Several recent books on the Enlightenment have sought to celebrate its legacy but have been strangely cursory in their examination of actual Enlightenment thinkers, their ideas, and their influence, sometimes treating the embrace of reason, individual rights, and political freedom as a “miracle” that seemingly came out of nowhere.
If you’re interested in the question of how that “miracle” actually came to happen—not how to use the Enlightenment as a springboard for some more contemporary agenda, but to understand what it was on its own terms, particularly in America—a very useful place to start is “Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution,” by J. Patrick Mullins.
Mullins attempts to bring new attention to Jonathan Mayhew, a New England preacher and a towering figure in the years leading up to the American Revolution. By the early 20th century, he had lapsed into historical obscurity, but Mayhew was not obscure to America’s founding generation.
Toward the end of his life, John Adams famously declared that the real American Revolution happened before 1776 and “was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” What is less well remembered is that he prominently credited Mayhew among “the most conspicuous, the most ardent and influential” of those who caused this transformation. “To draw the character of Mayhew,” he continued, “would be to transcribe a dozen volumes. This transcendent genius threw all the weight of his great fame into the scale of his country in 1761, and maintained it there with zeal and ardor till his death, in 1766.”
“Father of Liberty” is just one volume, a relatively short and very readable academic study that was published last year with a great deal less fanfare than some of those other current books about the Enlightenment. But it is much more informative in tracing the specific ideas behind the American Revolution and how they were spread.
As Mullins puts it, “If the principles of the Declaration were indeed ‘self-evident’ for most New Englanders by 1776, this was due in no small part to the exertions of the West Church pastor, who preached these principles with fiery eloquence and forceful logic in the transatlantic press from 1747 to 1766.”
What did Mayhew preach? If you’re thinking it’s a vindication of today’s religious right that a preacher was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the American Revolution, hold that thought, because Mayhew’s religious views were hardly orthodox.
Mayhew drew from a version of Protestant Christianity that was thoroughly infused with the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers. He came to this partly through his father, a missionary on Martha’s Vineyard, who once gave a guest sermon in Boston titled, “A Discourse Shewing that God Dealeth with Men as with Reasonable Creatures.”
‘As God made us Rational Creatures,’ he instructed his Boston audience, ‘so He condescends to Reason and Argue with us, about things that are of the greatest importance and concernment to us; He is willing that Reason should decide every case wherein he has to do with us.’
When he went off to Harvard, Mayhew was further exposed to the Enlightenment theory of “natural religion,” the idea that religious doctrines could be determined by reliance on reason rather than revelation. Here is a passage from the early 18th-century English writer Richard Steele that the young student copied down in his notebooks.
For God having implanted in us a rational Faculty,…he expects we shou’d follow it, as the Guide and Director of our Lives and Actions; and whatsoever this Faculty does naturally, and in its due Exercise dictates to us, is as much the voice of God as any Revelation. For whatever it naturally dictates, it must dictate by his Direction, who is the Author of its Nature, and who having fram’d it to speak such a Sense, and pronounce such Judgment of Things, has thereby put his Word into its Mouth, and does himself speak thro’ it, as thro’ a standing Oracle, which he has erected in our Breasts, to convey and deliver his own Mind and Will to us.
This “sacralization of reason” formed the cornerstone of Mayhew’s worldview, and he took it seriously enough to reject several key theological principles—such as the Trinity and original sin—on the grounds that they are not compatible with reason.
His reverence for reason led Mayhew to the cause that was central to his preaching: the “right and duty of private judgment” in matters of religion and in everything else. If reason is the proper basis for all belief, and reason cannot be coerced, then religious belief cannot be coerced. Here is how he put it in one of his sermons, with his distinctively caustic sense of humor.
To attempt to dragoon men into sound orthodox Christians, is as unnatural and fruitless as to attempt to dragoon them into good poets, physicians or mathematicians. A blow with a club may fracture a man’s skull; but I suppose he will not think and reason the more clearly for that; though he may possibly believe the more orthodoxly, according to the opinions of some. And upon this account, it must be confessed that those who make use of these methods to propagate their sentiments, act very prudently; for their doctrines are generally such as are much more readily embraced by a man after his brains are knocked out, than while he continues in his senses, and of a sound mind.
