Describe the social and religious undercurrent that led to the Enlightenment in America.
The American Enlightenment was a period of intellectual ferment in the thirteen American colonies in the 18th to 19th century, which led to the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America. According to Spurlin et al. (2021), the ideas of the enlightenment significantly impacted the development of the United States, with many of its key principles and values becoming central to American identity. Spurlin et al. (2021) also stated that one of the central tenets of the enlightenment was the belief in reason and the scientific method; This emphasis on rational thought and empirical evidence helped to challenge traditional authority and establish a new framework for understanding the world. In America, this emphasis on reason and science helped to fuel the growth of scientific inquiry and technological innovation, leading to advances in fields such as medicine, engineering, and agriculture.
Another key enlightenment principle was the belief in individualism and the importance of personal freedom. According to Outram (2019), the belief was embodied in the writings of figures such as John Locke, who argued that individuals had the right to life, liberty, and property. These ideas became central to American political thought, influencing the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Outram (2019) also stated that individual rights and freedoms remain a cornerstone of American democracy and have been used to champion causes such as civil rights and gender equality. The enlightenment also emphasized the importance of education and the pursuit of knowledge; This emphasis on learning helped to spur the growth of public schools and universities in America, making education more widely available to people from all walks of life (Outram, 2019). The commitment to education and the pursuit of knowledge has continued to be a defining characteristic of American culture, with the country’s universities and research institutions remaining among the most prestigious in the world. A number of social and religious undercurrents, including the rise of the middle class, the growth of scientific and technological knowledge, and the rise of deism, shaped the Enlightenment in America.
The rise of the middle class was one of the essential social undercurrents that led to the Enlightenment in America. According to Israel (2019), the middle class was made up of people who were not born into wealth or aristocracy but who had worked their way up through hard work and education, and these people were often merchants, artisans, and tradespeople who had become successful in their own right. As the middle class grew in size and influence, they began to question the authority of the established social order, including the monarchy and the church. One of the key factors that contributed to the rise of the middle class was the expansion of trade and commerce. Israel (2019) also stated that the growth of colonial trade in the 17th and 18th centuries led to the creation of new opportunities for merchants and traders, who were able to accumulate wealth and establish themselves as a powerful economic force; This trade growth also led to the expansion of the artisan and manufacturing sectors, creating new opportunities for skilled workers to establish themselves as independent entrepreneurs. As the middle class grew in size and influence, they began to question the traditional social order based on hereditary privilege and class distinctions Israel (2019). They believed that social and economic status should be based on merit rather than birth and advocated for a more open and democratic society. The middle class also played an essential role in the political developments of the time (Israel, 2019). As they became more educated and prosperous, they began demanding a greater political say. They believed that political power should be based on the consent of the governed rather than the arbitrary power of the monarch; This belief in the importance of political participation and democratic governance helped to pave the way for the American Revolution (Israel, 2019). Thus, one of the essential social undercurrents that led to the Enlightenment in America was the rise of the middle class because as the middle class grew in size and influence, they began to question the authority of the established social order, including the monarchy and the church.
Another key social undercurrent that led to the Enlightenment in America was scientific and technological knowledge growth. According to Sismondo (2018), the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century led to significant advances in mathematics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry. These advances had practical applications in areas such as agriculture, medicine, and manufacturing, and they helped to create a sense of optimism about the possibilities of human progress. Sismondo (2018) also stated that the growth of scientific and technological knowledge significantly impacted American society during the enlightenment. It helped create a culture characterized by curiosity and a desire to understand the natural world. This scientific curiosity led to the establishment of scientific societies and the founding of colleges and universities that specialized in the study of science and technology. The scientific method, which emphasizes observation, experimentation, and the search for objective truth, became increasingly important during the enlightenment. It helped to create a culture of skepticism and rationalism that challenged established beliefs and institutions; This emphasis on reason and empiricism helped to pave the way for the scientific and technological advances of the Industrial Revolution (Israel, 2019). Thus, the growth of scientific and technical knowledge also led to the Enlightenment in America, which helped to create a sense of optimism about the possibilities of human progress.
One of the most significant religious undercurrents of the enlightenment was the rise of deism. According to Berg (2019), deism was a philosophical belief that emerged during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was based on the idea that God created the universe but did not intervene in its affairs. Deists believed that reason and observation, rather than revelation or tradition, were the best tools for understanding the natural world and the nature of God; This belief in a rational, scientific approach to understanding the world helped to shape the values and beliefs of many Enlightenment thinkers. Berg (2019) also stated that another essential religious undercurrent of the enlightenment was the growth of religious tolerance. The early colonies were founded on the principles of religious freedom, but these freedoms were not always extended to all groups. During the enlightenment, however, there was a growing recognition that religious diversity was a valuable aspect of society; This recognition helped to promote a greater tolerance of different religious beliefs and practices, which in turn contributed to the development of a more secular and pluralistic society (Berg, 2019). The enlightenment had an impact on the way that people approached religious belief and practice. The emphasis on reason and observation helped to promote a more critical and skeptical approach to religious doctrines and dogmas; This led to a questioning of traditional religious beliefs and a greater emphasis on personal experience and individual conscience in matters of faith (Berg, 2019). Thus, the rise of deism was one of the most significant religious undercurrents of the Enlightenment in America because the deists believed that reason and observation, rather than revelation or tradition, were the best tools for understanding the natural world and the nature of God and this belief helped to shape the values and beliefs of many Enlightenment thinkers.
In conclusion, the Enlightenment in America was shaped by a number of social and religious undercurrents, including the rise of the middle class, the growth of scientific and technological knowledge, and the rise of deism. These factors created a climate of questioning and skepticism that helped to pave the way for the rationalistic and optimistic thinking of the enlightenment. The Enlightenment in America profoundly impacted American society and culture, and it helped shape the values and beliefs that still influence us today.
DÜZGÜN, Ş. A. (2021). Deism as a Heterodox Religious Identity with its Historical and Contemporary Aspects. Kader, 19(3), 888-898.
Israel, J. (2019). The expanding blaze: How the American Revolution ignited the world, 1775-1848. Princeton University Press.
Outram, D. (2019). The enlightenment. Cambridge University Press.
Sismondo, S. (2018). Science and technology studies. In Companion to Environmental Studies (pp. 356-359). Routledge.
Spurlin, P. M., & Valsania, M. (2021). The Enlightenment in America: Essays on the Times of the Founding Fathers. University of Georgia Press.
Van den Berg, J. (2019). The development of modern deism. Zeitschrift für Religions-und Geistesgeschichte, 71(4), 335-356.