A City on the HillReproduced from A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
by William C. Placher, © 1983 William C. Placher
Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.An eighteenth-century Italian visitor named Francesco Caraccioli once remarked that England had sixty different religions, and only one sauce. The mind boggles at what he might have said about the United States, which has supported nearly every religion of the Old World and many more besides. One could write a history of Christianity in the United States by tracing the rise and development of all its denominations. But that would be a very long book rather than just a chapter. It would also study church politics and organization more than theology. The idea of "denomination" itself, incidentally, really developed in the United States.
In Europe after the Reformation each country tended to have an established "church" and various minority "sects." The United States evolved a more or less equal competition among various "denominations": Catholics, Quakers, Congregationalists, Methodists, and so on. Long lists of such names do not make for interesting history. This look at theology in the United States will try to focus on intellectual issues that have transcended any particular denomination, and on a few denominations that introduced radically new theological ideas.
NEW ENGLAND'S COVENANT WITH GODThat means beginning with New England Puritans. While Anglicans and Methodists in the South and Quakers, Presbyterians, or Lutherans in the Middle Colonies may have been as numerous and socially important, they generally sought to preserve the religious traditions of the "old country." The Puritans of New England consciously sought to make something new.
Puritanism itself, of course, did not begin in New England. Many in England had opposed ceremonialism, episcopacy, and moral decay in the Church of England. Some "Puritans" (in a narrow sense of the word) wanted to purify the church from within. Others-the Separatists-broke off to form independent congregations.
Both groups came to New England-Separatists to Plymouth in 1620 and Puritans to Boston in 1630, for instance-but with an ocean separating all of them from the English hierarchy, the distinction between them tended not to matter very much. Similarly, conflicts between Presbyterians, with their regional assemblies, and Congregationalists, who insisted on the independence of each local congregation, mattered less on the western side of the Atlantic. "Puritan" can serve as a general term for all these groups, for they shared a common dream. During the voyage of the first Boston settlers in 1630, their governor, John Winthrop, wrote:
Thus stands the case between God and us: we are entered into covenant with Him for this work; we have taken out a commission.... We shall find that the God of Israel is among us.... For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.2They had not come for the sake of religious liberty, but for religious purity-to set up an ideal commonwealth according to God's laws, an example to inspire the whole world,
The idea of "covenant," an agreement freely entered by both parties (we would probably say "contract " today), played a crucial role in their thought, shaping their thinking in two different areas. First, they rejected the idea that a person belonged to a church simply by being born into its territory. A church consisted only of those who had made a commitment-entered into a covenant-to join it. Second, they defined a person's relations with God in terms of covenant.
Calvin's view was that God saves whomever he chooses without regard for merit. That implied the terrifying thought that nothing one could do has any effect on salvation. Some English and Dutch Calvinists had looked for some modification of this doctrine that would still preserve God's freedom, and they hit upon covenants, In a contract, after all, the parties freely choose to sign, but once they sign, the contract binds them.
So it is with God, according, to these "federal theologians" (from foedus, the Latin word for "contract"). God is indeed absolutely free, but "it has pleased the great God to enter into a treaty and covenant of agreement with us his poor creatures',"3 and if we fulfill our part of the agreement by believing in him, he will reward us with salvation. As Thomas Hooker, the first minister at Cambridge, Massachusetts, declared, "We have the Lord in bonds, for the fulfilling of his part of the covenant: He has taken a corporal oath of it, that He will do it."4
Both these uses of the idea of covenant soon generated controversy in New England. The idea of our covenant with God produced conflict first. John Cotton, the first minister at Boston, rejected federal theology in favor of pure Calvinism. No human efforts, he said, can prepare one for grace, and nothing about the moral quality of one's life indicates whether or not one stands among the saved. The other ministers, led by Thomas Hooker, favored federal theology.
