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Revival, enlightenment, civic humanism, and the development of dogma: scotland and america


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Tyndale Bulletin 40.1 (1989) 49-76.

REVIVAL, ENLIGHTENMENT, CIVIC

HUMANISM, AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF

DOGMA: SCOTLAND AND AMERICA, 1735-1843

Mark A. Noll

In 1846 one of America's most representative religious

thinkers, Charles Grandison Finney, published the Lectures on



Systematic Theology that he had earlier offered to students at

Oberlin College. A central theme of those lectures was Finney's

rejection of the dominant theology of previous generations, a

rejection nowhere more explicit than in his comments on

Jonathan Edwards. According to Finney, Edwards had erred

particularly in describing the abilities of human beings before

God. 'Men have been told,' wrote Finney, 'that they are as

really unable to will as God directs, as they were to create

themselves . . . Ridiculous! Edwards I revere; his blunders I

deplore. I speak thus of this Treatise on the Will, because . . . it

abounds with unwarrantable assumptions, distinctions without

a difference, and metaphysical subtleties . . . It has bewildered

the head, and greatly embarrassed the heart and the action of

the church of God'.1

Less than three years before the publication of Finney's

Lectures, Scotland's most influential clergyman of the period,

Thomas Chalmers, expressed an entirely different opinion on

the same subject: 'There is no European Divine to whom I make

such frequent appeals in my class rooms as I do to [Jonathan]

Edwards. No book of human composition which I more

strenuously recommend than his Treatise on the Will,—read by

me forty-seven years ago, with a conviction that has never

since faltered, and which has helped me more than any other

uninspired book, to find my way through all that might

___________________________



1 C. Finney, Lectures on Systematic Theology (New York, George H. Doran 1876,

orig. 1846) 333. On the predominance of theologies like Finney's in the

antebellum United States, see T. L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform:

American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins

University Press 1980, orig. 1957) 15-33.

50 TYNDALE BULLETIN 40 (1989)
otherwise have proved baffling and transcendental and

mysterious in the peculiarities of Calvinism'.2

The contrast between Finney and Chalmers on

Edwards's Freedom of the Will illustrates nicely a larger con-

trast in Scottish and American ecclesiastical history from the

1730s to the 1840s.3 During this period the Scottish and Ameri-

can churches passed through a similar set of circumstances.

Each absorbed the impact of revival, each confronted a growing

pluralism in religious allegiance, each faced the challenge of

the Enlightenment, and each advanced along a path from aris-

tocratic to democratic social order. At the same time, though

they shared much, the Scottish and American churches did not

share a common course of theological development. At the be-

ginning of the period, both embraced a largely Calvinistic

theology. By the end of the period the centre of American

theology, as represented by Finney, had moved considerably

beyond Calvinism, while the centre of theology in Scotland

had become, if anything, more thoroughly Reformed than it

was a century before.

The burden of this paper is to interpret comparatively

the course of theological development in Scotland and America

over this period. Its argument is that study of the relationship

between formal religious thought and its social, political, and

intellectual contexts shows why theology developed differ-

ently in the two regions during this period.4 The argument is not

that this procedure provides the only, or even the best,

explanation for the development of theological convictions, but

merely that it offers one plausible interpretation.

In many respects—size, numbers and diversity of

population—Scotland and America were quite different places

in the middle of the eighteenth century. In theology, however,

___________________________



2 Chalmers to William B. Sprague, in Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit

(New York, Robert Carter and Brothers 1859) 1:334.



3 On the congruence of Scottish and American events in this general period also

with similar developments in the Netherlands, see J. H. S. Burleigh, A Church



History of Scotland (London, OUP) 353; and D. Maclean, Aspects of Scottish

Church History (Edinburgh, T .& T. Clark 1927) 97-8.

4 In these terms, the paper is an effort to expand upon the promising essay of D.

W. Howe, 'The Decline of Calvinism: An Approach to Its Study,' Comparative



Studies in Society and History 14 (1972) 306-27, which traces the passing of

Calvinism to the successes of capitalism.

NOLL: Development of Dogma 51
the two regions were strikingly similar. In both, a hereditary

Calvinism provided the dominant theological perspective. In

both, this 'people's Calvinism' nurtured a cherished view of a

heroic Christian past. Both areas were also conscious that

they upheld their religions as people on a periphery, colonists

susceptible to the dominance of London and the imperialistic

aspirations of the English.5 In fact, if a difference can be noted,

it was that Scotland seemed to be moving away from its

ancestral Calvinism more rapidly than America from its.

