We frequently ponder the theological brilliance of the Puritans. There remains something spiritually satisfying and intellectually stimulating in their writings. The discourse of brilliant minds, such as Jonathan Edwards and John Bunyan, often takes the reader on a historical pilgrimage to times of great doctrinal thought. The intellect of the Puritans is inspiring. In this article, I will discuss the ways in which Puritan thought offers an example for modern Christians.
Intellectualism and Contemporary Christianity
In one of the most formative, albeit rather simple, expositions of the Christian faith, C.S. Lewis states, in Mere Christianity, that “[in becoming a Christian] you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains in all.” Ideally, the Christian utopia is not one infested with simpletons. Rather, it is one of great academic and intellectual stimulation. Christianity elevates the mind. The seemingly infinite number of doctrines and complexity of Scripture’s mysteries propel the Christian to a state of theological and intellectual exploration. There is something within the believer, regardless of one’s educational background, that vigorously urges him or her to discover the truth. This is why Lewis states that “an uneducated believer like Bunyan was able to write a book that has astonished the whole world.” In short, Christianity elevates our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
The study of apologetics is one example of Christian intellectual stimulation. Christians are called to “be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). The Christian must be wholly inclined to defend the faith from the Scriptures and in conventional reason. More often than not, the Christian will find him or herself using reason to make sense of the Scriptures.
The aim of this section is to point out that Christians today do not think. Really, we do not know how to think. Throughout contemporary history, the Evangelical movement has squandered the virtues of reason and scholarship. Generally, contemporary Christians have a superficial knowledge of the Scriptures. But, many today lack the ability to justify their beliefs from the perspectives of various disciplines. This article will not offer foolproof solutions to these issues. Rather, the following discourse will look to understand the intellectual heritage of the Puritans and their subsequent mark on contemporary education.
Puritanism and Classicism
The Puritans were scholars. While rightfully understood as experts in biblical interpretation and leading proponents of Calvinism in the Americas, the Puritans did not refrain from studying natural sciences, the arts, or the humanities. Ironically resembling aspects of Catholic Scholasticism, the Puritans held the study of the classics in high regard. Henry Dunster, an established clergyman and the first president of Harvard College, vigorously defended the study of the classics against those who wished that they be excluded from the curriculum. Dunster passionately indicates that, regardless of any present heathenism, the classics astutely convey human and spiritual realities--presented in various conversational dialogues--which are later applied and understood under the canopy of Scripture. In a characteristically providential fashion, Puritans believed that biblical truth was interwoven in the realm of literature.
The connection between the Puritans and that of the “pagan” writers was primarily due to similarities between the concept of the law of nature and the Gospel accounts. Also, many Puritans believed the likeness between the two was subject to the Greek and Roman plagiarization of Jewish lore. Nevertheless, the Puritans respected the classics for their lyrical eloquence and projection of truth. Increase Mather, a figurehead Puritan theologian and preacher, echoes the Puritan conviction of classicism when he states, “ the interest of Religion and good Literature, hath risen and fallen together.”
Classicism and the Gospel
How exactly did the Puritans employ their knowledge of classic literature? A deepened understanding of ancient Roman and Greek thought was considered an integral support for properly preaching and sharing the gospel--because all other forms of thought hinged upon the precepts of the ancient world. Classicism provided a middle ground in discussing the beliefs of Christianity, for both the Christian and non-Christian. This way, there remains an underlying system of understanding both can build upon. It was not uncommon for the convert to bow before Christ after a convincing gospel presentation that reflected values of classical literature and was also biblically sound.
Citations and references to the classical scholars were abundant in sermons. The classics were often quoted in order to give a congregation, who would be familiar with such literature, a different way of understanding or viewing a certain biblical point. The Puritans found themselves incorporating the work of Plutarch, Seneca, Plato, and Aristotle. Additionally, the political and social structure of Massachusetts Bay was heavily influenced by classical thought.
Ultimately, the Puritan take on Classicism was furthered from medievalist attitudes. In that, all of society was understood to be governed as one unified organism. There was no reason to suggest that the intellectual sentiments of the day could not effectively intermix with the nature of the gospel. From this perspective, the medievalist and the Puritan would both affirm the significance of an intellectual and a theological comprehension of the gospel. Yet, the Puritans did not go as far as suggesting that the philosophical presuppositions of the ancient should be rigorously applied to every single aspect of life. Rather, they held to sola scriptura (Scripture alone) in ways that medievalists did not.
The Puritans and Us
Contemporary theological groups have failed where the Puritans have flourished. Identifying with the tenets of Puritanism not only meant reading the Institutes and The Bondage of the Will but also delving into Virgil’s Aeneid and Plato’s Republic. Puritans understood that their theological roots were not solely founded upon the minds of the Reformation. Rather, they were savvy enough to apprehend that their theological convictions were first steeped in the philosophical principles of ancient “pagan” authors and the Jewish tradition.
Today, we moderns fail in apprehending the importance of how history and literature have shaped and influenced the Christian tradition. The contemporary evangelical movement places a heavy emphasis on reading the theological minds of years past but falls short in promoting an adept comprehension of the classics. Although the act of intermixing aspects of classicism with the message of the gospel may create a hindrance for today’s believer, the Puritans persisted in cherishing compartments of knowledge that we neglect treasuring throughout our spiritual lives.
In conclusion, a deepened comprehension of the work of the classics does not constitute authentic Christianity. Nor does such an understanding remain a necessary prerequisite for presenting the gospel message. Yet, it does form a knowledgeable and intellectually relatable Christian. Modernity has certainly diluted the waters of Christian intellectualism. Through the contemporary reign of “self-help spirituality,” the Christian has traded biblical, historical, and literary forms of genuine knowledge for diluted forms of emotional stability. In this way, the Christian may find solace in the example of Puritanism.
In the eyes of the Puritan New England majority, theology translated best into all areas of life. As we have previously asserted, the Calvinistic tendencies of Puritanism created a number of significant implications for society. The theological thought of Puritanism not only impacted the religious sphere of life but, rather, all areas of society. The spiritual was not and could not be separated from the secular.
