Religious, Legal Intellectual History

Perry Miller
The Life of the Mind in America from the Revolution to the Civil War
1965 (posthumous)

Perry Miller is one of those names I felt obligated to read. I was pretty sure, going in, that it wasn’t going to be the most fun I ever had reading for this list. I wasn’t mistaken, but there
were some interesting things in this, even by my own admittedly “outside the box” standards.

Miller begins his first chapter on “the Grand Era” of evangelism by quoting Charles Grandison Finney, saying “A revival of Religion presupposes a declension.” (3) Miller clearly supposes this declension to be a bad thing, and welcomes the Awakenings as opportunities for America to get itself back on track. While it is true that “several surviving leaders of the Revolution...were rationalistic to the point of overt Deism...[and] that Tom Paines
The Age of Reason (1795) circulated among village dissidents, and especially among the rude settlements of the frontier...and in 1795...Elihu Palmer did gather an out-and-out Deistic Society in New York,” Miller minimizes these challenges to Christian hegemony in early America. (4) He suggests that these evangelists saw the small number of radical freethinkers as less dangerous to their cause than the large number of nominal christians who had no interest in attending or supporting their local congregations. Miller cites works like A Correct View of that Part of the United States which lies West of the Allegheny Mountains with regard to Religion and Morals (1814) as demonstrating a missionary project on the part of eastern religious leaders and their university divinity students. It’s interesting to think of this work as not evangelical, but missionary, with all the elite condescension (even colonialism?) the term implies. “Incredible though it might seem to the evangelicals,” Miller admits, “there was a stubborn opposition to the work of God.” (14) Maybe that’s because their evangelism was not filling a void, as they claimed and Miller seems to have believed, but trying to displace a consciously and conscientiously chosen irreligion that was a firm part of early republicanism.

Throughout the book, Miller repeatedly turns to James Fenimore Cooper and the character he contributed to American mythology, Natty Bumppo. The archetypal early West frontiersman is a character I should definitely return to, for close study, as are Cooper himself and probably his father, William Cooper. My typical mental reservations regarding the use of literary characters as “voices of the people” rather than actual people, was a little less evident while I was reading Miller. Not because Miller is less of an offender -- in fact, he’s probably one of the major offenders. But it fits with his project; he’s not pretending the be a social historian. The element I have more difficulty swallowing was MIller’s reverence for the concept of the “sublime” as the “inner, if not
the central, mainspring of the missionary exertion.” (57) I was amazed, reading the section on the “Event of the Century,” (Miller’s “Third Great Awakening” of 1857) how Miller manages to avoid talking about the Panic of 1857 as a motivator of revivalism. He mentions it in the context of contemporary commentaries, but doesn’t seem to give it much credit himself. (88) The life of the mind apparently has not so much to do with the life of the pocketbook, social displacement, bankruptcy, or the empty stomach.

“The people of this state, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity,” Miller quotes from James Kent’s New York decision in the blasphemy case,
The People v. Ruggles. (66) That this bland statement serves as a preface and justification for a blasphemy conviction, and that Miller sees this as an unproblematic example of the “impression” that “prevails among our statesmen that the Bible is emphatically the foundation of our hopes as a people,” is alarming. (67) Miller adds that “Besotted Ruggles vanished thereupon from history, and nobody then or since tried to make him a martyr, as Abner Kneeland became in Boston of 1838.” (66) Of course, there’s an extensive record of Kneeland’s five-year long legal ordeal. Ruggles is so absent from the historical record that many doubt his actual existence and claim that Kent fabricated him as an excuse to expound on the role of religion in the American State.

The second section of Miller’s book is a 155-page discussion of the eclipse of English-derived common law by a codified legal system dominated by a professionalized attorneys. In spite of popular law books like John McDougal’s
The Farmer’s Assistant (1815) that tried to reduce regular people’s dependence on this new elite, Miller consistently dismisses popular distrust of lawyers as “anti-intellectualism.” (182) And he goes out of his way to establish the “union of Christianity and the law,” which was “asserted most comprehensively by Chief Justice Shaw in 1838 when passing sentence upon Abner Kneeland.” (194) This sentiment found its logical conclusion in the 1859 claim of a Georgia jurist that “no Lawyer properly imbued with the teachings of his Profession, can be an infidel or a skeptic.” (206) If this was the common opinion of the “best” minds of the 1850s (Miller suggests it was, and doesn’t see anything particularly troubling in that), is the Civil War any great surprise?

