Tuesday, June 28, 2011

John Adams on the Puritan contribution to liberty

We've been on a bit of a John Adams jag here at American Creation, so I thought that I would continue our discussion of his religious views by discussing his understanding of the Puritan contribution to human liberty.  As has been noted previously, Adams's religious views do do not fit within the mould of orthodox Christianity.  That being the case, it is noteworthy that in his early work Adams had a very high regard for those most orthodox of Calvinists, the Puritan fathers of New England.

In A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, written in 1765 (circa the time of the French and Indian War), Adams wrote as a subject of the British crown and a patriot of the Empire.  He begins his discussion of the Puritans in that text by noting that the Puritans were seen as "enthusiastical, superstitious, and republican" by many of the proper people of Adams's day. Adams strongly attacks such views of the Puritans, stating that they were "grossly injurious and false."  The Puritans, Adams contends, were no more enthusiasts than the other sects within the Christian religion, and that their religious fervor, while a "noble infirmity," was also a source of strength for the group:   "far from being a reproach to them," Adams wrote, their devotion "was greatly to their honor."

Adams then goes on to describe how the Puritans sought to fuse reason and religion, a commitment to biblical faith with the prudential considerations of practical men.  "Human and benevolent principles," Adams wrote, were the basis of Puritan policy.  While modern readers and scholars might object to Adams's characterization of motivations of the Puritans, Adams saw in the Puritans a resolute commitment to fight "Tyranny in every form, and shape, and appearance."  The Puritans were willing to face punishment and even death rather than to compromise their beliefs.  Their convictions serve, Adams' contends, as an example of "steady, manly, pertinacious spirit."

As noted above, at the time he wrote A Dissertation, Adams was still a loyal monarchist and he went out of his way to note that the Puritans, despite their resistance to certaion policies of the British kings, were not foes of the monarchy.  They rather sought a balanced government, with proper checks on the authority of both the king and the church.  "[T]hey saw clearly, that popular powers must be placed as a guard a control, a balance, to the powers of the monarch and the priest, in every government, or else it would soon become the man of sin, the whore of Babylon, the mystery of iniquity, a great and detestable system of fraud, violence, and usurpation."  The Puritan commitment was to limited government, not to any one particular form of it.  And the reason for their commitment to limited government was grounded in their ultimately religious view that human nature is such to render a limitless government a mechanism of tyranny.

The Puritans had a strong commitment to secular reform and a stronger commitment to religious renewal, so much so that Adams characterizes ecclesiastical reform as "[t]heir greatest concern."  In the Puritan view, secular and religious reform were not separate and distinct, but built off each other.  Thus, the Puritans sought, according to Adams, to live in a state that upheld "the dignity of human nature."  This two-fold commitment lead the Puritans to seek thoroughgoing reform of both secular and ecclesiastical institutions, removing "feudal inequalities an dependencies as could be spared."  And undergirding all this, as Adams notes, was the Puritan hostility to the Catholic religion, with its rituals and its ecclesiastical doctrines.  The idea of a priest, Adams writes, was one which "no mortal could deserve, and as always must, from the constitution of human nature, be dangerous in society."

Thus, the Puritans sought to purge the Protestant church of the vestiges of Catholicism, to preserve the spiritual and secular liberty that they saw due to every man.  Instead of a priesthood, Adams contents that the Puritans "established sacerdotal ordination on the foundation of the Bible and common sense."  In doing so, the Puritans stressed, in Adams's account, the characteristics of "industry, virtue, piety, and learning."  This had the effect of creating a people who were far more "independent on the civil powers" than those who lived in "a scale of subordination, from a pope down to priests and friars and confessors -- necessarily and essentially a sordid, stupid, and wretched herd."  That the church of England continued, in modified form, to uphold the same system of subordination earned it the same disdain from the Puritans and from Adams.

With Adams's early presentation of the Puritans, one sees what might be called "the Puritan myth" in full flower.   While much of his analysis may be disputed in light of modern scholarship, Adams's overview encapsulates what was the dominant view of the Puritans at the time leading up to the American Revolution.  And there is little doubt that the Puritan refusal to compromise principle when faced with the demands of unlimited government did much to inspire most of the American patriots in the time prior to, during and immediately after our break with the British Empire.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

The Puritan "work ethic" and demand of "Biblical authority" impacted our society greatly. So much so, that we have become obessessed with both work and the Bible...Success and theology.

You present Adam's view of the Puritan's as an emphasis on "equality'. This was probably true to those that "belonged" to their "commonwealth". Others wer burned at the stake for being "witches"!!!

Equality and eltiism is another dilemma as to how society should function. And even if one chooses on value above another, one still has to deal with questions about how to apply it. Equal in opportunity or outcome? We know that all people are not "equal" in opportunity or outcome, naturally or by effort! Elitism was the Founders understanding of their right to govern, but not at the expense of "the people"!!! How is one to become elite? It wasn't by birth, as that was an aristocratic way of governing. We did not believe in Kings.ETC...you see what I mean...