Understanding Basic Puritan Political Thought
To Puritans, it seemed virtually non-Christian to assert that one could separate the theological from the temporal. In other words, the theological aspects of life were not just one slice of the pie but the pie itself. Thus, this cohesive formation of theology fostered the pivotal Puritanistic belief that God governed humanity as one unified body rather than two separate organisms. God’s uniformal governance could not be neglected.
A Puritan who found himself working as a tradesman did not merely view himself as a tradesman but a theologian disguised as a tradesman. Through his vocation, he was ultimately on mission and not business. The theological implications of God’s rule could not be separated from the reality of everyday life and politics.
Total Depravity and Puritan Life
To best understand Puritan political theory, we must first wrestle through the waters of total depravity. For the majority of seventeenth-century New England, a thorough understanding of human nature has proved to be an instrumental piece of knowledge in the task of grasping how the world functioned. This apparent instrumental piece of knowledge hinged upon the idea that human nature lacked any sense of natural virtue.
Children were not taught to disobey, slander their parents, or crudely function in their own self-interest. These attributes were a result of the fall and, therefore, embedded naturally within humanity. The only scapegoat, in finding freeing from such dreadful bondage, was through God’s mercy of regeneration. This traditionally Calvinistic way of understanding the rhythm of humanity profoundly impacted Puritan politics. In fact, a large majority of Puritan theologians asserted that God’s people were best governed not by an “orthodox” conceptualization of democracy—although Massassuchetts Bay would come to accept some form of democracy amidst the revolutionary period—but through the governing principles of God’s law.
The Massachusetts Bay Legislative Structure
The political structure of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was quite complex. Through the colony’s royal charter, instituted under the reign of King Charles I, highfalutin Puritan politicians were granted the right to establish a “Great and General Court.” All legislative, administrative, and judicial duties were to be held within this institution. During the court’s first meeting in October of 1630, a lonely total of eight representatives took action to establish the Council of Assistants. A subsection under the canopy of the General Court, the Council of Assistants would theoretically function as a pre-Revolutionary Senate. Although, prior to 1644, the Council sat collectively with representatives from the General Court.
In 1642, a court case regarding a widow’s missing pig was reversed by the General Court and then later that very bill was vetoed by assistants. It was here that representatives resolutely decided that the Council should sit separately from the Court, as an upper house. Therefore, the General Court, otherwise known as the House of Deputies, operated as a pre-Revolutionary House of Representatives while the Council of Assistants closely resembled our modern Senate. Yet, the subjection of the Council of Assistants did not negate the fact that both bodies must agree, via majority voting sessions within each chamber, before legislation could be passed.
Understanding the Theocracy
Why, then, is the political structure of Massachusetts Bay commonly understood as a theocracy? The theocratic tendencies of Puritan New England are best recognized when looking at the key requirements for political office. In that, not everyone could be a state representative in colonial Massachusetts. Those of African descent, ethnic minorities, women, and those who did not acquiesce to the statutory form of theology were restricted from holding public office. In short, holding office was dependent upon satisfactory meeting these requirements.
Political representatives, who happened to be of the Puritan creed, believed that the government should dutifully enforce a universal law that was properly molded by the inerrant Word of God. Thus, anyone who broke the law was not only violating the authority of the sovereign but also disregarding God’s will in the process. In this way, God actively played a part in the everyday affairs of humanity. The implementation of a biblically-oriented political structure was, in a strictly Puritan view, a prerequisite in Winthrop’s utopian pursuit of a “city upon a hill.”
Puritans believed that a theocracy was best for the believers’ own personal battle with holiness and the collective’s wellbeing as a spiritual unity. This system was not only fixed to keep colonists in check with everyday law, but it also served as a spiritual check for Christians who desired to serve God with reverence and awe. Laws regarding the regulation of church attendance, protection of theological ideas, condemnation of trivial practices, and the protection of the Sabbath are all examples of rules established in order to promote the spiritual welfare of the state.
An Unfortunate Irony
The enforcement of a theocratic structure, along with the numerous theological requirements for political office, created a social rhythm marked by an expansive scope of government and limited freedom of conscience. Puritans ironically reasserted a “medieval” political Catholicism when they institutionalized a religious government that chastised those who did fall in line with the beliefs of the theological majority. The irony of Massachusetts Bay is best understood as the accidental implementation of the very aspects of medieval Catholicism, such as a limited focus on individual interpretation of Scripture, that the Puritans’ spiritual forefathers—being the European Reformers—sought to separate themselves from.
Rather than adhering to Tertullian’s idea that religion “is of human right and natural liberty,” Puritans deviated from the political genius of their ancient church fathers and simulated an environment in which the conscience was subject to spiritual tyranny. To reference Tertullian’s treatise Ad Scapulam, religion was not treated as someone’s ius humanum (human right) or within one’s potestas naturalis (natural capability) for Puritan Massachusetts. The chief end of both governing houses of colonial Massachusetts, both the Council of Assistances and the General Court, was a commitment to the idea that society must remain theologically pure.
Synthesis and Conclusion
Seventeenth-century Puritan political theology engineered a social fabric that resolutely intertwined all things together. The things of Caesar were the things of God and vice versa. There was no clear distinction between the two. Although we may understand this muddled formation of society to be an idea of the past, does any such thing resemble it today? I speak, of course, not of modern politics. But, rather, of social and political church structure.
Have church governments entrapped faithful believers under a nonsensical canopy of perpetual ignorance? Is freedom of conscience really viewed as a virtue in today’s protestant church culture? As we may pridefully scoff at the foolish collapse of Massachusetts Bay, let us first consider our own culture. Do we truly value the freedom of thought that Christ speaks of when he urges us to love God with our whole mind? Do the blinding stage lights of contemporary evangelicalism hinder our ability to reasonably glorify and understand the Divine?
These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves. As we dive further into the history of Puritanism, let us more accurately make connections between the past and the present. History, accurately understood, is not merely the study of the past. More precisely, history is the lens through which we may view the present.