One of the ironies of Miller’s book is that he doesn’t really challenge the self-justifications of these early republic elites. Miller quotes “an amazingly frank” 1843 article in the first issue of
The American Law Magazine, which contends that “the real concern of society is the protection of property” and that the threats are real and immanent. “Democracy, says this writer, is incurably hostile to the possessions of the few,” and therefore the law must protect those possessions and that few. (227) “That government can scarcely be deemed free,” claimed lawyers in 1830, “where the rights of property are left solely dependent upon the will of a legislative body.” (228) I don’t necessarily disagree with that statement, but it’s telling that it should be the agenda of the legal profession that “the policy of the law preserves equality and political rights among the citizens; but equality of wealth and condition cannot exist among men, so long as they are divided into the provident and the improvident, the idle and the diligent.” (quoting Judge Thacher in the 1834 Ursuline Convent decision, 229) Seems like they’re well on their way to a social Darwinism in which, as HCR would say, some people must be poor, and it’s their own fault.


Interpretations of American History, Vol. 1

Chapter Three of this historiography textbook begins with an enigmatic quote: “’I am an Indian,’ wrote Virginia planter-historian Robert Beverley in his 1705 preface to his The History and the Present State of Virginia.” The authors suggest Beverley’s identification with “Indianness” highlights “some of the unique problems in attempting to track the historiography of American Indians.” But the sample readings they provide show how far the study of native cultures and their encounter with “America” still has to go.

“Historians of Indians,” the authors say, bring not only their “political agendas...[but] their personal desires, identifications, and hatreds” to the study. In their chapter introduction, they mention a number of writers who’ve criticized the colonists’ treatment of the natives, beginning with “Bartholeme de Las Casas…
The Devastation of the Indies in 1552.” They quote Puritan leader Cotton Mather’s celebration of the plague that wiped out “Nineteen of Twenty” people among the tribes near Plymouth prior to the Mayflower’s arrival, “so that the Woods were almost cleared of those pernicious Creatures, to make Room for better Growth.” (Mather’s italics) Also quoted is John Underhill’s conviction that “Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”

These are insane statements, which go a long way toward either undermining the reader’s belief that colonial leaders were actually religious people. Or to confirming a suspicion that the religion they professed was imperial, white-supremecist, and in the end, all about power and domination.

That’s why it’s so surprising to me that the two passages included, about the new perspectives on Indian history, are both so deeply committed to exploring Indian culture’s response to America solely from the perspective of religion.
Colin Calloway begins by saying that “in the eyes of the Christian invaders, Indians had no real religion.” But would finding a pious, recognizably religious (even a Christian) native community have changed their actions? Or are we right to “question the missionaries’ assumptions, finding their arrogance repellent and despising them as agents of cultural genocide” (they were agents of actual, not cultural genocide)? And if “Christianity was a weapon of conquest, not a path to salvation,” is the Indians’ relationship with colonial religion the most valuable cross-cultural element to explore?

Calloway gives nearly all his attention in this selection to Indian adoption of (or adaptation of) Christianity. Some tribes, he says, found common ground between the missionaries’ teaching and their old beliefs. Some treated the “Christian saints…[and] Franciscans…as additional shamans.” Others, finding the French wouldn’t sell guns to non-Christians, “accepted baptism to secure firearms.”

If some Indian women converted in order to learn to spin wool or to read, and some men joined for weapons, it seems to me that the things they learned and got (spinning, reading, guns) are at least as relevant as the theology they embraced. There are so many points of contact between the natives and the colonists, it seems like there would be other, more interesting dimensions to the interplay and resulting cultural change. Trade, technology transfer, farming, travel, buying and selling land, fighting – not to mention all the cultural elements (ethical, economic, philosophical, political, scientific, and even household knowledge and fashion) that aren’t part of the catechism – all seem more vital to understanding the Indian encounter with the white man than how natives reacted to white religion.

Religion seems to me most relevant to the ongoing relationship between the Indians and whites, not in how the Indians reacted to it, but in how the whites used it. Whether in the sense of “Spanish missionaries [who] regarded resettling Indian people as peasants…as a prerequisite of Christianity,” or in the more passive sense of using religious communities (that “resorted to whipping, branding, and solitary confinement to keep the Indians on the path to ‘civilization and salvation’”) to sweep together the refugees of villages wiped out by white diseases, it’s the colonists’ use or abuse of religion that’s really relevant. Or their refusal to engage when it suited them, as when “in 1782, American militiamen butchered ninety-six pacifist and unarmed Morovian [Christian] Indians in their village at Gnadenhütten.”

