Spiritual Revival During the Enlightenment Era

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by Jesus Christ Savior | Discoveries in science had much to do with the Age of Enlightenment. Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed the sun is the center of the solar system and the earth revolved around the sun. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the first to use a telescope, confirmed that Copernicus was right and was condemned by the Catholic Church. (Image: Part of “School of Athens” by Raphael ‘Raffaelo Sanzio’, 1483-1520)

The period from 1650 through the eighteenth century was known as the Age of Enlightenment in Europe. The time had come when men would set aside religious views and look to reason and social experience to guide society.

It was the loss of Christian unity that led to the secularization of Western culture.

Whereas Christendom provided one message to European society, the pluralism of religions provided different answers to questions about life and led to skepticism and conflict rather than unanimous thought.

Discoveries in science had much to do with the Age of Enlightenment. Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed the sun is the center of the solar system and the earth revolved around the sun. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the first to use a telescope, confirmed that Copernicus was right and was condemned by the Catholic Church. Scientists such as Isaac Newton (1642-1727) in physics and Robert Boyle (1642-1727) in chemistry were pioneers and gave birth to technology, the application of science to practical problems, which led to the Industrial Revolution. Progress based on science and technology became a major goal of Western Society.

Mankind was left without its mooring, and philosophers set out in different directions to provide meaning for humanity. The critical Rationalism of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) applied to philosophy the mathematical method so effective in science, that everything was questionable until it could be proved beyond all doubt. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) took a different stance and presented Pascal’s Wager: it is better to live a good life, for if there is a God, you will end up with Him in Heaven; but if you have lived a bad life and there is a God, you are doomed! John Locke (1632-1704) applied reason to confirm revelation. The political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu of France (1689-1755) proposed that the best form of government would incorporate a separation of powers into executive, legislative, and judicial branches and would be based on the natural law. David Hume (1711- 1776) proposed a science of man, and is considered a pioneer in the social sciences. But Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), considered the father of Romanticism, took an opposite approach and spoke of the noble savage, that man was happy only in his original native state, before government, laws, and politics chained mankind. It was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) that defined the era: “Have courage to use your own reason – that is the motto of Enlightenment.”

The Age of Enlightenment proposed that reason and science would bring an “enlightened” world. Unfortunately, the Age of Enlightenment ignored love, emotion, spirituality and concern for one’s fellow man. It forgot that man is wounded by original and personal sin, and his reason is colored by desire and selfishness. In fact, the Age of Enlightenment brought the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror (1789), Naziism, Communism, and the twentieth century, with its two World Wars, the bloodiest century in history.

Intellectual dryness and doctrinal religions prevalent during the Enlightenment Era led to a spiritual revival throughout Western Christian civilization, as seen with Pietism in Germany, Methodism in England and America, and the Great Awakening in the United States.

Philipp Jakob Spener of Germany wrote Pia Desideria in 1675 and spoke of a theology of the heart, placing emphasis on inner devotion and Christian living, and inspired the Pietist movement. Pietism especially influenced Nikolaus von Zinzendorf and the Moravian Church.

John Wesley (1703-1791) and his brother Charles (1707-1788) provided light for Christianity during the Enlightenment. John Wesley, noted for his moving sermons, and his brother Charles, a poetic genius and hymn writer, began the Methodist movement in England, and set forth an evangelical revival throughout the British Isles, North America, and the world.

The two brothers were raised in the Anglican Church. While at Oxford they formed a group, joined by George Whitefield and others, called the Holy Club in November 1729 and read the Greek New Testament. Because of their strict method of living, they were soon called the Methodists. John Wesley experienced a heartwarming conversion experience at Aldersgate Street in London in 1738. He preached in the English countryside to the poor, and sparked a religious revival throughout England. He assured the people that all could be saved by experiencing God and opening their hearts to his grace.

George Whitefield made seven trips to America beginning in 1738 and was one of the most powerful evangelists ever. He, along with others, kindled a spiritual revival throughout the thirteen colonies known as the Great Awakening. The Great Awakening was the first national experience in America and did much to unite the American colonies.

Revival during the Enlightenment Era fulfilled the human need for spiritual experience through Jesus Christ.

Our anonymous author is a physician and a Masters graduate in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio. He teaches Sunday Bible Class at St. James Catholic Church and serves both Pastoral Care and the Medical Staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

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