It says a good deal for the theological leanings of

Scotland that in the years before the Cambuslang revival of

1742, the General Assembly had taken harsher steps against

the activities of evangelical Calvinists than against the more

systematic efforts of the rational party. The Assembly's harsh

dealings with the supporters of Edward Fisher's Marrow led

directly to the secession of Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine and

their colleagues from the Kirk. On the other hand, its

investigations of rationalistic theological professors John

Simson and William Hamilton were leisurely and hindered at

every point by the influential friends of these professors. The

result by the 1740s was a situation in which, as one historian

summarizes it, 'the Church's most acute thinkers, by

challenging the dogmatism of a previous age, prompted by the

attacks of the opponents of the Christian religion as well as

stimulated by the new departures in philosophy and science,

were . . . helping to create a liberalising atmosphere in which

the spirit of enlightenment could thrive.'6

In America, by contrast, although ecclesiastical

structures were more pluralistic, theological convictions were

___________________________



5 See J. Clive and B. Bailyn, 'England's Cultural Provinces: Scotland and

America', William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd. ser., 11 (1954) 179-9.



6 J. K. Cameron, 'Theological Controversy: A Factor in the Origins of the

Scottish Enlightenment', in R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner (edd.), The Origin



and Nature of the Scottish Enlightenment (Edinburgh, John Donald 1982) 128.

On the general situation at this time, see A. L. Drummond and James Bulloch,



The Scottish Church 1688-1843: The Age of the Moderates (Edinburgh, Saint

Andrew 1973) 31-48; S. Mechie 'The Theological Climate in Early Eighteenth

Century Scotland', in D. Shaw (ed.) Reformation and Revolution (Edinburgh,

Saint Andrew 1967) 258-72; H. Sefton "Neu Lights and Preachers Legall": Some

Observations on the Beginnings of Moderatism in the Church of Scotland', in

Norman MacDougall (ed.), Church, Politics and Society: Scotland 1408-1929

(Edinburgh, John Donald 1983) 186-96.

52 TYNDALE BULLETIN 40 (1989)


more thoroughly Reformed. The mainstream theology of the

Americal colonies in the 1720s and 1730s testified to the weight

of Puritan influence. In particular, the heart of formal religious

thought remained a massive commitment to the centrality of

God's grace for the salvation of individuals, their incorpora-

tion into the church, and their orientation to society.7

It is a testimony to the continuing power of Calvinism in

America that the most important religious events of the period,

the great colonial revivals, were promoted by men—Theodore

Frelinghuysen, Gilbert Tenennt, and especially George White-

field—who affirmed this theology; and that the revivals

became the occasion for the century's greatest theologian, Jona-

than Edwards, to restate the precepts of Calvinism with rigor-

ous force. To be sure, some colonists by 1740 were questioning

Calvinistic certainties, and Protestant theology had certainly

moved in the direction of activism, moralism, and, to some

extent, individualism during its first American century. At the

same time, covenantal Calvinism still defined the mainstream.

From that fairly secure Calvinistic base, however, the

centre of gravity of American theology would shift drama-

tically over the next century. In Scotland, by contrast, a

relatively less secure Calvinism became more sharply defined

over the same period. The question now is why the develop-

ment of doctrine took place in contrasting ways in the two areas.

In America the evolution beyond Calvinism began not

with developments in theology, but in the life of the church,

and in the relationship of church to society. The most import-

ant of the ecclesiastical developments was the Great Awaken-

ing. The key event in the church's relation to society was the

alliance between Puritan theology and the radical Whig

tradition of civic humanism. The two developments, moreover,

were intimately related. The Great Awakening was massively

important for both churches and American society. For theo-

logy, its greatest impact was indirect, and resulted from the

role of the Awakening in bringing disarray to the previously

integrated notions of covenant, especially in New England.

___________________________

7 For an overview, see S. E. Ahlstrom, 'Theology in America: A Historical

Survey', in J.W. Smith and A.L. Jamison (edd.), The Shaping of American



Religion (Princeton, Princeton University Press 1961) 236-51.