Popular Misconceptions Concerning Puritan Theology and Church Life
It remains important to understand that those who considered themselves “Puritan” were not of one certain monolithic theological outlook nor any specific ecclesiological outlook. In other words, Puritanism was less of a denominational perspective and more of a prevalent movement that embodied a central ideological objective. The objective to rid Anglicanism of the things considered “indifferent.”
Within certain Protestant circles, many may claim that “If Puritanism was still around today, I’d be a good Puritan!” Probably not. It is important for us to note that Puritanism was not synonymous with any of the denominational sects that we are familiar with today.
It solely rested upon a shared conviction for reform within the Anglican Church. Even at the height of Puritanism’s reign in the American Colonies, distinctly “Puritan” congregations did not exist. Those with Puritan convictions might find themselves attending a church that shared their convictions. Yet, none of these churches were marketed as distinctly Puritan.
Puritanism and Reformed Theology
The theology of the Reformation reigned supreme in the hearts of most Puritans. Puritans were Calvinists who believed that humanity was sinful from birth, that God unconditionally elected sinners for salvation, that Christ was sent by the Father to atone for the sins of those whom he unconditionally elected, that humanity could not resist God’s irresistible call to salvation, and that those whom God had chosen were unable to fall from grace.
Due to their staunch belief regarding the absolute sovereignty of God, Puritans were wholly convicted of the belief that He should be properly worshiped as the Sovereign King. God was not in any way to be treated as puny, weak, or lacking in any necessity. These Puritans held firm to their confidence that proper adoration of God begins with understanding humanity’s true nature of fallenness and God’s sovereign mercy to save.
In fact, the Puritanistic idea of God’s sovereignty would not only exhibit itself in the way that the Reformed understood salvation but also in everyday life. If God was truly omniscient and omnipotent, how could his sovereignty be limited just to the order of salvation? Surely these attributes were not constrained to one sphere of life. As a result of this, Puritans saw God’s reign over humanity as providential.
Puritans believed God’s providential role in everyday life also hinged upon His desire to actively discipline his people. If any one person were to act out of step with the convent of grace, they were to be actively punished for their theological wrongdoing. Ironically, such a belief resembled aspects of the Eastern philosophy of karma.
The Historical Implications of Puritan Theology
Mary Dyer, a young woman living in Boston during the 1630s, found comfort in attending Anne Hutchinson’s Sunday meetings. Although, Hutchinson’s reputation in Massachusetts Bay was not viewed in a positive light. Puritans saw Hutchinson’s teachings to be heretical and out of step with biblical authority. Thus, when Dyer gave birth to a deformed baby, prominent Puritan figures devised a plan to take a stab at her.
Her minister, the Reverend Joseph Wilson, vehemently stated that;
"We have been visited of late by the admonition of the Lord. One Mary Dyer of our midst, who has lately become addicted to heresy, has produced not a woman child but a monster. God himself has intervened and pointed his finger at this woman at the height of her sinful opinions."
Although quite an extreme example, the reaction of Wilson perfectly portrays how most Puritans understood God’s providence in discipline to play out in everyday life. God was not only active in the lives of the regenerate, but He also lacked passiveness when it came to those who defiled His name.
This situation is fairly ironic, for the institution that Puritanism fostered, resembled aspects of Catholicism — the very system that Puritans so inspiredly toiled to abolish. Due to their Calvinistic tendencies, the Puritans had formulated a God who acted sovereignly and providentially against those who rejected the conventional belief of their day. A conviction that greatly resembled the tyranny present within Medieval Catholicism.
The Catholic Tendencies of Puritanism
Historian Mark Noll, when commenting on the ironic implications of Puritan theology, states that
The Reformed attacked Catholic dogma, but they reasserted a Catholic kind of Christendom by insisting that God’s rule should encompass everything… the Reformed of every rank in society were expected to function as theologians since social, political, economic, and artistic spheres of life were also God’s concern.
In this way, the Reformed were more medieval than most would have expected. Most Colonial Massachusettsan’s saw God’s governance in the form of one organic unity. It was through this “organic unity” that God instituted his providential control. God’s reign was not separated into the temporal and the spiritual. Rather, both were one.
Similar to the quasi-omnipotent medieval reign of the Catholic church, nothing was to escape God’s sphere of influence. The theological “scope of government” that Puritanism fostered was all-encompassing in its control of humanity. In modern political terms, Puritanism promoted big government. Likewise, scholars have argued that big government was the exact trend that influenced the advent of the Protestant Reformation.
The theological aspects of Puritanism can be most aptly characterized as a combination of personal acceptance of faith and shared societal and ecclesiastical unity. This shared unity ironically formalized itself as something more Catholic than Protestant. Sixteenth-century Reformers harked back to ancient Christendom by emphasizing the importance of freedom of conscience in determining religious matters. Yet, Puritanism deviated from traditional Reformation theology when inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay asserted the need for a theologically-unified political system.
Mark Noll and various church history scholars rally behind one predominant definition of Puritan theology,
"[Many] characterize Puritanism as a religious movement combining medieval commitments to the unity of society with Reformed Protestant views of personal salvation, that is, Calvin’s soteriology with Erasmus's Christendom."
Puritanism fostered quite a peculiar conjunction of theological distinctions. When we wholly subjugate ourselves to the Reformed aspects of Puritan belief, we fail to understand the role that Catholicism played in its formation. In the following edition of this series, we will delve into how the theological implications of Puritanism defined the political and sociological structures within the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
For the Christian, the study of Church History remains an absolute necessity. Yet, the necessity of this study, for the common believer, has progressively become unnecessary. Historical ignorance is a deadly plague that has infected modern Christianity. When our pastors reference Edwards, Lewis, Whitfield, Augustine, and Calvin, do we really even know them? Do we understand what these theological giants stood for? The acceptable answer, and sadly acceptable, is no. Therefore, it proves our duty, as learned Christians, to expel historical myths and delve in deep into the study of the past. Our first order of business concerns the commonly misconstrued concept of Puritanism and its stark contrast to the statutory authority of seventeenth-century Anglicanism.
