Friday, June 18, 2010

Mark Noll on Calvinism & The American Founding Updated

Thanks to Ben Abbott for saving and "rotating" the photocopied pages from Mark Noll's book and an anonymous helper for typing out the respective passage therefrom. The document is embedded with the passage reproduced below:

Mark Noll on Calvinism & the American Revolution Rotated

There were, moreover, influences from Whig ideology in the construction of the American denominational system. Political Whigs took it for granted that the people were capable of constructing their own political and social institutions. The idea of the social contract which influenced so much of the eighteenth-century political theory presupposed this capacity as one of the unquestioned axioms. Although they were departing radically from earlier ecclesiastical patterns, American Christians under the influence of the Whig thought also acted as if the creation, organization and maintenance of church groups were human rights as intrinsic as the formation and direction of political institutions. In the Old World the church had been considered something given by God and regulated by his properly consecrated ministers. Except for a small dissenting fringe, European Christians into the nineteenth century did not entertain the idea that they were capable of creating churches and charting their courses. In America a different cast of mind prevailed, it was assumed that Christians had not only the right but also the duty to create ecclesiastical institutions as their own conscience demanded. This assumption produced both healthy and unhealthy effects: while it released the energy of countless creative individuals for the widest possible variety of Christian expression, it also tended to make the churches unduly subject to the writings of their creators. The stability and continuity, if also stagnation, which attended the Old World idea of the church gave way to the energetic competitiveness, if also eccentricity, of the churches of the New World. The peculiar shape of denominational life in America owed much to the ideology of freedom championed so successfully in the Revolutionary period.

The ideas of the Revolution touched American theology no less than ecclesiology. The crass identification of Patriotism and Christianity was later extrapolated into the facile identification of America as a Christian country and United States citizens as Christians by cultural birthright. This identification, however, has not affected theological life in America as much as a subtler and more pervasive phenomenon - the basic shift away from a Calvinistic orientation in orientation in theology. Where the identification of all American citizens as Christian believers falls apart upon even superficial analysis, the movement away from Calvinism presents a more complicated picture. The influence of liberation thought on States, but the extent of its impact, as well as the exact role of the Revolution in exercising that influence, deserves closer attention.

A convenient way of describing the general shift in American theology over the last half of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries is to examine the fate of the standard "five points" of Calvinism when confronted with principles of the American Revolution. The first of the Calvinistic points, "total depravity," did not stand up well to the belief that individuals were inherently capable of shaping their own destinies. The earlier Puritans taught that human sinfulness prevented unconverted person from performing any truly good deeds, including the act of turning from sin to God. Christians in the youthful United States continued to talk about the evil effects of sin, but they did not think that human evil deprived men of the power to determine their own religion of political destinies.

The concept of "unconditional election" also seemed also seemed to deny that men were fully capable of determining the course of their own lives. In the dominant colonial churches, the Calvinist teaching of election had maintained that it was God alone who, by an act of his sovereign will, called certain individuals to salvation. But the establishment of a relationship with God was God's doing and not an individual's, it made a mockery of the conviction that each man had the inalienable right to secure happiness as a result of his own effort.

Perhaps, in a later post, I'll type out the reasons (which you can read from the document) why the remaining three points of Calvinism, LIP, were in tension with the ideals of the American Founding.

Update: The helper typed the rest:

The anti-democratic tendency of the doctrine of election emerged even more clearly in the idea of a "limited atonement." The Calvinist belief that the efficacy of Christ's death and resurrection was restricted to those whom God elected to salvation. But since Americans believed that all [pg 172] men were created equal in political matters, it was difficult to believe that God would arbitrarily limit the efforts of the work of Christ to only a few. The egalitarian strain emerging from the Revolution could make no sense of such a wanton infringement of natural rights.

Further, the concept of "irresistible grace" seemed inimical to the Whig conviction that irresistible power was evil. To say as the Edwardsean Calvinists did, that people became Christians apart from the self-determined of their own wills seemed dangerously close to asserting that God exercised the kind of irresponsible power against which the colonies had rebelled.

