1776: The Origin Story of the Post-Christian West
The big idea of the book is that 1776, more than any other year in the last millennium, is the year that made us who we are. We cannot understand ourselves without it. The Western world today is the result of a fusion that took place in 1776: the coming together of seven distinct transformations in society—some would call them “revolutions”—which have permanently changed the way we think about God, ourselves, the world, and our place in it. These transformations explain all kinds of apparently unrelated features of our culture. They explain why we believe in human rights, free trade, liberal democracy and religious pluralism; they ground our preference for authenticity over authority, and self-expression over self-denial; and they account for all kinds of phenomena that our great-grandparents would have found inconceivable, from intersectionality to bitcoin. 1776, I suggest, provides us with an origin story for the post-Christian West.
That involves a combination of two claims. One relates to the world we live in today, and the other to the world of two and a half centuries ago.
The first claim is that the most helpful way of identifying what is distinctive about our society, relative to others past and present, is that it is WEIRDER: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic. We may or may not embrace all of those labels as individuals. We may be African or Asian, get by on very moderate incomes, have no history of Christianity, or live without any romantic attachments. But the broader culture within which we live is characterised by all seven of them.
We freely refer to it as the “West.” Education for children is widespread, free and usually compulsory, with literacy at virtually 100%, and recognised qualifications carrying significant social and economic prestige. We are clearly industrialised, with only a tiny percentage of the population still working in agriculture, and unprecedentedly rich: the diet, amenities, healthcare and leisure options available to someone working on minimum wage today are in many ways better than those available to Mansa Musa or Louis XIV. We are democratic, not only in our system of government but in our assumptions about society. We are Ex-Christian, with formal adherence to the Christian faith diminishing both in public and in private, even as our civilisation remains saturated with Judeo-Christian assumptions that show no sign of fading; as such we are decidedly Ex-Christian, as opposed to Ex-Communist, Ex-Islamic or even pre-Christian. And we are Romantic, in the sense that our beliefs and practices have been indelibly marked by the Romantic movement, from our concept of selfhood and identity, to our expectations of art, music and literature, to our erotic and sexual habits. For better or worse, we live in a WEIRDER world. This will be the point of chapter two.
The second claim is that all seven of those things are true because of 1776. Telling that story occupies most of the book, but we can see it in outline by considering just ten prominent events from that year. In January, Thomas Paine released his pamphlet Common Sense in Philadelphia, arguing that the American colonies should pursue independence from British rule; it caused an immediate sensation, and became one of the fastest-selling and most influential books in American history. In February, Edward Gibbon published the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which set new standards in history-writing, while also challenging the established church and providing a sceptical narrative of early Christianity that endures to this day. James Watt’s steam engine, probably the single most important invention in industrial history, started running at the Bloomfield colliery in Staffordshire on 8th March. The very next day, Adam Smith released the foundational text of modern economics, An Inquiry into the Natures and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
The most famous transformation of the year took place in the American summer, with the establishing of a nation that would play an increasingly dominant role in the next two centuries: the signing of the Declaration of Independence (4th July), the ringing of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (8th July), the Battle of Long Island and the taking of Brooklyn by the British (27th August), and the formal adoption of the name United States (9th September). On the other side of the Atlantic, Captain James Cook was sailing southwards in the Resolution in the last of his three voyages to the South Seas, the impact of which can still be felt throughout the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia. Immanuel Kant was in Königsberg, writing the outline for his Critique of Pure Reason, which would bring about a so-called “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. In Edinburgh, David Hume finally completed his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, one of the greatest arguments against Christian theism ever written, before dying on 25th August. The Autumn saw Friedrich Klinger write his play Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”), which soon gave its name to the proto-Romantic movement in German music and literature. And in December, Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris on a diplomatic mission to bring France into the war against Britain. It would eventually prove successful, and lead ultimately to the American victory at Yorktown (1781), and the collapse of the French ancien régime into bankruptcy and revolution (1789).
Those are just the most well-known examples; there are many others, even if we confine ourselves to the West. 1776 saw Laura Bassi, the first female to work as a professional scientist, appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at the Bologna Institute of Sciences. Mozart wrote his Concerto for three pianos in Salzburg. Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book, presented her poetry in person to George Washington. The Illuminati were founded in Bavaria, and Phi Beta Kappa started in Williamsburg, Virginia. Toussaint Louverture, the future leader of the first (and only) successful slave revolt in history, was released from slavery in what is now Haiti. And so on.
The final two chapters address the obvious question: so what?
My primary motive in writing this is to help the church thrive in a WEIRDER world. What challenges and opportunities emerge from Westernisation, or Romanticism, or industrialisation, and what should we do about them? How should Christians act in an Ex-Christian culture? What does faithful Christianity look like in the shadow of 1776? And here, I believe, we can draw a great deal of wisdom from an obvious source: faithful Christianity in 1776. How did believers in this turbulent and transformative era respond to what was happening around them? And what can we learn?
As it happens, several strands within the contemporary church look back to 1776 as an especially formative year. It was a crucial period in the development of early Methodism. American dissenters saw the crucial words “free exercise of religion” appear in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and subsequently in the first amendment of the US Constitution. Former slave-trader John Newton was working on the Olney Hymns, which would be published in 1779 and include his “Amazing Grace” and William Cowper’s “God Works in Mysterious Ways.” The fifteen year-old William Carey, who would grow up to become the father of modern missions and translate the Bible into six Indian languages, had the experience which led to his conversion. Calvinist vicar Augustus Toplady published his hymnal, which included “Rock of Ages.” Holy Trinity Church Clapham, later attended by members of the Clapham Sect including William Wilberforce and Hannah More, opened for worship.
Most of these people would be widely known within Christian circles today, and often outside them. Their institutions, hymns, missionary exploits and abolitionism are part of the mythology of evangelicalism, and in chapter ten we will consider what they can teach us about thriving in the post-Christian West. But we will conclude by reflecting on two individuals, Olaudah Equiano and Johann Georg Hamann, whose contributions are far less recognised. (I have frequently come across evangelical organisations and venues which are named after the people in the previous two paragraphs, but I have never come across an Equiano Academy or been ushered into a Hamann suite.) Equiano was born around 1745 in what is now Nigeria, and sailed into 1776 on a ship in the Caribbean; he became one of the most remarkable Christians of his or any generation, and was understating it somewhat when he called his autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Hamann was a friend and critic of Immanuel Kant—hailed by Hegel as a genius, by Goethe as the brightest mind in his day, and by Kierkegaard as (alongside Socrates) one of the two most brilliant men of all time—as well as a Christian, and in some ways the first post-secular philosopher. Though miles apart in their experiences and writings, both Equiano and Hamann have a lot to teach us about living as Christians in a WEIRDER world. That is the focus of the final chapter.