Those who have followed my writing for a while know that I am a self-proclaimed “skeptic about the ‘Enlightenment.’” Here I explain why:
The Enlightenment is an ideologically loaded term that implies that much of the Western intellectual tradition before The Enlightenment was “dark.” Much of that tradition was, of course, Christian. “The Enlightenment” presupposes an arc of history toward secular democratic scientific liberalism.
There is something to this presupposition, of course. Even the most devout believers today, at least in Europe and America, live in mental worlds that are much more secular than people in, say, the year 1700. When a cow died unexpectedly, the thoughts of early modern farmers in Europe and the American colonies often turned to the possibility of witchcraft as an explanation. People took it for granted that one might have direct encounters with spiritual forces, including demons and angels. By 1800, that “world of wonders” was not gone, but it was constricted by something we might as well call “Enlightenment” thinking, or a preference for naturalistic explanations of what happens around us.
Although some still insist that the “Enlightenment” was fundamentally secular or even pagan, we know now that Enlightenment thought often co-existed with or fostered Christian commitment. And there seems to be a general consensus that the American side of the Enlightenment was more friendly to faith than the version in, say, France.
One of the matters at stake in the debate over the American Enlightenment is how friendly, or hostile, the American Founding was to traditional faith. Key figures like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were certainly influenced by European-style thinking on philosophy, government, and science. But Jefferson and Franklin may have been intellectual outliers.
What did the Enlightenment look like for more typical, everyday Americans, as well as the best known Founders? Here’s a list of five solid books to get you started.
1. Henry May, The Enlightenment in America (1976). The one that started it all. Although May shows that there were radical strains in America’s Enlightenment, he emphasizes the moderation of America’s philosophical trends in the Founding Era, and their compatibility with Christianity.
2. Lorraine Smith Pangle, The Political Philosophy of Benjamin Franklin (2007). There are innumerable books on the ideas of the major Founders, but this is one of the best. Pangle shows that although Franklin embraced “reason” as a hallmark of Enlightenment, he often humorously noted how reason could fail before the force of passion or selfishness.
3. Jeffry Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (2005). From one of our finest scholars of Christianity and the Founding, Morrison has also written a volume on George Washington’s political philosophy that I recommend. But here Morrison assesses the broad significance of Witherspoon, Princeton’s president and the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence, and his defense of the “public interest of religion.”
4. Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World (2013). As I noted in my Gospel Coalition review of this excellent book, Brekus delivers the one of the best biographies of an 18th-century evangelical. Osborn grappled in personal ways with what God’s love and the rising tide of “humanitarian” thought required her to do about slaves and slavery.
5) John Fea, The Way of Improvement Leads Home (2008). In perhaps the most delightful read of these five books, Fea paints a deeply sympathetic portrait of the Presbyterian tutor and Revolutionary War chaplain Philip Vickers Fithian, who desperately wanted to engage with the cosmopolitan spirit of the Enlightenment, but could never leave his faith or his small New Jersey hometown behind.