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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The Augustinian philosophical tradition, especially
after the twelfth century when contacts between
monks and laymen grew more frequent and respect-
able, became the intellectual source of new types of
devotion and religious philosophy. The career and
mind of Augustine himself served as a vivid pattern.
The contrast between his experience of the trans-
formation of sexual passion into an intimate com-
munion with Perfect Being and the Augustinian theol-
ogy of Grace as a predestined election into “the City
of God” was in itself a dramatization of the difference
between an emotional conversion and a moral
regeneration. Gradually there developed under
Augustine's influence, especially among laymen, three
types of “enthusiasm,” that is, of having an “indwelling
Holy Spirit” as a channel of Grace independent of the
sacraments. This experience was interpreted as a mid-
dle way between the mystics of the Neo-Platonic type
and the Aristotelian rationalizations of the scholastics
and the Jesuits. One type found expression in religious
love (philia): the Béguines (Dutch and Flemish nuns
who live in convents without taking vows), Brethren
of the Free Spirit, The Friends of God (devotio
), Christian Brotherhoods (collegia pietatis),
Societies of Friends, and “theophilanthropy.” Another
type centered in the covenant relationship: French and
Swiss Huguenots, Scottish Presbyterians, Puritans,
Covenanters, Federalists, and Christian Common-
wealth Men. A third type believed that an inner light
(not the “light of nature,” reason) kindled in them a
holy love of Perfect Being. Such love is quite distinct
from friendship, secular benevolence, charity, and
enlightened self-love. These were called Illuminists.
Among the philosophers who were directly and signifi-
cantly influenced by this type of enlightenment were:
Tommaso Campanella, Vico, Malebranche, Pascal,
Fénelon, Francis Hutcheson, Jonathan Edwards,

This article describes the ideology of one brief, local
movement within the long history of religious enlight-
enment. It arose among a small group of New England
Puritans and among the “new light” Presbyterians in
New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. It served
as the philosophical explanation of the Great Awaken-
ing during a few decades after 1730, and it was sub-
merged under a deluge of evangelical piety and theo-
logical wrangling early in the nineteenth century. The
philosophical leader of this movement was Jonathan
Edwards (1703-58).


The enthusiasm of the Great Awakening was
opposed by the sober Puritans as well as by Yankee
liberals. The basic charge against all such illuminism
had been formulated by Bishop Bossuet in his conflict
with Archbishop Fénelon: “Pure love is opposed to
the essence of love which always desires the enjoyment
of its object, and also to the nature of man who neces-
sarily desires happiness.” Fénelon, Pascal, and other
philosophers made elaborate and critical efforts to
meet this double charge radically. Among the most
radical was Jonathan Edwards.

As a child, Jonathan Edwards had been accustomed
to accepting the sovereignty of the Almighty as a
necessary, grim truth; and he had made repeated vain
efforts to love this Sovereign Lord as he was presented
in Puritan pulpits and literature. His first philosophical
emancipation came from reading Locke's Essay con-
cerning Human Understanding.
The chapter on
“Power” taught him that it is not the will that does
the willing, but it is the “soul” or self that does it.
Will and “inclination” are the same and in a prudent
person are by nature “subject to the last dictate of the
understanding.” This insight implied that if, as he
believed, the will is depraved, unable to enjoy its true
Good, the “affections” are also benighted, and there-
fore the rational understanding is hopelessly led astray
from its normal “light of nature.” Hence, the best that
a prudent understanding can do is to direct the “heart”
(affections, inclinations, will) toward an enlightened
self-love and a social benevolence. But to achieve “true
virtue” or “pure love” to Perfect Being is naturally
impossible. Being a sensitive, highly emotional youth,
he became desperate, for the chances of being
“elected” by Grace were, on Calvinistic calculations,
very slight.