NOLL: Development of Dogma 53


From the beginnings of New England, a theology of

integrated covenants had provided a foundation for individual

religion, church structure, and social order.8 The effect of the

Great Awakening was to disrupt the integrating power of the

covenant. In its wake the revival left several distinct

ecclesiastical parties. In New England especially, these

parties were separated by social allegiance as well as

theological persuasion. Each, in fact, appropriated a different

aspect of the covenantal tradition.9

The covenantal language that had provided a

theoretical basis for Puritan society in early America no longer

held together. The mainstream theology as such was not

fragmented in the wake of the revival. Rather, the language

that had bound together religion and the community, church

and society, was now in ruins. The covenant had become all

things to all men, and so nothing to them all.

The Awakening did not bring theological innovation, at

least in a strictly dogmatic sense. In fact, as the occasion for the

most affecting (with Whitefield) and the most brilliant (with

Edwards) statement of Calvinism in American history, it was

just the reverse. Yet in ideological terms the consequences of

this theologically conservative movement were curious. The

modes of its propagation brought it closer to the humanist

assumptions of the 'real whig' political thinkers. It was in fact

the essentially conservative thrust of the revival (to preserve

the reality of individual salvation and the purity of the

church) that detatched the social sense of covenant from its or-

ganic connections with person and church. It was then precisely

the loss of an indigenously theological definition of society

that allowed religious leaders to endorse as from God first the

republicanism of civic humanism and then the individualism of

___________________________



8 See P. Y. De Jong, The Covenant Idea in New England Theology (Grand Rapids,

Eerdmans 1945); P. Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century

(New York, Macmillan 1939) 365-491; and for English background, M. McGiffert,

'Grace and Works: The Rise and Division of Covenant Theology in Elizabethan

Puritanism', HTR 75 (1982)463-502.

9 For overviews, see E. Scott Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England

(New York, Harper and Brothers 1957); and C. C. Goen, Revivalism and



Separatism in New England, 1740-1800 (New Haven, Yale University Press

1962).


54 TYNDALE BULLETIN 40 (1989)
laissez faire liberalism, two ideologies that would exert

anything but a conservative influence on theology itself.

The French and Indian War became the occasion for the

first full rehearsal of a distinctly Christian republicanism, as

religious leaders, frightened by the menace of France and

mesmerized by the evils of Rome, linked together liberty,

property, and true Christianity as the colonies' bulwarks

against slavery, corruption, and the Whore of Babylon.10 But

the final stage in the creation of pietistic, covenantal civic

humanism took place as tensions grew between the colonies and

the mother country after 1763. During the crisis of indepen-

dence, Americans of many sorts—clerical and lay, representing

all regions of the country—made the language of Christian

republicanism their own.11

And what of formal theology in the half-century after

1735 when so many Calvinists were busy linking central theo-

logical themes to key affirmations of civic humanism? To all

appearances, there had been only slight changes. The apparent

stability of the mainstream theology in 1789 was, however,

deceptive. Once yoked with political ideology and enlisted

fully as a servant of the national purpose, American theology

was destined to reflect changes in the country's political

thought and to be shaped by efforts at creating the new Ameri-

can civilization. In the early years of the republic, political

ideology was in fact evolving from civic humanism—with

ideals of disinterested public virtue and freedom defined as

liberation from tyranny—toward political liberalism—with

ideals of individualized private virtue and freedom defined as

self-determination. In addition, fresh intellectual resources

were being called into service for the effort to stabilize the new

nation and subdue the frontier, including an increasing reliance

___________________________



10 See N. O. Hatch, 'The Origins of Civil Millennialism in America: New

England Clergymen, War with France, and the Revolution', William and Mary



Quarterly 3rd ser. 31 (1974) 407-30.

11 See R. Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought,

1756-1800 (New York, CUP 1984); N. O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty:

Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New

Haven, Yale University Press, 1977); J. F. Berens, Providence and Patriotism in



Early America, 1640-1815 (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia 1978);

and M. A. Noll, Christians in the American Revolution (Grand Rapids,

Eerdmans 1977).

NOLL: Development of Dogma 55


on the methodology of Newtonian scienticism and the reasoning

of Scottish moral philosophy. Each of these national develop-

ments became important for American theology precisely be-

cause in the half-century between the Great Awakening and

the Constitution America's religious leaders had identified

themselves so thoroughly with the ebb and flow of American

civilization.