They believed that God follows rules in the process of salvation. First, we must recognize our sin and repent before God will send grace. Second, once we receive grace, it will make a recognizable difference in our lives. We will be morally better. As Hooker said, "Wherever fire is, it will burn, and wherever faith is, it cannot be kept secret.... There will be a change in the whole life."5
A woman named Anne Hutchinson came to Boston from England with her husband and twelve children to hear Cotton preach pure grace. She was horrified at the views of the other ministers. Grace follows no rules, she said. It may come to the town drunk or a prostitute as likely as to the most respectable citizen.
Attacked by her opponents, she began to report prophecies and visions confirming her views. In 1637 a synod of the colony's ministers exiled her to Rhode Island, where she died in an Indian massacre six years later. John Cotton compromised with federal theology, and pure Calvinism had lost the day. The New England dream was to produce that city on a hill as an inspiring example of a proper Christian community. That required a discipline that the preaching of unpredictable grace seemed to threaten. "I know there is wild love and joy enough in the world," Hooker wrote, "as there is wild thyme and other herbs, but we would have garden love and garden joy, of God's own planting."6
Soon the other sense of covenant, the covenant of church membership, produced another crisis. To preserve the ideals of this religiously based community, only those who could testify to a conversion experience were counted as full church members, with the right to vote, take Communion, and have their children baptized.
The rigors of the ocean crossing ensured that the first generation would consist mostly of the truly committed, but the next generation included many whom were New Englanders only by accident of birth. The percentage of members kept dropping, and the children of non-members could not even be baptized. The dream of New England as God's special commonwealth seemed about to collapse.
New Englanders sought a variety of solutions. In 1662 a synod of the churches of eastern Massachusetts approved what came to be called the "Half-way Covenant." If you affirmed the church's doctrines and tried to lead a good life, you could come halfway into the church even if you had never had a conversion experience.
You could not take Communion or vote, but your children could be baptized. At about the same time, at Northampton in western Massachusetts, Solomon Stoddard abandoned federal theology for a purer Calvinism and decided that, if "the mere pleasure of God" decides who will be predestined to salvation, this "cannot be made evident by experience to the world."7 We cannot identify the elect, and Stoddard therefore let everyone into Communion. Let God sort out the saved.
Both approaches began to compromise the earlier rigor, and by around 1700 the whole issue seemed to be fading away. Standards of church membership grew more lax, and some New Englanders began admiring the greater sophistication of England, which their forebears had fled as a place of corruption. Puritanism seemed to be slowly yielding to rationalism. Then in the 1740s the Great Awakening changed the shape of American religion. Its story is intertwined with that of America's greatest theological genius, Jonathan Edwards.
Born in Connecticut in 1703, Edwards proved precocious, writing a scientific study of spiders as a schoolboy and studying Locke and Newton as a teenage student at Yale. His faith grew out of both his father's Puritan sermons and his own meditations on nature. One day, after talking with his father, he tells us, "I walked alone, in a solitary place in my father's pasture, for contemplation.
And as I was walking there, and looking up on the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God that I know not how to express .... There seemed to me ... [the] appearance of divine glory in ... all nature.... I often used to sit and view the moon for continuance; and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things; in the meantime, singing forth, with a low voice my contemplation of the Creator and Redeemer."8
In 1729 his grandfather Solomon Stoddard died, and young Edwards took over the most famous church in western Massachusetts.
Many of his contemporaries thought that the new scientific discoveries called for the modification of a good bit of traditional theology. Edwards argued that in fact the most orthodox Calvinism fit best with modern science. For example, to many science implied materialism. The scientist talks about the world we can see and touch, and that is the most clearly real world.
Spirits and souls and God came under suspicion as perhaps only imaginary. Edwards, however, insisted that science, as represented by John Locke's philosophy, taught that all our knowledge begins with experience. It is experience-ideas and the minds that have ideas-of whose existence we are most sure. A really consistent empiricist will rather have doubts about the existence of matter. (The philosopher Bishop George Berkeley was developing a similar view in Britain at about the same time. His influence on Edwards remains unclear pending the clear dating of Edwards' early works.)
