LIBERALISM AND PURITANISM
PART ONE: THE PURITAN HERITAGE
THE body of thought brought to America by the immigrant Puritans, and which gave a special cast to the New England mind, may be summed in a phrase as Carolinian liberalism. It was the confused bequest of a hundred years of English idealism, struggling with the knotty problems of a complex society in transition from the old static feudal order to the modern capitalistic; and it took a particular form and received a narrow ideology from the current ecclesiastical disputes concerning the nature and governance of the true church. It was exclusively a product of the Reformation, unleavened by the spirit of the Renaissance. But though English Puritanism was wholly theological in its immediate origins, it gathered about it in the century and a half of its militant career all the forces of unrest fermenting in England. Economics and politics joined hands with theology; the center of gravity of the total movement tended to sink lower in the social scale; and in the end all England was involved in the great struggle.
In its deeper purpose Puritanism was a frank challenge of the traditional solidarity of English institutional life by an emergent individualism, and far-reaching social readjustments followed inevitably it its train. If the evolution of modern society is conceived of as falling into two broad phases, the disintegration of a corporate feudal order into unregimented individual members of society, and the struggles of those free individuals to regroup themselves in new social commonwealths, the historical significance of English Puritanism may perhaps become clear: it was one of the disruptive forces that disintegrated the traditional solidarity of church and state by creating a revolutionary philosophy of individual rights that purposed to free the individual, both as Christian and subject, from subjection to a fixed corporate status. The sixteenth century had announced the great doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and the seventeenth century was engaged in adapting the forms of social and political institutions to that revolutionary principle. It was concerned to discover a new system of social organization that should adjust equitably the rights of the individual to the needs of the political state and to society. To that end the whole theory of the origin and functions of the political state must come in for review, and a new conception of the rights of the individual subject-citizen must be evolved.
This is the sufficient explanation of the close interweaving of theology and politics that marked the broadening movement of English Puritanism. Unless one keeps in mind the social forces that found it convenient to array themselves in Puritan garb, the clear meaning of it all will be lost in the fogs of Biblical disputation, and some of the ablest men the English race has ever bred will be reduced to crabbed theologians involved in tenuous subtleties and disputing endlessly over absurd dogmas. But tenacious disputants though they certainly were, pursuing their subtleties into the last refuge and cranny of logic, those Puritan dogmatists were very far from being vain practitioners of eccentricity. It is the manner and dress and not the matter of their argument that is strange; and if we will resolutely translate the old phrases into modern equivalents, if we will put aside the theology and fasten attention on the politics and the economics of the struggle, we shall have less difficulty in discovering that the new principle for which those old Puritans were groping was the later familiar doctrine of natural rights; and the final end and outcome of their concern for a more equitable relation of the individual to society, was the principle of a democratic commonwealth, established in the conception of political equalitarianism. Here are liberalisms in plenty to reward the search for the inner core of Puritanism. There was gunpowder packed away in Luther's doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and the explosion that resulted made tremendous breaches in the walls of a seemingly impregnable feudalism. An intellectual like Roger Williams, who had thought his way resolutely to the logical outcome of the reforming principles, could not fail to be reckoned a firebrand by his generation. The doctrine of "thorough" was dangerously revolutionary.
