A Discussion Board Module

Written / Friday, May 12th, 2017

This is a discussion board module written by me for group discussion in my Survey of American Literature Class from 1700 to 1850. The topic focuses on the religious revival and the Age of Enlightenment. This first post is a part of a generated thread and sparked discussion among my peers.

Dana Webb
Professor Rebhorn

A Discussion Board Module

1728 marked the end of puritanism but it wasn’t long after that a “religious revival swept through the British American colonies,” known as The Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment focused on the ideas of reason and rationality instead of religion. Individuals such as Ben Franklin, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield began to preach about the word of God in addition to their own beliefs. Many people began to flock towards these outspoken leaders because of their efforts and ideas. As a reaction to the Enlightenment ideas, a wave known as the Great Awakening occurred. Awakening preachers, that turned towards religion, began to set up “their own schools and churches throughout the colonies. Princeton University was one such school.” Many people became torn on what to believe and people who turned toward the “old light” made it clear that “no one religion would dominate any region.”

One individual that was a part of The Great Awakening response was Jonathan Edwards. Edwards focused on “giving his audience an immediate experience of divine things” (A. 356).  He relied heavily on the idea of “sensation,” which tried to illuminate that religious writing is much more than a bunch of words. The text should spark a feeling deep within the individual to draw him or her closer to God. He tried to “restore the church to a position of authority” by discussing “free will” and “true virtue” (A. 357). Edwards goal was to restore the religious faith to humanity but is Edwards only continuing to live in the past by trying to revert people back to previous teachings? Is he a true Enlightenment figure like many people believe him to be?

Although Edwards tries to illuminate the grace of God by pointing out the little pleasures in life through the Spider Letter, his other work, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, contradicts the beauty within life by focusing on the wrath of God. Edward parallels the spider spinning its web to humans committing good or evil acts. The idea of free will is being discussed but Edward believes that ultimately, God has the power to decide when a person dies. Just like the spider accidentally flying into the sea, the human has no control when he dies; however, Edwards states that the human can control his free will- to commit good or evil within the world. How is Edwards tone different when speaking to his audience in these two texts? In The Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, is Edwards trying to scare his audience into believing in God? Could people, such as Edwards, be scared to move forward to the future? Is he finding comfort in continuing to turn back to religious teachings?

In turn, Ben Franklin was a major figure that “embraced reason, rationality, and the science of the Enlightenment.” He profited from his works and is outlined as a hardworking individual. Franklin wanted to “promote colonial growth” and “human well-being” (A. 440). Unlike Edwards, Franklin believed that instead of turning toward religion, human kind should focus on education and intellectual thought. Education “would [help] transform people’s lives and set them free from tyrannies of the church and monarchy” (A. 441). This whole idea revolves around the cliché saying, “knowledge is power” but can humans only rely on scientific discovery and teachings to make sense of their everyday lives? Are humans better off not seeking to believe in a higher force? Can both scientific discovery and religious teachings coexist with each other? Could people find more comfort if they took both science and religious teachings into account instead of choosing between the two?

Franklin tries to “enlighten others on how to live their lives” (A. 467) through his Autobiography. He discusses that he cannot redo his life but he can recollect and tell others what he would change about his life. He is using his own life as an example to his son. Each part of the Autobiography takes on a different tone. Part one and part two are aimed to give others advice for “self-improvement” while part three glorifies Franklin’s achievements. Franklin tries to keep a humble tone in his writing but is he just being arrogant? He believes that he has contributed a lot to American society, such as electricity, becoming involved in public affairs, and improving the postal service, as stated in part three. In addition, he discusses people that affected his life such as Keimer, Franklin’s boss, and John Collins in a negative way. Could Franklin be using his Autobiography to diminish others? This leads back to the question is he actually writing for “his son?” Instead of discussing personal issues or emotions, such as his son’s death, he keeps his writing direct and straightforward. In part two, Franklin uses his thirteen virtues to appeal to all types of people regardless of religion. He respects all religions rather than condemns people for their religious beliefs. Franklin discusses in part one that he changed his beliefs throughout his life, including being a skeptic at one point. Regardless of religion, Franklin can be seen as an excellent role model that takes into account each individual’s views to build upon society. Do we think that Franklin is helping others self-improve with his thoughts and writing tactics? Is he the outline of the perfect Enlightenment role model?

Lastly, think about Franklin and Edwards together. Is Franklin more of an Enlightenment figure than Edwards? How do their writings differentiate? Overall, were the people of the new world moving forward along with science or continuing to try to live in the past because of previous religious beliefs?

*Note: I threw out a lot of questions to spark a wide variety of discussion. Feel free to focus on just a few of the questions or thoughts when writing your answer!

Background Information Citation:

“The Great Awakening.” Independence Hall Association Web, 2008, Ushistory.org. Accessed 18 May 2017.