Rational Religion

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Rational Religion


Cult of Reason. The eighteenth century is often called the Age of Enlightenment, alluding to the movement of thought that spread from France throughout Europe and to North America. The Enlightenment was

primarily an intellectual phenomenon, one that broke with traditional ways of thinking about the world. French Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, formed a loosely associated group that came to be known as the philosophes. They stressed the importance of reason as the key to knowledge. They rejected more-traditionally religious notions of revelation from God as the source of information about the world and pursued their own inquiries into truth, confident that human reason was the only tool they needed. They began investigating and cataloguing nature and rethinking the questions of the meaning of life, with a new emphasis on the importance of human actors and human thought. Although this cult of reason began in France and received its most extreme form there during Frances own revolution of 1789, it took hold in America too. American political leaders were aware of the implications of the Enlightenment faith in human reason, as they came to reject what they considered arbitrary monarchical rule in favor of a republican government that reflected the voices of all citizens. Likewise, some Americans came to emphasize the role of reason in religion and the ability of each person to come through rational processes to an awareness and appreciation of God.

English Sources. The faith in reason had sources besides revolutionary French philosophers. One of the most important was the work of the great English scientist Isaac Newton. Newton was perhaps the thinker most responsible for bringing on the new confidence in rationalism. Newton uncovered and explored a series of laws of physics by which the natural world was governed. He and his followers came to conceive of the world as a piece of carefully calibrated machinery, set up in the beginning by God but running on its own unchangeable principles ever since. With enough time humans could use the scientific method of empirical investigation and inductive reasoning to understand fully the workings of the universe. Significantly, Newton was devoutly religious, and he pursued his work in a religious context. The ultimate goal for him was not merely understanding the mechanical workings of nature but also to have a glimpse of the mind of God embedded in natural processes. He spent much time trying to calculate the precise date of the end of the world, for example, using his investigation of nature to expand his religious knowledge. This aspect of Newtons life gradually was forgotten. As his work began to be known in America through teaching at the college level after 1700, many of his followers were much more moved by his embrace of reason than his interest in revelation.

Lockean Roots. The work of the English philosopher John Locke complemented Newtons efforts and was even more important for the introduction of rational principles into religious thought and practice. Locke is best known today for his studies of government, which had an important influence on American thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and through them on the form of government established by the United States. However, Lockes earlier work was in the realm of human psychology and religion. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was a basic college text in America throughout the eighteenth century. Here and in other works Locke shaped the understanding of how the mind worked and influenced prospective ministers in their grasp of how to appeal to the mind. Again rational principles were foremost. From Locke a large group of American religious figures came to believe that the purpose of life was happiness in this world and in the next, that reason could help people become happy, and that progress toward happiness was inevitable, given the power of reason. These views challenged the older Calvinist view of the world, brought to America by the Puritans. Rational religion eventually came into conflict with more-orthodox beliefs in the sovereignty of God and predestination to salvation, but these tensions developed only during the course of the revolutionary period.

Edwards and Reason. In New England, Jonathan Edwards was a significant figure who attempted to strike a balance between reason and traditional religion. Edwards was the pastor of the church in Northampton, Massachusetts, and was a leader of the Great Awakening, the evangelical revival that swept through many of the colonies beginning in the 1730s and 1740s. In a number of theological and pastoral publications of the 1750s, Edwards stressed the role of an emotional personal conversion to Christ in the development of true religious feeling. He did this in a rationalist framework, however, having been influenced by reading Lockes work while he was at Yale College. His Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746) was at once a defense of the revival experience as well as an effort to bring religious feeling into the framework of Lockes insights into the working of the mind and the relation between consciousness and the material world. In the revolutionary period Edwards followed up that work with Freedom of the Will (1754), which described the world as an orderly universe. Edwards also maintained that the order was set out by God, he avoided giving humans too much freedom at the expense of Gods power, this belief kept his thinking firmly within the traditions of Calvinism. Later works on virtue and original sin continued, exploring the implications of the rationalist and progressive understanding of human nature. Edwards always found ways to use rationalist tools to affirm the traditional religion he and his revivalistic followers preached.