If the economics of England had not been in a state of flux during the century following the accession of Elizabeth, the Puritan movement would not have moved forward by successive stages to the explosion of the Civil War. But because, as later in France, a rising economic order was restive under the restrictions of an outworn order, the Puritan protest found capable allies at hand, and supported by the money and arms of the commercial interests, it passed under the control of the latter and set about the great business of making England over in accordance with the new plans and specifications. On the whole it is no mistake to regard the Puritan revolution as primarily a rebellion of the capable middle class, whose growing trade interests demanded a larger measure of freedom than a paternal king and a landed aristocracy were willing to grant; and its significant contributions to the modern world were the two systems it did so much to further: the system of capitalism and the system of parliamentary government. From the Puritan conception of the stewardship of talents came a new ethic of work that provided a sanction for middle-class exploitation, by supplanting the medieval principle of production for consumption with the capitalistic principle of production for profit; and from the conception of the dignity of the individual came the sanction for the self-pride of the merchant that sustained him in his encounters with a domineering aristocracy. A prosperous merchant who accounted himself a son of God and who was persuaded that he was fighting for a freer England was no mean foe to be awed by the rustlings of a Cavalier. The London burgesses were the backbone of Puritanism in the days before the movement passed into the extremer form of Independency and was taken over by the sectarian radicals; and the Presbyterian middle-phase of Puritanism spread widely amongst the middle class throughout central and southern England. But in unloosing the traditional social bonds Puritanism awakened aspirations that in the end proved hostile to the middle-class program. It created bitter partisan divisions; it set the social underling and the aristocrat apart from the middle-class core, and created those major political parties that have since carried on the parliamentary struggle. Inevitably it sharpened class alignments, and the reactions of those alignments vitally affected the development of New England. The struggles in Massachusetts can scarcely be understood unless they are set against the greater struggles then going forward in England.
The three parties that emerged from the theological disputes, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Independent, followed, in the main, broad social cleavages and corresponded roughly to the later political divisions of Tory, Whig, and Democrat. The first stoutly upheld the absolutist principle in church and state. It stood for Bishop and King. Numbering probably a large majority of the English people, and led by the hereditary masters of England, it was dominated by the feudal spirit of corporate unity. It believed that social order, the loyal subjection of subject to ruler, was possible only through a coalescence of church and state. The subject-citizen was born into the one as he was born into the other, and owed allegiance both to his spiritual and temporal overlords. Authority, whether in church or state, was of divine origin, and Bishop and King were the Lord's anointed, answerable for their stewardship only to God. The second party was a compromise between aristocracy and democracy. It substituted the principle of elective stewardship for divine right. Rejecting the absolutism of the hierarchy, it turned to the system newly brought over from Geneva, a system that retained the principle of a state church, but which yielded control of the parish to the eldership, a select body of the best and wisest chosen by the laity, with final authority in doctrine and discipline vested in the synod. It drew its support largely from the London burgesses, but with a considerable following of country gentlemen. As the party developed it tended to merge with the nascent capitalism, restricted the doctrine of natural rights to property rights, and prepared the way for the later Whiggery of Pitt, or capitalistic imperialism. The third party was more or less consciously democratic in spirit and purpose, the expression of the newly-awakened aspirations of the social underling. Numbers of rebellious individualists appeared who wanted to be ruled neither by bishop nor elder, but who preferred to club with the like-minded and set up an independent church on a local, self-governing basis. They took literally the command of Paul, "Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing." That only was the true church, they asserted, which withdrew from all communion with sinners and rejected the authority of a sinful state; and so they called themselves Separatists.
Separatism, quite evidently, was the extreme left wing of the total Puritan movement, concerned to explore all the logical deductions from the revolutionary premise of the Reformation. It was the final expression of the disintegrating gospel of individualism implicit in the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Its unworldly sincerity was as uncompromising as its unworldly scripturism. Not finding sanction for them in the Bible, it rejected the established ecclesiastical authorities, and laid rude hands on the garments of Mother Church. Counsels of social expediency were accounted as dust in the balance against the explicit commandment of the Lord to separate from the sins of the world; and clinging to the text of the Scripture the Separatist was led straight to the conception of a Christian democracy. If the true church was a Congregation of the Saints, and if the Saints were equal in the sight of God, why should not the principle of equality prevail in the rule of the congregation? And if it were a brotherhood in Christ, owning allegiance to the King of Kings, by what Scriptural right did profane authorities exercise control over the tender consciences of the brethren? The autonomy of the congregation was a fruitful conception, certain to appeal to vigorous natures; and out of the loins of Separatism came a numerous and often ungainly progeny that greatly scandalized the conservative Carolinian: Anabaptist, Digger, Fifth-Monarchy man, Quaker, Seeker, Congregationalist - to name only a few - each following his particular path to his divinely sanctioned Utopia, regardless of social ties, denying the worth of social conformity. Imperious individualists, the Separatists were certain to prove an offense to all respectable folk, who demanded in the name of common sense that they be put down.