Similarly, many of Edwards' contemporaries concluded that a reasonable God just would not predestine some to hell, and therefore modern theology must give up predestination. On the contrary, Edwards maintained, Newton's philosophy implies that the universe is a system in which everything follows necessarily from prior causes. Therefore, the choices of people who live in the universe as described by Newton must be predetermined from the beginning of time. This does not imply that humans lack freedom, for freedom means doing what you want, and if what we want is determined (Edwards believed this to follow from both Calvinism and Newtonianism), we nevertheless remain free.
His opponents protested that it would be unfair for God to send some to hell. Edwards replied that we all deserve hell, for we all inherit the consequences of Adam's original sin. God simply gives some better than they deserve. But is it fair that we should suffer the consequences of something Adam did? Edwards replied that for modern empirical philosophy the way one thinks about something defines the identity of an individual.
Sometimes I think of my arm as one "thing," my leg as another; other times, I treat them both as "parts" of my body. One of the implications of the empiricist rebellion against earlier metaphysics is that neither is wrong; both define the individual for a particular purpose. Now, "God in each step of his proceeding with Adam, in relation to the covenant or constitution established with him, looked on his posterity as being one with him. "9 God thinks of humanity as one individual in this context, and individual identity is something that can be defined in any consistent way. Therefore it makes no sense to protest that we get punished for the deed of someone else.
These ideas suggest how radical Edwards could be in "defense" of Calvinism, setting traditional doctrines in a new metaphysical context. He believed in a God so powerful he left no room for anything else. God was not, he kept saying, one agent, one entity among others. A stone or a horse or a human being is "nothing but the Deity, acting in that particular manner, in those parts of space where he thinks fit."10 "But I had as good speak plain: I have already said as much as that space is God."11
Edwards was usually an intellectual and unemotional preacher, but in 1734 his people in Northampton experienced a great revival, a burst of conversion experiences. That proved only a prelude. In 1740 George Whitefield traveled the length of the colonies, inspiring a "Great Awakening" marked by conversions from Massachusetts to Georgia-perhaps the first "national" experience shared by all the colonies. It soon generated opposition from those who found the shouting and weeping undignified and the attacks on "unconverted" ministers disruptive.
Edwards rose to the revival's defense with a detailed empirical report. He described the experiences of conversion and the changes in people's lives and concluded, "We must throw by our Bibles, and give up revealed religion; if this be not in general the work of God."12 The Great Awakening, he proclaimed, led people from theories about religion to the experience of it.
The story ended in tragedy. Excesses of emotionalism gave the Awakening a bad name. A young minister named James Davenport traveled about screaming, moaning, and stripping himself half-naked as he preached, ending up judged insane by a Boston court. Even in Northampton, long-simmering frustration boiled over when Edwards reversed the practice of his grandfather Stoddard and admitted to Communion only those who could establish a conversion experience.
The causes of tension between Edwards and his congregation ran deeper. Practical people out to cut down the forests in the name of progress could not understand his wonder at the divinity of nature. Practical people who wanted results could hardly understand a theology that left everything to unmerited grace. In 1750 they fired him, and he went into a kind of exile at Stockbridge on the edge of the wilderness. In 1758 the trustees of a new college in New Jersey-later to become Princeton-called Edwards to be their president, but he caught smallpox and died about a month after taking office.
His followers tried to defend predestination and revivalism, but they ignored most of the philosophical underpinnings Edwards had developed. Edwards combined a defense of religious revivals with appeals to the most advanced philosophy. In subsequent generations in the United States, intellectual sophistication and revivalistic passion tended to go their separate ways.