The last of the Calvinistic principles, the "perseverance of the saints," was usually retained by American Christians, but for a new reason. A believer was sustained in the faith not as a result of God's power but because of the continuing effect of his own choice for God. The believer possessed the sure hope of eternal life as due right in consequence of his own decision to become a Christian.

Individual believers and various denominations participated in movement away from Calvinism in different degrees. Indeed, the Calvinistic orientation persisted for a considerable time among some of the groups, such as the Presbyterians, who most ardently supported Whig thought. On the other hand, the denominations which grew most rapidly in the post-Revolutionary period, Baptists and Methodists, expressed their theology to greater or lesser degree in the new forms. The influence of the Whig ideology was certainly not the only impetus hastening the decline of Calvinism in America, but it played one of important roles in the process. The attention which the Revolution had called to the concept of freedom altered the definition of this idea that had prevailed in the largely Calvinistic colonies. Freedom in the Revolutionary generation came to mean primarily freedom from something -- from tyranny, oppression, and the arbitrary exercise of power. Freedom in the earlier Calvinistic sense of the word had implied freedom for something -- for fulfillment and hope, found only in being overmastered by God. The change was subtle, and it was obscured due to the fact that the single word "freedom" was used to express two related, but also contrasting ideas. The crisis atmosphere of the Revolutionary period further obscured the two senses of "freedom" and greatly facilitated the process in the American churches by which the Whig idea of liberty came to replace the Calvinistic concept.

Just as it has been important to keep in mind the different Christian responses to the Revolution, so it is necessary to remember that these generalizations concerning the impact of the Revolution on later American religious history did not apply equally to all groups of Christians. In particular, minority groups outside of the English Puritan tradition were insulated from some of the ecclesiastical and theological language and ecclesiastical practices of the Old World naturally tended to participate less actively in the trends and innovations characteristic of the American religious landscape. Even in the domain of the religious minorities, however, the Revolutionary period witnessed patterns that have marked later American history.

The majority religious and cultural viewpoint -- in the Revolutionary period, the mixture of libertarianism and Christianity -- exerted weighty pressure on minority viewpoints to conform. While the Continental Congress and individual colonial legislatures did make provision for certain deviations from the majority policy, the pacifists and Loyalists were pressured culturally to conform to the Patriotic Whig position. Throughout American history a similar pressure, occasionally official and more often unofficial, has continued to encourage the assimilation of minority religious perspectives into the prevailing majority pattern. ...


King of Ireland said...

Jon all this proves is that John Calvin possibly would have disapproved of the founding. Obviously, later Calvinists had no problem with it.

Mark David Hall said...

Mark Noll is one of my favorite historians, but I think he is off the mark here. Calvin indisputably thought God could ordain a variety of different types of government, but he also clearly favored mixed regimes (see his commentaries on Daniel). However, Calvinists on the continent as well as England and Scotland rapidly developed and embraced virtually every key element of the American founding (i.e. people possess natural rights, the importance of consent, the right to resist tyrants, etc.). True, most were often skeptical of pure and simple democracies--but so were most of America's founders.

See, for example, Stephan Junius Brutus: Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos.

Jon, in the next several weeks I will finish a good draft of a paper I will delever at APSA on the influence of Reformed political thought on the American founding. I wonder if I might "test drive" some of it on American Creation?

Jonathan Rowe said...


Absolutely, you may test drive here by emailing me the text. OR if you'd like to be an official guest member (or permanent member) Brad can send you an invite.

If you feel comfortable with the software programs, you can post yourself if you get Brad's invite. Otherwise I would just post for you.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sounds great, Dr. Hall. As one of the few American historians with any genuine understanding of religion, Mark Noll has leaped to the forefront in the area, and I seldom see him questioned.

This blog often notes that Calvinism is not synonymous with Christianity, nor is Calvin all there is to Calvinism, or more properly, "Reformed theology."