He was under this tension when, after graduating
from Yale in 1720, he accepted his first charge as a
minister of a Presbyterian congregation in New York.
The family of John Smith, with which he boarded, was
influenced by “new light” pietism and he soon found
himself in intimate relations with religiously enlight-
ened laymen. His own description of what happened
to him during those months in New York and imme-
diately following is a vivid account of illumination:

My sense of divine things seemed gradually to increase, until
I went to preach in Newyork [sic]... and while I was
there I felt them, very sensibly, in a much higher degree
than I had done before. My longings after God and holiness
were much increased. Pure and humble, holy and heavenly
Christianity, appeared exceeding amiable to me.... The


inward ardor of my soul, seemed to be hindered and pent
up, and could not freely flame out as it would.... Holiness
... appeared to me to be of a sweet, pleasant, charming,
serene, calm nature; which brought an inexpressible purity,
brightness, peacefulness and ravishment of the soul.... On
January 12, 1723 I made a solemn dedication of myself to
God.... The sweetest joys and delights I have experienced,
have not been those that have arisen from a hope of my
own good estate, but in a direct view of the glorious things
of the gospel.... I have many times had a sense of the
glory of the third person in the Trinity, in his office of
Sanctifier, in his holy operations, communicating divine
light and life to the soul,... as an infinite fountain of divine
glory... like the sun in its glory, sweetly and pleasantly
diffusing light and life

(Narrative of his Conversion, ca.

In 1734 Edwards outlined his doctrine of enlighten-
ment in a philosophical sermon published under the
title: A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately
Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God.
He was now
ready to develop the philosophy of divine illumination,
but he was distracted by the Great Awakening. For
a decade, he devoted himself to the practical problems
and efforts of the revival. After the enthusiasm had
somewhat abated, he returned to his theoretical analy-
sis and in 1746 published his Treatise concerning Reli-
gious Affections.
Part I is devoted to the thesis that
religion is at bottom an affair of “the heart” and that
emotional forms of religious expression must be
analyzed for evidences of divine Grace. Part II is a
critique of those “signs” that are not evidence of
enlightenment. Part III states and defends the follow-
ing major conclusions:

(1) God is amiable because of his “inherent” excel-
lence rather than on account of his “objective”
attributes. Holy love is the sense of this beauty, har-
mony, and light.

(2) True virtue is such enjoyment; it is not the “nat-
ural” calculated judgment of conscience, nor is it a
gratitude for divine benevolence. The “moral sense”
as it is emphasized by the Scottish Enlightenment is
only an approximation to divinely enlightened love.

(3) Holy love is a prerequisite for the “witness of
the Spirit” which is central to the “covenant of Grace.”

(4) This is a “rebirth in the Spirit” and not a
“regeneration” of the will.

(5) This is not mysticism. “Gracious affections are
attended with a reasonable and spiritual conviction of
the judgment” (Part III, Sec. V).

(6) “Holy practice” must be pursued with “highest
earnestness” and a convert with an enlightened heart
makes “religion eminently his work and business” (Part
III, Sec. XII).

Jonathan Edwards' theory of enlightenment was
based not only on his own experience and on the Great
Awakening but also on his wide reading in the litera-
ture of illuminism, especially Scottish and Dutch. At
the time of his death in Princeton he was planning
to supplement his philosophical treatises and essays by
a systematic exposition of “Lovely Christianity.” It is
possible that his curious sketch on “The Trinity” was
intended for this systematic work of Pietist philosophy.
It begins:

Tis common when speaking of the Divine happiness to say
that God is Infinitely Happy in the Enjoyment of himself,
in Perfectly beholding and Infinitely loving, and Rejoicing
in, his own Essence and Perfections, and accordingly it must
be supposed that God perpetually and Eternally has a most
Perfect Idea of himself,... and from hence arises a most
pure and Perfect act or energy in the Godhead, which is
the divine Love, Complacence and Joy

eds. Faust and Johnson, p. 375).

This is obviously a portrait of Self-enlightened Perfect
Being. It attempts to express in terms of the new
psychology a formal definition of the Divine Essence
and Glory.