RATIONAL RELIGION IN THE UNITED STATESIn intellectual circles on the East Coast, the Great Awakening Proved only a temporary delay in the advancing march of rational religion. By the time of the struggles for independence, many American leaders were more or less Deists. Asked about the divinity of Christ, Benjamin Franklin admitted, "It is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect so soon [he wrote this as a very old man] an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble."13
He would have agreed with Thomas Jefferson that "he who steadily observes those moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven, as to the dogmas in which they all differ."14 Jefferson even produced a special edition of the New Testament, which included Jesus' teachings but left out all the miracles.
In spite of such attitudes, in 1776 every state except Rhode Island still required some sort of religious affirmation from anyone seeking public office, and Connecticut (until 1818), New Hampshire (until 1819) and Massachusetts (until 1833) still recognized an established church with special privileges and tax support.
People like Jefferson and Franklin naturally sought to limit the churches' influence on the state, but it was principally the sheer fact of religious diversity which ruled out an established church on the national level. Congregationalists dominated Massachusetts, Anglicans Virginia, and so on, but no denomination had a dominant position in the whole country. As a result, while few Americans moved as far in the direction of Deism as Jefferson or Franklin, a least-common-denominator Christianity rather like Deism came to characterize public occasions in the United States.
To that extent, rationalism in religion made its mark on the whole country, but in the early 1800s it took an institutional form in Unitarianism. Unitarians have remained few in number and have not spread far-giving rise to the gibe that they believe in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston - but their influence on American intellectual life has been out of all proportion to their numbers. They began with an emphasis on reason and divine benevolence.
They rejected the Trinity as irrational. They insisted that a good God would not let everyone fall into sin because of Adam's fault or predestine anyone to damnation. In the words of William Ellery Channing, minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston for forty years and the most distinguished spokesman of Unitarianism, "A natural constitution of the mind unfailingly disposing it to evil ... would absolve it from guilt ... and argue unspeakable cruelty [on God's part]; and ... to punish the sin of this unhappily constituted child with endless ruin would be a wrong unparalleled by the most merciless despotism."15
Unitarians read their Bibles and believed in miracles, but they approached these matters rationally too. Good evidence proved that miracles had occurred, and the miracles in turn established the authority of whoever performed them. "Christianity," Charming wrote, "is not a deduction of philosophy ... intelligible but to a few. It is ... sealed by miracles ... which are equally intelligible, striking, and appealing to all."16
REVIVALS ON THE FRONTIERMany Americans on the frontier would have found Channing's rational religion neither intelligible nor striking nor appealing. Both Puritans and Unitarians preached to the same congregation week after week and could gradually educate their audience, but sermons on the frontier came only with the occasional visit of a traveling preacher. These itinerants had little chance to give much theological instruction; they focused on immediate conversions.
Beginning in the 1820s two Yale theologians, Nathaniel W. Taylor and Lyman Beecher, organized revival campaigns throughout Connecticut and beyond. Jonathan Edwards had believed that a revival would come in God's predestined time; Beecher and Taylor thought that effective preaching and good organization could create a revival. Beecher urged the cler8y "no longer to trust Providence, and expect God will vindicate his cause while we neglect the use of appropriate means."17
Effective preaching involved telling people they had the freedom to choose between salvation and damnation. "The people did not need high-toned Calvinism on the point of dependence; they ... needed a long and vigorous prescription of free-agency."18 Revivalists, like Unitarians, moved away from predestination.
At about the same time in upstate New York, Charles Grandison Finney carried the new style of revivalism several steps further. Finney prided himself on his lack of theological education. He thought that intellectual subtlety just gets in the way of good preaching. "We must have exciting, powerful preaching, or the devil will have the people, except what the Methodists can save."19 Finney pioneered new techniques, like the "anxious bench" where those deemed near conversion came forward to sit and receive the focused attention of the whole congregation, and praying for recalcitrant relatives and friends by name. "Revival," he insisted, "is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle in any sense. It is a purely philosophical [we would say "scientific"] result of the right use of the constituted means."20
Under the influence of Finney and others, the "burned-over" district of upstate New York ("burned over" by the fires of successive revivals) came to have the reputation southern California has today as the natural home of all sorts of religious cults. Already in 1774 Mother Ann Lee had established a community of Shakers at New Lebanon. Back in England, Ann Lee Stanley had converted to Quakerism and then had a series of visions which persuaded her that she, like Jesus, was God incarnate, this time in a woman to capture the female aspect of divinity. Her followers, the Shakers, granted women full equality, shared all their goods, opposed war, corporal punishment, and the use of tobacco and alcohol, and lived celibate lives.
