Evangelical Scholar Discusses ‘Baptists and Enlightenment’

Dr. David Bebbington addressed the OBU community Friday, Sept. 9, about how Baptist ideals were affected by the Enlightenment, explaining that “enlightenment” referred to an approach of central thought and reason, tied closely to empiricism.

Bebbington, a professor at the University of Stirling, Scotland, and one of the world’s foremost scholars on Baptist and evangelical history, is offering several lectures on Bison Hill Sept. 9 and Sept. 12, sponsored by OBU’s Distinguished Speakers Committee, the Faith and Disciplines Committee and the Department of Anthropology, History and Political Science.

In his lecture, “Baptists and the Enlightenment,” Bebbington explained in the 18th century, people generally believed if a person elevated reason, then the revelation of the Bible was lowered. People tended to replace revelation with mere reason. The Enlightenment, he said, instigated the melding of reason with biblical religion.

The thought that religion and reason were opposed slowly dissolved over time as the Enlightenment permeated early Baptist culture, Bebbington said. He presented four primary characteristics of the Enlightenment: optimism, empiricism, moderation and pragmatism. Optimism appeared as the goal of humanity in the 18th century. Happiness was the goal, as long as it was given spiritual meaning. This new hope served as a catalyst for progress, for the ability to apply reason to the problem at hand without dismissing religion.

Empiricism, or “experimental” and “investigative” religion, was also significant to religion, Bebbington said. Baptists took on a common-sense philosophy, believing the human mind always assumes certain truths. People believed it was the duty of every man to inquire for oneself. As empirical beliefs took hold, moderation also helped to break through obscurity. According to Bebbington, Baptists sought sensibility and simplicity, desiring to express thoughts clearly and distinctly. Finally, pragmatism brought the belief that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with an action; rather, the consequences attached to the action determined whether the action was of any positive or negative value.

Bebbington concluded his lecture by sustaining his early assertions: religion can and will be affected by cultural movements, and consequentially, the encounter with the Enlightenment forever changed the Baptist faith.