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In seventeenth century America, the world was a frightening place. God could, and would, strike a man down at any time for any missteps he might take. Nature was filled with horrors, like Indians, and the Devil resided in the forest, waiting to steal peoples’ souls. In the eighteenth century, however, the Enlightenment began. Man discovered that he could learn by following others’ example, or by observing nature, rather than looking solely to the Bible for answers. People began to become concerned with their life here on the earth, rather than concerning themselves solely with the expectations of the afterlife. God stopped being thought of as a puppeteer, pulling the strings and controlling every movement, but as a clockmaker who had wound the world up and had then stepped back to watch. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were two important figures in the Enlightenment. Although their philosophies differed on some matters, they both believed that the world was there to observe, not merely to act as a waiting room for the afterlife. This was a dramatic change from the seventeenth century viewpoint. Franklin and Paine’s viewpoints differed sharply from those that were held to be true in the seventeenth century, and nowhere were these differences as apparent as they were in the areas of knowledge, nature, and religion.
In regards to knowledge, the seventeenth century view was that knowledge was to gained through studying the Bible, and that the only purpose of gaining further knowledge would be to preserve the integrity of one’s own soul, or to help others in saving theirs. The Puritans’ interests in gaining or preserving knowledge were solely religious, and they also believed that any knowledge that man was to have could be found within the Bible. In The Autobiography (Part Two), Franklin writes that his main reason for setting up a subscription library was to give himself access to more books, and that the knowledge he gained would serve as his own personal “Means of Improvement” (575). According to the Puritans, if a person had a question, he or she needed only to search the scriptures for an answer. For example, when Anne Bradstreet was searching for an answer as to why her house, and all of her possessions contained therein, had burnt to the ground, she looked to scripture, and found solace in the idea everything she had, including her own life, was on lend from God (278).
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The most significant difference between the Puritans and the people of the Enlightenment becomes significant upon examination of the religious beliefs of the two groups. Puritans believed that they had been chosen by God to be the people of a New Jerusalem. In “A Model of Christian Charity,” John Winthrop writes, “He shall make us a praise and glory” (225). As far as the Puritans were concerned, everyone who did not believe as they did was in the wrong, and God’s providence would eventually punish them. They believed that they had entered into a covenant with God and that by following His rules, commandments and decrees they would find salvation. However, according to Calvinist doctrine, not everyone could achieve everlasting life. Only those who were proclaimed to be of the “elect” were going to be saved. In the eighteenth century, the idea of the “elect” was dismissed. People began to believe in a religious viewpoint that was called deism. Deism maintains that God does indeed exist, and He did indeed create the heavens and the earth. Deists believe that God then started the world up to get it going, and took a step back to observe. Contrary to the Puritan belief that every incident in their lives was a result of God’s intervention, the people of the eighteenth century began to believe that God, more or less, left the world there for man to figure out and deal with on his own. Pane writes about the idea that God created the scientific principles that man was just then discovering. He admits the existence of a higher power, saying that man is incapable of inventing anything that is “eternal and immutable,” such as a scientific principle (709). While Franklin was not so much a deist, he still did not subscribe to many of the commonly held beliefs of the church. For instance, he wrote that he “seldom attended any Public Worship,” and that when he did, he found the sermons to be “very dry, uninteresting and unedifying.” Franklin preferred instead to study on Sundays.
The opinions people held in regards to knowledge, nature, and religion differed significantly between the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. Man became less focused on the omnipotence of God and became more interested in increasing his own knowledge of the world around him. God began to shrink into the background and man emerged as the ruler of his own fate. Although many differences existed between Paine and Franklin’s opinions, the two of them are examples of who the ideal person of the Enlightenment was supposed to be.