Sunday, January 30, 2011

On Religion in Early America

A good friend of mine posted earlier this week, hypothesizing on the reasons for a lack of socialized medicine in this country. He was blaming the Calvinist tendencies of the Puritans.

As it happens, I'm in Church History II this semester, making this very subject top-of-the mind. Last week we were going over colonial religion and movements in England and America during and after the Reformation.

I don't disagree with his basic premise, that there is a very definite Calvinist thread through the American meta-culture, that if you're poor, then it's because you deserve to be poor, and if you're sick, that's because you did something to deserve to be sick. It hearkens back to the doctrine of the Elect, that God chose the saved before the beginning of time and you cannot know if you are saved from Hell or not, so you better act as if you were. After a while, to justify theologically rulership, wealth, and power, things shifted. If you were healthy, rich, and well-born, you were obviously favored of God. Conversely, if you were poor or sick, it was because of your sins or the sins of your parents. In larger terms, America is the nation of the Elect because it was founded by Christians and brought the gospel to all corners of the world. Also, we're wealthier and more influential than anyone else.

This is an older idea than the Doctrine of the Elect. This type of thinking, which has it's modern form in the "prosperity gospel" churches, is older than Rome. The empire one. Caesar is favored by the gods, so much so, he's almost a god himself. Citizens of Rome are favored of the gods, otherwise, they wouldn't be citizens. Those who are slaves deserve to be enslaved. Athens is favored of Athena, thus is the center of scholarship and wisdom and trade. The Children of Israel are chosen by God to inhabit a land of milk and honey. The doctrine of the Elect was twisted to fit within human preconceptions and our need to have reasons for the class systems we like to build, but we needed that justification and we'd thrown out the Roman one. (Luther was much more egalitarian. We all suck, we all sin, undeserved grace is the only path to salvation, and it's open to anyone who asks).

On the other hand, I think it is massively unfair to blame the Calvinist threads on the Puritans.

The Puritan movement started really during the reign of Elizabeth I, after the Elizabethan Religious Settlement of 1559, which appointed the monarch as the head of the church and did away with many of the more physical Catholic trappings of Mass and instituted the Book of Common Prayer as the format for all worship in England. At this point, there were two main factions of the reformed Anglican church - those who believed that the church had gone far enough, in the formation of the Book of Common Prayer, the changes in the theology to make it more accessible to the people, and the slimming of the trimmings of the Catholic Church. The other crowd wanted to further purify the church of anything that looked vaguely Catholic - skip liturgical seasons, vestments, crucifixes, communion wafers, bishops, etc. - and put the laity in charge of almost all decisions. They did pick up the Calvinist theology about simplicity in worship and a congregationalist stance on Church government, but stayed kinda out on much of his other points and added quite a bit about sanctity of God's law in the lives of men, including the purity of the sabbath, and a high emphasis on works. Charles, unlike Elizabeth and James, took sides in this particular argument, and the Puritans left in something between a voluntary and involuntary exile to the Netherlands, where it was acceptable to be any Christian denomination other than Armenian. While there, they solidified their doctrines. The Puritans came into significant theological and social conflict with the Dutch Reform Church, a Calvinist/Zwinglian branch of the Protestant Reformation and the predominant church of the Netherlands. So much so, in fact, that they have the distinction of being one of the few groups the Dutch invited to leave as intolerable in their intolerance. They came to America because they wanted to found the perfect society, where everyone agreed with their theology.

No, we can blame those Calvinist threads in the American zeitgeist on the Dutch Reform Church, the English Reform Church, and the Presbyterians - contemporaries of the Puritans, but people who were never a serious part of the Anglican church. They were always Calvinist and bent on true reform of the church from without instead of the original Puritan view of reform from within. As such, many had much more hardline views about the position of the Elect in the world, and that because they had accepted and believed the one true way as revealed through scripture by Calvin and Zwingli, they were obviously the elect. They were founding their own colonies in the New World at the same time and those threads of justification dug in hard and deep.


  1. While the essence of this post is right on, the teacher and history geek in me feels compelled to point out some details.

    The Puritans, as you point out, stood for reform from within. Those that modern Americans consider as Puritans -- those who eventually formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony -- STAYED that way, and did not leave England for the Netherlands. That distinction goes to the Pilgrims, those Puritans who had concluded starting about 1580 that they had to break off from the C. of E. completely.

    It was James I (James VI for the Scotland fans here) who really first took sides, or perhaps more accurately he failed to stop the increasingly ugly debates in the wake of the "Guy Fawkes" failed coup. In any event, the Pilgrims left for the Netherlands in 1608. They *shared* the Calvinist/Zwinglian view of reform from without, but had many other incompatibilities both religious and (religio-)political which, as you point out, caused the Dutch to invite them to leave. That happened in 1620, before James I died.

    Samuel T. Logan, Jr. gave a sermon on this, published in Tabletalk magazine. I don't necessarily hold with all the "serious religion" bits, as they assume a different set of underlying axioms than I hold. However, the history parts are a good read. It can be found here:

    A friend's friend's friend at U.Va. has an essay online about "The American Sense of Puritan" which also talks about the distinction between Puritan and Pilgrim in places. Find the main page here:

    I will note that both Pilgrim *and* Puritan were very distinct from the "establishment" religion in England, whose only serious foothold in America was in Virginia. But Pilgrim, Puritan, and C. of E. were all, as you say, quite distinct from the strong Calvinist sects that truly gave us the concept of the "position of the Elect."

    The "Puritan" term has been rather arbitrarily *assigned* to the rather NON-Puritan groups by one particular web site that I ran across: ... I can't actually recommend reading the essays there, as I cannot get past the conflations, the inccuracy of terminology, and the sheer level of rhetoric. The essays do appear to have some salient points to make. I just got tired of wading through the sewerfuls of crap to sift out the valuable pieces.

  2. But James attempted to passify the more puritanical members of the C.o.E. by appointing many of them to prominent positions within the church and his advisory councils, and while the debates got really ugly, some of his political moves were obviously to maintain a balance between the factions, but with more of a slant to the puritans. It's that whole King of Scotland thing, and having to deal with a bunch of congregationalist Presbyterians before he became King of England.

    And while you may quibble about Puritan v. Pilgrim, as far as I can tell, the Pilgrims viewed themselves initially as Puritans, until they got themselves kicked out of the Netherlands and had to find somewhere else to live.