Jefferson and The Enlightenment

[Photo by Jerry Newcombe in Paris—Was Jefferson influenced more by the anti-Christian French philosophy or by the biblical traditions in his native Virginia?]

Many respected scholars have begun to refute long-standing beliefs that Deism and Enlightenment thought was highly influential in America, and that America’s Christian culture was only of minor significance to the Revolution. The assumption of irrreligion or deism has been the norm of modern historians.[1] In the recent book by James H. Hutson, Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress and curator of the Library’s exhibition on Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, he states that “For a long time, scholars argued that [the leaders of America’s Revolution were]… nominally Christian, but committed to the agenda of the Enlightenment.” But Hutson provocatively asserts and effectively demonstrates that according to recent authorities, “this view is wrong.”[2] In an excellent study of colonial society, Patricia Bonomi wrote that the modern historians’ hypothesis of “an eighteenth century of ‘Enlightenment’ skepticism coming between a ‘Puritan’ seventeenth century and an ‘evangelical’ nineteenth century simply does not add up.”[3] She concluded that colonial society had “a far more vital religious culture than that portrayed by conventional historiography,” and that for the colonies in general “no less than some 60 percent of the adult white population attended church regularly between 1700 and 1776.”[4]

Contrary to many scholars, Harvard historian Alan Hiemert has written that, “America’s true Age of Reason unfolded…more as a reaffirmation of evangelical principle than as repudiation”[5]

Sadly, most of Jefferson’s biographers ignore the local and regional religious history, while exaggerating his few years in France and selective quotes, and this has greatly shaped this modern image. Most religiously inclined historians, both liberal and conservative, have made the same historical errors as their secular colleagues when it comes to Jefferson. They have adopted a view of Jefferson that lacks the essential historical context of his religious community.

A lot of people don’t realize that the Great Awakening continued in the South during the war years. This fact is often overlooked in studies of American history, especially histories of Virginia. Hutson observes that “Churches [in America]… continued to be remarkably robust on the eve of the American Revolution, contrary to the persistent notion that religion in eighteenth-century America was progressively declining;…[I]n 1776 between 71 and 77 percent of Americans may have filled the pews on Sunday…It is more accurate to characterize the years from 1775 and 1790 as a Revolutionary revival.”[6]

Between 1801 and 1806, there were more camp meetings in Albemarle County (where Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is in Charlottesville) than in any other single county in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia.[7] Jefferson’s home county was the hotbed of revivalism. This fact is either not known to or not reported by most modern biographers of Jefferson and Madison.

[1]   For representative examples of modern scholars see the writings of Merrill Peterson, Dumas Malone, David Little, Paul Conkin, Peter Onuf, Alf Mapp, Cushing Strout, Eugene Sheridan, Charles Sanford, Edwin Gaustad, Harry Ammon, Dickinson Adams, Jan Lewis, William Lee Miller, Martin Marty, Gordon Wood, Irving Brant, James Eckenrode, Thomas J. Curry, Thomas Buckley, Leo Pfeffer, Robert Alley, Robert Rutland, Jon Butler, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden.  Of these scholars, Marty, Lewis, Buckley, Butler, Noll, Hatch and Marsden will argue (somewhat sympathetically) that the deism and Enlightenment that was dominant in the Founding Era was overcome by Evangelicalism in subsequent generations.

[2]   James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1998), 19. This excellent book, written to accompany an exhibit by the Library of Congress, is perhaps the best short history of the role of religion in American public life. It challenges long held assumptions and brings out much material that has been ignored elsewhere.

[3]   Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 220.

[4]   Bonomi, p. VIII, 220.

[5]   Alan Heimert, Religion and The American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), 538.

[6]   Hutson, 32-33, quoting Stephen A. Marini, “Religion, Politics, and Ratification,” in Religion in a Revolutionary Age, ed. Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert (Charlottesville, Va.: United States Capitol Historical Society; University Press of Virginia, 1994), 188, 193.

[7]   Allen, 89-91, 96.

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