The Puritans, in opposition to the Founders believed that one needed to be guided by the Holy Spirit and the Bible. The Founders believed in being guided by reason, which was defined by law. These commitments were the foundation of the vast difference of understanding "rule", government, and liberty.

Mark in Spokane said...

My post is about John Adams's views of the Puritans, not on whether those views were accurate. I noted in my post that modern readers and modern scholars would probably differ with Adams on key points.

The Puritans did not share out view of liberty, particularly liberty of conscience. But they did have a vision of liberty and of limited govenrment that was notable during their time and which influenced later understandings of liberty and limited government both in England and here in America. Just because the Puritans were illiberal in some ways does not mean that they don't have an important part in the geneology of liberalism (with a small "l").

Would I want to live in a Puritan society? As a practicing Roman Catholic my answer to that question is: no. But the society that I do live in bears the marks, both for ill and for good, of the Puritans. It is good to understand both the Puritan contribution itself, and how earlier writers (like Adams) understood those contributions.

Tom Van Dyke said...

By the time of the Founding, even the Puritans weren't Puritans anymore. What was good was kept; what didn't work died away.

Mark in Spokane said...

Good point, Tom!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Jason had a good post on "Industry", which supported the "Protestant work ethic". The work ethic is what made our country great. Was the "work ethic" what you were talking about, Tom?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not specifically. I was more agreeing with Adams and Pappas, that certain Calvinist/Puritan attitudes about liberty survived, while the theocracy angle withered.

But keep in mind that even in the early Puritan days, clergy didn't run the show.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

So, if "I" am to keep in mind that "the clergy didn't run the show"....I must ask you who did? It will reveal where your commitments lie. Neo-conservative elitist, or a liberal egalitarian....

Pinky said...

., Adams wrote as a subject of the British crown and a patriot of the Empire. He begins his discussion of the Puritans in that text by noting that the Puritans were seen as "enthusiastical, superstitious, and republican" by many of the proper people of Adams's day.
I wonder what the word, superstitious, meant to people during the Founding Era.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

DUH...the British Crown and the Empire called the shots...which led to the revolution. Adams was a patriot, the upper crust.

Tom Van Dyke said...

So, if "I" am to keep in mind that "the clergy didn't run the show"....I must ask you who did?

Actually, the point is that even the Puritans had a separation of church and state. In addition, they did away with the dual system of civil courts and ecclesiastical courts, the latter of which had much control over everyday life: marriages, inheritances, even real estate matters, as well as blasphemy, adultery and drunkenness.

And they still did back in Britain through the 1800s. It's really quite fascinating, and way overlooked in politico-religious studies.


Tom Van Dyke said...

>>>that the Puritans were seen as "enthusiastical, superstitious, and republican" by many of the proper people of Adams's day...

I wonder what the word, superstitious, meant to people during the Founding Era.<<<

Phil, "superstition" probably refers specifically to belief in witches and demons and the like of evil as a physical manifestation, not just some theoretical concept or nonphysical entity as we see Satan today. [Outside the Exorcist movies!]

I ran across this, which I found interesting.


I'm not a Puritan bug, but despite the above article's concluding assertion, the madness of the Salem Witch Trials brought home the truth that superstition is no way to run a society.

As for "enthusiasm," I know the "enthusiasm" of the First Great Awakening beginning c. 1730 was condemned by the more intellectual types. I'd put it along with "feelings," like what you see at revival meetings where someone "witnesses" their feelings at being touched by Christ or the Holy Spirit.

Proto-unitarian Charles Chauncy:

I was last summer at an evening lecture at a neighboring parish, at which one of the most famous preachers in the new method carried on. He had entered but a little way in his sermon (which was delivered in a manner sufficiently terrible) when there began to be some commotion among the young women. This inspired him with new life. He lifted up his voice like a trumpet, plentifully poured down terrors upon them.

About half a score of young women were presently thrown into violent hysteric fits. I carefully observed them.

When he grew calm and moderate in his manner, though the things delivered were equally awakening, they by degrees grew calm and still:

when he again assumed the terrible and spake like thunder, the like violent strugglings immediately returned upon them from time to time.

Well, that should be enough for ex-fundie-evangelicals you and Angie to get the cold chills.


"Enthusiasm" looks a lot like mass hysteria, and hardly godly.

Chauncy: "People, in order to know, whether the Influences they are under, are from the Spirit, don't carefully examine them by the Word of GOD, and view the Change they produce in the moral State of their Minds and of their Lives, but hastily conclude such and such internal Motions to be divine Impressions, meerly from the Perception they have of them."

In other words, read the Bible, the Word of God, and get your mind right with it. All this emotional stuff is just craziness.

Read the link, it's cool. Seeing Christianity in America through Chauncy's eyes is much better than us guessing through our 21st century filter.

Although his a filter, too, mind you. So intellectual that one might not feel God atall.

And what's most scandalous about this attitude, Chauncy complained that "testifying" was given over to

"babes in age as well as understanding.

They are chiefly, indeed, young persons, sometimes lads, or rather boys; nay, women and girls, yea, Negroes,

have taken upon them to do the business of preachers."

