverture, the future leader of the first (and only) successful slave revolt in history, was released from slavery in what is now Haiti. We could go on.
But the influence of 1776 cannot be measured simply by adding up all the key events that occurred. It was a year in which ideas were written down, and the ideas were often transformative, and the writing often magnificent. Again, consider 10 examples from the English-speaking world.
It was a year in which ideas were written down, and the ideas were often transformative, and the writing often magnificent.
- Two have passed into folklore in America because of their rhetorical power in the context of the revolutionary war: Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls” and Washington’s “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?”
- Two others are noteworthy for how well they articulated the logical implications of the revolution: Lemuel Haynes for his fellow African Americans (“Liberty is equally as precious to a black man as it is to a white one, and bondage equally as intolerable to the one as it is to the other”) and Edmund Burke for Britain (“I can hardly believe, from the tranquillity of everything about me, that we are a people who have just lost an empire. But it is so.”). (See Lemuel Haynes, “Liberty Further Extended.”)
- One is remembered for the metaphor it introduced, which it is hard to imagine economics without: “he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” (See An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 456.)
The other five statements are remembered because they encapsulate the spirit of an age: a spirit of confidence in human reason and potential that was almost tangible in the late 18th century, the aftershocks of which can still be felt today.
- “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” Paine declared in one of the most audacious sentences ever written (see Common Sense).
- Matthew Boulton, revealing his phalanx of steam machines to James Boswell, drew his optimism from the possibilities of technology: “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have—POWER.” (See James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, March 22, 1776.)
- Jeremy Bentham attempted to renew human ethics on an entirely rational basis without any need for Christian morality: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” (See A Fragment on Government.)
- James Madison, making adjustments to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, insisted that the final section include the phrase “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”
- Most influential of all, Thomas Jefferson declared it “self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
These are pithy and quotable statements, and they may help us find our bearings in a world with which we are not familiar. But that is not the main reason for citing them here. The main reason for citing them is that they brought about change, much of it seismic, and we live with their legacy. These ideas, and the individuals, institutions, and inventions with which they are associated, made us WEIRDER. We are who we are because of them.
I am a Christian pastor. I find history fascinating, and I am convinced that it can help us become wiser, humbler, and more loving citizens. But my primary motive in writing is to help the church thrive in a WEIRDER world.
These ideas brought about change, much of it seismic, and we live with their legacy.
What challenges and opportunities emerge from Westernization, or Romanticism, or industrialization, and what should we do about them? How should Christians act in an ex-Christian culture? What does faithful Christianity look like in the shadow of 1776? And here, I believe, we can draw a great deal of wisdom from an obvious source: faithful Christianity in 1776. How did believers in this turbulent and transformative era respond to what was happening around them? And what can we learn?
As it happens, several strands within the contemporary church look back to 1776 as an especially formative year. It was a crucial period in the development of early Methodism. John Wesley secured, and began fundraising for, a site on which to build a new headquarters in London. John Fletcher, whom most people assumed would succeed Wesley as the next leader, caught tuberculosis, which prompted a complete rethinking of how things would be led in the next generation. And the American Revolution began a chain of events that would lead the Methodists to ordain their own ministers, and finally separate from Anglicanism. The need for new premises, new leadership, and a new denomination would prove catalytic for the rapid growth of Methodism in the following century.
It was a landmark year in other Protestant denominations as well. American dissenters, as we have just seen, saw the crucial words “free exercise of religion” appear in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and subsequently in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Former slave trader John Newton was working on the Olney Hymns, which would be published in 1779 and include his “Amazing Grace” and William Cowper’s “God Works in Mysterious Ways.”
The 15-year-old William Carey, who would grow up to become the father of modern missions and translate the Bible into six Indian languages, had the experience that led to his conversion. Calvinist vicar Augustus Toplady published his hymnal, which included “Rock of Ages.” Holy Trinity Church Clapham, later attended by members of the Clapham Sect including William Wilberforce and Hannah More, opened for worship.
Most of these names are familiar in evangelical circles. But I think two individuals who are far less recognized, Olaudah Equiano and Johann Georg Hamann, have even more to teach us. Equiano was born around 1745 in what is now Nigeria, and sailed into 1776 on a ship in the Caribbean. He became one of the most remarkable Christians of his or any generation, and was understating it somewhat when he called his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.
Hamann was a friend and critic of Immanuel Kant’s—hailed by Hegel as a genius, by Goethe as the brightest mind in his day, and by Kierkegaard as (alongside Socrates) one of the two most brilliant men of all time—as well as a Christian, and in some ways the first post-secular philosopher. Though miles apart in their experiences and writings, both Equiano and Hamann have a lot to teach us about living as Christians in a WEIRDER world.
Need for Roots
A few years ago I noticed how many of my favorite authors—George Orwell, C. S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Leszek Kołakowski, Dorothy Sayers, Isaiah Berlin, W. H. Auden, Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, James Baldwin, T. S. Eliot—were writing during or immediately after World War II.
It had not occurred to me before, and I wondered why it might be the case. There are probably some stylistic reasons. Their language is near enough to our day not to sound arcane, and the crispness, simplicity, and visual quality of their prose has been shaped by the advent of the cinema. Their works are also marked by a deep awareness of radical evil, which is hardly surprising given the times in which they lived. It gives their essays an urgency, and their poetry and fiction a cosmic drama (think of Big Brother and Room 101, Sauron and Saruman, the White Witch, Animal Farm, or the darkness of sin and the devil in Greene’s novels), that few writers before or since have achieved.
So it is fascinating how often their responses to radical evil involve an appeal to history. Sometimes this comes as a direct address to the reader, like Baldwin’s writings on race, or Kołakowski’s on communism, or Berlin’s on liberalism, or Sayers’s Creed or Chaos. Eliot and Auden do it through their numerous references and allusions. O’Connor and Greene draw on their Catholicism. Simone Weil’s greatest work is L’Enracinement (usually translated The Need for Roots), and is an extended argument for our need to be more connected to our past.
Lewis makes the point through essays on why we should read old books, and by skewering chronological snobbery at every opportunity, from That Hideous Strength to The Screwtape Letters to the fates of Uncle Andrew and King Miraz in the Narnia stories. Tolkien does it through his medieval language and setting, his complex prehistories, and his plot (remember Sam on the edge of Mount Doom, reminiscing about the Shire and reminding Frodo of the old stories long before totalitarian evil seized the world).
Most powerfully of all, Orwell creates worlds where nobody remembers the past, and where those in power—the pigs on the farm, the Party in 1984—are free to manipulate it for their purposes, and throw unwanted recollections down the memory hole. “History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” All of these writers had witnessed the near-collapse of the West in recent memory, and they knew the dangers of losing their history, and the importance of not allowing it.
It is important for us, too. Every generation needs a genealogy. The arrogance of amnesia is always a threat, not least in periods of great technological and medical progress. So it is vital, as the Psalms and the prophets remind us, to remember: remember the deeds of our fathers and mothers, remember the rock from which we were hewn, and the quarry from which we were dug. It can help us understand why our world is the way it is—how it got WEIRDER, if you like—and how to love, live, and thrive in it.