In the 1840s John Humphrey Noyes founded at Oneida another community in which all goods were shared. Defending "the right of a woman to dispose of her sexual nature by attraction instead of by law and routine and to bear children only when she chooses,"21 Noyes made every adult at Oneida the spouse of every adult of the opposite sex. This "complex marriage" was supposed to overcome possessive love and lay the basis for scientific procreation. The new movements of the burned-over district combined abolitionism, revivalism, communism, attacks on the use of alcohol, and concern for women's rights in ways that seem surprising today.
All these new movements sought the creation of a perfect community, inspired by a sense that dramatic events lay near at hand. Soon a Baptist named William Miller began to preach that the present age of the world would come to an end in 1843. When his calculations, mostly based on the book of Daniel, proved apparently in error, his followers explained that he had been wrong only concerning the nature of the event.
At the appointed time Christ had in fact brought one age to an end by entering the Holy of Holies in the heavenly sanctuary, The Millerites joined the followers of a visionary from Portland, Maine, named Ellen White to establish the Seventh Day Adventists, with a number of distinctive beliefs, many of them reminiscent of early Jewish Christianity. The Adventists celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, follow a good bit of Jewish dietary law, and emphasize Jesus' role as high priest.
Joseph Smith founded the largest group to come out of that upstate New York milieu. His family had migrated to New York in 1816, when Joseph was eleven. To his neighbors the boy seemed a wild dreamer, always looking for buried Indian gold or claiming to have a magic stone that enabled him to predict the future. Smith announced that the angel Moroni had appeared to him and disclosed the existence of hidden golden tablets, which a magic stone allowed him to translate from the "reformed Egyptian." Smith's "translation," the Book of Mormon, tells how the descendants of the ancient Israelites had come to America, and how Christ had appeared in America after his crucifixion.
Smith's followers, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, moved first to Ohio, then to Missouri, then to Nauvoo, Illinois. They opposed slavery in slave-owning Missouri, tried to exercise influence in Illinois politics, and roused all sorts of suspicions. Following Old Testament precedent, Smith and a few others took more than one wife. A bitter story of persecution culminated in the lynching of Smith and his brother in Carthage, Illinois, in 1844.
Mormonism has produced a new sacred book, nearly as complex as the Bible, and so much new theology that some argue it is not a new Christian group but a different religion altogether. After learning that the usual Hebrew word for God is "Elohim," grammatically a plural form, Smith argued that the Old Testament clearly teaches that there are many Gods, some male and others female. His inquiries into Hebrew also convinced him that the word in Genesis usually translated "create" really means "organize," and he concluded that the "creator" did not make a world out of nothing but organized eternally existing matter.
Many worlds have come and gone, and many Gods developed on them. "God himself," Smith preached, "was once as we are now.... If you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form.... God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did."22 Indeed, we all have the capacity to become Gods ourselves someday.
All this may seem a long way from John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, but Smith's optimism about human nature and his rejection of predestination and original sin agreed with the rationalism of moderate Deists. In Europe or Boston "reason" might mean Newton's physics, but out on the frontier "science" meant amateur archaeology, pamphlets on Indian history, and popular lectures on the Hebrew language-just the context in which Smith developed his ideas.
ROMANTICISM IN AMERICARationalism came under challenge in Europe in the nineteenth century, in large part from a complex of new attitudes historians lump together under the term "romanticism." That romantic challenge made its impact in America too. The romantic spirit turned from reasoned analysis to appeals to immediate intuition and from individualism to a new emphasis on the unity of communities, of humanity, and indeed of the whole universe.