The most interesting element of the Indian response to Christianity might be Calloway’s brief mention (quoting Axtell) that some “Indians ensured the survival of native culture by taking on the protective coloration of the invaders’ culture.” They appeared to convert, while secretly “giving traditional meanings to Christian rites, dogmas, and deities.” They learned from their conquerors that the religion was an empty vessel that could be filled with anything at all, so they hid their culture in the last place whites would look for it.

Gregory Evans Dowd, like Calloway, seems to put religion at the center of his study of the Indian response to invasion. In Dowd’s case, native spirituality is the vehicle for a prophetic nativist resistance to continuing white encroachment. This quasi-religious movement was challenged by (presumably Christian or secular) Indian groups who favored accommodation.

In this excerpt (hopefully not in the book it came from, nor in the author’s complete body of work), the emphasis on religion is (slightly) less of a problem than Dowd’s formulation of these two groups, the nativists and the accomodationists. Although Dowd allows that “Militant religion [was] in somewhat of a hiatus during those years,” he insists that religion “provided and continued to extend the intertribal network upon which unity depended.” Citing the “intertribal, even diplomatic character of prophecy,” Dowd argues that militant networks possessed a “shared symbolic lexicon.” He implies that this was the only symbol system shared among the far-flung, linguistically distinct tribes of North America.

But this is exactly the point that argues against the other side of Dowd’s formula. There was no “Indian” national consciousness. “The heritage of Indian diversity and of highly localized, familial, and ethnically oriented government” made it extremely difficult for many Indians to join the artificial, newly-created “nativist” Indian nation. Those “Indians who identified with ‘tribal’ leaders” can’t simply be lumped together and written off as “advocates of
accommodation.” And the nativist prophets’ use of language and symbols seemingly borrowed from their enemies’ religion cannot have made matters any easier for the dissenters.

When “prophets and shamans…accused them of the neglect of ritual and warned of an impending doom,” skeptical listeners may have examined their own local experience against the prophets’ generalized complaints. Were they neglecting the rituals? Did they believe in a vengeful, angry God? Thoughtful Indians might have noticed that accusations that “they had failed in their commitments to the sacred powers,” and that they must “kill witches…to purify themselves,” had a remarkable resonance with the New England Christianity of the recent past. And the emphasis on “the Great Spirit, the remote Creator who became increasingly important, probably under the influence of Christianity,” probably raised some doubts in the minds of tribes intent on preserving their own local traditions in the face of American encroachment.

Given ongoing American aggression that impacted resisters and appeasers alike, a united, continent-wide Indian resistance was a reasonable response. But, notwithstanding the efforts of Neolin, Tenskwatawa and others, basing the nativist case for unity on a vaguely Christian-sounding religious appeal seems like it was a bad idea. In the end, this selection leaves me wondering if, in fact, there were other bases for Indian unity, and to what extent they may have been tried. Restricting the conversation to the religious sphere may have been the Indians’ great mistake. At least in the way we think of religion. If we widen the scope of the idea, to encompass all (or nearly all) of Indian life, then the Indians’ actions make more sense. But then we’re talking about apples and oranges, and the argument presented in this excerpt needs much wider and deeper elaboration.


Interpretations of American History, Vol. 1

The Puritans: The basic claim seems to be that Puritanism is one of the main sources of American Exceptionalism, and possibly of the American character in the colonial and early national periods. Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson talk about “traits which have persisted long after the vanishing of the original creed.” But then, in distinguishing between “authentic Puritanism” and what its descendents (evangelism and universalism) retained of its elements, they immediately call into question whether the traits which persisted were peculiarly Puritan, or part of the underlying culture.

“Puritanism,” they say, “has not been sustained by any denomination stemming from it.” It is a distinct and different thing, which would repudiate the new lights as enthusiasts and the universalists as materialists. So what were they, and more importantly, why do they matter?

Miller and Johnson make the insightful (and widely applicable) point that “notwithstanding the depth of this divergence [between the Puritans and the English Church], the fact still remains that only certain specific questions were raised.” It’s possible to be bitter opponents, and be very much alike. In fact, “the vast majority [of] ideas held by New England Puritans…were precisely those of their opponents…about 90 percent of the intellectual life, scientific knowledge, morality, manners and customs, notions and prejudices” that made up Puritan culture, were those “of all Englishmen.”

