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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: Ideas

Mather sermon
Mather sermon
Religion I: Religion and Reason
- On religion and reason: A Puritan discussion, 1720s, 1770s (PDF)
- On God and earthquakes: A Puritan debate, 1727, 1755 (PDF)
- On God, earthquakes, electricity, and faith: A Puritan "quarrel," 1755 (PDF)

As we begin this Theme, IDEAS, we heed the reminder that categorizing material has benefits and pitfalls. One benefit—a clear hierarchy that represents the relative significance of ideas in a period. One pitfall—the implication that all topics are self-standing, independent of the others. In truth, of course, they overlap, cross-fertilize, and blend into bottom-line reality. So while we divide the eighteenth-century religious issues in three categories, they should be considered as a whole. And, certainly, there are more categories to incorporate in a comprehensive view. We explore the socio-political aspects of religious diversity (including the spiritual practice of Indians and Africans) in Theme II: PEOPLES, and the political issues of religious liberty and state-established religion in Theme V: AMERICAN. Let's begin.

Among the salient theological issues of the 1700s—free will and predestination, the path to salvation, the elect of God—none had more roots in Enlightenment thinking than the place of reason in man's relationship with God. Was reason a God-given tool for divine insight, or was it a secular temptation to "atheistical" views? Could man gain knowledge of the divine only through scripture and religious experience ("revealed religion") or could he also study nature and the universe to perceive divine meaning ("natural religion")? Could revealed and natural religion co-exist, each complementing the insights of the other?

Here we read from sermons, treatises, and "letters to the editor" in which New England Puritans (Congregationalists) explore these questions, most fervently, perhaps, after the Boston earthquakes of 1727 and 1755. By 1775 Samuel Langdon, a theologian and the president of Harvard, affirmed that "Reason is his [God's] law given to man, indelibly imprinted on his mind" and that Scriptures "teach divine science communicated from heaven to mankind" [italics in original]. The next year Thomas Jefferson would ascribe to the "laws of nature and of nature's God" Americans' entitlement to independence. The theological underpinnings of American political philosophy had been set, and would be debated thereafter.
  • On religion and reason. "In the contemporary world," states historian Winton Solberg, "many people insist that science and religion are incompatible and strive to maintain them in distinct and watertight compartments. . . . Such an outlook is a recent development, however, for science and religion have been irretrievably intermixed throughout Western history."1 Here we read four Puritan ministers analyze man's use of reason to understand God's universe, promoting greater awe and reverence for the divine. "Philosophy [i.e., science] is no Enemy," asserts Cotton Mather, "but a mighty and wondrous Incentive to Religion." Others weren't so sure.
    • - Rev. Cotton Mather, A Man of Reason, 1718, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, essays, 1721, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Benjamin Colman, God Deals with Us as Rational Creatures, sermon, 1723, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Andrew Eliot, A Discourse on Natural Religion, sermon, 1771, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Samuel Langdon, The Co-incidence of Natural with Revealed Religion, sermon, 1775, excerpts.

  • On God and earthquakes. In 1727 and 1755, early-morning earthquakes (estimated today at 5.5 and 6.2 on the Richter scale)2 brought severe damage, but no fatalities, to the Boston area. Why did they happen? Puritan ministers agreed that God caused the earthquakes but differed on his divine mechanism. Did an angry God wrack the benign earth to warn man of the consequences of sin? Or had God created the earth in such a way that earthquakes could occur naturally, independent of his immediate intervention? If so, could a "natural earthquake" still announce God's wrath? To what extent was human sinfulness the immediate and moral cause of earthquakes? "The substantive Puritan battle with science," writes professor of philosophy Maxine Van De Wetering, "had to do with the question of how far the rational explanation [for earthquakes] ought to go and not whether rational explanations were viable."3 Follow as five Puritan thinkers blend theology with science to address the question of God and earthquakes.
    • - Rev. Cotton Mather, The Terror of the Lord. Some Account of the Earthquake That Shook New-England . . . , sermon, 1727, excerpts.
    • - Rev. James Allin, Thunder and Earthquake, A Loud and Awful Call to Reformation, sermon, 1727, excerpts.
    • - Rev. Thomas Prince, Earthquakes the Works of God, and Tokens of His Just Displeasure, sermon, 1727 (1755 reprint), excerpts.
    • - Prof. John Winthrop, A Lecture on Earthquakes, lecture and pamphlet, 1755, excerpts.

