Minor Note: The Fate of New England Calvinism

I have a great deal of sympathy for the theology and politics of the early settlers of New England. I’m also extremely suspicious of attempts to shift blame for the ideas of “Cultural Marxism” onto the dreaded WASP.  This is the classic “blame whitey” strategy – originally, German Jews were able to unify Italian, Irish, and Slavic immigrants in the teeming tenements of the USA under the leadership of the Democratic Party’s urban machines precisely by blaming WASPs for all the problems of these newly-arrived “Americans”.  If I had some strong reason to believe that the  neo-reactionaries who stir up hatred of WASPs could actually pull off the same trick again, only this time with the goal of smashing the Left, I would bite my tongue; but I have no reason to believe the trick would work, several reasons to believe the underlying claim isn’t true, and a strong suspicion that dislike for Anglo-Saxons is always and everywhere a defense mechanism by those who are envious of the civilization the Anglo-Saxons have created.

This is not my final word on the “ultra-calvinist thesis” or on the contemporary relevance of Puritan genes and Puritan politics, just my provisional understanding of how and why the core institutions of Puritanism became Unitarian.

The first generation of New England Calvinists were extremely self-selected.  They had all been born in England where their beliefs were treated with disdain, and had consciously chosen to affiliate themselves with the Puritan movement within the Church of England because of passionate support for Puritan objectives.  They also endorsed Calvin’s account of predestination, treated conversion experiences seriously as a sign of election, and considered only adults who had had a conversion experience as a true member of a congregation; and many of them (not surprisingly) had actually had such a conversion experience, which inter alia entitled them to full membership in the Church.

The second generation, on the other hand, exhibited strong reversion to the mean.  (If you are surprised to hear this, you should probably close this window and spend a week or two reading about biology and population genetics.)  The children of the first generation did not feel nearly as strongly about religion in general, but more specifically they did not have conversion experiences, or feel any strong need to have such an experience.  This apathy was far more thorny than any actual heresy that could have arisen, because the Puritan theocracy had made religious zeal (and specifically, testimony about a conversion experience) a criterion for church membership, and church membership the criterion for political citizenship; so the entire community life of New England was organized around the availability of devout Puritans to make and execute decisions.

The “Halfway Covenant” was an attempt to jerry-rig the problem by admitting the “normies” (if you will) of Puritan New England as church members and as citizens of their respective towns — thus allowing them to assume all of the quotidian responsibilities formerly reserved for the elect — without granting them any special religious status.  This did not lead to any immediately obvious breakdown in the administration of church or local government, but over the next fifty years it did lead to an unusual inversion.  Prior to the time of the Halfway Covenant, highly emotional religious outbursts were valued, elicited, and recognized in an organized way by the Calvinist church.  As violent religious passion became less central to the church, it stopped appearing in First Parish and started showing up at the edges of society, and among misfits and inveterate sinners.  This made Puritan theologians, who had already made their compromise with the difficulties of institutionalized conversion, increasingly suspicious of conversion experiences and the sort of hysteria they seemed to provoke; that suspicion tempted them in the direction of justification by reason and Arminianism.

So heresy began to flourish in New England.  This led to a breakdown in voluntary cross-church governance.  The form of congregationalism that the Puritans espoused was quite simple; each congregation decided, conflicts within congregations were decided by appealing to the arbitration of neighboring congregations, and congregations were kept orthodox by the practical necessity of sharing ministers with neighbors.  These mechanisms were designed to slow down a slide into heresy, but actually tended to accelerate it once it had begun; by shunning congregations and ministers whom they felt had wandered into heresy, the Calvinist congregations abandoned any influence they had on the heretical congregations and forced them to rely on one another for pastoral guidance.   

