Four decades ago, Historian Daniel Walker Howe wrote an interesting article entitled, "The Decline of Calvinism: An Approach to Its Study" in which he gives a detailed analysis of how and why Calvinism lost much of its appeal during the years immediately following the English Civil War, and culminating in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Since the latter part of the 17th century, Calvinist hegemony over the message of salvation was beginning to erode, making room for newer and more democratic interpretations of Christian soteriology. How writes:
How and why Calvinism evolved into Protestant humanism is not altogether clear. It is certainly suggestive that the two great proponents of natural philosophy in the Enlightenment, Isaac Newton and John Locke, both rejected the creedal formulations of Dort. Nevertheless, the advance- ment of learning probably did not effect the ruin of Calvinism. Seventeenth- century English and Dutch Calvinists were among the most hospitable men of their time to new knowledge. Calvinist orthodoxy as defined at Dort could, presumably, have been harmonized with the science and philosophy of the eighteenth century if men had been so inclined. From the remote American frontier, Jonathan Edwards showed how a Calvinist scientific empiricism might be constructed, but his achievement, though widely ad- mired, attracted few disciples outside the confines of New England.
Calvin's theology in its prime had given intellectual form to a powerful religious sense of dependence. A faith that God controlled all things, including the wills of men, that history was predetermined, and that their own election to eternal life was secure-this faith had provided strength and comfort to men who suffered wars and rumors of wars, religious persecution, political oppression, and, in some cases, the trials of transatlantic migration.
Calvinism and Arminianism, I would argue, should be seen as manifestations of varying social moods of fear and contentment. These changing moods were related, among other things, to international patterns of power politics. In the calmer days following the wars of religion and the revolutions against the Stuarts, when the future of Protestantism no longer seemed in jeopardy, a rigid and uncompromising confession of faith no longer seemed necessary or appropriate. Arminian and humanistic religion became prominent during the relative political stability of the early eighteenth century. The threat of militant secularism coming with the French Revolution provoked a Calvinist reaction in a few quarters, but the movement away from Reformed orthodoxy resumed during the peaceful nineteenth century.
Such changes in world politics interacted with economic and technological developments that were altering the conditions of human existence in even more fundamental ways. The two centuries of Western history after Westphalia witnessed expanding trade, increasing life-expectancy, more sophisticated financial transactions, the rise of the bourgeoisie. The growth of theological Arminianism reflected an increasingly active, rather than passive, attitude toward the universe evident in many fields of human endeavor. Peace and prosperity worked hand in hand to foster self- assurance. If men could control their earthly destiny so ably, theologians concluded men could work out their own eternal salvation as well.
To look at our case study of Massachusetts is to see that by the beginning of the nineteenth century the harrowing episodes of the Reformation had receded from the consciousness of proper Bostonians. As Yankees became more prosperous and secure, some of their sense of dependence on God evaporated. People successfully exploiting a rich continent, winning independence, confident of their future, could not know that feeling of awe which had prompted the Pilgrim Fathers to pray unto the Lord to deliver them from the perils of popery behind and a desolate wilderness before them. In the expansive, forward-looking young republic, the somber faith of the fathers did not always answer to the felt needs of the sons. Men enjoyed a greater psychic security and no longer agonized so much over their inadequacies. The emotional tension which had provided the thrust behind Anglo-American Puritanism subsided. In nineteenth-century America, religion typically expressed aspirations for spiritual achievement-not humility or asceticism.
Calvinism declined neither suddenly nor uniformly. It seems significant, though, that in so many cases it apparently declined the fastest among those people who were most socially and economically comfortable. Even in the nineteenth century, of course, life was still hard in many rural and backwoods areas. In such places Calvinism often persisted. Some nineteenth-century Americans, for example, still faced aboriginal enemies, or were still overwhelmed by the forces of nature and brooded in their lonely isolation. To such men the universe of Calvinism could still seem real. Frontier itinerant Baptist and Scots-Irish Presbyterian preachers were seldom scholarly theologians, but when they pulled their sermon notes out of their saddlebags and mounted the stump to harangue a curious crowd, they delivered in simple terms the old-time Calvinist religion of election, damnation, and a God of wrath and power. For most of the nineteenth century Calvinism in various forms remained strong in the American hinterland, as it did in rural parts of Scotland and the Netherlands and in the Boer republics of South Africa. It was in the cities, especially those on major trade routes, that Calvinism first began to lose its appeal. And within the cities, it was among the most successful people that Calvinism lost its attractiveness most readily.Howe's comments are reminiscent of Unitarian Minister George Willis Cooke's opinion of Calvinism (which has been cited before here at AC), which was:
The doctrine of degrees, as taught by the Calvinists, was the spiritual side of the assertion of the divine right of kings. On the other hand, when the people claim the right to rule, they modify their theology into Arminianism. From an age of the absolute rule of the king comes the doctrine of human depravity; and with the establishment of democracy appears the doctrine of man's moral capacity.
In England, groups like the Levellers were the earliest manifestation of this opposition to Calvinist theology, which may help to explain why its most prominent figure (John Lilburne) would leave his Puritan faith and convert to the Society of Friends (Quakers).