Saturday, June 23, 2012

Book Review: John Calvin's American Legacy - Chapter 6 - Calvin and Calvinism within Congregational and Unitarian Discourse in Nineteenth-Century America

Chapter 5 review here. Chapter 4 review here. Chapter 3 review here. Chapter 2 review here. Chapter 1 review here. Introduction review here. Initial thoughts here.

Before canon-balling in to the deep end of his article, David D. Hall opens with two quotes: The first by John Cotton, "Let Calvin answer for me," originally given in 1637 in response to ministers questioning his orthodoxy; the second quotation by Perry Miller, who argued, in "The Marrow of Puritan Divinity," that Jonathan Edwards was the "first consistent and authentic Calvinist in New England," for Edwards was the first theologian with "nerve" to skip over New England theologians and considered their doctrinal source, Calvin, directly.

Hall begins his article introducing the "first-ever National Council of Congregational Churches" that met in Boston on June 14, 1865. The Council had several goals, meeting in the aftermath of the Civil War they were ambitiously looking to grow beyond their native homes in New England and deliberated over a Declaration of Faith. Although initial drafts referenced Calvinism, the final declaration did not. Hall says words like "Calvin," "Calvinism," and "references to the Westminster Confession" were "strikingly absent." Hall, therefore, wonders "What were the implications of this refusal for the future of Congregationalism and, a separate but related matter, the capacity of Congregationalists to understand their own origins in the seventeenth century?" These two questions, contrasted with the pro-Calvin opening quotations, have compelling effect--the reader knows he truly is heading in to the deep end of Calvinistic discourse. Hall sets things up nicely. The article follows the separate links in a chain of confusion tethered to the "reformers' nineteenth-century heirs within Congregationalism" (149), disclosing how this confusion, according to Hall, has been recapitulated by liberal theologians in the twentieth-century, and thus paving the path for what has led to our contemporary cloud of confusion hovering over modern Puritan studies and tis relation to Calvin and Calvinism.

Hall tackles this chain of confusion by narrating the outcome of the clash between liberal and evangelical "wings" of the New England tradition, an outcome that morphed, namely, into Unitarianism, which questioned the legitimacy and morality of Calvinism. Unitarians were no friend of Calvin, seeing Calvinism as being "arbitrary, dogmatic, metaphysical, deterministic, antimodern, of a persecuting temper" (152). Hall, then showing that Unitarianism was Congregationalism's schism, tells the reader that what he finds remarkable (and he assures us that he is supported by modern scholarship in thinking so) is the "persisting ignorance of the Calvin of Geneva" for both Congregationalists and the Unitarian/New Haven theologians, as well as the phenomenon that Congregationalists and Unitarians shared a mutual dissatisfaction for Calvin, and Edwards for that matter, and that this view was shared in spite of the former group being the "moderates" and the latter group being the "liberals." It would seem, then, that New England, both moderate and liberal wings, were fed up with Calvin and anything esteemed Calvinistic. How about that? So.

We see the Unitarian decrying of Calvinism in the 1820s/1830s, and then, in the1860s, we see Congregationalists side stepping the inclusion of Calvinistic verbiage in their declaration of faith, and, with the vantage point from which Hall chaperons the his readers into surveying the twentieth-century, we are then prepared to be introduced to Williston Walker's biography of Calvin (John Calvin: The Organiser of Reformed Protestantism) and Perry Miller's writings on New England and seventeenth-century religious thought.

In both of these authors we see some more of the recapitulated confusion referenced earlier by Hall; both of these men had unique readings of Calvin, and in Calvin saw elements that "pointed towards modernity" (159). Walker saw in Calvin the modern notion of the separation of church-and-state, while Miller traced Calvinistic colonial theology (by way of those who put emphasis on "covenant theology") up and through the "softer, milder Calvinism of the eighteenth century and the Unitarian liberalism of the nineteenth" (160).

All of this leaves us wondering, "Which reading of Calvin is correct?" Was Calvin's influence in America anti-modern? Or was it modern? For progressive theology? Or against it? Hall's conclusion reminds us that these different narratives of Calvin, these different assessments of Calvin's influence on American theology, "these crisscrossed stories . . . both have persisted into our own time," which means that, "Paradigms--or, better, stereotypes--do indeed die hard." It is hard to understand your origins, especially if there are contrary paradigms or stereotypes floating around.

My thoughts: Content was engaging bu the outline of material and unpacking of content made for a difficult read/made it difficult to follow. (Although, the weakness probably lies with my abilities to read critically/carefully, not Hall's ability to write). The conclusion is good though--and should encourage anybody who does history to do so carefully. After all, if you get something wrong, that thing may tint a different person's glasses, that inaccuracy may die hard.

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