Religion and the Atlantic Enlightenment


In this research seminar we will explore a classic question: What happened to religious practices and beliefs in their encounter with Enlightenment rationalists and skeptics? Although historians long assumed that new scientific and philosophical ideas formulated by the likes of Descartes, Newton, Rousseau, and Voltaire undermined faith and religious institutions, scholars recently have come to see that religion, throughout the Atlantic world, adapted to and accommodated the ideas and cultures of the Enlightenment. What was once a straightforward secularization narrative has become much more complicated. 

This research seminar explores the various ideas and cultural practices that made up the Atlantic Enlightenment to understand how they influenced religion in early modern Europe and colonial America. It also asks whether religious individuals and groups influenced how the Enlightenment developed throughout the Atlantic basin. Students will address these historical issues by investigating a particular aspect of the relationship between religion and the Atlantic Enlightenment across the long-eighteenth century, roughly 1660–1830. The era of the Enlightenment is defined quite broadly in order to allow students to pursue a wide variety of topics. Topics might include revivalism and religious experience, religion and medicine, religion and the new science, the rise of liberal Protestantism, natural theology and rational religion, and the emergence of non-Christian religious traditions in the West, among others. Students are encouraged to draw on unique and unconventional sources, including non-English language sources, and we will spend time in class discussing ways to “read” everything from published sermons and manuscript diaries to phrenological maps and rituals.

Students are expected to complete an article-length essay (25–30 pages, with notes) based on primary source materials. The course is designed to guide students through the challenging process of selecting, researching, and writing an original research paper.

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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