It has been said that the success of the American Revolution acted as a “seal of divine approval” on the “liberal theology” of politically active ministers such as Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy. But it seems to me that it is time to repossess the important historical truth that evangelical religion, the religion of the Great Awakening, being vigorously experimental and not bound to formal religion, also helped to promote the American Revolution.

It was through the Great Awakening, through the revivalism of the 1740s, that religion was reestablished as a major ingredient in the American philosophical heritage. The philosophical leader of the movement was Jonathan Edwards, and although Edwards was not the first revivalist in the sense that the first religious stirrings occurred as a result of his ministry, Edwards gave philosophical form to the “New Light Awakening.” This “Awakening” helped to prepare the way for the secular revolution in 1776 by creating among the common people a passionate sense of community love and enlightenment, i.e., an emotional sentiment about man’s right to freedom of conscience and a struggle, partially successful, to obtain it. This emotional awakening, as the time of the civil revolution approached, helped supply the ideals for the greater struggle for political freedom, as the New Light Fellowship thinking became the focus not only for religious liberty of dissent but also for the civil liberty of all people.

Jonathan Edwards gave to declining Puritanism a new and powerful impulse: a new philosophy that drew upon an entirely different source of Enlightenment thought by contrast with American secular sources of authority. Edwards emphasized God’s “disinterested benevolence” which eventuated in “love to being in general,” by contrast with the eternal divine decrees stressed by traditional Calvinists. It was Turretini, Mastricht, Hume, and Hutcheson, and only secondarily Cudworth, Locke, and Newton, who inspired his philosophy.

The result of his emphasis on God’s loving character was immediately apparent to his listeners. The reaction to his first published sermon, “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence,” which appeared in 1731 when he was twenty-eight, has been called “sensational.” As his biographer S. E. Dwight relates: “Rare indeed is the instance, in which a first publication is equally rich in condensed thought, or in new and elevated conceptions.” Dwight goes on to describe the occasion of Edwards’s preaching and the reaction:

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In July, 1731, Mr. Edwards being in Boston, delivered a sermon at the public lecture, entitled, “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence,” from 1 Corinthians 1.29, 30. It was published, at the request of several ministers, and others who heard it, and preceded by a preface, by the Reverend Messrs. Prince and Cooper, of Boston. This was his first publication, and is scarcely known to the American reader of his works. The subject was at that time novel, as exhibited by the preacher, and made a deep impression on the audience, and on the Reverend Gentlemen who were particularly active in procuring its publication. “It was with no small difficulty,” say they, “that the author’s youth and modesty were prevailed on, to let him appear a preacher in our public lecture, and afterwards to give us a copy of his discourse, at the desire of diverse ministers, and others who heard it. But, as we quickly found him to be a workman that need not be ashamed before his brethren, our satisfaction was the greater, to see him pitching upon so noble a subject, and treating it with so much strength and clearness, as the judicious will perceive in the following composure: a subject, which secures to God his great design, in the work of fallen man’s redemption by the Lord Jesus Christ, which is evidently so laid out, as that the glory of the whole should return to him the blessed ordainer, purchaser, and applier; a subject which enters deep into practical religion; without the belief of which, that must soon die in the hearts and lives of men” [Sereno E. Dwight, The Works of President Edwards, Carvill, 1830, I, 118].

Edward’s first discourse marked the commencement “of a series of efforts to illustrate the glory of God, as appearing in the greatest of all His works, the work of man’s redemption,” says Dwight. These efforts gave form to the New Light divinity, creating the Edwardean philosophy that sought to distinguish the empirical and experimental basis of benevolence, of love to God, viewed as the “true religion,” as compared with natural religion; “experimental religion” as compared with formal religion; “evangelical religion” as compared with conventional faith. The issue was man’s loving God, i.e., recognizing the glory of God’s grace for man. Many of the ministers who either heard or read “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence” were not as enthusiastic as Dwight recounts. For, as Herbert Schneider relates, “to have the Calvinistic orthodoxy—the doctrine of absolute and arbitrary decrees, the doctrine of original corruption, the doctrine of determinism, damnation, and redemption—revived, not as a covenant for a holy commonwealth, but as an ‘inward’ or ‘sensible’ revelation of the love to God was both refreshing and disconcerting” (Herbert W. Schneider, The Puritan Mind, University of Michigan, 1930, p. 197).

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But this is what Edwards did. Edwards remained orthodox except that his Calvinism was invigorated by a “new light,” the light that flowed from a religion of the heart, or the “affections,” rather than a religion that emphasized human belief, a religion of the head. The heart of true religion, he stated, “is holy affection. Our people do not so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched.” This touching of the heart by God, said Edwards, these “inward exercises” of the heart, are verified “experimentally” as true religion, being “the power of godliness in distinction from the external appearance or the form of it” (“A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections” [1746], in Clarence Faust [ed.], Jonathan Edwards, Hill and Wang, 1935, p. 214).

The affections for Edwards are the vigorous and “sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.” According to Edwards:

God has endued the soul with two faculties: one is that by which it is capable of perception and speculation, or by which it discerns, and views, and judges of things; which is called the understanding. The other faculty is that by which the soul does not merely perceive and view things, but is some way inclined to them, or is disinclined and averse from them; or is the faculty by which the soul does not behold things, as an indifferent unaffected spectator, but either as liking or disliking, pleased or displeased, approving or rejecting. This faculty is called by various names; it is sometimes called the inclination: and, as it has respect to the actions that are determined and governed by it, is called the will: and the mind, with regard to the exercises of this faculty, is often called the heart [ibid., p. 209].