Conflicts. Not all accepted Edwardss view that reason and religion were in agreement. By the 1750s the role of reason and the related issue of the power of humans to affect their own fate were the most important points of contention between the revivalists and the liberals, the two main groups that emerged in American religion in the aftermath of the Great Awakening. Boston was the center of liberal religious thought in the revolutionary era. Its religious leaders took rational religion in several directions. Jonathan Mayhew of West Church stressed the theme of free will and connected religion to the revolutionary politics of the time. Charles Chauncy of neighboring First Church was less interested in politics and more engaged with the question of salvation, as he came to believe Christs suffering had redeemed all humans, not just an elect few. One of the most representative figures of rational religion and strongest opponents of the emotions of revivalism was Ebenezer Gay. Gay was the minister of Hinghams First Church, just outside Boston, from 1718 until his death in 1787. During these sixty-nine years he shaped the thinking of many liberal rationalists, including Mayhew, who was his close friend. Gay himself was shaped by his reading at Harvard College, which included the European rationalists and the English religious writers they influenced. From these men Gay developed his own faith in a benevolent God who reasonably loved his creation rather than the more vengeful God of orthodox Calvinism. Gay objected when that image of God became more popular during the revivals. Instead he wanted people to question their traditions and Open their Eyes to the Light, and yield to the Evidence of Truth, as he said in a 1752 sermon. Gay hated disorder and emotion and worked hard to avoid controversy in his church and town. Nevertheless he became the center of the heated theological conflict dividing rationalist liberals from orthodox revivalists. In 1759 Gay published Natural Religion as Distinguishd from Revealed, a major defense of liberal thinking against the attacks of evangelicals, especially against the writings of Edwards, including Edwardss 1758 defense of the traditional view of original sin. At the heart of Gays answer was the argument that there was no contradiction between the revelations contained in Scripture and the work of reason in exploring and understanding nature. This defense of natural religion directly opposed the revivalists belief that there was a fundamental difference between the human world and the realm of the divine, a chasm that could be crossed only by God. Gays view opened up the possibility that what humans did on their own could make a difference in their ultimate fates, a revolutionary doctrine indeed.

Revolutionary Tendencies. Evangelicals may have been right to fear reason as the basis of religion since the revolutionary implications of rational religion were far reaching socially as well as theologically. Gay opposed the Revolution as another example of the disorderly emotionalism that he disliked about the revivals. Other rationalists took a different view. Mayhew and others led the way in developing the idea of freedom that was one of the central rationalist principles. As the political developments of the 1760s and 1770s got underway, this idea obviously echoed the new concepts of political freedom. In his preaching about the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, Mayhew stressed the need for government to behave morally and be accountable to its subjects. He argued that it was right for people to protest unjust leaders, a moral defense of the Revolution just beginning. In this, Mayhew followed Gays principles even though Gay himself was uncomfortable about the end results. Gay and other rationalists believed in the power of reason to govern human life, and morality was a central theme of their preaching and writing. Part of reason was a moral sensibility, the power to judge right from wrong. All humans had this ability and so had the right to make these judgments for themselves. This too was a revolutionary idea in a world shaped by deferential social relations rather than democratic principles.

Unitarianism. The most advanced institutional form of this rational religion was Unitarianism, a denomination that arrived in America through the contacts between liberal Bostonian ministers and English Unitarians. The full emergence of this group would await the early nineteenth century, but the groundwork was laid in the revolutionary period. In March 1776 the British withdrew from Boston, taking with them the rector of Kings Chapel, the local Anglican church. Many of the lay members left as well, but those who remained continued to meet together. In 1782 they asked John Freeman to be their lay reader. By 1787 the congregation renounced their ties to the Episcopalian Church then replacing Anglicanism, ordained Freeman as their minister, and declared themselves Unitarians. Other Congregational churches eventually followed. Unitarians, like other liberals, believed in the power of reason and the benevolence of God. They went further, though, in their critical examination of the Scriptures. They concluded that there was no evidence there for the doctrine of the divinity of Christ and argued that there was only one God, not a trinity. Their rethinking of God paralleled the earlier rethinking of human nature, taking it one step further. This idea was radical and Americans expressed it only cautiously in these years. Freeman was more extreme than most on this question, believing that Christ was only human, although he had a special mission from God. Most early Unitarians thought that Christ had some special status, less than God but more than humans. There were few early converts to Unitarianism in the revolutionary period, and even later its numbers were small, although its influence on nineteenth-century American culture was immense.