It was the doctrines of Separatism, quite as much as the principle of the independency of the congregation, that aroused the fierce antagonism of Presbyterians equally with Anglicans. In the main those doctrines did not derive from John Calvin; they go back rather to Wittenberg than to Geneva, to the principles of Luther and certain German sects. The Anabaptist and the Digger, clearly, were of German descent and of somewhat ancient lineage, offspring of late medieval communism and other primitive enthusiasms. The Quaker was a mystic, sprung from the New Testament, who denied the Scriptural validity of a Hebraized Calvinism and a hireling priesthood, and accepted the Holy Spirit as the sole guide to his feet. The Seeker, on the other hand, who may perhaps be regarded as the completest expression of Puritan radicalism, was an open-minded questioner who professed to have found no satisfactory answer to his inquiry concerning the nature of the true church, and was awaiting further light. The Seekers were individuals rather than a sect, few in numbers yet greatly influential, men like Roger Williams, Sir Harry Vane, Cromwell, and perhaps Milton, outstanding figures of a great age, who embodied the final results of Puritan idealism before it was submerged by the Restoration.
During the long years of rule by divine right under the first Stuarts, the Anglicans held the Puritan unrest in strict control. Nevertheless a hundred years of debate and changing economic conditions had rendered the attempt to erect in England a counterpart of the French centralized state, no better than an anachronism. The Presbyterian opposition grew rapidly in numbers and prestige, and the early years of the Long Parliament marked the culmination of Presbyterian power. The bishops were overthrown and the elders were in a fair way to seize control of England. But unfortunately for Presbyterian hopes, the radical sects thrown up out of the war clashed with the moderates and finally broke with them; whereupon followed the "root and branch" revolution that had been long preparing. The left-wing Independents secured control of the army and set about the work of erecting a government that should be a real commonwealth of free citizens. The voice of the underling, for the first time in English history, was listened to in the national councils, for the excellent reason that his sword was drawn to enforce his demands. But they were too small a minority to leaven the sodden mass of a people long subject to absolutist rule. The psychology of custom was against them. They could strike down their armed enemies in the field, but they could not liberate the minds of men unfit to be free. Militant Puritanism was overthrown and its idealisms became the jest of every drunken tapster in London. But fortunately, not before its political principles, long obscured by theology, were sufficiently clarified to be laid open to the common understanding of Englishmen. Out of the debates around the camp fires of the army had come a new philosophy that rested on the principle that the individual, both as Christian and citizen, derives from nature certain inalienable rights which every church and every state is bound to respect. This far-reaching doctrine of natural rights, to the formulation of which many thinkers had contributed and which received later its classic form from the pen of Locke, was the suggestive contribution of Puritanism to political theory, with the aid of which later liberals were to carry forward the struggle.
The far-reaching liberalisms implicit in the rejection of a hierarchical organization of the church were to discover no allies in the major premises of the system of theology accepted generally by the English Puritans, and by them transported to New England. Calvinism was no friend of equalitarianism. It was rooted too deeply in the Old Testament for that, was too rigidly aristocratic. It saw too little good in human nature to trust the multitude of the unregenerate; and this lack of faith was to entail grave consequences upon the development of New England. That the immigrant Puritans brought in their intellectual luggage the system of Calvin rather than of Luther must be reckoned a misfortune, out of which flowed many of the bickerings and much of the intolerance that left a stain on the pages of early New England history.
