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Enlightment in and out of the American Churches
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Garry Wills
Head and Heart (NY:  Penguin, 2007.  626p.)

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Wills explores in great detail the streams of thought in religion and philosophy behind the American Revolution and the founding of the American Republic.  He develops a portrait of the religious streams arising out of the Protestant Reformation that were involved in the religious and reflective influences in the New Continent.

He explains the nuances of relationship between the theological and impetus and the Enlightenment commitment to reason.  This is a formidable and understandable analysis of the tug of war between religion and politics in the history of the United States.  He is careful to focus on the demographics and the relationship between religious interests and the formal church on the one hand and the secular powers of formal government on the other.

He underscores the ignored fact that the period of the Revolution and establishment of the new nation was the time of the lowest formal confession of Christian faith in the history of America.  Active professing Christians were only 17% at the birth of the new nation, and evangelicalism has made gains ever since.

Few of the leaders and founders of the new Republic were active Christians; most were Enlightenment Deists, some of them quite devout.  Most were Enlightenment Deists, some of them quite devout.  This is a matter of historical public record, though recent revisionists have attempted to obscure this fact.

This Deism was an important component of the Civil Religion that developed in the US.  During World War II, this Civil Religion was overtly and openly brought into the churches, with the religious fervor supporting the US war effort.  It was at this time that the American flag was brought into the church for the first time, as a formal part of the religious decor and worship focus.

Wills probes the factors in this relationship between religion and reason, and the entwining of church and state in the late 20th century, after the extensive and successful effort at disestablishment in the founding of the Amrerican Nation.

The Great Awakening in the early 1700s faded fast, and Enlightenment Deism and focus on natural law and Reason ruled.  A primary commitment of the Puritans was to natural law, and there was a formal distinction in the Massachusetts Colony between the church and the secular governing power.  However, there was a formal relationship of the established church to the chartered state government, in every colony except Rhode Island.

Wills investigates and analyzes all these dynamics, with an objective and sympathetic portrayal of each point of view in the very complex and cross-influenced streams of thought in American foundations.

Willis deftly develops these influences and relationships and portrays a rich picture of this time of intellectual turmoil and clashes between the various churches and sects.  He enlightens us on the struggles and debates in the colonies over which church should hold sway and how the church should dominate the government and formal society.

We are carried along in the intellectual, political and theological maelstrom of early American debate, until the final decision that no church would dominate the government of the new republic and the government would establish no certain formal church.

This is an enriching and motivating study, as I have come to expect from Wills, an astute and articulate scholar of the relationship between church, culture and politics in American history and society.

Wills provides excellent discussion of every major stream of philosophical and social theory through the history of the US and how these religious and social movements affected the political and legal discussions and decisions.  An excellent, informative and challenging read.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] John Adams:  Meeting a Founding Father
[review] Naivité and Intellectual Poverty in Modern America: The Ethical Challenges
[reviews] One Continent, Three Siblings
[review] Rationalism, Natural Religion and Tolerance
[review] Religion and the State
[reviews] Too Honest for the White House

Related on the Internet:
Jefferson's Draft of Letter to the Baptists of Danbury
Jefferson's Jesus Without the Miracles
Jefferson's Letter to the Baptists of Danbury
When Baptists voted for a heretic [Jefferson]

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First notes written 8 May 2011
Reviewed on Amazon and Thoughts and Resources 7 July 2011
Last edited 19 Junu 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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