Certainly, it was on the other ten percent that the Puritans defined themselves, when they set out to remove themselves from England and set up their own society in the New World. But just because they did this, are we obligated to agree with them? In fact, when they were NOT addressing the rationale behind their emigration, were these differences with their old neighbors and relatives in England really the guiding principles of life for the New England Puritans?

Miller and Johnson point out that when historians try to “trace developments and influences on subsequent American history and thought, we shall find that the starting point…is as apt to be found among the 90 percent as among the 10. So again, if this is the case, how do we justify our acceptance of the 10% as the guiding lights in the daily lives of all the people who lived in Massachusetts Bay?

The situation is complicated if you’re not a Christian, and as a result don’t appreciate the subtleties of the theological differences that made up this putatively critical 10%. Yes, you can appreciate that
they may have felt very strongly about issues you consider trivial. But the question remains, why are these differences historically significant? The answer, for the unbeliever, would have to be found in the different actions these rival theologies inspired.

Miller and Johnson admit that, to a large extent, the “conflict between the Puritans and the Churchmen was…a debate among pundits.” The question remains, how much was this debate relevant to the non-pundits? In what ways did the people of Massachusetts Bay participate in the debate? How did it affect their lives?

Puritan doctrines held the seeds of their own undoing – or at least of challenges like the Antinomianism of Anne Hutchinson. Miller and Johnson describe the Puritan leaders’ attempts to control these excesses, which seem like nothing more than the logical conclusions of their differences with the English Churchmen. In this sense, the Puritans appear hypocritical; unwilling to consistently and completely apply the ideals they profess.

“New England theocracy,” Miller and Johnson say, “was thoroughly medieval in character.” But again, was this due to the 10% that was different, or the 90% that was the same as English religion? Or do the needs of both sects, to propagate and maintain themselves by controlling the beliefs and behavior of their followers, require just such a feudal social order?

“In America,” they continue,” “the frontier conspired with the popular disposition to lessen the prestige of the cultured classes” and the church hierarchy. Isn’t this another way of saying that the urban elites and Puritan divines had little to offer that could lessen the struggles or enhance the wellbeing of pioneers struggling to survive on the frontiers? “Sermon after sermon reveals that in their eyes the cause of learning and the cause of hierarchical, differentiated social order were one and the same.” That centralized, “higher” learning supported ministerial claims to social dominance. Doesn’t this suggest, by extension, that “New England theocracy” was designed to play the same role?

Seems to me that, far from rehabilitating Puritanism as the leading source of American exceptionalism, Miller and Johnson have called out a number of ways in which the small set of beliefs that set the Puritans apart from their theological adversaries are shown to be insignificant, self-contradictory, and possibly irrelevant in the creation of American culture. In the end, isn’t the Puritans’ real contribution, not their eccentric theology (abandoned and misrepresented even by their direct descendants, the new lights and the universalists), but rather their
dogged insistence that they were, in fact, exceptional? Isn’t that the basis of the American myth? That we’re special, even when we’re exactly the same?

Philip Gura’s 1984 contribution to the Puritan story suggested more attention should be paid to the radicals like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams who challenged the Puritan authorities. Gura says “in many cases, theirs were the same Protestant principles Winthrop and the others earlier had defended in England yet, under pressure to settle the wilderness and codify their ecclesiology, soon enough condemned as seditious or heretical.” That’s a polite way of saying that when they’d become the establishment, Winthrop and his allies denied the ideas that had formed the basis of their rebellion.

Gura criticizes Miller for “treating the whole literature as though it were the product of a single intelligence,” and thus missing any subtle differences or development over time that might be seen in Puritan documents. He says “Miller viewed New England dissent as a sideshow to the events on the main stage of…intellectual and social history.”

Looking at town and church records, Gura claims, supports his argument that “
Heterogeneity, not unanimity, actually characterized the colony’s religious life.” However, unlike others who questioned the reach of Puritan ideas across the wider working-class New England population, Gura continues to view New England as an area “settled in the belief that it was to become nothing less than a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.”