Hell, that's the most beautiful thing about Christianity of all, that all men are equal in Christ, even women, young girls and [gasp1} Negroes!

Hope you find this as interesting I do. I should write more along these lines, but real life obliges me to inhabit the comments sections of our wonderful little blog more than the mainpage. I plant these seeds and hope someone will come along and harvest them.

Cheers, Phil, and to everybody.

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angie Van De Merwe said...

I just don't like the "Separatists", as the very word means that they think they have a handle on something over and above someone else....the elites at least have something "real" to brag about!

I can accept if they want to separate because of some offense, but not some "truth"...which they enthusiatically respond to/about, or that they "see/understand" in scripture!!

The Catholic Church at least understood that religion was about philosophy, not reality! And that the canon of scripture was a political process by/for the church!

as to equality, that is not the "real world", there will always be those that have more knowledge/education, money, power, influence, connections, etc.!!! that is the way of politics, isn't it...

Intersting factoid about civil, ecclesiastical courts...I need to read your references...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Tom, Out of curiosity, are you interested in the Puritan civil and ecclesiatical court being united, for research into the connection of Islam's politio-religious theology? (gives me the creeps...I've been under that and done that...don't want anything to do with it, at all!)

Tom Van Dyke said...

as to equality, that is not the "real world"

Now, that starts a damned good and damned relevant question, Angie. The Puritans, the Founding, later American jurisprudence, even later American jurisprudence of the 20th century that begins to kick religion and classical/medieval philosophy completely ["natural law"].

Secularism, "strict separationism" re church and state, "ceremonial deism," Michael Newdow, "one nation under God," Everson, "the Lemon test,"

And of course, outside the American context, the Anglo-American context, the European and Western context, the same question that Muslim societies like Egypt must answer right now in 2011, since they just blew up their government and have to create a new one!

Same shit, different day, different Holy Book!

I think---I sure hope---you're starting to get it at last, and what this blog has always been about. The Big Question [actually the 2nd biggest question after quid sit deus, if there is a God what would "It" be], what Spinoza called the politico-theological question and what Leo Strauss called the theologico-political question. Same question.

In philosophy, in political philosophy, even in theology, asking the right questions is what it's all about.

Hell, yes, the answers change and mutate and grow. And they also fail, and then you have to start back at the beginning again.

This blog ain't your fundie church where they thought they had all the answers. Hey, the Roman church tried that, and after 1000 years or so of trying to run things, figured out that they didn't have all the answers either. This world has human beings in it, and human beings and their free will messes everything up!

And even God---if He exists---gave us that free will. Free to mess everything up, if we want to!

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

After re-reading these responses, my "DUH" could've been construed as directed at your question. It was NOT! I was responding to myself, idiot that I am....things dawn too slowly on me, sometimes...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Are you suggesting another revolution, as you stated that we must start from 'the beginning"? are we not to learn from history? connect to the foundations of our society, and not undermine our country?

Or are you prepared to do anything to protect....what exactly? What is your linch-pin? What was the Founderst linch-pin? Why did they really found our nation?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Angie, they "founded" our nation because we separated from Britain and discovered man needs government!

They tried the Articles of Confederation government, which was a weak a gov't as possible. Unfortunately, one state screwed the next state, and each state had it's own currency. You had to trade your Connecticut money for Pennsylvania dollars, and everybody preferred British Pounds Sterling if not Pieces of Eight, which were real gold.

I really do recommend Jim Best's book, Tempest at Dawn which is very enjoyable. It's a novelization of the Constitutional debates, not a dry history book. It makes it come alive.


To answer your question here further, what i wrote was

Hell, yes, the answers change and mutate and grow. And they also fail, and then you have to start back at the beginning again.

See, all "progress" isn't progress. Sometimes, you went down a dead end. I suggest hitting the "Undo" button and returning to the Founders and their debates.

If that makes me a "Tea Partier," then so be it! I love the American Founding because America was a blank slate, and they had to start a government from scratch. They kept the best from Britain, and dumped the rest.

And that doesn't mean I want to return to 1776 or 1787. Social Security, county hospitals for the poor, racial equality, women's rights, even Food Stamps for the hungry, these are all things that have made us better, not worse.

As a "conservative," I don't want to Undo them, I want to defend them!

As for a "revolution," I hope not. Except for slavery, which made us kill a half-million of each other in the Civil War, we Americans have resolved our differences with debate and mutual respect.

Just as the Founders did. It's never going to be perfect, but I believe in us. Even this very blog is an example of it. Call it "American exceptionalism."


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thanks, Tom for your response and being pateint with me ;-)!

"Self government" meant we didn't need government for being respectful/civil, but we did need government to establish the order, where it concerned monetary and certain social needs...

As Pinky said, "I like you"....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

On second thought, I don't believe anyone has the right to decide what another does with their money, as I believe in 'private property". Without private property, none of our other liberties are granted, as we will be slaves to another. Where we live, and how we live will be determined by others in power.

So, government must be "good" at granting liberty of choice regarding how I make my living and what i do with it...