Two divergent systems of theology, it will be remembered, were spreading through northern Europe during the years of the Reformation, systems that inevitably differentiated in consequence of certain variations of emphasis in the teachings of Luther and Calvin. Both thinkers accepted the adequacy of the Scriptures to all temporal needs, but Luther was at once more mystical and more practical than Calvin, deriving his inspiration chiefly from the New Testament, discovering the creative source of the Christian life in the spiritual union of the soul with Christ, and inclining to tolerance of differences of opinion amongst believers; whereas Calvin was ardently Hebraic, exalting righteousness above love, seeking the law in the Old Testament and laying emphasis on an authoritarian system. The one was implicitly individualistic, the other hierarchical in creative influence. The teachings of Luther, erected on the major principle of justification by faith, conducted straight to political liberty, and he refused to compromise or turn away from pursuing the direct path. If one accepts the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, one can scarcely refrain from following Luther in his conception of Christian liberty. If the mystical union of the soul with Christ has superseded all lesser loyalties by a higher and more sacred, the enjoyment of spiritual freedom must be reckoned the inalienable right of every child of God. Neither the political state nor the official hierarchy can justly coerce the individual conscience. "One thing and one thing only," said Luther in his Treatise on Christian Liberty, "is necessary for Christian life, righteousness and liberty." And from this he deduced the conclusion that "neither pope nor bishop nor any other man has the right to impose a single syllable of law upon a Christian man without his consent; and if he does, it is done in the spirit of tyranny." 1 Clearly, this is the spirit of uncompromising individualism that would eventually espouse the principle of democracy in church and state; and it was their native sympathy with such liberalism that led the radical Separatists to turn more naturally to Luther than to Calvin. Many of the differences that set Roger Williams so greatly apart from the New England brethren must be traced to the Lutheran origins of his thinking.
There was scant room in the rigid system of John Calvin for such Christian liberty. The Genevan thinker was a logician rather than a philosopher, a rigorous system-maker and dogmatist who knotted every argument and tied every strand securely into its fellow, till there was no escape from the net unless one broke through the mesh. To the formalist who demanded an exact system, and to the timid who feared free speculation, the logical consistency of Calvinism made irresistible appeal; and this perhaps suffices to explain its extraordinary hold on the rank and file of middle-class English Presbyterians. More original minds might break with it - men like Richard Hooker and Roger Williams and Vane and Milton - but academic thinkers and schoolmen, men whom the free spaces of thought frightened and who felt safe only behind secure fences, theologians like John Cotton and his fellows, made a virtue of necessity and fell to declaiming on the excellence of those chains wherewith they were bound. How narrow and cold was their prison they seem never to have realized; but that fact only aggravated the misfortunes that New England was to suffer from the spiritual guidance of such teachers. In seeking for an explanation of the unhappy union of a reactionary theology and a revolutionary political theory, Harriet Beecher Stowe suggested in Poganuc People that the Puritan immigrants were the children of two different centuries; that from the sixteenth century they got their theology, and from the seventeenth their politics, with the result that an older absolutist dogma snuggled down side by side in their minds with a later democratic conception of the state and society. In England the potential hostility between Calvinist dogma and individual freedom was perceived by the more liberal Separatists, but in America it was not till the rise of the Revolutionary disputes of the next century that Calvinism was discovered to be the foe of democratic liberalism and was finally rejected. It is a fruitful suggestion, and in its major contention that the liberalisms implicit in the Puritan revolution were ill served by a reactionary theology, it is certainly in harmony with the facts.
