CHAPTER II

LIBERALISM AND CALVINISM

The first stirrings of new life were felt within the church, the repository of such learning as Harvard College disseminated through the Massachusetts villages. For two hundred years the dogmas of Calvin had lain as a heavy weight on the mind of New England. Revolutions had taken place in English and continental theology, but New England Calvinism had kept closely within the narrow confines of its creed, annually turning over the exhausted soil and reaping an ever scantier harvest. Since the days of Edwards there had been abundant speculation and much exercise in syllogisms, but no scrutiny of major premises. Such an examination was long overdue, with the romantic revolution under way in France, and new theories of human nature and the relation of man to society and the state, spreading widely. But unfortunately the odium which New England conservatism quickly fastened upon the French school frightened the orthodox. The stigma of atheism was put upon every harmless bantling of the numerous French brood, and in the terror of reaction the pulpit, following the lead of the reactionary pew, aroused itself to cleanse the church of every innovation. English Arianism, even worse things, it was discovered, had stolen into Congregational pulpits during the relaxed period of the Revolution; a dangerous spirit of liberalism had spread silently through the tidewater churches, capturing the strongholds of Boston orthodoxy.

By the year 1800 it was high time for the old Congregationalism of Jonathan Edwards to take counsel with itself. "Let us guard against the insidious encroachments of innovation-that evil and beguiling spirit which is now stalking to and fro in the earth, seeking whom it may devour," exclaimed Jedidiah Morse, the arch reactionary, in the days when French ideas were knocking at the doors of New England. And by innovation the doughty Jedidiah meant any idea that had been stumbled on, new since the days of the great Edwards. To go back to the pure Edwardean doctrine, to purge the church of incipient Arminianism and Arianism and Socianism-together with such other innovations as might show their faces anywhere became thenceforth the chief business of the devout New England of 1800. To timid souls the ideas of their grandfathers seemed far safer than the ideas of their fathers; and so theology followed politics in turning its back upon the freer, more generous world that beckoned.

Nevertheless French liberalism slowly won its victories. It needs high walls to keep out ideas. Excluded from the drawing-rooms and counting-houses, ostracized in society and politics, romantic philosophy slipped quietly into Boston by the door of theology, and took lodgings in the homes of the first families. To those who enjoy the little ironies of history, the easy subjugation of respectable Boston by that very Jacobinical heresy against which Boston was so bitter is too amusing to be overlooked. Changing its name and arraying itself in garments cut after the best Yankee fashion, the gospel of Jean Jacques presently walked the streets of Boston and spoke from its most respectable pulpits, under the guise of Unitarianism. The heretical doctrines of the excellence of human nature and the perfectibility of man were preached to Federalist congregations so persuasively that instead of repudiating them and asserting the total depravity of their neighbors, simpleminded merchants approved the doctrines and cheerfully paid their pew-rent. It was a respectable and bloodless revolution. Under its discreet disguise Unitarianism accomplished for New England what Jeffersonianism had accomplished for the South and West-the wide dissemination of eighteenth-century French liberalism. It opened the New England mind to fresh ideas. Out of Unitarianism was to come the intellectual renaissance, with its transcendental philosophies and social reforms, its enlarged conception of democracy and its Utopian dreams, which made New England count so effectively in the developments of the half century.

The twenty-five years between 1790 and 1815 were the nascent period of Unitarianism, when it was reexamining the old Calvinist dogmas in the light of the new liberalism, weighing the doctrines of election and reprobation in the scale with the doctrines of God's beneficence and man-s excellence, and coming definitely to reject them as blasphemy against God and defamation of human nature. And it was during these critical years that the upholders of the traditional orthodoxy were most actively concerned to provide a defense for the sacred dogmas of their grandfathers. The liberal advance produced a conservative reaction, and the lines of battle were sharply drawn. The capture of Harvard College by the Unitarians in 1805, and the founding of Andover Theological Seminary by the Calvinists in 1808, were dramatic events in a long intellectual and legal struggle that aroused much bitterness and bequeathed to the churches a rich legacy of unchristian animosities. Good men on both sides-to recall a contemporary witticism-were quite too ready "to fight for the glory of God as if the very devil were in them."

