Monday, July 2, 2012

Book Review: John Calvin's American Legacy – Chapter 9 – Geneva's Crystalline Clarity: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Max Weber on Calvinism and the American Character

Chapter 8 review here. Chapter 7 review here. Chapter 6 review here. 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.

With chiastic-like structure, Peter J. Thuesen's article opens and closes recounting the same historical scene: Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin) visiting John Calvin's Geneva, in June 1853. Stowe, who took a break for travel on the Continent during a publicity tour in England, wrote, while overlooking Geneva, “Calvinism, in its essential features, will never cease from the earth, because the great fundamental facts of nature are Calvinistic, and men with strong minds and wills always discover it” (219).

And so Thuesen begins his article, introducing Stowe's judgments (both positive and negative) of Calvin and Calvinism, and to which he quickly adjoins similar judgments by the famous sociologist Max Weber (author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). Stowe's and Weber's relationship to their Calvinistic American heritage was not simple, Thuesen even calls the former's a “tortured relationship”--but nevertheless a “recurring theme of her writings”--one which Thuesen believes “anticipated in striking ways the arguments” of Max Weber.

Thuesen reviews the works of both authors within their conflicted circumstances, which are twofold, first, primarily, their American context, and then, secondarily, within the context of their literary peers (Thuesen provides abundant examples of the anti-Calvinistic spirit in American literature at that time). In the midst of these conflicted circumstances, however, according to the imaginations of both authors Calvinism “offered the best foundation for a virtuous society” (220). 

Thuesen drafts what he calls the “Stowe-Weber Thesis”--characterized by two authors who “were complex thinkers whose deepest religious sympathies were clearly mixed” (232), and who both had been “steeped in Protestant triumphalism that equated popery with intellectual and political slavery,” but who arrived at the mutual conclusion that the positive American character traits, e.g., thrift, hard-work, intellectual cultivation, etc., were the “inevitable result” of Calvinism. Thuesen notes that both Weber and Stowe have provoked scholarly debates because their theory and judgment of Calvin/Calvinism, as Alastair Hamilton notes, “is just as difficult to demolish as it is to substantiate” (232). 

My thoughts: I think Stowe and Weber are good illustrations of "complex thinkers whose deepest religious sympathies were clearly mixed," and Thuesen adequately demonstrates that truth and the correlating conundrum these two authors have created for scholars. 

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