It was the exercise of the affections that represented a new philosophy concerning the role of the faculties (the understanding and the will) in religion. What Edwards meant when he said that the mind, with regard to the exercises of the will, is called the heart, is that the heart (i.e., the emotional or sentimental powers of the soul) is basic in experimental, genuine religion. Religion is a matter of the heart; it is a life to God in which the emotions and actions, not the understanding, play the ultimate part.

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By his new epistemology, Edwards asserted the exercise of a new spiritual sense, a sense that he called a “divine supernatural sense” yielding a new “power of godliness” that converts man’s affections by an act of grace. The human heart thus “consents” to Being. The spirit of God is given to the “true saints to dwell in them, as his proper lasting abode; and to influence their hearts, as a principle of nature, or as a divine supernatural spring of life and action” (ibid., p. 232). The exercise of this new supernatural sense did not involve a regeneration of will but an exercise of “new principles of nature.” By a principle of nature Edwards meant the “foundation which is laid in nature, either old or new, for any particular manner or kind of exercise of the faculties of the soul; or a natural habit or foundation for action, giving a person an ability and disposition to exert the faculties in exercises of such a certain kind; so that to exert the faculties in that kind of exercises may be said to be his nature” (ibid., p. 236).

The chief of “the affections and fountains of all other affections” is love, that is, the disinterested benevolence of and to God. And the essence of true religion consists in a person’s consenting to the love of God; in true religion “beings consent to Being in general,” in the operation of a new supernatural sense in the hearts of men. And without this “holy affection there is not true religion; and no light in the understanding is good, which does not produce holy affection in the heart: no habit or principle in the heart is good, which has no such exercise; and no external fruit is good, which does not proceed from such exercises” (ibid., p. 221).

From love arises a hatred of anything that is against love or contrary to what we love. From the various exercises of love and hatred, “according to the circumstances of the objects of these affections, as present or absent, certain or uncertain, probable or improbable, arise all those other affections of desire, hope, fear, joy, grief, gratitude, anger, etc.” From the vigorous love to God proceed all other religious affections: “Hence will arise an intense hatred and abhorrence of sin, fear of sin, and a dread of God’s displeasure, gratitude to God for his goodness, complacence and joy in God … and a fervent zeal for the glory of God” (ibid., p. 220).

This teaching gave form to the philosophy of religion of the Great Awakening. Just as religion had played a prominent role in the establishment of most of the colonies (though its influence steadily declined with each generation), the revivalism of the period represents the resurgence of religion as a force in the people’s emotional experience. Revivalism became a force able to shape social development because, thanks to Edwardean philosophy, its intellectual structure also appealed to the emotions, and thus gained new impact; its principal theme was liberating individuals, awakening men and women to a personal appreciation of “holy love” or disinterested benevolence to Being. This “inner” religious experience supplanted the “external” awakening through an institution and also mere evangelical preaching, by emphasizing the individual’s responsibility both morally and religiously. It called for the adoption of new and untried ways of religious expression and feeling and, in effect, represents the beginning of the Americanization of pietism as a revolutionary awakening.

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That Edwards’s philosophy of piety was not political is manifest in that the focus was on the glory of God. In other words, his philosophy of a “divine supernatural sense” was the means of generating a sense of spiritual community. The ideas of the disinterested love to God became that source of religious life and social morality. It was a holy love, giving his philosophy a different kind of focus than the republican philosophy of the liberal clergy.

But let me hasten to say that the Edwardean philosophy was no less social than that of the liberal clergy, though not political. It had a democratic power rivaling that of liberal politics. And it is from this perspective, the perspective of the egalitarian emancipation of the New Lights, that one can view the Great Awakening as having more than just limited religious ramifications. For it was by the religious revivals that extended throughout the American colonies between 1740 and 1760 that a religious pluralism was generated, and more importantly, the pluralism—i.e., development of a large body of religious dissenters—was based on a philosophy that was every bit as democratic as that of its secular critics. Although it was not republican, it was a form of personal illumination or enlightenment that indirectly had an impact on the moral and political character of our nation.

“Equality was the beneficiary of the Great Awakening,” said Clinton Rossiter. And indeed it was: true religion was open to all who would love. The New Light preachers endeavored a leveling among the religious classes that affected the sentiments of tens of thousands of common people. The evangelical churches practiced no exclusiveness (which was, by the way, to some degree still being practiced by the liberal clergy), and as Wesley Gewehr has commented, the “bringing together for religious worship men and women from all social ranks on an equal plane” could not help but to act as a powerful leaven in the transformation of the American society.

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The case can be stated in another way. Just as the “moral sense” philosophy of Jefferson sprang from the individualistic American social and political milieu rather than the “moral government” philosophy of the Old Lights or the Standing Order so Edwards’s philosophy was drawn from the “religious sense” of the individual rather than from ecclesiastical polity: Edwards emphasized love to God as the source of religious and social morality. But his philosophy, when given a social focus, was just as democratic as Jefferson’s. Edwards emphasized holy love over commonwealth love, making the first determinative for the latter: he made a distinction between civil and religious morality, between, so to speak, the holy city and the secular city, emphasizing membership in the first, though not at the expense of the other, and concluding that the commonwealth would be secured by the awakening of its souls.

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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