The traditional Calvinism defended itself with spirit, asserting so vehemently that it was still a living faith, that the corpse was not yet an authentic corpse, that it succeeded at least in postponing its own burial. It was deeply entrenched in the inertia of custom, but intellectually it was in really desperate straits. It was slowly disintegrating from dry-rot with which both minister and theology were stricken. With its major premises tacitly denied by Yankee experience, it was unfortunate in being defended by as humorless and ungainly a breed of theologians as ever quarreled over the loving-kindness of God. Clinging to the defenses which Jonathan Edwards had erected against the incursion of old-world ideas, it declaimed its dogmas and damned the human race with tedious iteration. Over-threshed straw makes poor fodder, and after a two-hour battle with potential infidelities, many a good minister descended from his pulpit lamenting that his exhortations had been wasted on "a sermon-proof, gospel-glutted generation." Yet he went faithfully back to his study to consume the day in argument with a suppositious Arminian, and in spinning cobweb systems between the worm-eaten rafters, quite oblivious to the common-sense world without his walls. The difficulties in which those old Calvinists found themselves very likely seemed tragic to them; but to later generations, endowed with some saving grace of humor, the situation was not without its spice. The good men were undeniably caught in a distressing dilemma. They were laboring prodigiously both to sit tight in the dogma of determinism and yet wriggle out; to maintain election and reprobation and yet insert somehow the thin edge of personal responsibility; to prove to the satisfaction of the pew that man is both bound and free. It was a hard necessity to be under, to damn man by predestination, and "yet worry out enough freedom for him to be decently damned on," as a late critic has remarked;' to send him to hell by divine decree, yet prove that he went of his own accord. Yet they must do that impossible thing if they were to justify their theology to commonsense congregations that were drifting into indifference.

The whole thing was monstrously unreal and it resulted in hatching such a brood of tenuous subtleties as we have difficulty in comprehending today. Theological fame in Massachusetts came to be measured by the skill with which the logician made out to stand on both sides of the fence at the same time. Had it not been for Jonathan Edwards New England Congregationalism would have drifted comfortably with the tide of liberalism; but his uncompromising spirit held it anchored. This masterly spinner of theological systems bequeathed to his successors an unfinished work; but he had clearly envisaged the problem and suggested a line of attack. In his great inquiry into the nature of will he had hoped to provide an infallible means of reconciling the irreconcilable by arguing that the will is dependent on desire. The natural man, according to the Edwardean logic, is free to serve God as the highest good if he desires, but he lacks the desire unless God reveals himself as that highest good, and such revelation rests with God's pleasure. "Moral responsibility lies in the choice, not in the cause of the choice." With this distinction suggested between natural and moral freedom, Calvinistic speculation went on hopefully till it attained its culminating triumph in Nathaniel Walkers ingenious doctrine of certainty with power to the contrary. Walker was a pupil of Timothy Dwight's, and one of the foundation professors of the new Yale Divinity School, established to combat Unitarian heresies. A tremendous rattling of the bones of the Connecticut churches followed his pronouncement that man's acts are not necessitated by a rigid law of cause and effect, but that his choices are so connected with antecedent conditions of soul and environment, that (See Fenn, Religious History of New England; Ring's Chapel Lectures, p. 130 See Williston Walker, A History of the Congregational Churches in the United States, p. 283, 316) to God's perception it is certain what they will be, although he possesses full power of contrary choice.

As we contemplate those old theological abstractions, dead now as Lot's wife, the universe of our fathers shrinks to a petty compass, not much larger than the snug little state of Connecticut, curiously egocentric, curiously anthropomorphic. Obviously such grotesqueries could not endure indefinitely. Presently there must appear the common-sense housewife with her broom, and the dusty cobwebs would disappear. English Arianism, emerging out of English Presbyterianism, and long under suspicion of the New England fathers, first opened the windows and let a little fresh air into the New England churches. But back of Arianism was the total body of eighteenth-century rationalism, with its theology rooted in new political and social philosophies, and its doctrines derived from conceptions of God and man hostile to Calvinistic determinism. There could be no reconciling them. Calvinism must extirpate English rationalism or be disintegrated by it. But rationalism refused to be extirpated. Here and there in Massachusetts pulpits appeared a new order of preachers, young men who had broken with the old dogmas and were plainly bitten with the English distemper. Of these the most notable was Jonathan Mayhew, from 1747 to 1766 pastor of the West Church, and the free-spoken minister in Boston. Mayhew was a throughgoing liberal, not to say radical, an intimate friend of Otis and John Adams, and chief clerical leader of the opposition to the English ministry. He had broken through the narrow parochialism of Boston; he corresponded with the intellectual leaders of English dissent, and while still a young man was on the highroad to Arianism. He seems to have been a brilliant fellow, bold and frank in speech, with great and popular powers as a preacher, and his. early death alone prevented him from anticipating some of the work of Channing. A like fate abruptly terminated the work of another able young man, Lemuel Briant, pastor of the Braintree church from 1745 to his death in 1753. Briant was John Adams's pastor and, like Mayhew, an Arian, with a ready wit that his adversaries must have found disconcerting. "I have always tho't," he remarked apropos of the familiar dilemma, "that so far as any Man is pure (let it be in a greater or lesser Degree) he is not ( Ibid., p. 356. Ibid., pp. 276-277, 317) stifle free inquiry. Toleration of differences, respect for devout free thought--this return to the position of Roger Williams two centuries before was the vital principle of Unitarianism. Like him, the Unitarian was a seeker, openminded and free. Others might be intolerant, others might regard themselves as the sole custodians of truth, but not he.