The liberal ideology that became increasingly import-

ant in early America constituted, as Gordon Wood has put it,

'the self-interested pursuit of happiness' pointing to an emerg-

ing 'world of business, money-making, and the open promotion

of interests'.12 In theology the liberal influence had at least

something to do with a series of delicate manoeuvres through

which the students of Jonathan Edwards modified gently

earlier Calvinistic conceptions along lines suggested by current

political concerns. Thus, to Joseph Bellamy, the work of Christ

became not the placation of divine wrath (as had been tradi-

tional), but the restoration of moral order in the universe.13 For

Samuel Hopkins, human sinfulness was the result only of the

sins of individuals. Sinfulness, Hopkins was also eager to point

out, did not conflict with God's kindly designs for the world, but

actually increased the quality and quantity of human

happiness by triggering the divine plan of redemption.14

Bellamy and Hopkins had not repudiated Calvinism.

They continued to insist that people contributed nothing of

their own to salvation. Yet even by the 1780s the impact of

liberal ideology was being felt. Bellamy and Hopkins had seen

their mentor employ modern conceptions—Locke's sensation-

alism and Hutcheson's moral philosophy—to restate the

traditional faith, but their own efforts to the same end—using

this time the imperatives of human happiness and individual

rights—were not as successful. The difference was that

Edwards tried to use the new language in describing the old

___________________________



12 G. S. Wood, 'Ideology and the Origins of Liberal America', William and

Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 44 (1987) 635.

13 For a good discussion of Bellamy's theology, see G. P. Anderson, Joseph

Bellamy (1719-1790): The Man and His Work (Ph.D. diss., Boston University

1971).


14 Solid commentary can be found in J. A. Conforti, Samuel Hopkins and the New

Divinity Movement (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans 1981).

56 TYNDALE BULLETIN 40 (1989)


dogma, while Bellamy and Hopkins had begun the process of

re-defining the old dogma in line with the new language.

Newtonian scientism and Scottish moral philosophy

also became influential conceptual languages in the 1780s,

probably because they represented means of asserting public

authority that did not depend upon the sanction of tradition or

the habits of deference. By the late eighteenth century,

Americans had sworn off both tradition and deference as means

of ordering society. To take their place emerged 'philo-

sophical' proof—meaning procedures of both physical and

mental sciences supposedly accessible to all people. Neither

mathematical demonstration nor the moral philosophy of

Common Sense required the imprimatur of tradition. Rather,

both strategies were widely held to convey a self-

authenticating authority. In theology, the second half of the

eighteenth century witnessed a corresponding fascination with

demonstration through science and the Scottish philosophy.

The intellectual history of the United States in the

early national period is complex, especially for the connections

between religion and public thought.15 Nonetheless, it now

seems clear that between the ratification of the Constitution

and the election of William Henry Harrison in 1840, the

assumptions of the nation's public philosophy evolved, or

completed their evolution, from a basic republicanism to a

basic, if not exclusive, liberalism. The central context for this

ideological evolution was the pressing circumstances of the new

nation. Americans, first, faced the need to establish a discourse

of authority in a society that had repudiated the traditional

warrants for social ordering—deference to hierarchy, station,

and history. Second, they confronted the challenge of civiliz-

ing the wilderness. In the first fifty years of the new nation.

both the public philosophy and the mainstream theology were

strained very nearly to the breaking point in the effort to meet

these needs.

Throughout the period, roughly the same assumptions

were at work in the political thought and the mainstream

___________________________

15 For necessary cautions about trying to read intellectual history from social

conditions, see B. Kuklick, Churchmen and Philosophers From Jonathan



Edwards to John Dewey (New Haven, Yale University Press 1985) 301-2.

NOLL: Development of Dogma 57


theology. In the public sphere, the language of liberalism—

emphasizing the freedom of individuals from hierarchical

restraint and the formation of community upon the unfettered

choices of free individuals joined by contract—became increas-

ingly the language of politics and the economy. Liberalism also

seems to have been used in propounding rationales for the

salient characteristics of the period's religious life, of revival

(where conversion was defined as an unmediated choice made

by individuals), voluntary organization (where individuals

joined together of their free will to move others toward the

good), and the triumph of the believer's church (defined as the

sum of its members, whose own choices brought it into

existence).16 If the language of popular sovereignty, of the

people, became the unquestioned argot of Jacksonian America, it

was no less so for popular theology. The denominations that

grew rapidly in the early republic—Methodists, Baptists,

Disciples, Mormons, Millerite—all spoke the language of the

people more distinctly that did the largest denominations from

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