In this series, we will dive deep into defining the doctrinal tenets of Puritanism and their impact on past societies, new societies, and students looking to understand the creed today. The contents of this series will, in no way, look to accept or reject the theological precepts of Puritanism. Rather, we will embark on a journey to discuss the historical nature of an idea that has impacted millions. The following essays will seek out the application in Puritanism. Through this series, we will look to best understand why such a former concept should mean anything to our twenty-first-century minds.
Nathaniel Hawthrone’s antagonistic approach to the societal vices of Puritan New England -- seen in his fictional romance, The Scarlet Letter, along with a brief reading in Jonathan Edwards Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God -- probably does not help our comprehension regarding the historical validity of Puritanism. A shallow and uncontextualized understanding of these documents will, in turn, generate a negative response to the entire idea of Puritanism. While on the other hand, many fellow Protestants have somewhat glorified the works of the Puritans while remaining ignorant to the historical reality of their sociological, ecclesiological, and political plights.
What is Puritanism?
In rightfully defining and understanding the nature of Puritanism, we must first define a few important terms.
During the latter half of the sixteenth century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, increased skepticism arose regarding the necessity of what many believed to be the “non-essentials” of the Christian liturgy and mode of worship. This fight is best understood under the notion of “adiaphora.” Rightfully defined, an adiaphorism is any practice deemed “indifferent” or apart of the “non-essentials” of the Christian faith. Furthermore, an adiaphorism is simply any theological opinion, liturgical practice, or religious affair that is a matter of “indifference” because it is neither instructed nor prohibited by the Scriptures.
Prior to this newfangled conflict in England, the old model for understanding the non-essentials was a commitment to the idea that any Christian may indulge himself/herself in the indifferent practices of the faith. In other words, if any one Christian disagreed with a particular non-essential church practice, yet this specific Believer was commanded to follow through with the practice, he/she could go through with the practice without it having a stain on his/her conscience due to its indifference.
Models of Adiaphoric Philosophy
The old model of adiaphoric philosophy encouraged obedience and wider acceptance of church practice rather than promoting the freedom of conscience, which would most definitely encourage many to stand in rejection of the things they believed to be unnecessary. This was the exact shift that occurred under the reign of Elizabeth. Puritans, under the command to proceed in adiaphoric liturgical practices, found themselves strongly convicted of abstaining from those proceedings entirely.
The new model of adiaphoric philosophy stemmed from the influence of the Puritans. This model hinged entirely on the rationale that no man should be obligated to practice any ritual that was not explicitly commanded by the Scriptures. Examples of these adiaphoric practices included the wearing of vestments, kneeling during communion, and the artful depiction of biblical events. These depictions, such as Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam, were viewed as idolatrous images that, in the Puritan worldview, obscured the reality of an exact event. A majority, if not all, of those in petition of these church practices, found them to be lingering aspects of Catholicism and thus wished them expelled.
Nonconformity to the Crown
Those who considered themselves Puritans were also considered nonconformists. Simply, Puritans were considered nonconformists because they did not adhere to the standard of the Church of England. The Act of Uniformity of 1558 commanded that all persons must attend church at least once a week or be fined. This Elizabethan act also stated that all churches and persons must follow the order of prayer present within the English Book of Common Prayer which was protested vehemently by the majority of those who considered themselves Puritans. Thus, the English Crown dubbed anyone in protest of the Act of Uniformity of 1558 and its subsequent legal counterpart as a “nonconformist.” Furthermore, nonconformity, in reference to Anglicanism, was not synonymous with total separation from the local church. Many found themselves still involved in weekly services, most likely because they did not want to receive a fine for not attending.
Nonconformists were subject to some scrutiny such as public shaming or forcibly paying a fine due to their nonconformity but they were not treated as harshly as many have imagined. Nonconformists were granted conditional freedom to worship under the Toleration Act of 1668. Many scholars, who generally favor the theology of the Puritans, have falsely represented them as a theologically homogeneous group of highly persecuted dissenters fleeing the tyranny of the English Crown. This perspective has assuredly been blown out of proportion.
Large Puritan congregations were most susceptible to legal scrutiny and put themselves at greater risk for imprisonment. This was certainly true of John Bunyan and his congregation. Although, most nonconformist Puritan groups met in small numbers and away from any possibility of the government finding them. It was this latter group of people that the Crown found herself tolerating more frequently. In short, those causing a ruckus and openly acting against the government were continually sought out for their vices while those meeting in secret were, more often than not, tolerated. All this to say, nonconformity was treated differently depending on its context.
Many Puritans sought to be a shining example to those who they considered drowning in the ecclesiological waters of Anglicanism. Historians have coined the term “Separatist” to refer to those who wished to separate themselves entirely from the Church of England, and subsequently acted upon their desires.
Separatists did not simply flee because of persecution or governmental malice, but a whole myriad of reasons. A large majority of Separatists fled in hopes of establishing their own analogous cultural and theological utopia that would reign free from the social dominion of Anglicanism. A fruitless pursuit that would eventually fail in both the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies and can only truly come into fruition amidst Christ’s Millennial Kingdom (we will discuss the fall of Puritan New England in further articles).
In conclusion, the idea and historical reality of Puritanism remains one of the most misunderstood concepts in Christian scholarship. Puritanism, rightfully defined, was a trans-Atlantic theological movement that was spurred into fruition through the influence of a unified frustration for the old model of adiaphoric philosophy. In the following article, we will look to understand the collective theological tenets of Puritanism and their implications upon society.
The American Concept of God: An Argument Against the Notion that the United States was Founded as a Christian Nation
If you are looking for an argument pertaining to the religious sentiments of the majority, that is, that the majority of colonists who originally settled in the American region held to the religious convictions that align with Christianity and therefore the United States was founded as a “Christian Nation”... this article is not for you. Although the first longstanding settlement in the American region was more entrepreneurial than it was inspired by religious matters, there is no question that this land has always proven a land of refuge for religious dissenters. Groups like the Pilgrims, who landed upon the rocky shores of Massachusetts in 1620, and the Quakers, who were granted their charter for the Pennslyvania colony in 1681 under Charles II, are just two of the myriad of examples of historically unrepresented religious minorities who sought out social and religious asylum in America. Surely enough, it would be the descendants of groups like these who would eventually sit down to ratify the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. Yet, influenced by the philosophical work of figures such as Thomas Paine, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a majority of the Founders thought quite differently about religious matters than most mainstream Protestants do today. Influenced by the Enlightenment and the intellectual figures that the movement fostered, a majority of those who did represent the Protestant sects of the day (Congregationalism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, and Quakerism - only three Founders were of the Roman Catholic heritage) ascribed to a given practice due to its reasonableness and virtue rather than out of one’s realization for their own sin and fallenness. So, with that in mind, who is the God that the Founders speak of in the Declaration?
