Miracle or Madness?

Suspicion of the Sacred in the long 18th Century

This introductory seminar explores a classic question:  What happened to religious practices and beliefs in their encounter with rationalists and skeptics in the eighteenth century?  The era which historians call the Enlightenment (c. 1660-1815) was a period of intellectual fervor in which radical ideas about human nature, the organization of society, the role of government, and the validity of belief in the divine and miraculous spread through a "republic of letters" that spanned Europe and the Americas.  These ideas produced a host of new cultural practices and institutions, such as free press, state sponsored libraries and scientific laboratories, newspapers and coffeehouses, clandestine philosophical movements, and, untimately, democratic revolutions in America, France, and Haiti. 

In books published in secret and cloistered literary salons, philosophers extended rationalist and empiricist thinking to critique religious belief and the authority of the institutions that taught and enforced those beliefs.  In France, this pitted the national Catholic Chuch against skeptics who sought to undermine "priestcraft" for the sake of freethinking.  Yet elsewhere, as in Britain and its American colonies, rational religious thinking emerged as a way to yoke belief in the supernatural with the new science.  Such thinkers as Robert Boyle and John Locke employed their considerable intellectual might toward proving the existence of God and the immaterial soul through empirical methods.  In America, the science of acoustics emerged as a means to determine whether or not individuals could actually hear divine voices.

Through sources ranging from published essays and sermons to descriptions of scientific experiments and personal accounts of mystical experiences, we will witness the contests for control over the sacred that religious leaders, skeptics, and common people waged throughout the long eighteenth century.  Topics will include the growing tension between faith and reason, the spread of revivalism and ecstatic forms of religious practice, the confrontation of science with magic, and the contributions of religion to new medicine.

This course is designed to introduce first and second-year students to reading and writing about history.  Special attention will be given to methods of studying religion as a historical subject.  Students are expected to read carefully, participate actively in class discussions, and write regularly.  Weekly short writing assignments will train students in the practice of "close reading" by asking them to analyze primary source materials.  At the end of the semester students will complete a longer project a topic of their choice.  This may take the form of a traditional essay or a digital essay published on the web. 

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904


(434) 924-7147
(434) 924-7891
M-F 8am to 4:30pm
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