Saturday, March 1, 2014

America's God: Republicanism v. Traditional Scripture

If Paine’s Age of Reason (with its dismissive attitude toward the Old Testament) had been published before Common Sense (with its full deployment of Scripture in support of republican freedom), the quarrel with Britain may have taken a different course. It is also likely that the allegiance of traditional Christian believers to republican liberty might not have been so thoroughly cemented. And it is possible that the intimate relation between republican reasoning and trust in a traditional Scripture, which became so important after the turn of the new century, would not have occurred as it did.
-- Mark Noll, America's God


Jonathan Rowe said...

Good to see you back Naum. Very prescient quotation.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Considering Paine's "Age of Reason" led to his becoming a socio-political pariah, and that "Common Sense" was well-received precisely because its themes and arguments are so Biblical

I don't see how Noll's point makes any sense. No leader or thinker is so brilliant or influential so as to take the people where they don't want to go--a more accurate metaphor for leadership is finding a parade and standing in front of it.

As great a figure as GWash was, he could not have led America away from revolution.

[Indeed, good to see you again, Mr. Naum.]

Naum said...

Reading through this now (about 1/4 the way through) -- odd, since I've read several other of Noll's works (most notably The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), that I never picked this up prior. And it's as good and/or better than those titles, as Noll goes into a lot more detail on 17C-18C religious streams in America (and later in the book 19C, up to Age of Lincoln).

@Tom van Dyke, the Noll quote is relevant because he lays out how Republicanism and Christianity were seen as incompatible -- and even after they were cognitively assimilated in America, in the rest of the world, the two themes were still viewed as in opposition to each other. Noll makes the case that America founding fathers broke apart from Calvinist/Puritanism literalistic observance to more syncretic faith, based more in cahoots with nationalism and republicanism. And Paine's Common Sense was a colossal catalyst, given its widescale dissemination and influence. He spends a lot of words on how republicanism and quest for freedom became intertwined with church pulpits, despite the worldwide denominational lines that placed such thinking as completely polar opposite to good Christian practice.

Paine helped in a giant fashion to pave the way that traditional scripture and republican freedom were simpatico. Not entirely, as beastly seeds lay remnant to be wrought in a few generations. And it still is at brew today -- people clinging to "traditional" view v. those who rethink Christian scripture in new light. Noll's focus is this play at work in the America story but I've been reading a lot of early Christian history and it's a story evident for the entire history of Christianity.

(For anyone interested, here is a compelling series of lectures by Keith Ward on how Christianity has "rethought" itself through the ages)

Sometimes I think it just impossible for us to put ourselves in that context -- I was just rereading Catholic encyclicals from 19C (Pope Gregory XVI, Mirari Vos) where the Pope lays out that freedom of worship or freedom of the press are horrific ideas. Even Pope Pius IX in 1860s reiterated these to be grievous errors, folly of man.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I think that far too much credit is given to Paine's Common Sense. As Elias Boudinot expressed it:

The great effect which this pamphlet had on the revolution, (and it was certainly great) arose from its being written at the moment when the public mind was in a great alarm, and totally at a loss how to determine.

Boudinot was likely referring to the fact that Paine's pamphlet was published after the American colonies had already been convinced of their independence from England by the actions of George III. According to British law, George's proclamation of rebellion on August 23, 1775 and his announcement in October of that year that he planned to use direct military action against the colonists were actions that severed the legal ties between England and America.

This provision of British law was explained by Wilson in his very popular 1774 publication Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament. Wilson relied on rulings of the British court in cases such as Calvin's Case in which the court decreed that:

As the subject oweth to the King his true and faithful ligeance and obedience, so the Sovereign is to govern and protect his Subjects, to rule and protect the subjects: so as between the Sovereign and subject there is a dual and reciprocal tie, because just as the subject is bound in obedience to the king, so the king is bound to the protection of the subject; and therefore allegiance is properly so called from ligando (tying) because it contains within itself a two-way tie.