There are two core concepts concerning religion that are central to understanding how the Founders yearned to put the spiritual in its rightful place. The two terms, which have been previously explained in other articles, are known as public and private religion (see The American Concept of God: Defining Public and Private religion). In short, if we have an accurate understanding of the difference between these concepts, we can be sure that if our democracy was founded upon the religious ideals of Christianity, the concept of public religion would not be ecumenical, but, directly catered towards the Christian faith. Furthermore, the God that is spoken of in the Declaration is no Christian embodiment of Christ but rather the God of public religion. The God of public religion that is embodied in the Declaration is not Jesus of Nazareth. It is, in turn, Jefferson’s own Deistic idea of the divine. Nature’s God. For the sake of no further confusion, the God of the Declaration is best understood as Nature’s God, Jefferson’s God, the God of Democracy, or the God of public religion.
Jefferson’s God ruled by Providence. Providence was God’s way of intervening in human affairs and imposing his will for the betterment of general society. It was God’s way of looking out for and protecting humankind. Inversely, it was also God’s way of punishing humanity for their lack of virtue. Interestingly enough, this Enlightenment philosophy of God ruling over mankind sounds oddly similar to the Buddhist/Hindu idea of Karma. This is besides the point, as the idea of Providence was used by Enlightenment Deists, such as Jefferson, to rationalize the work of God in human affairs without sounding particularly Christian. Ironically, this concept was coined by Reformation-era theologians such as Luther and Calvin to better conceptualize God’s general role in the world he created. As the idea developed over time, its meaning became increasingly less Christian. Intellectuals influenced by the Enlightenment began to use the term to refer the Deistic God’s governance over the world and the term became decreasingly less Christian over time, especially during the years leading up to the Revolutionary Period in America.
The God of Democracy valued reason over divine revelation. If anything lacked reason, it could not be trusted. Such as the miracles of Jesus recorded in the New Testament. Because these events recorded by the Gospel writers were not particularly reasonable to believe, they were deemed unbelievable. Jefferson even expelled most all of Christ’s New Testament miracles from the scriptures in his abridged version of the Bible that he coined The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (known today as the Jefferson Bible). The ideological framework of Nature’s God was assuredly out of sync with orthodox Christianity and thus the religious framework of our government cannot be trusted as traditionally Christian.
These are just two definitive positions that envelop the American concept of God. By these truths, we may accurately discern that our political and religious structure was in no way Christian but more closely assigned with Enlightenment thought. The fact of the matter was that a number of representatives at the Constitutional Convention were Christian and could have advocated for a Christian undertone to the Declaration. But almost none did and those who did were passionately shot down. Why was this? It was probably because of the Founders’ knowledge of failed institutional religion in the colonies. Or, possibly, it was due to the frustration that many of their ancestors experienced in the Old World under the Church of England. In conclusion, the God that this country was founded upon was no such Christian envisionment of Jesus. It was rather, the philosophical embodiment of the many ideas that our Founders were so heavily influenced and shaped by. The American God remains in no way similar to Christ, but, rather, can be more aptly associated with the reasonable God of Locke, Newton, or Paine. At the end of the day, the Founders could have taken the chance to use the Christian lingo within both the Declaration and when formulating their public ideas of liberty, for many of them favored the morals of Christianity, but they preferably fancied themselves with Nature’s God.
Oftentimes, Thomas Jefferson is mischaracterized as one of America’s foundational Christian-philosophers. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The line between public and private religion, for Jefferson, was especially close, unlike the majority of Orthodox Christians (those who subscribe to the most foundational of Christian truths - not to be confused with the sect of Christianity known as Eastern Orthodox). Public religion was and still is today, defined as more of a philanthropic way of thinking of God, rather than ascribing to an all-powerful being who performs miracles, damns sinners to hell, and condemns sinful acts. Jefferson’s God was Nature’s God, the deity that is oftentimes referred to within documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Jefferson received his education at the College of William & Mary, which remains one of the most prestigious places to study the subject of history to this date. At William & Mary, Jefferson studied mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy. He graduated with honors in two years. It is said that during Jefferson’s time at William & Mary, under the instruction of Professor William Small, he was strongly influenced by deist philosophy. This was probably due to his introduction to Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton. Much like the philosophers that were just mentioned, Jefferson found himself extremely vexed with the Christian doctrine of Trinitarianism, the belief that Jesus Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit are each individually three distinct persons within one all-powerful Triune God. Jefferson and other proponents of Deism would have most likely agreed, to some extent, with Micheal Severus’ infamous work, On the Errors of the Trinity (1531). A work that had its author sent to burn at the stake for the capital crime of heresy under the reign of Jean Calvin of Geneva, Severus argues that those who fall way to the doctrine of the Trinity are actually worshiping three separate gods rather than one triune entity. Severus, during a time in which both Protestants and Catholics would have executed him for his beliefs, daringly claimed that each individual person within the Godhead was comparable with a three-headed monster and subsequently stated that the concept of Trinitarianism was a deception under the advocation of the devil. Proponents of Deism, like the ones we have mentioned, would have most likely agreed with Severus’s notion that Trinitarianism must be deemed irrational but would have not gone to the extent to which Severus desired to make his point known.