Rationalist Unitarians like William Ellery Channing had argued from the Bible and the evidence of its miracles. In the 1830s Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson appealed instead to immediate intuition, which told Emerson that "the world is ... the product of one mind ... everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool."23 I don't need to turn to the Bible to find revelation, Emerson said; I can look within myself.
"Men have come to speak of revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.... In how many churches ... is man made sensible that he is an infinite soul; that the earth and the heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God."24 Why single out a few events long ago as miracles when Jesus "felt that man's life was a miracle"? The rationalist idea of a miracle as a violation of some law of nature is a "monster.
It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain."25 Religion does not provide some external standard by which I judge myself, for "no law can be sacred to me but that of my own nature."26 Indeed, "I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."27
Transcendentalism inspired many young Bostonians impatient with Unitarian rationalism, but it led them in many different directions. Theodore Parker became a popular lecturer who praised Jesus as a teacher of love but insisted that Christianity really concerns what we make of our lives now. "If it could be proved ... that Jesus of Nazareth had never lived, still Christianity would stand firm."28 Orestes Brownson pursued interests in sacred mystery and tradition to one logical conclusion and became a Roman Catholic. But the romantic turn from reason to intuition and from individualism to Community ran through the whole movement.
In the little town of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, two college teachers from the German Reformed Church, John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff, developed romantic themes in a different way. They argued that American Protestantism had strayed far from the principles of the Reformation. American ministers generally followed no set order of service and rarely celebrated Communion. Worship focused on the sermon, and the point of the sermon was to produce conversions.
In Nevin's words, "Religion is not regarded as the life of God in the Soul, that must be cultivated in order that it may grow, but rather as a transient excitement to be renewed from time to time by suitable stimulants presented to the imagination.'29 But sin, Nevin insisted, is not a matter of individual people doing evils acts; it is a state into which all humanity has fallen. Therefore its cure must lie in Christ's power to transform all of humanity.
The search for that cure led Nevin back to the study of the theology of the atonement and a new emphasis on the sacraments. All this utterly bewildered most of his contemporaries, who were suspicious of metaphysics and even more suspicious of anything that suggested Roman Catholicism. By the middle of the nineteenth century, revivalism, with its emphasis on individual conversions and its suspicion of complicated theology, had become so traditional to most American Protestants that Nevin's appeal back to the Reformation struck them as an eccentric innovation.
In those decades just before the Civil War a Hartford minister named Horace Bushnell was also attacking individualism and the emphasis on revivals and raising questions about rationalism in religion. Bushnell rejected both traditional Calvinism and Unitarianism. Both, he said, take much of the Bible and creeds as statements of literal facts. The Calvinists then affirm them, and the Unitarians deny them. But in religion, according to Bushnell, language can offer "only hints, or images" of truth.30 Therefore we should treat the books of the Bible, not as "magazines of propositions," but as "poetic forms of life ."31
He argued that the emphasis on conversions treated people as isolated individuals who could be changed in an instant. In fact, we grow up in families and communities which shape who we are. Therefore, religion ought to be a corporate experience, not a purely individual one, and it ought to grow gradually in us from earliest childhood. Bushnell's Christian Nurture became an important text for the emerging Sunday school movement, which at first rebelled against the exclusive emphasis on revivals.
Bushnell also presented the doctrine of the atonement in more corporate terms. The fact that Christ's suffering paid the debt of our sin had come to seem utterly arbitrary to many. Particularly in the aftermath of the Civil War, Bushnell set the atonement in a more general context of human experience.
For over two hundred years the United States had permitted slavery; now thousands had died in this terrible war. Somehow, people can and do die for the sins of others, and sometimes reconciliation and redemption can emerge out of such tragedy. The atonement will not have a living meaning for us, Bushnell suggested, unless we can relate it to such general patterns of human experience. In seeking to bring doctrine alive by tying it to human experience, and in moving from individualism to a renewed sense of humanity's corporate character, Bushnell too was reflecting the new romantic attitudes.