Gura’s exclusively theological focus allows him to conclude “what is apparent in the colonists’ elaborate definitions and justifications…and evident in their polemics against dissenters is that the New Englander’s ideological self-image was shaped…by an unyielding effort to neutralize the influence of those who argued for a much more radical reorganization of the society.” Again, this seems like a polite way of saying that, once they had gained power, the Puritans wanted to reinstate centralized authority and eliminate any further dissent or theological elaboration. This rigidity toward those outside the power-group, who may not have realized the reform game was officially over, is what prompted Roger Williams the “monstrous Paradox [that] God’s children should persecute God’s children.” The fact that New England congregationalism “produced supporters as harsh and intolerant as the English prelates” suggests that there really wasn’t that much difference between the Puritans and their adversaries back in England. Theology was an excuse for a power struggle; and was jettisoned as soon as the Puritans obtained the power they sought.

Of the two excerpts presented in the text, it seems Miller and Johnson had a more ironic sense of the narrowness of Puritan thought, and the likelihood that although the Puritans contributed to the myth of American uniqueness, it may not have been through their theology; but rather through their arrogance. Their declaration that they were exceptional, not the theological details of their position, seems to be the key to their contribution. That, and the subsequent consolidation of social and political power that allowed them to dominate New England for more than a century.

Crisis of the Standing Order

The Crisis of the Standing Order, Peter S. Field (Amherst: Univ. of Mass Press, 1998)

Field’s thesis is that the Standing Order self-destructed in a war between proto-Unitarian “Brahmins” and orthodox Congregationalist leaders. The Brahmin ministers represented the interests of their supporters, the Boston merchant elite, and developed a high literary culture to meet their needs. The orthodox establishment, seeing their influence and authority slipping, attacked the Brahmins in an attempt to retain their role as intellectual rulers of Massachusetts.

Field notes early on that Puritan practice banned ministers from holding secular office, so their authority rested entirely on their leadership role in the intellectual life of their society. (1) He says the ministers of the “Standing Order gained cultural authority in direct proportion to society’s uncoerced adoption” of their ideas. (2) It’s ironic that the story of the orthodox fight to retain control in Mass is filled with their (futile) attempts to coerce. It’s not until they’ve completely hit bottom that Lyman Beecher convinces them to try revivalist persuasion. But then, they weren’t interested in reaching the middle class until the Brahmin ministers stole the upper class from them.

He cites an early 20th c. article on
“The Revolt Against the Standing Order” I should probably read. And like Staloff, he builds on a foundation of Weber (Economy and Society), which I should probably read soon too.

Field proposes a “social history of intellectuals,” that treats the idealism of intellectual historians with a big dose of skepticism (if not cynicism), while retaining a focus on intellectuals as not only agents, but as a class (which he observes is missing from Marxist analysis. As a “new-class” theorist, Field argues with Weber that “ownership of the means of production is not the sole measure of the social division of labor.” (5) He seeks to undermine the “belief that intellectuals are heroically engaged in the disinterested pursuit of truth,” but it’s unclear to me whether he proves his case. Jedediah Morse is a really nasty guy in Fields’ story, but I’m not sure he’s insincere.

What is clear is that the increasingly public disagreements between the orthodox clergy and their urbane, polished, and increasingly rich adversaries made it clear to anyone paying attention in the early decades of the 19th c., that the ministry was filled with partisans. This devolution of the Puritan edifice into competing sects eliminated their claim to cultural dominance and divine inspiration. It’s incredible to me that Morse managed to survive the Illuminati hoax with any credibility at all – and that might be a topic for further study.

The fight over the Hollis Professorship of Divinity in 1805 begins (in a rare moment of physicality) with the completion of the West Boston Bridge, Nov. 23rd 1793. The orthodox leaders fight viciously, but lose control of Harvard. But did they have it before? Field mentions that David Tappan’s pupils are among the brightest lights of the new Brahmin ministry. Is he finding an abrupt change where there was really a slow evolution? Similarly, Field says no reasonable Federalist believed Morse’s Illuminati story. So what was going on? Who were the orthodox ministers talking to (besides themselves)? Were they carrying public opinion? At what point did the Brahmin elitist ministry lose touch with regular people? Or was it ever in touch with them? Certainly not through the Athenaeum or the Anthology. And what about western Mass? Revivalism began there in the 1790s, long before Beecher moved to Boston.

Field passes quickly over the first Great Awakening, saying it was a great threat to the Standing Order but not how. He places the ministers firmly on the side of the revolutionists (and says that until the Committees of Correspondence, they were nearly the only conduits of information, 26), which again illustrates a Boston-only focus. Most of the western ministers were Tories until they had no choice, and some remained Loyalists. Maybe highlighting Chauncy, Mayhew and Thacher gives Field an origin of orthodox ministers’ view of their role in politics. But in the Puritan colony, this would have been taken for granted. Its survival after the revolution is the issue.