Despite Jefferson’s religious alignment with philosophical Deism, he spoke highly of Christianity. In fact, he claimed that the moral precepts of Christianity were some of the finest of any religion. He claimed Jesus to be one of the finest moral teachers to ever walk the earth, but not the savior of the world. Jefferson’s particular conflict with Christianity was the concept of the deity of Christ, which remains the most important doctrine to the Christian faith. Jefferson’s sentiments concerning this issue were far from secret, contrary from Isaac Newton’s beliefs on the subject. The Virginian went as far as cutting out all the portions of scripture that mentioned Christ as the Savior of the world. These passages including numerous sections from the four gospels, miracles, and the resurrection of Jesus. Jefferson titled his revised version of the Christian scriptures The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, or, many may know it as the Jefferson Bible.
In conclusion, it proves rather outlandish for any one person to claim Jefferson as one of Christianity's most important figures. Jefferson may have considered himself Christian to a certain moral extent, but was far from orthodoxy. Our third president was, in no way, convinced of some of the most foundational of Christian ideas, that would have otherwise identified himself as such. Overall, Jefferson was a brilliant man. Influenced by the logical thinkers of the Enlightenment, he preferred Nature’s God rather than Christ.
The foundational American concept of God is inevitably wrapped up in what Jefferson and other prominent philosophers have defined as public and private religion. There is a significant distinction between the two that remains pivotal to American religion today. It is clear that, from the beginning of any society, man has desired the supernatural and has yearned deeply for knowledge that lies beyond the human experience. In other words, humanity contains an innate awareness and desire to understand the sacred. A number of scholars refer to this natural phenomenon as homo religiosus. The term perfectly encapsulates the human desire to seek meaning, understand creation, and the mystical, all into one phrase. The human inclination to understand life’s most important questions further prompts our answer to such. Thus, our personal rationalization of truth (our answers to these questions) will influence how we reason, vote, worship, and contribute to the wellbeing of our society (whether through our church, synagogue, mosque, or lack thereof). The action of the human race looking beyond their current reality to discern the monumental truths of life has proved to be no recently discovered affair, but, rather, a great reminder of the Old Testament truth that there is nothing new under the sun.
In short, our own personal understanding of these questions will have a great influence on how we view God, his relationship to us, and his work in our society. Furthermore, our decision regarding how we view God, believe, worship, and practice that very worship is protected by the government and from the government under the First Amendment of the Constitution. This concept is best understood as the private sphere, or, more specifically as “private religion”. Advocates of the principal of private religion, specifically secularists, quite frequently find reassurance in Richard Hooker’s wall of separation between church and state. Hooker’s metaphorical conceptualization between these two distinct spheres of American political society takes a specific aim to diverge church from state, not religion from politics, so Jefferson once clarified. The two given spheres are uniquely distinct and both play important roles within our everyday society. The church is the vessel through which we practice our private religion. Whether we attend the Christian church or another religious institution, all religious proceedings present within our worshipful organizations exist without government injunction or funding. The government cannot ensure that one form of worship is more American, or more profitable, than another but only can ensure that each American holds the freedom of conscience to choose how exactly each individual wishes to worship.
Yet, the philosophical giants of the American democracy ensured that religion would also be inevitably present within key governmental statues and the founding ideas that shaped the democracy we know today. Quite fittingly, it would be none other than Benjamin Franklin who would come to formulate and infuse his idea of “public religion” into the core concepts present in the Constitution and other notable revolutionary documents. Franklin envisioned that when his fellow citizens would gaze upon the few statements that reference the divine, within the key American documents, that the individual would be reminded of his or her personal sentiments for god, not specifically the Christ of Christianity. In that, the individual would be reminded of their personal attitude towards private religion, not someone else's. This was the genius of the founders, that if they desired to incorporate a statutory form of religion, it would have most likely caused a substantial amount of conflict, as it did in England.
In Franklin’s view, the god of public religion was wholly beneficial towards society and the implications of the concept of religion within society rendered a spirit of charity to one another, a general moral disposition, and provides an acknowledgment towards something greater than oneself. Franklin goes on to explain that religion contains a certain usefulness for culture and that we know this because of all the previously successful governments that adopted ideas associated with the divine. The idea of public religion hinges upon the simple concept that religion is good for the individual and the absence of such may contribute towards the lack of virtue within that very society. Although Franklin wrote generously about the Christian religion, he did not believe that following Jesus Christ was more beneficial for the individual, or the collective, than following any other god.
The explained “great catapult” created a number of social issues that, previously, as we have discussed, fell under the responsibility of the Catholic Church. Giving alms to the poor, providing last rites, running local orphanages, and providing educational services were just a few tasks that fell into the hands of the Catholic Church prior to the Reformation. These responsibilities would have become especially rampant and challenging amidst Calvin’s era, as many European states were still dealing with the ongoing impacts of the Black Death. Suffice to say, because of Calvin’s intermixed sentiments regarding the spheres of church and state, a large number of these challenging social concerns fell into the hands of the Genevan Church, even under the pastorate of Calvin specifically. Calvin’s ecclesiastical responsibilities most definitely vexed him, especially when it came to dealing with those who found themselves in a great deal of sin and were unrepentant of that very sin. Such philanthropic tasks, Calvin understood, both biblically and emotionally, he ought to face with virtue but we may assert that his susceptibility to impatience could have most certainly played a factor within his ministry. It so happens, that Hicks’s quite dogmatic characterization of the temperament of the French Reformer seems as if it supersedes any general understanding of human nature. In that, Hicks’s description does indeed accurately hint that Calvin had a natural propensity to brashness but fails to give any reasonable historical proof to why this may have been so. While failing to provide any substantial historical proof to understand Calvin’s irritability, the critic seems to suggest that Calvin’s dispositional shortcomings are even more out of the ordinary than compared with the remainder of general humanity. Furthermore, Hicks’s portrayal provides a suitable effect (his vulnerability to impatience, irritability, and brashness) of Calvin’s disposition but no suitable cause (why he was vulnerable to such). Which inversely suggests that the very effect outweighs the cause. To the uninformed reader, one may be thoroughly convinced of Calvin’s “anger-consumed” temperament just by the author's passion alone, but, the truth remains, that the reader will still remain uninformed because they lack the true cause behind the effect. A mutual understanding of both of these terms remains pivotal in any historical situation, even down to some of the most rudimentary of historical concepts.