SLAVERY AND BLACK RELIGIONBushnell's concern about the moral implications of slavery serves as a reminder that, in the words of the greatest contemporary historian of American religion, "Any history of America that ignores the full consequences of slavery and non-emancipation is a fairy tale."32 Christian theology too played its part in the history of slavery.
The authors of the Bible had lived in an age that took slavery for granted. The laws of Israel demanded that Jewish slaves be freed every seven years, and Paul urged Philemon to forgive his newly baptized slave Onesimus for running away and treat him as a brother in Christ, but no biblical text explicitly opposed slavery, and Paul did send Onesimus back to his master.
Ancient slavery, however, existed within an economic and social system so different from the modem world that one should make comparisons with the greatest caution. And ancient slavery had nothing to do with race. A slave in Rome was as likely to be a Briton as a Nubian. Indeed, until the sixteenth century no Christian text suggested that any race was better suited to slavery than any other.
By then slavery had virtually disappeared in Europe, when a variety of factors suddenly encouraged the use of African slaves in the American colonies, and Europeans searched around for justifications of an institution that had seemed about to disappear. Philosophers cited Aristotle's references to those who are slaves by nature. Scientists claimed to prove the natural inferiority of blacks. Theologians discovered in an obscure passage in Genesis (Gen. 9:25), in which Noah cursed either his son Ham or Ham's son Canaan, a justification for enslaving black people -- a way of reading this passage that had never occurred to Christians before.
In England the evangelical party led the attack on the slave trade, and John Wesley's strong views against slavery encouraged a continuing opposition among Methodists. In America, however, only the Quakers (starting in the 1750s) really demanded that people either free their slaves or get out of the church. In 1818 the Presbyterian General Assembly unanimously declared slavery "utterly inconsistent with the law of God" but also warned against "hasty emancipation" and approved of the deposition of one Southern minister for his too-outspoken attacks on slavery.33 One could cite similar episodes from most denominations.
It therefore seems remarkable that blacks who encountered Christianity first in the persons of whip-bearing traders and slave owners -- and most slaves later said that Christian owners were generally more brutal -- so often accepted Christian faith. Yet why would they not have understood the story of the Israelites fleeing from bondage and the agony of Christ crucified? Slave owners often hoped that preaching would make their slaves more obedient, but another message kept breaking through. As one slave preacher recalled years later:
When I starts preachin' I ... had to preach what massa told me and he say tell them niggers iffen they obeys the massa they goes to Heaven but I knowed there's something better for them, but daren't tell them 'cept on the sly. That I done lots. I tell 'em. iffen they keeps prayin' the Lord will set 'em free.The best-documented slave revolts were led by black preachers, and black churches provided the one institution the slaves could call their own. The Baptists, whose lack of educational requirements or complicated procedures for ordination made it especially easy for blacks to become ministers, won a loyalty from black Americans that continues to this day.
Nothing symbolizes the unfulfilled character of the Puritan dream of America as the city on a hill, inspiring all the earth, so well as slavery. Yet in spite of slavery and much else, Americans have continued to think of themselves as a chosen people, set apart by God. Jonathan Edwards and other early Puritans, however, understood that God chooses without regard to merit, and the chosen should feel gratitude rather than pride. But that is a theological lesson Americans have found it hard to remember. Some prophetic voices have tried to remind them. Near the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, looking back on America's dreams and failures, declared:
Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled up by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.35For nations as for individuals, the awareness that we deserve the worst we get, and all else is grace, remains one of the hardest lessons of Christian theology.
FOR FURTHER READINGINTRODUCTIONS. The definitive work on American religion for a long time to come is Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Yale University Press, 1972). Shorter introductions are Jerald C. Brauer, Protestantism in America (Westminster Press, 1953), and Robert T. Handy, A Christian America (Oxford University Press, 1971).