All of this occurred before Paine published his famous pamphlet, and it was only because the American people had already had their independence forced upon them by the order of the king that his irreverent declarations found so much acceptance.

On another note, I have not read Noll's book, and I am curious as to what he says about the Baptists of the 17th and 18th centuries. From my research, the Baptists were the fastest growing denomination of that era, and they had a very republican form of church government. In fact, the Baptist nation of Tephrice once enjoyed many of the same freedoms which were later established in America. Do you know if Noll mentions anything about the Baptist influence on the Revolution and American law?

By the way, if you are not familiar with the nation of Tephrice, you can learn more about them in the appendix of L. P. Brockett's book Bogomils of Bulgaria and Bosnia which is available online at:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Exactly, Mr. Fortenberger--as Jefferson said of the D of I, the mastery was in putting into words what was already the prevailing "American mind." They were influential for their clarity, not for any new ideas.

See also

as well as Elias Sandoz' collections of Founding-era sermons--including Jonathan Mayhew's landmark

A Discourse concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers: With some Reflections on the Resistance made to King Charles I. And on the Anniversary of his Death: In which the Mysterious Doctrine of that Prince's Saintship and Martyrdom is Unriddled

from 1750 [!].

I have some problems with Mark Noll and other liberal historians making theological judgments about what political theologies are genuinely "Christian."

They're entitled to their religious opinions like anyone else but what is "proper" Christian theology is above the historian's pay grade.

Naum said...

@wsforten, I suspect Noll is headed there (again, I've only dented the book about 1/4 the way), as he's covered about every influential clergyman/pastor/philosopher of note in the 17C-18C, some I was already well familiar with (Whitefield, Edward), others I was only sort of familiar (i.e., Witherspoon) and others I barely or never heard of.

Presently, I'm just finished with a long look at Francis Hutcheson, who Noll marks as the most influential bearing on nation's founding -- citing his indirect influence on Witherspoon, Alison, etc.

Noll: Internal developments in theology, epistemology, and political theory did not convert Americans from the idealism, Augustinianism, and conversionist ethics of Puritanism to the realism, optimism, and universalistic ethics of theistic mental science. It was rather that the principles of the new moral philosophy, especially in forms close to what Francis Hutcheson first proposed, offered Americans exactly what they needed in order to master the tumults of the Revolutionary era. In the midst of what Nathan Hatch has called “a cultural ferment over the meaning of freedom,” an intuitive, universal, natural ethic provided the most intellectually respectable way to secure public virtue in a society that was busy repudiating most of the props upon which virtue had traditionally rested—tradition itself, history, social hierarchy, inherited government, and the authority of state churches.41 By the mid-eighteenth century, the new moral philosophy began to seem “uniquely suited,” as Norman Fiering put it, “to the needs of an era still strongly committed to traditional religious values and yet searching for alternative modes of justification for those values.”42 For Protestants who wanted to preserve traditional forms of Christianity without having to appeal to traditional religious authorities, commonsense reasoning of the sort provided by Francis Hutcheson was the answer. The Scottish perspective, informed first by Hutcheson and then by Reid, thrived in America, not for narrowly intellectual reasons, but because it suited so perfectly the needs of the emerging nation.

@Tom van Dyke, don't really know what you're getting at, as this is a magisterial work on history of theology. And you're label casting "liberal historian" really isn't apt -- he's a scholar (a self avowed evangelical Christian) whose focus is Christian theological streams.

And we did that dance in your cited thread on Noll :) As someone who's read extensively both history, church history and theology (and I don't doubt that Noll as pored over theological texts too), I find your comments to be silly :)

Tom Van Dyke said...

We don't really play dueling historians around here, brother. What Noll and Hatch and Fiering think is fine, but this ain't that kind of party. If you have a point of your own, kindly make it and leave the authority game and the personal attacks at the door.