Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Devil and Doctor Dwight: Satire and Theology in the Early American Republic

You may access the article from Journal of Church and State, Wntr, 2004 by Thomas S. Kidd here.

A taste:

The Devil & Doctor Dwight is unusual in its approach because it takes on book-length issues by asking what would seem an article-length question: what was Timothy Dwight up to in his relatively forgotten satiric poem The Triumph of Infidelity (1788)? Wells's answers offer an expansive and satisfying analysis of post-Revolutionary theological and political controversies. The key debate here is over the doctrine of Universalism. In 1784, Boston pastor Charles Chauncy published The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, explaining what he had long called "the pudding," the idea that all people would eventually be saved. Dwight saw this doctrine as the latest version of Pelagianism: the belief that man was inherently virtuous. More broadly, he saw Chauncy's universalism as symptomatic of a broader cultural self-deception led by the Enlightenment prophets of reason, progress, and democracy.

Dwight is best remembered as the president who redeemed Yale, albeit temporarily, from Enlightened skeptics. Republican critics called him the "Pope of Federalism," as he defended social order and revealed religion against Democratic-Republicans, skeptics, and untutored revivalists. The Triumph of Infidelity countered the Enlightenment narrative of continuous progress with a narrative of Satan's designs to trick people into overestimating human goodness.

As I've noted before, the first four Presidents and Ben Franklin seemed to have more in common with Rev. Chauncy's theology than Rev. Dwight's.

One question that demarcates Chauncy's theological worldview v. Dwight's is why does God command things? Is it for 1. His own glory? Or 2. man's good? The Dwights of the era answered 1.; the Chauncyes of the era and the key Founders answered 2.

1 comment:

Joe Winpisinger said...


Not to get into a theological debate but I have a hard time understanding why one cannot answer "Both" to your ending question above.