In Mayhew’s view, reason and private judgment also apply to questions of morality, which naturally leads to a defense of liberty. He held that the purpose of morality was the happiness of the individual and that we can derive moral principles by the use of reason.
We find, by experience, that we are all capable of being happy or miserable to a great degree. Pain and pleasure, at least, are private and personal things. And even they that arrogate to themselves the right of judging for us, do not pretend to feel for us also. Now if it be of any importance for us to be happy for ourselves, it is of importance to judge for ourselves also; for this is absolutely necessary, in order to our finding the path that leads to happiness.
It should be noted that, even though Mayhew believed in God, he championed an essentially secular ethics based on reasoning about what will make us happy over the long term. In one of his sermons, he concludes that “Virtue, then, is what we are under obligation to practice, without the consideration of the being of a God, or of a future state [after death], barely from its apparent tendency to make mankind happy at present.” He made this consistent with Christianity by holding the view that a rational and benevolent God wants us to be happy.
If you doubt whether this outlook was influential, consider what Tocqueville had to say about American religion in 1832, 83 years after Mayhew preached that sermon.
Not only do the Americans practice their religion out of self-interest, but they often even place in this world the interest which they have in practicing it. Priests in the Middle Ages spoke of nothing but the other life; they hardly took any trouble to prove that a sincere Christian might be happy here below. But preachers in America are continually coming down to earth. Indeed they find it difficult to take their eyes off it. The better to touch their hearers, they are forever pointing out how religious beliefs favor freedom and public order, and it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.
If some of this doesn’t quite sound like Christianity to you, a lot of Mayhew’s contemporaries agreed. He was initially shunned by Boston’s Calvinist Puritan establishment, who found his Enlightenment views too radical. He was shut out of a popular Thursday Lecture series, so he held his own, which drew larger audiences, particularly from a rising generation of young idealists like Paul Revere. These lectures were then published as the “Seven Sermons,” which were widely read in America and in England.
Mayhew eventually won back the Boston clergy, however, through his tireless opposition to both ecclesiastical and political authority. In religion, he made his name as a defender of “dissenters” and “nonconformists”—that is, those who did not conform to the doctrines of the established Church of England.
In politics, Mayhew’s views were thoroughly Lockean, following the ideas of John Locke, Algernon Sidney, and other “Real Whig” natural rights theorists in upholding individual rights and the right of revolution against a tyrannical king. This he did most famously in 1750 in his “Discourse on Unlimited Submission,” his answer to a resurgence of support in England for monarchical absolutism.
The most fascinating part of “Father of Liberty” is Mullins’s account of how closely those two issues—religious freedom and political freedom—were connected in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Just after the end of the French and Indian War and just before the Stamp Act Crisis, New England was roiled by the First Bishop Controversy, the Church of England’s proposal to install an Anglican bishop in Boston.
The Church of England ran a Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which was supposedly chartered to proselytize among slaves and Native Americans but, in practice, focused all of its energies on bringing wayward New England Congregationalists back into the fold. The attempt to appoint an Anglican bishop to New England was viewed, both by its opponents and its more fanatical supporters, as the next logical step toward imposing Britain’s established church onto the colonies, complete with its special privileges and limitations on the civil rights of nonconformists.
You can imagine what a firestorm this created in colonies that had been founded as refuges from the persecution of the Anglican Church, and even in Episcopalian colonies where local churches had gotten used to running their own affairs in a kind of de facto congregationalism. Mayhew was at the center of the controversy, making the case against Anglican interference. His tract on the subject was widely read in America and Britain, and forced the archbishop of Canterbury to publicly back down from the plan.
That’s where things get interesting. The central legal issue of the controversy was whether the British Parliament had the right to legislate for the colonies—whether the laws it passed for Britain, including those establishing the Church of England and banning nonconformists from public office, were binding on this side of the Atlantic.
The First Bishop Controversy is largely forgotten today, but it explains why the colonies would so quickly erupt in violent protests against the Stamp Act. For several years beforehand, Americans had extensively debated and come to a firm conclusion on precisely this issue of the limits of Parliamentary power over the colonies. Here is how Mullins sums it up.
