The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Enlightened Before the Enlightenment

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Almost every modern critic of America’s Christian heritage makes the claim that America was founded solely on Enlightenment principles as they get to define them. For evidence they refer to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and add for good measure James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Paine as if these men were the only founders of America.

Franklin was influenced by Cotton Mather’s Essays to do Good, “which perhaps gave me a turn of thinking that had an influence on some of the principal future events of my life.”[1] Franklin gives considerable attention to the issue of the moral life in his autobiography (not that he was always moral). He was particularly put off by a Presbyterian minister who preached on Philippians 4:8 but failed to plumb the depths of the passage:

At length he took for his text that verse of the fourth chapter of Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue, or any praise, think on these things.” And I imagin’d, in a sermon on such a text, we could not miss of having some morality. But he confin’d himself to five points only, as meant by the apostle, viz.: 1. Keeping holy the Sabbath day. 2. Being diligent in reading the holy Scriptures. 3. Attending duly the publick worship. 4. Partaking of the Sacrament. 5. Paying a due respect to God’s ministers. These might be all good things; but, as they were not the kind of good things that I expected from that text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his preaching no more.

Philippians 4:8 is a good passage to ask the question “what constitutes the good and how do we account for it?” Certainly not by reason alone and certainly not by a worldview that discounts God entirely.

Mather was a Puritan minister who believed and taught “that the power and opportunity to do good, not only gives a right to the doing of it, but makes the doing of it a duty.” Mather saw good works as the reasonable outworking of faith. The Bible says as much: “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20, KJV). Mather’s influence on Franklin can be seen in the actual wording of Franklin’s Autobiography where he acknowledges belief in God and resultant good works: “I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and govern’d it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue reward, either here or hereafter.”[2] One of Franklin’s recent biographers writes:

Franklin’s belief that he could best serve God by serving his fellow man may strike some as mundane, but it was in truth a worthy creed that he deeply believed and faithfully followed.[3]

Many historians believe America was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment because of the emphasis on reason by a number of thinkers of that era. While it’s true that most Enlightenment thinkers elevated reason to the position of a secular god, reason, logic, and science were staple disciplines among early Christian thinkers that gave rise to science. “The language of Europe and America had as its common feature an emphasis on calm, rational discourse, but we must not confuse this with rationalism,”[4] the belief that reason alone was the basis for all knowledge. By the time Franklin came along, there had been a long history of scholarship in the colonies that rested on the foundation stones of Special Revelation, reasonable inquiry, and scientific investigation.

Harvard, founded in 1636 by Puritans, required that students be able “to resolve [the Scriptures] Logically.”[5] What was true of Scripture was also true of “natural philosophy,” politics, and every other area of life.[6] The Puritans despised an “illiterate ministry.” Ministers generally were the most educated men in the colonies and served as popular educators. “No other thinker had such a wide audience as did the preacher in his pulpit, and his printed sermons and treatises were the staple reading matter of his parishioners.”[7] When the preacher delivered his message, the community at large was impacted by it. “On Sundays, ministers would be gospel heralds proclaiming the way of personal salvation though faith in Christ.”[8] These same ministers would use weekdays, as the occasion required, to become “social guardians telling the nation who they were and what they must do to retain God’s special covenant interest.”[9] There was duty involved in the Christian life. Preaching on the reality of sin and the promise of redemption had a broader relevance. “Since all of society fell under the mastery of God’s Word, it was necessary that there be a provision for formal presentation of the Word at every significant event in the life of the community. More than any other custom or institution, the occasional sermon symbolized New England’s claim to peculiar peoplehood and proclaimed that in all events bearing on public life, God’s Word would be preeminent.”[10]

Reason was considered a tool, not the final arbiter of truth. Whose version of reason would be considered ultimately reasonable? No one could say. Even so, reason was valued and necessary because it was a reflection of God’s nature. The reason-alone approach was displayed in all its horrid consistency when the worst elements of the Enlightenment philosophers came full circle during the French Revolution. Heads rolled and blood flowed in the streets. America’s dance with the Enlightenment was held in check by the underlying tenets of Christianity.