\par But if the Unitarians who followed Charming were liberals in religion, they were conservatives in well-nigh everything else. Amongst the laity the adoration of goodness was sufficiently tempered by Yankee thrift to keep it from interfering seriously with the practical business of getting on in the world; and in consequence the new faith gathered its supporters from amongst the prosperous rather than the needy, from Federalists rather than Democrats. The commercial dominated the intellectual and emotional in their prim and somewhat cold congregations. "The Unitarians," it was commonly said, "were the cult of the arrived." As successful men, these Boston merchants and manufacturers did not believe that they were the sons of Adam, children of iniquity. They thought better of themselves and of God than Calvinism permitted them to think; "one who was born in Boston," the current jest put it, "had no need to be born again." Generous in all approved philanthropies these Unitarian laymen might be, but emotionally religious they were temperamentally incapable of being. Until the infusion of the rich sap of transcendentalism, that gave it new life and brought it to bloom, Unitarianism was in grave danger of dying at the root. But with the spread of the philosophy of intuitionalism, the negative individualism of Unitarianism became positive, broke with the respectable conservatism of commercial congregations, and overflowed in a rich and generous faith. Authority, dogma, creed, were swept away by this new faith in an indwelling divinity, with its intuitive sanctions, and Unitarianism merged in the larger movement of the renaissance.

WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING

To the austerely spiritual Charming the guiding principle of Unitarianism was identical with the spirit of primitive New England separatism-the principle of freedom in religious matters, the individual speaking his mind frankly, shepherd and flock feeding as they would, without fear 320 and without coercion. The soul is responsible to itself and its own conscience; there are no orthodoxies and no heterodoxies, but a duty is laid upon the individual to seek truth with an open mind and be steadfast in its service. It was this spirit of open-minded liberalism that led him along the path of unmilitant individualism, seeking freedom only to the end of righteousness, and counting righteousness the fine flower of freedom; desiring peace and universal fellowship; loath to found a sect; yet driven by those who denied freedom to themselves as well as others to become the champion and leader of a great schism that sundered the traditional unity of Congregationalism, and erected a new faith on the altars of the old.

Channing's heritage was drawn from the deepest wells of New England idealism; and filtered through his finely ethical mind it emerged pure and limpid, the living waters of the new faith. His noble preeminence was due to the simple spirituality of his nature. Intellectually, he was neither great nor original. In scholarship he was distinctly inferior to academic theologians like Andrews Norton and to omnivorous students like Theodore Parker. Almost wholly introspective he was influenced slowly by world currents of thought, and such alien ideas as found lodgment in his mind took on a native form and color from his own convictions. Nevertheless though his meditations revolved about the pole-star of his own experience, his theology cautiously took shape under the pressure of two ideas that came to him from the latter years of the eighteenth century-the ideas of God's beneficence and of man's excellence. Once lodged in his mind, those ideas led to quite revolutionary consequences, not only in their disintegrating effect upon the Calvinistic dogmas in which he had been reared, but in the generous romanticism which they bequeathed to Unitarian theology. His intellectual development was late and halting, yet that he liberated himself at all was remarkable considering the world that bred him -Newport, frequented by wealthy planters and enriched by the slave trade, Cambridge and Boston then in the stagnancy of Federalist complacency. Of the same generation with Robert Treat Paine and Josiah Quincy, only a few years older than Rufus Choate and Edward Everett, as a boy sitting under the preaching of Samuel Hopkins the rugged expounder of the Hopkinsian doctrine of willing to be damned for the glory of God, a doctrine so repugnant to the major tenets of Charming's theology-he belonged by

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