During the First Bishop Controversy, Mayhew attacked the Church of England as a threat to colonial self-government. His Episcopalian adversaries responded by asserting the authority of England’s Crown, Parliament, and Church over America’s congregations and legislatures. By defining the religious conflict between Congregationalists and Episcopalians in terms of Whig revolution principles and Tory obedience principles—in terms of liberty versus tyranny and order versus licentiousness—Mayhew and his antagonists drew the philosophical battle lines of the American Revolution before constitutional debates over taxation had begun in earnest. By the time Parliament passed statutes striking directly at the colonies’ civil liberty, Mayhew and his allies in the Congregational and Presbyterian clergy had already mobilized their congregations for a fierce defense of their rights.
This is the “change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations” that John Adams would later talk about, and Mayhew had a leading role in it.
Mayhew was only one man, and his story is only part of the larger story of the American Revolution and the spread of Enlightenment ideas. But it is particularly useful as an answer to several common objections about the role of Enlightenment ideas in the making of America.
First, many people doubt that the common man in America had access to Enlightenment ideas, and there is a tendency to write off Enlightenment rationalism and Lockean theories of individual rights as playthings of the elite. But Thomas Jefferson insisted that his Lockean prologue to the Declaration of Independence was not an attempt to “find out new principles” but merely an attempt to express the “harmonizing sentiments of the day,” because “all American Whigs thought alike on these subjects.”
Mayhew’s story helps explain how that ideological harmony came to be. Enlightenment ideas about reason, religious freedom, individual rights, and the right of revolution were not just notions Jefferson mused about alone in his library in Monticello. They were preached from the pulpit by popular figures like Mayhew for decades before 1776 and published in widely read pamphlets addressing the political controversies of the day. Mayhew gives us an idea of how Enlightenment ideas made it out into the minds of the American common man.
Second, some will grant that the Enlightenment had an influence in America but insist that it was a “moderate strain of the Enlightenment,” particularly regarding the role of reason. Yet Mayhew’s views were radical by the standards of his time. He was a radical philosophically, theologically, politically, and especially on the supremacy of reason and its application to moral and religious issues. The only way you could say he was not fully radical is that he was not an atheist and thought belief in God was consistent with reason. Then again, so did Voltaire.
By now, the astute reader will have noticed a pattern. I have criticized Steven Pinker for looking at the Enlightenment and finding it totally compatible with the contemporary center-left. I criticized Jonah Goldberg for finding the Enlightenment totally compatible with boilerplate 20th century conservatism. Now I, as an Objectivist, dip back into the American Enlightenment and find a guy who, with his defense of reason, independent judgment, individual rights, and “rational happiness,” sounds a lot like Ayn Rand.
That objection gets things a little backwards, though. If there is a relationship between Rand and Enlightenment thinkers, it goes the other way around: they don’t sound like her, she sounds like them. Some contemporary readers like Pinker are misled by Rand’s fiery and passionate literary style into thinking that she is a philosophical Romantic or even a Nietzschean, but in the overall substance of her philosophy, she is firmly in the tradition of the Enlightenment.
It would be more accurate to say, however, that all of these contemporary philosophies are in some way descended from different strains of Enlightenment thinking.
Modern “liberals” took the Enlightenment embrace of reason but made it narrower and more superficial. They support “science,” particularly when it seems to support them, but outside of the physical sciences, everything is subjective. They also borrowed the Enlightenment’s case for liberty, but over time they downgraded economic liberty and ultimately turned against it, and by the same inexorable logic they are now turning against liberty in every other form.
Twentieth-century conservatives (it remains to be seen where 21st-century conservatism will end up) want to retain the Founding Fathers’ love of freedom and individual rights while downgrading the Enlightenment’s reverence for reason and trying to preserve religion and morality as the exclusive domains of faith.
These later derivatives tend to grab the parts of the Enlightenment they like and ignore the strains that don’t serve contemporary ends, no matter how significant they were at the time. The point of looking at someone like Mayhew is not to get you to accept my view of the Enlightenment as gospel. Exercise your right of private judgment. But it’s important to understand the Enlightenment and the founding of America on their own terms, and not just try to borrow them for some contemporary social or political agenda.
That is the only way to understand what made the “miracle” of the modern world, the world of freedom and prosperity that most of us enjoy.