Although Horton seems to align more ideologically with Calvin’s theological sentiments, his entire perspective is fairly neutral. In fact, Horton goes a lot deeper into his temperament while Hicks gives his strongly assertive argument without much defense. Overall, the conventional belief in Calvin’s frailty to anger, irritability, and impatience is rooted in his absolute seriousness for the gospel. To many of his Calvin’s theological adversaries, his seriousness and passion may have quite possibly intimidated those who did not fall into the same ideological spectrum as him. His seriousness did not render passiveness, in fact, despite the stress of “the great catapult”, our French Reformer was notoriously known for calling out those whose ideas did not fall in line with what he believed the scriptures claimed. Overall, Calvin was quite the serious figure and his seriousness most definitely contributed to his success, and his shortcomings, in reforming the city-state of Geneva.
Tracking Individual Freedom: Roots in the Reformation - An Introduction to the Temperament of Calvin
If there were a true list of the top mischaracterized historical figures, the person and work Geneva's most “notorious” theologian, Jean Calvin, would indefinitely make the top ten. Images of the brutal Calvin ruling the French church culture with fury and wrathful absolutism have over and over proved outlandish caricatures in comparison to reality. As historians have further researched and dove into the truth of Calvin’s livelihood, more and more of these assumptions have proved ludicrous. Regardless of one’s personal sentiments regarding Calvin’s Doctrines of Grace, the heated debate among those who share Calvin’s same opinion and those who reject such claims is inconsequential when examining the influential mark he left on Christian belief and understanding during and after the Protestant Reformation. When getting down to the temperament of Calvin, the task of accurately characterizing him does get a bit messy. Many scholars have argued for, what I have previously referred to as “outlandish caricatures”, that Calvin’s natural temperament towards the public may be associated with themes of rage, impatience, and noticeable pride of belief. Stephen Hicks, a Canadian-American philosopher who received his doctorate from Indiana University Bloomington and is a notable critic of religious matters, paints the disposition of Calvin in rather dim light;
“In physique, temperament, and conviction, Calvin (1509–1564) was the inverted image of the freewheeling, permissive, high-living popes whose excesses had led to Lutheran apostasy. Frail, thin, short, and lightly bearded, with ruthless, penetrating eyes, he was humorless and short-tempered. The slightest criticism enraged him. Those who questioned his theology he called pigs, asses, riffraff, dogs, idiots, and stinking beasts. One morning he found a poster on his pulpit accusing him of gross hypocrisy.”
Hicks’s perspective on the character of our supposedly infamous preacher and theologian is quite popular among established and, reluctantly, liberal academics. Although, an entire slew of scholars argue furiously against Hicks’s very accusations against the man from Geneva. On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum lies the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, Professor Michael Horton, who offers a completely contradictory opinion on our much debatable subject in his book Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever;
“However, not a single charge was brought against Calvin for personal misconduct in a disorderly city that, under his ministry, became widely noted for its justice, civility, and (eventually) kindness to strangers. Calvin was especially devoted to the cause of the poor exiles who flooded the city and were often mistreated by the proud Genevans. Ignoring the pleas of the magistrates, Calvin tended to the spiritual needs of plague victims in the hospital. Marilynne Robinson reminds us that Calvin’s entire life was burdened with a deep sense of obligation to the suffering and that from its very first edition the Institutes was written to defend victims of persecution.”
As we read, Horton paints Calvin in a distinctly philanthropic light. Caring for the needs of his fellow Genevans and devoting himself to the cause of those who were less fortunate remain popular characterizations from those who generally agree with Calvin’s theology and teachings. Yet, the polarization of perspectives and information could not get further extreme as Horton goes on to say that “As Spitz summarizes, “Calvin himself had an unusually good wine cellar. God does not forbid us to laugh, he said, and was himself very adept at punning.”’ which directly contradicts Hicks’s notion that “he [Calvin] was humorless…”.
Historical rationalization becomes our friend in this situation, or, rather, a pain in the rear-end. It is clear that the two given descriptions of Calvin’s attitude are ideologically consistent with the sentiments of both scholars. To Horton, the Christian, Calvin’s natural temperament is often mischaracterized. Furthermore, to Hicks, the atheist, Calvin was the tyrant many make him out to be. Oftentimes polarizing descriptions like these become quite popular with such a contrversial historical figure like Calvin and we will further rely on primary documentation to further rationalize what kind of man he really proved to be. Calvin would confess it himself, that he, was “by nature… shy and timid”. This specific attribute regarding his character seems intellectually consistent with evidence from a surplus of Calvin’s contemporaries including Calvin’s first successor, and, close friend, Theodore Beza, who wrote that “[he was] of a rather timid disposition” in his biography the French Reformer. Beza would go on in his biography to state that “he [Calvin] was constantly filled with a great sense of compassion as if he could see for himself the distress which overtook the churches and the dreadful massacres perpetrated against the poor believers.” Clearly, the infamous theologian from Noyon contained within himself a deep reverence for the church and a quiet seriousness about him. Calvin, unlike the larger-than-life Luther, was rather reserved, assuredly, naturally timid, and slow to speak void of any circumstance. From the pulpit, Calvin was one to carefully and meticulously organize his dialogue, with great genius and thought, his discourse was entirely absent of any hint of brashness or negligence which might have proved humorously contradictory to the outlandish Luther. Calvin’s “[preaching was] marked by much grace, strength and simplicity and yet was completely lacking in ostentation” according to Beza. Although, Calvin’s natural timidness did not indefinitely immunize him from the vice of short-temperedness and irritability. Wolfgang Musculus, a Reformed theologian closely associated with our Genevan preacher stated that “[Calvin was] a bow that was always so tightly strung.” Musculus’s formalization of Calvin’s susceptibility to impatience, or rather, edginess, also perfectly coincides with one of Beza’s descriptions of him, he says,
“Besides a temperament that was by nature prone to anger, there were a number of things that tended to make him irritable and difficult to get on with. These included, for example, his own lively mind, the lack of discretion on the part of many of those around him, and the many varied affairs he had to deal with concerning the church of God…but he was far from seeking to make excuses for this failing. On the contrary, no one was more aware of it, or more conscious of its importance, than he was himself.”