COLLECTIONS OF ORIGINAL SOURCES. Two general collections are: Sydney E. Ahlstrom, Theology in America (Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967); H. Shelton Smith, Robert T. Handy, and Lefferts A. Loetscher, American Christianity, 2 vols. (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1960, 1963). On particular periods, see the following collections of texts: Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans (American Book Co., 1938), and Perry Miller, The Transcendentalists (Harvard University Press, 1950).
IMORTANT BUT MORE DIFFICULT. The works of Perry Miller remain the greatest studies of Puritan New England. See especially his The New England Mind- The Seventeenth Century (Beacon Press, 1961), The New England Mind- From Colony to Province (Beacon Press, 1961), and Jonathan Edwards (William Sloane Associates, 1949).
NOTES1. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, quoted in Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 300.
2. John Winthrop, A Modell of Christian Charity, in Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson (eds.), The Puritans (American Book Co., 1938), pp. 198-199.
3. Quoted in Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, (Beacon Press, 1961), p. 377.
4. Ibid., p. 380.
5. Thomas Hooker, The Activity of Faith, in Sydney E. Ahlstrom (ed.), Theology in America (Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967), p. 126.
6. Quoted in Miller, The New England Mind. The Seventeenth Century, p. 48.
7. Quoted in Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Beacon Press, 1961), p. 234.
8. Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative, in Jonathan Edwards, ed. by Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson (American Book Co., 1935), pp. 60-61.
9. Jonathan Edwards, Original Sin (Yale University Press, 1970), p. 389.
10. Quoted in Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (William Sloane Associates, 1949), p. 91.
11. Jonathan Edwards, Of Being, in Scientific and Philosophical Writings (Yale University Press, 1980), p. 203.
12. Jonathan Edwards, The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, in The Great Awakening (Yale University Press, 1972), p. 268. Edwards later grew more cautious in drawing such conclusions.
13. Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Ezra Stiles, March 9,1790, in Autobiography, Poor Richard, Letters (D. Appleton, 1900), pp. 394-395.
14. Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Mr. William Canby, Sept. 18, 1813, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 6 (Taylor and Maury, 1854), p. 210.
15. William Ellery Channing, Unitarian Christianity, in The Works of William E. Channing, Vol. 3 (James Munroe, 1846), p. 86.
16. William Ellery Charming, The Essence of the Christian Religion, in Ahlstrom, Theology in America, pp. 199-200.
17. Quoted in Sidney Earl Mead, Nathaniel William Taylor (Archon Books, 1967), p. 76.
18. Lyman Beecher, Autobiography, Vol. 2 (Harper and Brothers, 1874), p. 187.
19. Quoted in Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District (Harper and Row, Harper Torchbooks, 1965), p. 174.
20. Charles Grandison Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (Belknap Press, 1960), p. 13.
21. Quoted in Cross, The Burned-Over District, p. 335.
22. Joseph Smith, King Follett Discourse, in Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Deseret Book Co., 1965), p. 263.
23. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Divinity School Address, in Ahlstrom, Theology in America, p. 299.
24. Ibid., pp. 305, 307.
25. Ibid., pp. 302-303.
26. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 2 (Belknap Press, 1979), p. 30.
27. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 1 (Belknap Press, 1971), p. 10.
28. Quoted in William R. Hutchison, The Transcendentalist Ministers (Beacon Press, 1965), p. 109.
29. John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench, in Catholic and Reformed. Selected Theological Writings of John Williamson Nevin (Pickwick Press, 1978), p. 57.
30. Horace Bushnell, God in Christ (Scribner, Armstrong and Co., 1877), pp. 46,74.
31. Quoted in William A. Johnson, "Nature and the Supernatural in the Theology of Horace Bushnell," Encounter 26 (Winter 1965), p. 67.
32. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Yale University Press, 1972), p. 13.
33. Ibid., p. 648.
34. Anderson Edwards, quoted in Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 232.
35. Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, in Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings (World Publishing Co., 1946), p. 793.
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