Sacred and Secular Revolutions in California

On 7 and 8 March, I had the pleasure of taking part in a conference at the Huntington Library in California, called Sacred and Secular Revolutions: The Political and Spiritual Legacies of the Atlantic Enlightenment in the American Founding. The conference, which was co-sponsored by the Huntington Library and the Jack Miller Center in Philadelphia, brought together historians, political scientists and literary scholars to think about the ways in which evangelical religion and enlightenment science informed ideas of American nationhood. The theme of the conference fitted very nicely with my current work on electrical science in the eighteenth century, because at that time even electrical researchers were not really sure about how electricity worked – it could be claimed as both an enlightened science and a quasi-divine wonder. In addition, American experimenters, led by Benjamin Franklin, were making hugely important discoveries in electricity, such as the relation between electricity and lightning. This allowed them to claim that the study of electricity was a distinctly American science. I decided to present my paper on a less famous figure than Franklin, Ebenezer Kinnersley. He’s a fascinating character because he was a Baptist preacher before turning to scientific lecturing, and historians have wondered for a long time how to reconcile those two distinct parts of his career. I argued that there was real consistency in Kinnersley’s career, and that he learned a lot from evangelical revivalist preachers. Revivalists taught Kinnersley the importance of newspaper advertisements, testimonials, and theatrical showmanship, but I also suggested that descriptions of the revivalist movement as a ‘wonderful wandering spirit’ informed Kinnersley’s ideas about the nature of electricity itself. My paper was the result of a month’s research fellowship at the Huntington last summer, and both the fellowship and the conference have been enormously fun and stimulating – I have learned a tremendous amount about religion and science in American history. Many thanks to the organisers Steve Hindle at the Huntington and Pamela Edwards at the Jack Miller Center.

Mary Fairclough

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