That said, Calvin’s vulnerability to anger, impatience, and irritability are the result of his, sometimes righteousness oftentimes not, aggravation towards those who would not acquiesce to his standard of Christian morality and living. Although, sixteenth-century Geneva was not necessarily the place, nor context, where submitting to biblical principles, or Calvin’s standard of such, made it into the mainstream. According to Horton, when referencing a number of Roman Catholic polemicists, he says that “Geneva was a cauldron of debauchery and a refuge for hedonists of every kind” and he goes on to state that “[Geneva was quite the] disorderly city.” Scholars seem to depict Calvin’s homeland of Geneva as one of the many regions that wholly felt the cultural shift that was onset by the ensuing Reformation. Calvin’s theological toil, that was fueled by a deep reverence for staunch biblical principals, seemed as if it catapulted the city forward into a new ideological light, all the while leaving many behind in the darkness. The result of such was a visible polarization of ideological beliefs and lifestyles, many of which were widely associated with Calvin’s philosophies while others did not make it out of what Petrarch coined the “dark ages”. Furthermore, there was certainly a noticeable faction-esque schism that separated those who accepted reform and those who fancied themselves with anachronistic doctrines, which, of course, was a divisionary split that created a fair bit of difficulty for Calvin to navigate within his ministry. The shift in ideological beliefs that greatly influenced the political, social, and religious landscape of early to mid-sixteenth century Geneva and the region’s subsequent retaliation of those newly formalized ideas we will call “the great catapult of Genevan principals” for time's sake.
Will be continued.
Tracking Individual Freedom: Roots in the Reformation - The Scope of Government under the Roman Catholic Church
Roman Catholicism was the supreme political and religious force that dominated the Middle Ages. Although one would assume that Rome’s affairs were overwhelmingly religious, a vast majority of the Church’s relationship with its people remained political. Furthermore, the Catholic Church was in charge of providing all the necessary social services such as running local orphanages, facilitating religious orders, giving alms to the poor, and providing education. Religious orders were especially popularized in the Middle Ages. Some included monastic orders, military orders, and pilgrimages which were often taken to sacred statues. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales satirizes the common motivations of many while taking a pilgrimage, in this instance, to the shrine of Sir Thomas Becket. Additionally, education was mainly accessible to the landholding class and usually only available to young men who were preparing to seek office in the church. Students would take classes from the most educated of their day, bishops and priests, in either their local monastery, convent, or church. These classes revolved around learning the syntax and structure of the Latin language, through straightforward memorization, while class lasted from sunrise to sunset. There was no guaranteed depth of understanding in Medieval education and only the brightest of students would break free of their educational monotony and arrive at some established universities in Western Europe, such as Cambridge and Oxford, which were also headed by the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, widespread education for women was limited in this time period. Young women frequently found themselves being lectured on the ins and outs of running the family manor and sometimes were fortunate enough to be briefed in a rudimentary instruction regarding music. Overall, with the priesthood being designed for men and education geared towards the priesthood, women fell short of the curve when it came to educational benefits in what we may assert as a fairly patriarchal society. Yet, with women absent from the schools, they still could not escape the mastery of the Catholic Church, for around one-third of all the land in Europe was owned by the church. Therefore, women and families, who may have not considered themselves to be apart of the political discourse of their day, still felt the scope of influence of the Church in their own homes. In fact, each village had been designated a community parish (a church) and therefore designated a parish priest, who was ultimately involved in the lives of all the people within his village. The priest was in charge of keeping the town records, including the task of scribing detailed lists of the townspeople and noting important dates such as riots, local skirmishes, and really any sort of significant social event. The local priest not only had a substantial amount of responsibility within the Medieval community but was also the most educated in the town, the product of the previously discussed mode of education. His responsibility did not merely cover the advent of each person's life but the entirety of each individual’s being in the community, the priest baptized infants (usually before the tenth day of life), lead marriage ceremonies, took confessions, and provided last rites before death. Also, because the priest was typically the only fairly educated person within each community he was subsequently the sole source of scripture reading and teaching, for biblical illiteracy was a rampant issue in this period. If one wished to gain any meaningful tidbit of spiritual guidance they had to go through their parish priest. Although this is not a thorough description of the Catholic Church’s role within the European social landscape, it does give us a momentary glimpse into an all-encompassing reality.
So, how exactly did the Roman Catholic Church justify their expansive scope of influence over Europe? For this explanation, we will venture to take a theological route. Consider the following passage from the book Matthew:
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Catholic doctrine has dubbed this passage the papal insignia. The insignia of the papacy (the office of the pope) is expressed in the form of two perpendicular keys, one silver one gold, crossed together with a red ribbon or cord. The two keys represent the same keys present in the passage above and remain the justification for St. Peter assuming the first office of the pope. Additionally, Christ’s statement to Cephas “whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven” is perceived as the creation of two separate dominions (the temporal world and paradise) which are symbolized in the depiction of the two keys. There is some controversy among Catholic scholars regarding which key, either silver or gold, represents “binding” and which one represents “losing”. Regardless of that matter, this is where Catholic theology claims that St. Peter assumed the first position of pope, under the divine endorsement and appointment of Jesus. This created a direct relationship between Christ’s appointment of Simon Peter and Christ's implied appointment of all papal successors. To state that St. Peter was chosen by the Son of God to the papacy meant that the future heirs to that very same position were subsequently commissioned by Christ, implying that those outside the Catholic sphere of influence were not under the authority of an institution that was brought into fruition by God himself. Overall, the Catholic Church believed that they derived their power to govern directly from God because the papacy itself was instituted by God. Thus, if the Catholic Church was absent so was God. Instead of God being within the grasp of each individual, access to God was institutionalized in the form of a sovereign economic and political power that quickly had a monopoly on the European social landscape. As any business grows to the point where they have a monopoly in a given market competition goes away and workers get reasonably lazy. This analogy is the best way we can rationalize the ills of the Catholic Church and the motivations of its newfound competitors, the Reformers.