  • On God, earthquakes, electricity, and faith. After the 1755 earthquake, one issue that embroiled two Bostonians in an acerbic interchange was the role of electricity in earthquakes and whether man's use of lightning rods to direct the "electric substance" to the ground resisted God's will. Here we read the exchange between clergyman Thomas Prince and Harvard professor John Winthrop, both professed Congregationalists, who engaged in a "quarrel of four months," writes literary scholar Eleanor Tilton, that in the end had "little to do with 'isms,' and much to do with personalities, human pride, and, of course, lightning-rods."4 Where does the science end and the name-calling begin? Why does it matter?
    • - Rev. Thomas Prince, "Appendix Concerning the Operation of God in Earthquakes by Means of the Electrical Substance," in December 1755 reprint of 1727 sermon on earthquakes (see above); Letters to The Boston Gazette, 26 January & 23 February 1756, excerpts.
    • - Prof. John Winthrop, "Appendix Concerning the Operation of Electrical Substance in Earthquakes, and the Effects of Iron Points," 20 Dec. 1755, in A Lecture on Earthquakes, 1755, excerpts; A Letter to the Publishers of The Boston Gazette . . . Containing an Answer to the Rev. Mr. Prince's Letter, pamphlet, 28 January 1756, excerpts; Letter to The Boston Gazette, 1 March 1756.

Discuss these texts with those by Rev. Cotton Mather in #6: Science, and #7: Health, especially The Christian Philosopher (1721), in which Mather compiles the scientific knowledge of the day within a Christian perspective. (16 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What is the basic agreement among these Puritan thinkers about the role of reason in man's knowledge of God and the universe?
  2. What is the main issue that divides them?
  3. How do some reconcile the apparent theological divide?
  4. In the three sermons on earthquakes, what is the main theological issue about God's role in natural disasters—and man's place in trying to explain them?
  5. On what do the three clergymen agree? Where do they disagree?
  6. What aspect of God's use of earthquakes does layman John Winthrop add to the discussion? How would the clergymen respond?
  7. Would Rev. James Allin consider Winthrop's ideas "atheistical"? Does Winthrop?
  8. How does the dispute between clergyman Thomas Prince and professor John Winthrop about lightning rods become personal? How do they resolve the four-month publishing "quarrel"?
  9. Compare the science-religion controversies of our time with those of the 1700s (also see sections #6 and #7). What accounts for the similarities and differences?
  10. Complete this table (PDF) to help you parse the various positions within the Puritan discussion of religion and reason. Several are done as examples. (Table as a Word doc.)

Framing Questions
  •  What central ideas distinguished the eighteenth- from seventeenth-century American colonies?
  •  How were these ideas shaped, and how did they influence the colonists' perception of themselves and their relationships with God, with each other, and with Britain?
  •  How did their concepts of liberty, rights, equality, and independence change in this period?
  •  To what extent were the shaping ideas "American"?

On religion and reason:  6
On God and earthquakes:  6
On God, earthquakes, electricity, and faith:  4
TOTAL 16 pages
Supplemental Sites

Religion in Eighteenth-Century America, in Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, from the Library of Congress

On the earthquake sermons of 1727, in Red, White, Blue, and Brimstone: New World Literature and the American Millennium, from the University of Virginia, Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History

"The Great Earthquake" [Cape Ann (Massachusetts) earthquake of 1755], American Heritage, Aug./Sept. 1980

"Verses Occasioned by the Earthquakes in the Month of November, 1755," poem by Jeremiah Newland, broadside and transcription, from the Massachusetts Historical Society

1 Winton U. Solberg, ed., introduction to Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, 1721 (University of Illinois Press, 1994), p. xix.

2 The Boston Globe online /, 27 February 2005; at

3 Maxine Van De Wetering, "Moralizing in Puritan Natural Science: Mysteriousness in Earthquake Sermons," Journal of the History of Ideas 43:3 (July-Sept. 1982), p. 437.

4 Eleanor M. Tilton, "Lightning-Rods and the Earthquake of 1755," The New England Quarterly 13:1 (March 1940), p. 97.

- Cotton Mather: Portrait, engraving by Peter Pelham captioned "Cottonus Matherus S. theologiae doctor regia societatis Londonensis . . . ," Boston: 1728, restrike 1860. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, #LC-USZC4-4597.
- Cotton Mather, A Short Essay to Preserve and Strengthen the Good Impressions Produced by Earthquakes, cover of published sermon, 1727. Courtesy of the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, University of Virginia.
- Jonathan Edwards: portrait, uncited illustration captioned "Rev. Jona. Edwards," New York Public Library, Print Collection, #1227704. Permission pending.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Religion I   2. Religion II   3. Religion III
4. Learning   5. Communication   6. Science
7. Health

TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American

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