Monday, November 16, 2009

George Willis Cooke on Jonathan Mayhew (and Simeon Howard)

Two "key" Patriotic Preachers of the Founding era. Read it here:

The First Unitarian.

Dr. Mayhew accepted without equivocation the right of private judgment in religion, and he practised it judicially and with wise insight. He unhesitatingly applied the rational method to all theological problems, and to him reason was the final court of appeal for everything connected with religion. His love of freedom was enthusiastic and persistent, and he was zealously committed to the principle of individuality. He believed in the essential goodness of human nature, and in the doctrine of the Divine Unity. He was the first outspoken Unitarian in New England, not merely because he rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, but because he accepted all the cardinal principles developed by that movement since his day. He was a rationalist, an individualist, a defender of personal freedom, and tested religious practices by the standard of common sense. His sermons were plain, direct, vigorous, and modern. A truly religious man, Mayhew taught a practical and humanitarian religion, genuinely ethical, and faithful in inculcating the motive of civic duty.

Dr. Mayhew's words may be quoted in regard to some of the religious beliefs commonly accepted in his day. "The doctrine of a total ignorance and incapacity to judge of moral and religious truths brought upon mankind by the disobedience of our first parents," he wrote, "is without foundation."[11] "I hope it appears," he says, "that the love of God and of our neighbor, that sincere piety of heart, and a righteous, holy and charitable life, are the weightier matters of the gospel, as well as of the law."[12] "Although Christianity cannot," he asserts, "with any propriety or justice be said to be the same with natural religion, or merely a republication of the laws of nature, yet the principal, the most important and fundamental duties required by Christianity are, nevertheless, the same which were enjoined under the legal dispensation of Moses, and the same which are dictated by the light of nature."[13] His great love of intellectual and spiritual freedom finds utterance in such a statement as this: "Nor has any order or body of men authority to enjoin any particular article of faith, nor the use of any modes of worship not expressly pointed out in the Scriptures; nor has the enjoining of such articles a tendency to preserve the peace and harmony of the church, but directly the contrary."[14] Such sentences as the following are frequent on Mayhew's pages, and they show clearly the trend of his mind: "Free examination, weighing arguments for and against with care and impartiality, is the way to find truth." "True religion flourishes the more, the more people exercise their right of private judgment."[15] "There is nothing more foolish and superstitious than a veneration for ancient creeds and doctrines as such, and nothing is more unworthy a reasonable creature than to value principles by their age, as some men do their wines."[16]

Mayhew insisted upon the strict unity of God, "who is without rival or competitor." "The dominion and sovereignty of the universe is necessarily one and in one, the only living and true God, who delegates such measures of power and authority to other beings as seemeth good in his sight." He declared that the not preserving of such unity and supremacy of God on the part of Christians "has long been just matter of reproach to them"; and he said the authority of Christ is always "exercised in subordination to God's will."[17] His position was that "the faith of Christians does not terminate in Christ as the ultimate object of it, but it is extended through him to the one God."[18] The very idea of a mediator implies subordination as essential to it.[19] His biographer says he did not accept the notion of vicarious suffering, and, that he was an Arian in his views of the nature of Christ. "He was the first clergyman in New England who expressly and openly opposed the scholastic doctrine of the Trinity. Several others declined pressing the Athanasian Creed, and believed strictly in the unity of God. They also probably found it difficult to explain their views on the subject, and the great danger of losing their good name served to prevent their speaking out. But Dr. Mayhew did not conceal or disguise his sentiments on this point any more than on others, such as the peculiar tenets of Calvinism. He explicitly and boldly declared the doctrine irrational, unscriptural, and directly contradictory."[20] He taught the strict unity of God as early as 1753, "in the most unequivocal and plain manner, in his sermons of that year."[21] What most excited comment and objection was that, in a foot-note to the volume of his sermons published in 1755, Mayhew said that a Catholic Council had elevated the Virgin Mary to the position of a fourth person in the Godhead, and added, by way of comment: "Neither Papists nor Protestants should imagine that they will be understood by others if they do not understand themselves. Nor should they think that nonsense and contradictions can ever be too sacred to be ridiculous." The ridicule here was not directed against the doctrine of the Trinity, as has been maintained, but the foolish defences of it made by men who accepted its "mysteries" as too wonderful for reason to deal with in a serious manner. This boldness of comment on the part of Mayhew was in harmony with his strong disapproval of creed-making in all its forms. He condemned creeds because they set up "human tests of orthodoxy instead of the infallible word of God, and make other terms of Christian communion than those explicitly pointed out by the Gospel."[22]

Dr. Mayhew was succeeded in the West Church by Rev. Simeon Howard in 1767, who, though he was received in a more friendly spirit by the ministers of the town, was not less radical in his theology than his predecessor. Dr. Howard was both an Arminian and an Arian, and he was "a believer neither in the Trinity, nor in the divine predestination of total depravity, and necessary ruin to any human soul."[23] He was of a gentle and conciliatory temper, but his preaching was quite as thorough-going in its intellectual earnestness as was Dr. Mayhew's.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Note that Mayhew calls the Bible infallible. That's damn Christian for socio-historical purposes.

[In disputing Calvin, his argument about Moses is also a natural law argument. He is of course wrong about Mary as God #4, but that's a common Protestant misconception.]