Field mentions several items that don’t fit smoothly into his interpretation, like the fact that Joseph Hawley brought a bill to the General Court in 1777 to disestablish the church, but “he could not muster enough support even to bring it to the floor for a vote.” Field credits the clergy with defeating the 1778 Mass Constitution, but doesn’t provide any context (
but he refers to this). William Gordon, chaplain of the Court, got himself fired for criticizing the constitution in the papers, and thirteen ministers attended the convention as delegates of their towns. Where were these towns, and what was the agenda of the ministers? Lots of western Mass towns instructed their representatives to block the constitution if possible; but not over religion. How did religious objections stack up to civil ones? Field doesn’t discuss.

According to Morison, there were “At least twenty-nine towns [that] distinctly stated their opposition to Article 3” establishing the church. Hawley said: “it is far from indisputable, and positively denied by many, viz, That it is the duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons to worship, &c….It is inconsistent with the unalienable rights of conscience, which rights are certainly unalienable, if mankind have, (as the first article avers they have) any such rights.” (38)

Field doesn’t really deal with the gradual shift of attitudes
observed by some at the time, and he credits the revolution with imposing a “limited moratorium on theological controversy” (52). He does outline the family ties between the proto-Unitarians and the merchant elite, and makes a good case that theirs was “as much a social as a religious enterprise.” (80) In fact, this seems to be the chief complaint of the orthodox. John Thornton Kirkland married the daughter of George Cabot; William Ellery Channing married Ruth Gibbs; Harvard professors Andrews Norton and George Ticknor married the daughters of Samuel Elliot; and Edward Everett married the daughter of Peter Chardon Brooks, the first millionaire in Boston.

Field says the wealthy Bostonians left politics when the Federalists were defeated, and set about establishing high culture. But his chronology wanders back and forth from the 1790s to 1808 and beyond. This seems to undermine his claim that these groups were acting as self-aware, unified classes when they battled over the Illuminati in 1798 or David Tappan’s Hollis chair in 1803-5. Field says “Almost to a man, Brahmin ministers had begun to eschew the kind of active participation in politics entailed in…election-day sermons and fast days.” (91-2) But is that chicken or egg? Their patrons, the Boston merchants, were disaffected with politics after 1800. They weren’t looking for their ministers to rub their noses in their defeat. The Brahmin ministers might have faced a different set of expectations if Jefferson had been defeated.

“Theology,” said Joseph Stevens Buckminster, “is the subject upon which much of our genius and learning has always been employed, and not seldom wasted.” (97) It’s funny, in a sort-of “Emperor’s New Clothes” way. The merchants and their make-believe ministers made a show of religion to please the society they lived in and advance their own social standing. What a shock to the orthodox, who thought it was something else entirely. Fifty years from the “visible sainthood” of the New Lights to the Anthology’s editorial policy of “useful knowledge and harmless amusement, sound principles, good morals, and correct taste.” (97)

It is a sound point, though, that Boston was different from the rest of the state because its churches were NOT supported by taxes, they were all voluntary (a legacy of John Cotton?). As a result, those who contributed more expected to be treated accordingly, even if they were not “members” on the basis of a conversion experience. But Field doesn’t explain how the half-way covenant mitigated the requirements for membership, or what effect that had. And again, Field admits on p. 143 that John Adams wrote to Morse that the ideas he complained were recent and Unitarian had been around for 65 years.

Field remarks that there were two distinct responses among the (nearly 100%) Federalist ministers. The Brahmins retreated from politics; the orthodox went nuts. Of course, the orthodox couldn’t retreat, because the Brahmins had already claimed that hill. Who were their constituents? What was their market? But by 1820, even Morse’s own parish tired of his “engagements in, and encouragement of controversies [and] indiscriminate distribution of contradictory pamphlets and tracts.” (146) They replaced him, and he accused them of being “obviously Unitarians.”

