Education and Enlightenment in Colonial Life

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012


Two basic cultural forces have shaped the United States of America; both came into evidence in Colonial times, and they remain hostile to each other to this day. The first is the influence of the Enlightenment; the second is religious fervor.

The Enlightenment

The main ideas of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that originated in France were these: all people were born free and equal, they had the right to make their own laws and to govern themselves, they must be free to write and speak their thoughts without censorship, and they must be permitted to wor- ship as they saw fit. Thinkers of the Enlightenment also argued that literacy and education were desirable goals because literacy made people aware of the world around them, and able to think about it for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Education made a blacksmith the equal of an aristocrat and made it perfectly legitimate for a cobbler to criticize the king.

Colonial Americans also believed that education was very important, although they felt this way originally for religious reasons. Protestants believed that everyone must read the Bible regularly, so almost all Colonial children were taught to read. Higher education was reserved for boys, because only boys could enter professions for which education was clearly necessary, such as medicine, the law, or the ministry. However, many American girls succeeded in getting good educations at home, either because they had enlightened parents or simply through their own persistence. Abigail Smith Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and poet Phillis Wheatley are just a few examples of women who were as well read and well educated as any man of their times.

One of the major ideals of the Enlightenment was tolerance for points of view other than one’s own. The mere fact that the colonies were becoming a diverse society of immigrants from all the nations of Europe (and west Africa) reinforced the need for cultural and religious tolerance. In addition, the forces of the Enlightenment encouraged people to think for themselves, rather than blindly following the dictates of their particular church or minister.

Religion and the Great Awakening

The second great force that shaped American society and the American char- acter was religious fervor. In the 1600s, the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America in order to establish moral Christian communities. In the 1700s, a series of religious revivals known as the Great Awakening swept the colonies.

Historians credit Jonathan Edwards of Connecticut with launching the Great Awakening in New England around 1730. Edwards was an unforget- table preacher whose dramatic and impressive denunciations of sinners terrified his parishioners into leading blameless lives. Because Edwards suggested that God could be merciful to those who sincerely repented of their sins, many people were moved to confess their sins publicly and claim to be reborn in God’s love. However, since the New England Calvinist churches preached the doctrine of predestination—that God had chosen those to be saved before they were born—Edwards was taking a risk by suggesting that a person could play an active role in his or her own salvation. Church officials eventually dismissed him from the pulpit for his unorthodox teachings.

The Great Awakening continued nonetheless. Beginning in 1738, British preacher George Whitefield drew huge crowds to hear his sermons. He was a celebrity before the concept of celebrity existed, receiving regular front- page coverage in Colonial newspapers wherever he traveled. Whitefield was a powerful and charismatic speaker whose sermons inspired a surge in church membership and a wave of new congregations, many of which were Baptist or Methodist.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Colonial Life Practice Test

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