The Enlightenment And Christianity

It is evident from the foregoing that the period of the Enlightenment was the crucial step in the waning of civilization. This was as true in the area of morals as it was in the intellectual arena. Francis Asbury related that the spiritual climate at that time in England was "a very dark, dark, dark day and place."1

Historian Keith J. Hardman has described conditions at that time as follows:

In the first half of the eighteenth century every area of British life had large problems. Morality was at a low ebb, and no class of society was untouched by incredible grossness and bestiality. It was the "gin age," when 506 of the 2,000 houses in the London area of Holborn were gin shops. Gin was sold also from wheelbarrows in the streets and secretly from attics and cellars. The results of national drunkenness, Bishop Benson said, had made the English people "what they never were before, cruel and inhuman."

The case of Judith Dufour, recorded in the Old Bailey Session Papers for February 1735, is similar to many that could be recited to show the stranglehold the liquor traffic had on multitudes. This woman took her small child to the workhouse, where it was given clothing. She then left the workhouse, strangled the child, threw the body in a ditch, sold the clothes for one shilling and fourpence, and immediately spent the money on gin, which she shared with another woman who had helped in the murder.

Vast fortunes were amassed from the manufacture of cheap alcohol, and alcohol's effects were everywhere. "Gentlemen" squires and judges boasted of being "five- bottle men." Parliament, on numerous occasions, had to adjourn early because "the honourable Members were too drunk to continue the business of State." . . .

In any age the treatment of children is an accurate index of morality or savagery. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century in England, the death rate of children and the indescribable treatment toward them tells its own pathetic tale. During that time the London Bills of Mortality reveal that 74.5 percent of children of all classes died before their fifth birthday, and the poor classes had their children snatched from them even more than the rich. A petition to Parliament in 1739 to create a foundlings hospital tells of the constant "murder of poor miserable infants," of the custom of exposing new- born babies "to perish in the street," of the placing of foundlings with "wicked and barbarous nurses" who for a small sum allow them to "starve for want of due sustenance or care," and of the few who survived being turned "into the streets to beg or steal," some being "blinded, or maimed and distorted in their limbs, in order to move pity," thus being "fitter instruments of gain" to "vile, merciless wretches."2

Fortunately, the Evangelical Awakening (known in America as the Great Awakening) helped to bring about changes to these serious conditions. Nevertheless, unbelief continued in its progress, particularly in France.

One of the most effective popularizers of the ideas of the Enlightenment was Voltaire, who wrote prolifically on almost every subject. In his Philosphe ignorant (1766) he wrote:

Who are you? Where do you come from? What are you dong? What will become of you? This is a question one must put to every creature in the universe, but none of them gives us any answer.3

Elsewhere, Voltaire had written (in Microm‚gas, published in 1752), a story about a voyager from Sirius, whose intellectual faculties far exceeded those of man. He offered as a parting gift to his European hosts a book of philosophy in which they could read the ultimate meaning of life. This book was taken to the Academy of Sciences in Paris, but when the secretary, Fontenelle, opened it, he found the pages completely blank. "Ah," he said, "that's just what I expected."

It is clear from these examples that, once the Bible was no longer taken seriously, there were no longer any answers to the meaning of life. As has been ably demonstrated by the great Christian apologist of the twentieth century, Francis Schaeffer, this state of affairs inevitably leads to despair and hopelessness. If there is going to be any optimism at all, it must come from a recognition of the truth of the Bible and its claims. Apart from it, there is really no basis for optimism, hope, or absolutes of any kind. Ultimately, the "Enlightenment" led to this kind of despair.

1 Francis Asbury, The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1958), vol. I, pp. 720-721.

2 Keith J. Hardman, The Spiritual Awakeners (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), pp. 75-76.

3 Quoted by Hampson, p. 122.


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