Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Religion and the American Mind

Jeff Waddington is a PhD candidate at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and he has kindly written at our request an extended review of Alan Heimert's Religion and the American Mind. We are posting his review here, along with a notice that we are selling this volume at a nice discount through our online store.

Thanks Jeff.

Religion and the American Mind :
From the Great Awakening to the Revolution
Alan H. Heimert
Originally published by Harvard University Press
Cambridge, MA: 1966.
Reprinted as part of The Jonathan Edwards Classic Studies Series
by The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University
Wipf & Stock Publishers
Eugene, OR: 2006


If one can believe the foreword and back cover blurbs of this reprint of the late Alan Heimert’s Religion and the American Mind, the reappearance of his seminal study of the relationship between religion and politics in eighteenth-century America may just prove to be one more piece of evidence demonstrating that resurrections do in fact happen. This book shook the scholarly world when it made its first appearance in 1966. It was panned by many within the historical studies community because it challenged the reigning paradigm of the day. And that paradigm was that the rise of American democracy was fueled inter alia by the “Liberal” clergy of the day. Heimert argued that American democracy arose with the assistance of Evangelical clergy as religion was central to American life at the time. It appears then that Heimert demolished the facile coupling of “Liberal” religion and liberal politics (see Andrew Delbanco’s Foreword).

Jonathan Edwards stands at the heart of the story Heimert tells. While Edwards himself died in 1758, some eighteen years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, his influence continued on in his disciples well into, and indeed beyond, the era of the Revolution. However the influence was not so straightforward as all that. But this is a fascinating tale well-told. I shall look at the general storyline of the book, then offer some comment on the story itself and upon the place of Jonathan Edwards and his influence within that story.

Christianity and the Rise of American Democracy
Alan Heimert unfolds for us the narrative of the rise of American democracy from the time of the Great Awakening through to the two decades following the Revolution. It had been assumed by many historians of the early American colonies that liberal democracy grew with the fortunes of Liberal Christianity. Heimert showed that this was not the case. Contrariwise, while Liberal clergy eventually gave their support to the Revolution, the impetus for the rebellion came from “Calvinist” clergy who had been influenced by the writings of Jonathan Edwards. As is well known, the Liberal clergy (represented by Charles Chauncy) sparred at length with conservative clergy (such as Jonathan Edwards) over the legitimacy of the Great Awakening.

At the heart of the dispute between pro-Awakening and anti-Awakening clergy was how the unusual phenomenon of the Awakening should be evaluated. Did the odd behavior of the people who came under the teaching and preaching of pro-Awakening clergy signify that the Awakening was dangerous? Was the Awakening dangerous because it roused the passions of the “unwashed” multitudes (p. 93)? As Heimert points out, the dispute between Edwards and Chauncy surrounded the understanding of the human personality or soul. The dispute was in some sense all about faculty psychology (pp. 44-46; 109-110n; 113n; 209-210; 277). Was the human soul ruled by the reason or intellect? Did the intellect rein-in the otherwise potentially unruly passions? Or was the personality an integrated whole made up of the intellect and will that ideally worked together? Chauncy argued that Christianity was a reasonable religion suited to reasonable gentlemen (pp. 278-279). For him the intellect ruled. For Edwards, the human personality was an integration of the intellect and will. The whole personality was fallen in sin and could be restored in regeneration. The Liberal clergy seemed to suggest, if not outright affirm, that while the will was fallen, the intellect was exempt from the effects of the fall.

Debates between Liberal and Calvinist clergy over faculty psychology and the populist nature of the Awakening transmogrified over time into debates about submission to the royal government in Great Britain. And yes, the two sides in the Great Awakening tended to carry forward in the debates that occurred in the colonies during the years leading up to the Revolution. The Liberal clergy tended to be hierarchical in their thinking about society as much as they had been about the faculties of the human soul. And the ostensible heirs to the legacy of Jonathan Edwards fueled the fires of rebellion from pamphlets and pulpit.

So how did the legacy of Jonathan Edwards work itself out in this context? Three writings of Edwards play prominent roles in the days leading up to the American Revolution. The first was Freedom of the Will where Edwards defined freedom as the absence of physical restraint and the ability to follow one’s own inclinations. The second was The Nature of True Virtue in which Edwards argued that only the regenerate could practice true virtue which he defined as love to being in general. The third was An Humble Attempt in which he called for a sweet union of all Christians in prayer for revival. These theological writings were taken up into the colonies-wide discussion about the fortunes of the America and somehow metamorphosed into political tracts for the times. Edwards’ discussion of freedom laid the groundwork for the demand that royal restraints on the colonists be overthrown. It was not possible for the colonists to exercise true virtue when they were enslaved by the Royal government of King George III and his minions in Parliament. And they discovered that there did exist a sweet harmony between colonies and citizens as they united as one nation against royal tyranny.

The Liberal clergy were not completely unsympathetic to the concerns of the “wretched” masses yearning to breathe free. But being the conservatives they were, they were distrustful of passions set aflame and they were zealous to maintain their social prerogatives (pp. 261-262). They were concerned to remind the people that it was a privilege to live under British constitutionalism. While Calvinist clergy did not encourage anarchy, they came to realize that the manifest destiny of the American colonies was independence from the mother country and self-rule. And so we moved through the Great Awakening to the American Revolution. Sides were drawn early on that were on the whole maintained to the decades following the Revolution and thereafter.