While Edwards during the last years of his short life
was attempting a philosophical formulation of religious
enlightenment, his associates in the New Light move-
ment were dragging him back into the theological
polemics of Calvinism. He was compelled by their
polemics to write The Great Christian Doctrine of
Original Sin Defended
(1758—published posthu-
mously). His closest colleague, Joseph Bellamy of
Bethlehem, Conn., published in 1750 True Religion
delineated; or experimental Religion, as distinguished
from Formality on the one hand, and Enthusiasm on
the other, set in a scriptural and rational Light.
was followed in 1758 by his four sermons, including
The Wisdom of God in the Permission of Sin. Bellamy
explained that God “permitted,” without “causing,” sin
in the universe because it was to the ultimate “advan-
tage” of mankind. Edwards had maintained that God
permitted sin to enter for the sake of his own glory,
and Samuel Hopkins maintained only that sin is an
“advantage to the universe.” Both Bellamy and
Hopkins became involved in a desperate attempt to
defend the “moral government” or justice of God, and
this led them to assert not only God's “disinterested
benevolence” but also his “disinterested malice toward
sin.” They were then compelled by the insistent pro-
tests of several kinds of liberals to try to defend the
endless punishment of infants. Edwards had hoped to
let the doctrine that “infinite sin” leads to “infinite
punishment” remain an abstract conception of justice.
But now the Edwardeans were pushed into defending


the endless torture of innocent infants. The more they
wrote on this subject the more incredible they became.

They were pushed into other absurdities on the
subject of the Church Covenant. Edwards had sug-
gested, without getting into a theological argument,
that the Covenant of Grace was more essential to
religion than the “external” covenant of the Church.
His followers, however, insisted on enforcing the
Puritan rules of strict communion, making regeneration
a prerequisite. This revived the old problem of distin-
guishing “visible” from “invisible” saints, and the
question whether men's “natural” moral strivings and
“exercises” toward salvation could be interpreted as
“gracious affections.” Nathanael Emmons of Franklin,
Mass. became hopelessly involved in the problem, so
that he did not know how to distinguish between those
who profess apparent holiness and those who are
apparently but not professedly really holy, or those
who neither appear nor profess to be holy but really
are holy. The most significant predicament into which
the New Light theologians drifted was their tendency
to portray human nature as thoroughly damnable in
order to give the whole “glory” to the Divine Light.
Edwards had approved of the “moral sense” theory
of the Scottish Enlightenment and agreed that self-love
could generate a disinterested benevolence under the
guidance of prudent judgment, but he insisted that such
social benevolence is only an “image” of true virtue
and pure love. But his theologically entangled and
wrangling followers were forced by an increasing lib-
eral opposition to make caricatures both of human
nature and of supernatural light. By 1833, after a
protracted debate between Nathaniel Taylor and
Bennett Tyler, the theologies of both New Sides and
Old Sides Presbyterians had become so absurd to others
that the whole issue was labelled “strictly contro-
versial” and the enlightenment went into eclipse.


An inquisitive historian may detect scattered vestiges
of philosophical pietism in America after it had lapsed
into unenlightened theology and evangelical revival-
ism. The most direct vestige is to be found in the Rev.
William Ellery Channing, leader of the New England
Unitarians. He rediscovered “likeness to God” in the
human soul. Two New Light influences on him were
the theory of benevolence in the works of Francis
Hutcheson, and the personal benevolence of Samuel
Hopkins, whose character seemed to be in striking
contrast to his theology. These suggested to him that
there is an element of holiness in the human soul which
enables man to achieve self-culture. He appealed to
this aspect of the self as motivation for “social regener-
ation” by “diffusive charity.” He used the Edwardean
terminology: perfect love, rebirth, supernatural light,
mediatorial system, and Holy Spirit.

Similar vestiges appear in Channing's Boston neigh-
bor, Theodore Parker. He preached that all theologies
are transient, but that “affectional piety” and the “ab-
solute love of God” are “permanent” in man. This
doctrine he used as a basis for promoting social reforms.
He conceived “transcendentalism” to mean that life,
love, and piety transcend knowledge. Though he ap-
propriated the concepts of enlightened pietism, he
devoted much of his time and energy to rational criti-
cism of scriptures and traditions.