That Calvinism in its primary assumptions was a composite of oriental despotism and sixteenth-century monarchism, modified by the medieval conception of a city-state, is clear enough today to anyone who will take the trouble to translate dogma into political terms. In recasting the framework of the old theology, Calvin accepted as a sovereign conception the idea of God as arbitrary and absolute will - an august Rex regum whose authority is universal and unconditioned; and this conception he invested with Hebraic borrowings from the Old Testament. The principle of absolutism, indeed, he could scarcely have escaped. It came down to him through the Roman Empire and the Roman Church, from the ancient oriental despotisms, and it was interwoven with all the institutions and social forms against which the Reformation was a protest. But unhappily, instead of questioning the principle, he provided a new sanction for it and broadened its sway, by investing it with divine authority and erecting upon it a whole cosmology. That the ancient Hebrew thinkers, in seeking to give concrete form to their speculations on the nature of Jehovah, should have made use of the political ideas of primitive Israel, that they should have used all the wealth of oriental imagery in describing the regal attributes of their God, was inevitable. They knew only oriental potentates, and so Jehovah became a greater Ptolemy, with Cherubim and Seraphim, Angels and Principalities and Powers, duly ranked about the heavenly throne. So saturated with monarchical and caste ideas is the Old Testament, that it is almost impossible today to put the old phrasing out of mind, and we talk as naturally of the Kingdom of God as did the men of that older world who knew no other political phraseology. Calvin rejected the individualism of Luther and followed in the footsteps of older thinkers like Duns Scotus. The monarchical principle was everywhere gaining ground in Europe. He had a lawyer's love of law, and law reposed in the absolute will of the prince. Hebraize this fact, erect a cosmology upon it, and we have the vital principle of Calvinism.
From this cosmic absolutism, that conceived of God as the stable Will sustaining the universe, binding together what otherwise would fly asunder, two important corollaries were derived the universality of the moral law, and the necessity of divine judgment. From the former flowed that curious association of God's will with natural causes which induced Cotton Mather, when suffering from toothache, to inquire what sin he had committed with his teeth, and which left no free spaces or non-moral impulses in the lives of men. From the latter flowed the doctrine of theological determinism. If time is embedded in the eternity of God's mind, if to Him past and future are here and now, foreknowledge is an inevitable divine attribute, and predestination is only a finite way of expressing God's understanding of how human fate works itself out. Ally this doctrine of determinism with the Biblical account of the fall of man, and the doctrine of the elect becomes the theological complement of the class prejudices of the times. Bred up in the current aristocratic contempt for the sodden mass of the people, Calvinist theologians easily came to regard them as stupid, sensual, veritable children of Adam, born to sin and heirs of damnation. Only the elect shall be saved. That there was a remnant in Israel whom God had chosen, Isaiah had long before pointed out; and the doctrine of the remnant was confirmed for Calvinism by the sinful herd whose daily actions testified to their lost estate.
According to such a theology, the individual clearly is in no effective sense a free soul. There is no room for the conception of human perfectibility. The heritage of natural freedom was long since cast away by the common forefather; and because of the pre-natal sin which this act entailed on all mankind, the natural man is shut away eternally from communion with God. He is no better than an oriental serf at the mercy of a Sovereign Will that is implacable, inscrutable, the ruler of a universe predetermined in all its parts and members from the foundation of the earth. Except for the saving grace of divine election, which no human righteousness can purchase, all must go down to the everlasting damnation that awaits the sons of Adam. In the eyes of such a philosophy it is sheer impertinence to talk of the dignity and worth of the individual soul. Men are no other than the worms of the dust. The boon of eternal life is not included in God's enumeration of natural rights; it is a special grant from the Lord of the universe who is pleased to smile on whom he is pleased to smile. In the hard words of Paul, "Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth." And those on whom he hath had mercy are his Saints, and they are gathered into his church, as the free city-states had risen out of the muck of medieval despotism. They are the stewards of his righteousness and are called to the great work of rulership on earth that God's will may be done and righteousness may prevail over iniquity.
It was an ambitious program, and so long as the Presbyterian party maintained its ascendency in England it endeavored to thrust its Calvinism down every throat, no matter how unwelcome; but with the passing of power from its hands, and the growth of a common-sense spirit of toleration, Calvinistic dogma lost its authority and the minds of Englishmen turned to more humane philosophies. In New England, on the other hand, by virtue of a rigid suppression of free inquiry, Calvinism long lingered out a harsh existence, grotesque and illiberal to the last. In banishing the Antinomians and Separatists and Quakers, the Massachusetts magistrates cast out the spirit of liberalism from the household of the Saints.
1 See "The Babylonian Captivity," in Works, Vol. II, p. 233 (Philadelphia, 1915).