The Presbyterian Enlightenment: The confluence of evangelical and enlightenment thought in British America
Brandon S. Durbin
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Date of Graduation
Master of Arts (MA)
Department of History
John J. Butt
Eighteenth-Century British American Presbyterian ministers incorporated covenantal theology, ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment, and resistance theory in their sermons. The sermons of Presbyterian ministers strongly indicate the intermixing of enlightenment and evangelical ideas. Congregants heard and read these sermons, spreading these ideas to the average colonist. This combination helps explain why American Presbyterians were so apt to resist British rule during the American Revolution. Protestant covenantal theology, derived from Protestant reformers like John Calvin and John Knox, emphasized virtue and duty. This covenant affected both the people and their rulers. When rulers failed to uphold their covenant with God, the people no longer had to obey that ruler. Covenantal theology migrated to the American colonies through Scottish and Irish immigrants. These ideas spread rapidly during the First Great Awakening, especially through important ministers like Gilbert Tennent. Tennent established an academy in Neshaminy to provide an education for future ministers, which his students emulated. The Scottish Enlightenment arose during the eighteenth-century but was often unpopular among Scottish Presbyterians, but American Presbyterians were more willing to adopt these ideas. Presbyterian ministers often espoused Hutcheson’s moral sense and Reid’s common sense. When John Witherspoon reached America, it was already in the process of adopting the Scottish Enlightenment, providing him the opportunity to incorporate it into the curriculum of the College of New Jersey as its President. Ideas generated in British Enlightenment combined with older covenantal theology to create an American resistance theology. Presbyterian ministers incorporated enlightenment virtue, the Vindiciae,and John Locke into their sermons to promote resistance to tyranny. This was a common refrain for ministers during the wars with France and often these sermons reached American militias who participated in that war. When British Parliament and King George III asserted their power over the British American colonies during the 1760s, American Presbyterians believed this violated the British Constitution, which they professed was a covenant. Since it was violated, Americans found justification to rebel against British rule. Many Presbyterians with connections to earlier ministers preaching covenantal theology and Enlightenment ideas played a key role during the Revolution.
Durbin, Brandon S., "The Presbyterian Enlightenment: The confluence of evangelical and enlightenment thought in British America" (2018). Masters Theses, 2010-2019. 550.
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