Some Comments
Alan Heimert has told a fascinating tale and has presented a cogent case for the fact that Liberal religion and liberal politics were not exactly cozy bed-fellows. He paints a picture of Liberals and Calvinists parting company at the Great Awakening and remaining separate right through to the time of the American Revolution. It is true that some of the Liberal clergy did eventually support the rebellion, but one gets the impression that they did so against their better judgement and only after the tide had so turned against loyalty to the crown. On the other hand, the Calvinist clergy, ostensibly building on the legacy of Jonathan Edwards, fanned the flames not only of revival, but revolution. But the reader can be forgiven if he or she asks how this could have happened? How did a religious debate turn into a political fight? And how was Edwards involved?

First let the obvious be noted. The American Revolution was not the first fight that involved the mixture of politics and religion. The fathers came to these shores with a model of the relation of church and state, known as the “Medieval synthesis” or Christendom, in which the two were distinguished but held the church regnant. Separation would be a later development. It was expected that the church would be upheld and supported by the state. What is surprising is that the very people who fought for the disestablishment of the church (the “Separatists”) in the colonies turned around and pushed for the glorification of the American colonies. There was a sort of bait and switch at work here. Some were cognizant of this phenomenon, others were not at all, and others only faintly. Here is what I mean. The disciples of Jonathan Edwards who fought to remove the privileges of the Congregational churches in New England and the Anglican church in Virginia, for instance, were the same folk who forged a “nation with the soul of a church” (to borrow an expression from Alexis de Tocqueville). The postmillennial eschatological gaze was transferred from the church to the colonies-soon-to-be-new-nation. In other words, there occurred a confusion of the nation with the church. Whereas the first generation may have confused the church with the colony, the Revolution era generation confused the nation for the church. And we still live with this phenomenon in the United States of the twenty-first century.

Second there is the issue of Alan Heimert’s historiographical taxonomy. While it has been the standard move in various religious histories of America to divide Christian churches into Liberal and Evangelical factions, recently Presbyterian church historian Daryl G. Hart has argued for a third category of Confessionalists (see his The Lost Soul of American Protestantism). Hart argues that Liberals and Evangelicals are both varieties of Pietism and that the discussion leaves out an important group of Christians, those who stressed orthodox doctrine. The truth is, Heimert’s categorization could lead one to assume that all Old Lights and Old Sides (those within the Congregational and Presbyterian churches that had problems with the Awakening) were proto-unitarians. This is clearly not the case. It is true that Charles Chauncy did go that way. But not all those opposed to the Great Awakening were drawn to rationalism per se or to heterodoxy. There were questions about different models of the initiation of the Christian life (nurture or conversion) and the significance of doctrine vis-a-vis experience involved here that get passed over when we fail to categorize with greater nuance. One does not have to agree with all of Hart’s conclusions to agree with his point. Heimert’s terms may be misleading in this regard as well. Both the Liberals and the Calvinists came from a Reformed background. The Arminianism of some of the clergy became apparent over time, but denominationally both groups, especially in New England, would have understood themselves (rightly or wrongly) to be Calvinists in the broadest sense of the term.

Thirdly, what is the significance of Jonathan Edwards for the telling of this tale? I would like to answer this question in two ways. First I will comment on the use of Edwards by those who participated in the drama and then second I will make some remarks about Heimert’s treatment of Edwards and his disciples. Edwards is clearly at the epicenter of the rumblings of the Awakening and its secularization in the rise of American democracy. The question arises as to how faithful Edwards’ disciples were to their master. I am inclined to think that he would not have been pleased with the politicization of his theology. This is not to say that theology does not have social consequences. It is just to point out that when Edwards addressed the nature of freedom, that discussion was in the context of the Reformed/Arminian debate, not in the context of relations between the colonies and the mother country. There was an apparent facile equation of spiritual and political freedom. I would also hasten to point out that Edwards’ discussion of true virtue argued for the fact that only the regenerate can exercise true virtue. It would seem that the virtue of the colonists was a constricted love. As good as love for country can be (and in its place, is), Edwards considered patriotism to be an extended form of self-love. It was not indicative of love for being in general (God or God and his creation depending on whose interpretation you follow). And Edwards’ call for unity was issued to Christians in the church international and was meant to foster and encourage concerts of prayer for the revival of the church.

That brings us to my final remarks about how Alan Heimert handles Edwards. Overall Heimert does an admirable job narrating the story he has set out to tell. At points it is captivating and enthralling. And I think he has succeeded in arguing for his main thesis. Liberal clergy were not in the forefront of the American Revolution. The rebellion was fueled, rather, by the pro-Awakening clergy and their descendants. However, Heimert shares at least one characteristic with his mentor and colleague in the American Literature department at Harvard, Perry Miller. Miller thought that Edwards represented a return to a more pristine Calvinism with its stress on predestination as over against an Arminianizing covenant theology. Miller reflected, perhaps in an inchoate fashion, what has come to be known as the “Calvin versus the Calvinists” approach to the issue. Heimert pits Edwards against covenant theology. It has been shown that Edwards was a covenant theologian of the first rank (see Carl Bogue’s Jonathan Edwards and the Covenant of Grace) and a read through his Miscellanies should disabuse anyone of the Miller hypothesis. And the ground-breaking scholarship of Richard Muller (for instance, in his four volume Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics) has reminded us that the Reformed tradition embraces many more theologians than just John Calvin (like Edwards’ favorites Peter Van Mastricht and Francis Turretin), as significant as he was (and he was!).

There are other observations I could make, but these should suffice. Alan Heimert challenged the historiographical hegemony of his day. And while Religion and the American Mind was panned in 1966 when it was originally published, it has rightly gained recognition for its insights in the mean time. And with this recent republication at the behest of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, a new generation of Edwards scholars and scholars of American religious and political history will benefit from Heimert’s study.


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