Cotton Mather’s The Christian Philosopher (1721), the first systematic book on science published in America and based in part on Robert Boyle’s The Christian Virtuoso (1690),[11] stands as ample testimony to the use of reason by Christians long before Deists and infidels made exclusive claim to it. We shouldn’t forget that Mather was a forward thinking scientist who promoted inoculation for smallpox after hearing stories from African slaves and reading about success in Turkey in reports of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. It was a medical practitioner who opposed Mather and turned some clergymen against him. And it didn’t help that Benjamin Franklin’s brother, James, incited hostility to Mather through his new weekly newspaper the New England Courant. Because of James Franklin’s published anti-inoculation efforts, an incendiary device was thrown into Mather’s house.[12] Benjamin Franklin took a position different from that of his brother:

[Benjamin Franklin] later became a fervent advocate of inoculation, painfully and poignantly espousing the cause right after his 4-year-old son, Francis, died of the pox in 1736. And he would, both as an aspiring boy of letters, end up becoming Cotton Mather’s admirer and, a few years later, his acquaintance.[13]

Mather also experimented with plant hybridization. The publication of his Curiosa Americana (1712–1724) won him membership in the Royal Society of London. Mather wrote and published more than 400 works. “By the time Franklin was born, Cotton Mather had built a private library of almost three thousand volumes rich in classical and scientific as well as theological works. This appreciation of books was one of the traits shared by the Puritanism of Mather and the Enlightenment of [John] Locke,[14] worlds that would combine in the character of Benjamin Franklin.”[15]

For the record, it was Thomas Jefferson who received early training in Latin, Greek, and French from Reverend William Douglas, a Scottish clergyman. After his father’s death, Jefferson continued his education with the Reverend James Maury who ran a classical academy. When Alexander Hamilton entered King’s College (now Columbia University) in 1773, he was expected to have mastered Greek and Latin grammar. In addition, he had to read three orations from Cicero and Virgil’s Aeneid in the original Latin and be able to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin. The ministers of that time were very enlightened when it came to the use of reason in their studies of God and nature and the pursuit of scientific investigation.


[1] Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed. John Bigelow (Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott & Co., 1868), 92.
Franklin, Autobiography, 211. Emphasis added.
[3] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 492.
Rousas J. Rushdoony, “The Myth of an American Enlightenment,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Symposium on Christianity and the American Revolution, ed. Gary North, 3:1 (Summer 1976), 670.
[5] Samuel Eliot Morison, Founding of Harvard College (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), 337.
[6] Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie/Zondervan, 1986).
Richard B. Schlatter, The Social Ideas of Religious Leaders, 1660–1688 (New York: Octagon Books, [1940] 1971), v.
Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 27.
Stout, The New England Soul, 27.
[10] Stout, The New England Soul, 27.
[11] The use of Virtuoso by Boyle (1627–1691) has the meaning of “natural philosopher” or “naturalist,” what we would call today a scientist. In addition to The Christian Virtuoso, Boyle also wrote other works showing the relationship between the Christian faith, reason, and science: Of the High Veneration Man’s Intellect owes to God, peculiar for his Wisdom and Power (1684) and Discourse Of Things Above Reason, inquiring whether a Philosopher should admit there are any such (1681).
Laurence Farmer, “When Cotton Mather Fought the Smallpox,” American Heritage Magazine 8:5 (August 1957):
[13] Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 24.
In addition to writing his two-volume work An Essay on Human Understanding, Locke wrote “The Reasonableness of Christianity” with “A Discourse on Miracles” and a part of “A Third Letter Concerning Toleration.” See Gary T. Amos, Defending the Declaration: How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, 1989.
Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 24.

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