Deism. A few revolutionaries went even further than the Unitarians, rejecting traditional notions of God entirely. These were the deists, and they included several leaders of the independence movement and framers of the new nation. Deists took the notion of natural religion to an extreme, seeing nature itself as a sort of impersonal god, a rational organizing principle behind all life. They were not interested in the Bible and its traditional images of God and abandoned the idea of specific divine revelations. Deism flourished briefly after the end of the Revolutionary War, as traditions of all kinds were abandoned and the new nation took shape. In the revolutionary period there were few deists, but to many early Americans they presented a serious threat to the social order and indicated the limits of revolutionary fervor. The collapse of traditional religion seemed to undermine the entire society in the eyes of some. These people worried about how to give moral guidance to people in the absence of the tools of the Bible and the threat of divine punishment for sin. In 1759 Ezra Stiles, later the president of Yale College, worried that Deism has got such a Head in this age of Licentious Liberty that colleges should lead the way to conquer and demolish before disorder reigned. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin, despite his own radical religious ideas, warned a correspondent in the 1780s against publishing a deist tract. He said, If men are so wicked as we now see them with religion, what would they be if without it?


Just before his death in 1790 Benjamin Franklin responded to a question from Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale College, with a statement of his religious beliefs. Franklins letter is a good example of the deist religious beliefs of some revolutionary leaders, of their interest in religion as a moral system, and of the way these ideas mixed with traditional Christianity. Franklin wrote:

Here is my Creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever Sect I meet with them.

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; tho it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

Source: Benjamin Franklin, Writings, edited by J. A. Leo Lemay (New York: Library of America, 1987), p. 1,179.

Franklins Religion. Benjamin Franklin is not usually thought of as a religious figure. He never joined a church and never publicly identified himself with any one religious group. Nevertheless, Franklin is an excellent example of the effect of rationalism on American religion and the ways that many Americans held what seem to be conflicting ideas about religion. Franklin is often thought to have been one of the few true deists in America and to have left Christianity behind in his thinking in favor of the purest faith in reason. Yet he supported any number of Christian projects. In a well-known incident recorded in his Autobiography (1868) Franklin describes how he came to give money to George Whitefield, the English evangelical, swayed by the power of his preaching and convinced of the virtue of his several efforts to improve society, if not of the Christian truth behind that work. The notions of experiment and virtue are the keys to understanding Franklins religious thought. Virtue was a frequent preoccupation of his. He brought his pragmatism and utilitarianism to the question of how best to promote virtuous behavior, all in the hope of improving society. Personal morality was of less concern to him, and he had little of the traditional Christian sense of sinfulness. Instead, Franklin supported religion as a form of experiment in virtuous behavior, social reform, and humanitarianism. In this way Franklin saw religion as important for the establishment of the kind of republic he hoped America would become. If a Christian preacher could bring this about efficiently, Franklin did not mind, as he considered the Christian aspects of the preaching to be incidental to the primary message urging the formation of the good society. So at various times in his life Franklin would write both a deist tract denying the immortality of the soul and a new version of the Lords Prayer, updating Christian imagery for the new age. And in 1787 he proposed that the members of the Constitutional Convention pray together each morning before beginning their work. Franklin would try anything once to achieve his larger public goals. Franklin was careful with his public statements about his personal beliefs about God and the soul, never wanting to shock the Professors of any particular belief and considering his own beliefs to be the Essentials of every known Religion, as he stated in his Autobiography. In this he shared the Enlightenment faith that all humans were rational and through the use of their minds must ultimately agree on all essential truths, whatever different external forms of religion they might follow. Despite their radical rejection of traditional Christian doctrines, in this way rationalists and deists shared the hope and optimism that animated their more-orthodox neighbors, all of whom were working to establish the American republic.


Alfred Aldridge, Benjamin Franklin and Natures God (Durham: Duke University Press, 1967);

Daniel Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964);

Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976);

Kerry S. Walters, Rational Infidels: The American Deists (Durango, Colo.: Longwood Academic, 1992);

Robert J. Wilson III, The Benevolent Deity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984).