Central to all three—the Enlightenment, counter-Enlightenment, and the religion of the heart—is the belief that one should throw off all restrictions. However, counter-Enlightenment and the religion of the heart go a step further. They share the profound conviction that reason is limited and advocate that religion and the heart had to be an important, or even the controlling aspect of human personality and society.
Patrick Henry and Reverend Samuel Davies
Patrick Henry, one of America’s founders, was the most self-contradictory and the most contrarian of them all. Known to be a brilliant orator, Patrick Henry had a suspicion of authority, be it the authority of the Church of England in Virginia or more distant versions. He believed in the religion of the heart, deeming individual freedom to be above all things as he famously said, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
Henry adapted the oratorical brilliance of the Awakeners to the practice of Virginia law between 1760 and 1763. Yet, he wasn’t too intellectually inclined as a boy. That is, until he encountered the formidable Reverend Samuel Davies.
Samuel Davies arrived in Hanover County in 1747, and brought with him an entire alternate universe to the one Patrick Henry had thus far enjoyed. It was the 18th-century Enlightenment.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The universe of the Enlightenment loved reason because reason, untrammeled by authority, was understood to have the power to peer into the mysteries of human life, discern their true and natural pattern, and then present them whole and complete to reshape the world in true and natural patterns.
But lives lived strictly according to reason had these two great defects: first, they became stale, chilly, and unexciting; second, no single human reason was capable of comprehending, sorting, and retaining all the data that the world threw at it. Every mystery that reason solved opened up two more, and reason fell very far short of offering an ultimate answer to the most fundamental question of all: how did everything come into being in the first place?
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Blaise Pascal, the French Catholic and mathematical genius, put his finger squarely on reason’s limitations when he wrote that: “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to realize that.” What strength does reason actually have? Pascal asked. “Everyone knows that the sight of cats, or rats, the crunching of a coal, etc. is enough to unhinge reason. Anyone who chose to follow reason alone would have proved himself a fool.”
Of course, Pascal was himself too much a man of the Enlightenment to spit on reason entirely. But we know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart, by intuition rather than by pure abstract thinking.
It is through the heart, Pascal said, that we know first principles, like space, time, motion, number, and, ultimately, God. “It is the heart,” Pascal said, “which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by reason.”
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Pascal was only one of several starting points of a vast religious reaction to the Enlightenment which we can call the counter-Enlightenment, and which embraced in European Christian movements as diverse as French Jansenists, German Moravians, and English Non-Jurors and Methodists. But, diverse though they were, they all had in common a profound conviction that reason told you only so much about life, and that religion and the heart had to be equally, if not more important, part of human character and society.
In some respects, the preachers of counter-Enlightenment Christianity remained very much in the spirit of the Enlightenment because they, too, sought to dismantle the chains of authority and find in experience the unaffected springs of religious life. And some of them turned out to be quite formidable reasoners on their own.
Religion of the Heart
But the religion of the heart remained the central guide of their lives, and no one expressed it better than the Englishman John Wesley, describing his own conversion to the religion of the heart on May 24, 1738, in these words:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a Society in Aldersgate street in London, where one was reading Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart, through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
From here on, it took less than a year for the evangelical experience Wesley described to make its transit to the British colonies of North America. It did so most spectacularly through the agency of Wesley’s colleague, George Whitefield, who went on to become one of the greatest preaching talents of the 18th century.
Common Questions about Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment and the Religion of the Heart
Blaise Pascal said that it is through the heart that we know the first principles, like space, time, motion, number, and, ultimately, God.
The preachers of counter-Enlightenment Christianity remained very much in the spirit of the Enlightenment because they, too, sought to dismantle the chains of authority and find in experience the unaffected springs of religious life.
In Europe, Christian movements as diverse as French Jansenists, German Moravians, and English Non-Jurors and Methodists existed at the time.