of Evangelicalism: An Unsuccessful Movement against Rationalism Research Paper Introduction The most prominent religious reaction against rationalism was evangelical Protestantism. The evangelical approach was to oppose rationalism with faith and conviction by engaging the heart rather than the mind. Jonathan Edwards, as a key evangelical, stated in a homily: “The last beam of the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ is worth more than all the human knowledge that is taught in all the most famous colleges in the world. ”1 Evangelicalism is rooted in ideals which completely disclaimed principles of rationalism.
However, though proposed as a criticism of rationalism, evangelicalism adjusted itself to rationalism in indirect ways. According to Bebbington, this is the reason why evangelicals embrace the anti-slavery ideology, which was resolutely promoted by rational Christians. Bebbington even portrayed evangelicalism as “an adaptation of the Protestant tradition through contact with the Enlightenment”. 2 Consequently, evangelicalism unintentionally gave in to the form of simplistic and practical rationalism that the Reformers had bravely revealed in Catholic dogma and tried to erase from the Christian tradition. 3 This paper argues that evangelicalism was an unsuccessful reaction to rationalism. Overview of Evangelicalism and Rationalism The numerous religious groups that existed in colonial America by the latter part of the 18th century, the development of established religions financed by tax collections in a number of colonies, and decrees mandating church attendance may exaggerate the influence of established religion on the colonies. 4 However, from the 1730s, there was a growth in the religious involvement of many of the colonies.
In fact, most historians view the religious life of the latter part of the 18th century as a ‘great awakening’ of religious sentiment, but it was a sentiment toward a specific way or approach to faith.
Because that approach focused on individual religious experience, it is referred to as ‘evangelicalism’. 5 Two ministers became the leading figures in the evangelical awakenings—Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Jonathan Edwards was a Calvinist minister in Massachusetts while George Whitefield was an English Calvinist and colleague of Charles and John Wesley, the founding fathers of Methodism. 6 Edwards, generally considered as the best American thinker and theologian, observed a religious awakening among his parishioners in the 1730s and eventually became a leading scholar not only of the religious restorations, but also of the essence of religious experience. 7 Both Whitefield and Edwards, as Calvinists, claimed that only God chose who would be given the blessing of salvation and that people themselves were incapable of making themselves deserving of that blessing. 8 Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean that common people could not reflect on their personal experiences to confirm if God had granted them signs; these signs were more likely to surface through listening to sermons, reading the Bible, and praying. 9 Evangelicalism greatly influenced religious life in the colonies and contributed to the diversification of alternatives.
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