In a letter to Oliver Wolcott Jr. (July 13 1798), Morse went so far as to declare it was “necessary to exterminate [their] dangerous enemies,” the Boston clergy who disagreed with them and refused to knuckle under to Morse’s self-appointed authority. (150) In his biography of Harrison Gray Otis, Samuel Eliot Morison says “neither Otis nor any other prominent Federalist subscribed to the [Illuminati] theory.” While they’d tried to support Morse’s attacks on the republican plot, Federalist papers like the Columbian Centinal and Chronicle were nervous about their own credibility. “Embarrassed by his recklessness, they shut Morse out.” (150) Maybe part of the problem ministers like Morse were having is they believed they were living in an earlier world; where the clergy was not only the only source of information about the outside world for most people, but the prestige of the clergy virtually guaranteed that whatever the pastor told his flock would be believed. Newspapers, pamphlets and broadsheets of the revolutionary era definitely widened the average person’s view of the world. But maybe the biggest damage was done by ministers like Morse, who showed themselves to be petty, partisan, and worst of all, miserably wrong.

The Yale connection to all of the orthodox leaders is too good to pass by. Timothy Dwight demands a closer look. I need to get Speaking Aristocracy, to give myself at least one chance to see a positive portrayal of Yale and its presidents. In addition, the careers of the presidents of Amherst, Dartmouth and Williams will probably have some surprises in them. Griffin, who Knowlton talked with a couple of times while living in Adams, seems to be up to his elbows in controversy in the 1800s and 1810s.

Morse’s Panoplist claimed to be the “antidote” (153) to the wickedness and infidelity spewed by the Anthology. Morse wasted little time in calling for ministerial examinations to insure creedal uniformity. Without rigid enforcement of correct doctrines, he said, “liberty, free enquiry [and] private judgment [were becoming] instruments of infidelity, and a fair mask, under which apostasy from Christianity and hatred of all goodness have disguised themselves.” (159) I wonder about this type of language. Who is he talking to? Hatred of all goodness? These are other Congregational clergymen he’s talking about, and the people who fill their churches every Sunday. Not some crowd of blood-drinking Satan-worshippers. Field doesn’t really explain who the audience for this type of rhetoric is, or how effective it was. Without that context, it just seems absurd.

The Andover Seminary’s creed, which all faculty had to swear and renew every five years, pledged “unswerving opposition , ‘not only to Atheists and Infidels, but to Jews, Papists, Mahomatans, Arians, Pelagians, Antimonians, Arminians, Socinians, Sabellians, Unitarians, and Universalists.” (168) So basically, they hated everybody. The Brahmins “deemed the doctrinal hairsplitting of the orthodox distasteful, uncharitable, and anachronistic.” (171) William Ellery Channing called the creed part of Andover’s “espionage of bigotry.” (167)

Field points out that the “growing class nature of Massachusetts society may not have been the efficient cause, but it was certainly a necessary cause of the crisis…” (183) He says the older (and increasingly female) communicants were less prosperous than their neighbors, implying that the time required to achieve their high level of religious devotion cut them off from worldly success. There’s a good chance these people may have “believed that the shrinking number of public confessions signaled a serious decline in religiosity” in Massachusetts, as Field says. He doesn’t show this, and it’s an area for possible research. (In general, Field ignores the audiences of the clerics he writes about, which is unfortunate) During the Dorchester conflict (when Codman refuses to exchange pulpits with Brahmins as his parishioners want), the orthodox minister’s enemies are described as being “exceedingly fond of amusements.” (197) Field points out this statement points to an underlying class conflict, but again he doesn’t describe how it was received. The ultimate secularization of the church occurs in this conflict, when wealthy parishioners demand a say in the church equal to their contribution. This is democracy! And exactly what the orthodox have been fighting all along.

Field points out the irony of ultra-conservative Boston elites fighting for liberal, democratic ideals in their churches. (204) But maybe he’s missing the point. Maybe the Brahmins’ position was like the Baptists’ during the revolution: they weren’t really against estabishment and authority, they were against someone else having it over them. But the irony resolves itself, when the 1821 Dedham decision rules that the assets of the church belong to the parish, not the saints. At that point, the orthodox seem to realize Morse and his crew have done them no good. Morse seems to disappear very rapidly from the picture, to be replaced with Lyman Beecher. Beecher tells them that establishment is against their interests, because they’re the outsiders. So, having nothing left to lose, the orthodox finally embrace their “age-old populist rhetoric concerning the ungodliness of the wealthy and the dangers of materialism,” (205) creating what Field calls “the American Religion.”

