Saturday, July 7, 2012

Locke and Evangelical Preachers

Joseph Loconte of King’s College (in the Empire State Building) has an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal called “They Preached Liberty.” A sample:
The "fighting parson" was a common sight in the American Revolution. Why? Because American Christianity—anchored in a Protestant understanding of religious freedom—gave its blessing to democratic self-government. For many evangelical ministers, unconstrained British rule not only represented an oppressive monarchy that trampled on their civil rights. It supported a national church, the Anglican Church, which they feared would impose its doctrines and practices on the colonies if given half a chance.
Where did they get their ideas?
In this, preachers such as Elisha Williams of Wethersfield, Conn., drew as readily from political philosophers as they did from the Bible to defend a "natural and unalienable right of private judgment in matters of religion." English philosopher John Locke was quoted frequently in evangelical sermons ...
However, Loconte denies the influence of the Enlightenment:
It is now widely assumed that religious toleration—a hallmark of the secular, democratic West—grew out of the 18th-century Enlightenment. This may be true in much of Europe, but not in the United States.
Locke, the founder of British Empiricism, is generally considered a founding figure of the Enlightenment although I’ve seen the term used in a restricted sense. It appears that I wasn't the only one confused by this argument. David W. Opderbeck, Seton Hall University School of Law, writes in a letter to the editor:
Well, could it be that the evangelical preachers were interpreting their Bibles through the eyes of the quintessential Enlightenment philosopher John Locke? Indeed they were. More careful historians of early American evangelicalism have demonstrated the ties between certain strands of Enlightenment thought and early evangelical theology ...
It's well worth reading both Loconte's article and Opderbeck's letter.


JMS said...

Great post because if follows-up on the prior debate on the biblical justifications for rebellion, independence and revolution.

To elaborate on the issues you raised, I recommend highly Chapter 3:Theistic Rationalism in the Revolutionary Pulpit (along with its 150 footnotes)in Gregg Frazer's book, The Religious Beliefs of America's Founders: Reason, Revelation and Revolution.

Frazer would agree with Opderbeck and disagree with Laconte. Frazer quotes Steven Dworetz, "the clergy's indispensable contribution to the Revolution ... cannot be fully understood without reference to Locke" and Locke's "theistic liberalism." (p. 85)

Frazer goes on to review a series of core principles under-girding the American Revolution, all of which derive from "liberal democratic theory": state of nature, equality, consent of the governed, popular sovereignty, , self-determination, social compact, rulers accountability to the people, purpose of gov't. to secure the common good, natural rights, liberty, majority rule, republican gov't. and resistance to tyranny. None of these ideas are biblical, but preachers creatively synthesized "elements of Christian influence" with Locke.

Frazer concludes that, "hearing the tenets of liberal democratic theory proclaimed from the pulpit as a divine message solidly reinforced those principles in the minds of the people and plowed the mental ground into which leaders sowed political seeds." (p. 106)

Tom Van Dyke said...

the quintessential Enlightenment philosopher John Locke

Sez who? Secularists have been de-Christianizing Locke for quite awhile now, and it's easy to, if you don't know a damn thing about the Bible and the Christian tradition.

See the work of Jeremy Waldron and Kim Ian Parker.

It is now widely assumed that religious toleration—a hallmark of the secular, democratic West—grew out of the 18th-century Enlightenment. This may be true in much of Europe, but not in the United States.

And this is precisely the reason that Locke is a giant in American thought and is unheralded on the European continent. [And Britain itself!] the "other" Enlightenment.

It's precisely Locke's congeniality with Christian thought that made him the political philosopher of choice in the rather religious American colonies.

Jason Pappas said...

I think these two authors illustrate the problem with conflicting definitions. When I read Loconte's article I had to assume that his definition of Enlightenment was a narrow one, perhaps French, and certainly anti-religious. He may be using the word secular to mean anti-religious. When I read Opderbeck's letter, I assumed his definition of Enlightenment was broad and included the empiricism (Bacon, Newton, Locke, Hume) as well as continental rationalism. The empiricism is inherently secular (instead of a reliance on religious dogma) but aside from Hume there was no hostility towards religion. (Incidentally, Opderbeck’s letter reveals his Christian sympathies, too.)

As you note, Tom, Locke’s congeniality with Christian thought makes him welcome in the America. But his empirical and naturalistic arguments makes him just as welcome to the French. Everyone loved Locke in the 18th century.

The issue that I’m skirting is what really separates Loconte and Opderbeck. JMS addresses their major difference. Opderbeck believes 18th century preachers read new ideas back into their religion. Perhaps I should finally read Frazer’s book.

Jonathan Rowe said...

As I understand Voltaire was a big time Lockean. You might want to get Jason Kuznicki to chime in on how the French Revolutionaries viewed Locke.

JMS said...

Jon - good point. I would recommend John Marshall's book, "John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture: Religious Toleration and Arguments for Religious Toleration in Early Modern and Early Enlightenment Europe." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

To get a small taste of it see a good review at H-Net:

One quote helps address your question:

"What Marshall suggests is that a cadre of early Enlightenment writers in Holland "universalized" toleration. They were led by Locke (and the Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689) and Bayle (Philosophical Commentary, English translation, 1708), who, though obscure in the 1680s, "tower over their contemporaries" (p. 471). But they were not alone, other writers included Jacques Basnage, Adriaan Van Paets, Isaac Papin, Charles Le Cene, Jean Le Clerc, Philippus van Limborch, and Gilbert Burnet. Burnet was the man who exemplified the personal links that characterized this group, he knew and linked Locke with Dutch Arminians. Marshall describes at length the connections and networks of tolerationists, in part to support his assertion that toleration was part of the "republic of letters" and formed an "early Enlightenment culture."

The reviewer does question the strength of the last point, but its worth investigating.

Jason Pappas said...

The Marshall book looks interesting. Every time I visit this venue my stack of books-to-read gets bigger. But why stop here? What do you think of Zagorin's book that Tom Palmer recommends?

JMS said...

Jason - I was underwhelmed by Zagorin's book (although I share his admiration for the too-overlooked Sebastian Castellio), probably best expressed by the two 3-star reviews of his book on Sorry.

Jason Pappas said...

Thanks, again.