When did this conflict lead to an effective divorce between the Calvinists and the nascent New England Unitarians?  William Ellery Channing finally embraced the pejorative label “Unitarian” in his 1819 sermon, “Unitarian Christianity”; but I believe 1812 is when Massachusetts courts actually became involved in the long-simmering theological dispute (which was devolving into legal squabbles over ownership of church buildings and communion vessels).  Many conservatives today think of 1805, when Harvard’s Board of Overseers appointed Henry Ware to the Hollis Chair of Divinity and conservative Calvinists seceded to found the Andover Theological Seminary, as the final straw; but it is worth remembering that the first secession from Harvard occurred nearly a century earlier, when Harvard’s sixth president, Increase Mather, and his son organized financing for Yale as an orthodox counterweight to Harvard.  But even if the Hollis Chair of Divinity was not as significant as some imagine, I still want to do further research into how the Overseers and Governors were chosen in the eighteenth century.

(A word, since we have one eye on the “ultra-calvinist thesis”: do not assume that the Harvard Unitarians were more represented than the Andover Calvinists in any alleged nineteenth-century manifestation of the New England Ideology.  For example, the proliferation of New England missionaries is sometimes taken to be the prototype for globalist interference; but Andover was responsible for the New England missionary phenomenon, not Harvard.)

No concrete conclusion I’m defending here.  Three points that attract my own attention: (a) A strongly self-selected group shouldn’t set up institutions well-suited to its own members and then expect their children to take over the reins.  (b) A majority can shun a person, but shunning an entire faction creates a new ideological ecosystem in which the shunned are now the majority and enjoy the perquisites thereof.  (c) Due to biodiversity in psychological profiles, changes in criteria for admission to a spiritual elite (be they clergy, professors, or artists) will have volatile consequences as newly-tolerated initiates will work feverishly to sanctify their own psychological quirks and pathologize whichever intellectual virtues they lack.

5 thoughts on “Minor Note: The Fate of New England Calvinism

  1. Nice post. I was also wondering about your views on Papism and its merits compared to Protestantism, especially vis-a-vis right-wing politics.


    1. I may write about this soon… I outlined something once, but I’m not sure whether the blog is the right format or I should save it for a better opportunity.

      Broadly speaking it’s nutty to ask about the merits of Papism vs. Protestant vis-a-vis politics. I espouse sola scriptura, sola sola fide, sola gratia because they are God’s living truth, not because they are politically convenient!

      Separately, though, I think there is an elective affinity between the organizational strengths of the Reformation in the 16th c. and the strengths that have allowed NRx/alt-right ideas to spread.

      It seems many new right-wingers (especially in NRx?) are drawn to Rome. Their souls are in peril, but with Francis enthroned in the Vatican I can only feel sorry for their political hopes for the Roman Church. I think there are two things driving this, both wrong:

      (a) Attraction to high-church aesthetics. It’s fine to be a high-church Protestant.

      (b) A lifetime of indoctrination into the Whig History. This is incredibly pernicious. There is neither left nor right in most of the conflicts (political, cultural, spiritual) in human history. I respect the impulse to extend “no friends to the left, no enemies to the right” into history, but deplore the delusion.

      I can’t say more now or I’d get sucked into writing an entire post…


      1. Yes, I didn’t really mean for you to explain why one should choose Luther over Rome in view of politics, but more why, in your view, so many NRxers are in fact drawn to Rome – which you seem to have gotten. Part of it, it seems to me, is that Moldbug injected the idea that any ratchet away from central authority (and therefore away from ancient orthodoxy) would lead inexorably toward leftism, which resulted in all the religious NRxers arguing that the Protestant Reformation was the beginning of the leftward ratchet. Thoughts?


      2. That’s interesting. I’m not entirely sure whether it starts with Moldbug. 1. The flamboyant conversion to Catholicism has been a symbolic gesture for British conservatives for, idk, two centuries now? 2. Before NRx existed there were (a few) throne-and-altar reactionaries, and they had papist leanings too. 3. If it is from Moldbug, is it the ratchet or is it Moldbug’s strange animus against Calvinism that leaves Rome as the alternative? (I’m sure you know people accuse him of being yet another WASP-hating joo, casting about for allies who will help him smash American Christianity; I don’t think that’s fair, but on the other hand his thoughts on Calvinism are quite lopsided and the gaps and leaps invite suspicion.)

        Have you ever done a straw-poll of papists on this question?

        (Btw, the question of projecting the progressive frame anachronistically far back into history is something I’ll touch on in the post I’m about to publish; check out the last few paragraphs if that interests you.)


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