The most influential vestige is to be found in James
Marsh, a Presbyterian New Light and President of the
University of Vermont. Deeply concerned over the
growing gap between philosophy and theology, seeking
a new ground for “experimental religion,” he found
in Coleridge's Aids to Reflection a conception of
“spirit” that met his needs. In his long essay prefacing
his edition of this volume, he applied Coleridge's idea
of spirituality as a way of life, not of doctrine, to
philosophical reflection, to theology, and to piety. This
was a fresh enlightenment to him and rapidly became
one of the major sources of New England transcen-
dentalism. The blending of the religious enlightenment
with the new transcendentalism is evident in typical
passages like the following:

The world of spirit enters into the life of nature.... In
its own essence, and in its proper right, it is supernatural,
and paramount to all the powers of nature.
It is only by freeing the spiritual principle from the
limitations of that narrow and individual end which the
individual nature prescribes, and placing it under that
spiritual law which is congenial to its own essence, that
it can be truly free. When brought into the liberty with
which the Spirit of God clothes it, it freely strives after
those noble and glorious ends which reason and the Spirit
of God prescribe

(Marsh, Remains..., pp. 383, 389).

Such adaptation of religious enlightenment to the
“newness” of romantic idealism became a common
feature of transcendentalism; it is also in the immediate
background of Josiah Royce's contrast between “the
world of appreciation” and “the world of description.”

From 1835 to 1855 Oberlin College in Ohio was
a center of Christian Perfectionism or the philosophy
of “sanctification,” which, though critical of Edwards'
identification of “will” and “inclination,” was a direct
descendant of the New Light theology and of its em-
phasis on disinterested benevolence. The combined
influence of Charles Finney (New Light evangelist) and
Asa Mahan (author of Christian Perfectionism, 1839),
who were the first Presidents of Oberlin College, made
this institution well-known as a center of sanctification
doctrine and anti-slavery reform. Their intuitionist or


illuminist theory of benevolence, in opposition to
utilitarian ethics, served as a sanction for a vigorous
reform movement and for civil disobedience to the
fugitive slave laws.

A curious vestige of Edwards' psychology of the will
is found in the development of psychology in America
during the nineteenth century. The terms “will” and
“inclination” were used by Edwards as technical syno-
nyms for “heart” as over against “head.” The
Edwardeans in their theological polemics used the term
“propensities” in place of Edwards' “inclinations,” and
distinguished these from both “will” and “under-
standing,” thus creating a “three-faculty psychology.”
When Nathanael Emmons began to use the term “ex-
ercises” to refer to the “strivings” of seekers for Grace,
others, referred back to Edwards' use of the term
“taste” to describe the affectional faculty of the mind.
The first psychologist to embody this “three-faculty”
doctrine in his text of 1824 was the Rev. Asa Burton
of Thetford, Vermont and Dartmouth College. This led
to a long controversy about the relation between taste
and will. Burton identified “taste” with “heart” and
called it “the principle of action” as well as of “pleas-
ure and pain.” Subsequently “taste” became “con-
sciousness” in addition to volition and cognition. Thus,
at least indirectly, the theory of the affections which
developed during the Great Awakening led to the
preoccupation of William James with the emotions,
especially in his Varieties of Religious Experience.


J. E. Dirks, The Critical Theology of Theodore Parker (New
York, 1948). Jonathan Edwards, Representative Selections.
With Introduction, Bibliography and Notes,
eds. C. H. Faust
and T. H. Johnson (New York, 1935; rev. ed. 1962), useful
for basic writings, critical introduction, references, and
notes; idem, Treatise on the Religious Affections (Boston,
1746), also a new edition, ed. J. E. Smith (New Haven, 1959).
J. Haroutunian, Piety versus Moralism; The Passing of the
New England Theology
(New York, 1932). F. Hutcheson, An
Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue

(Glasgow, 1723). E. H. Madden, Civil Disobedience and
Moral Law in Nineteenth Century American Philosophy

(Seattle, 1968), especially useful for the history of Oberlin
College. J. Marsh, The Remains of the Rev. James Marsh,
ed. J. Torrey (Boston, 1843). H. A. Pochmann, German
Culture in America
(Madison, 1957), best account of Marsh's
philosophy. H. W. Schneider, The Puritan Mind (New York,
1930), does not do justice to the illuminism and pietism
in Edwards, but describes his early enlightenment.


[See also Enlightenment; God; Holy; Love.]