Abandoning establishment allowed the orthodox to go after the middle class people who’d been drifting toward Baptist and Methodist sentiments. The ministers swallowed their pride and embraced revivalism, holding 116 in Mass in 1831 (232). 81 “churches” (ministers and communicants) were “exiled” by parish revolts by 1833, according to a study made by the orthodox and presented to their General Association of Massachusetts Ministers. (229) Is this the meeting Mason Grosvenor attends, which prompts him to go after “infidelity and licentiousness” in Ashfield? The 1832 meeting of the General Association of Massachusetts Congregational Ministers was held in Northampton and dealt extensively with temperance. Where was the 1833?

The 11th amendment to the Mass constitution, disestablishing religion, went into effect January 1 1834. This fits perfectly with the issues in Ashfield, and may explain some of the undercurrents and tensions behind them.

American Thinking Class

The Making of an American Thinking Class by Darren Staloff (1998)

This was a challenging text, which assumed a prior knowledge of the events of the Puritan period, and applied the formulas of what Staloff calls a post-revisionist approach that was heavily influenced by Marx and Weber.

Texts he refers to a lot: Perry Miller, Alvin Goldner (
The Dark Side of the Dialectic), George Conrad and Ivan Szelenyi (Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power), Larzer Ziff,

“Marxist outlaws have not surrendered the dialectic, but continue to probe and wander its dark side. Only those who can move without joining packaged tours of the world can afford such a journey.” (quoting Alvin Gouldner, 2) This is a great image. Of course, Marxists aren’t the only types of outlaws running off the beaten paths…

Staloff’s thesis is that Puritan Massachusetts was run by an alliance of intellectuals (ministers, the producers of culture) and intelligentsia (magistrates, who administered culture through politics). The basis of their shared power he names cultural dominance, which he says is built on four principles:
1. public recognition or ritual acceptance of leaders
2. leaders always agree publicly (avoid schisms)
3. public expressions of the dominant culture are “socially privileged” and single source
4. dissent is suppressed, as are unauthorized expressions of culture

Staloff’s history of the Bay Puritans is a series of challenges to, defenses of, and ultimately violations of these principles, resulting in the gradual undermining of the ruling party’s cultural dominance. Staloff doesn’t disparage the notion that the Puritan rulers, dissidents, and the laity had sincere theological differences; but he’s clearly not interested in them. He suggests at several points that he’s examining the true underlying causes of individual and group actions, even when the people involved were unaware of them.

The way the Bay Colony was established certainly lends itself to the type of self-conscious, premeditated construction of the state Staloff claims. The colony was, as he says, “Designed and staffed by a class-conscious and dissident educated elite.” (12) Staloff mentions events in England only briefly (although his historiographical appendix is mostly about English Puritanism), but reminds the reader that the Bay Puritans are (or at least may consider themselves) the radicals in an intercontinental movement (actually, Staloff lets his theory get away from him for a moment and calls them the “vanguard of the militant Protestant internationale”).

Staloff argues that the colony’s toleration of high-ranking dissenters like Roger Williams (who was treated with kid gloves at a time when lesser men were being “whipped, have his ears cutt of, Fyned £40, and banished…for uttering mallitious and scandalous speeches against the government and the church of Salem.” 21) was due to his status as a member of the intellectual ruling elite. Every attempt was made to reconcile Williams’ differences with the ruling consensus, to avoid the appearance that the fundamental truths on which Puritan society was based were open to a variety of interpretations. Anne Hutchinson was more easily dealt with, because she was a woman; the magistrates took much greater care bringing John Cotton (her mentor and the teacher of the Boston church) back into the fold.

John Cotton presented his fellow leaders with an ongoing dilemma. He argued for a more charismatic faith, where evidence of grace was somewhat disassociated from works (not as much as Anne Hutchinson believed, as it turned out). In a sense, Cotton was “seeing” the Puritans’ miraculous-biblical social basis, and “raising” them with claims of contemporary miracles (experiences of saving grace as a qualification for “saint” status). How could they deny him, and sustain their own claims? This would later prove their undoing, when Increase Mather took it too far and prophesied against the British authorities.

It’s interesting that these Puritan issues foreshadow later Massachusetts religious issues. The Edwards controversy in Northampton revolved around a charismatic minister, a revivalist message, and election by a claimed experience that was beyond the control of the regular hierarchy. The communion of saints was at the same time more exclusive and more democratic (or at least anarchistic, because it wasn’t based on the accepted tests of worth). In addition, Roger Williams’ call for disestablishment challenged the legitimacy of the state’s role in allying with a particular group of religious leaders. This issue reappears in the Ashfield Baptists’ fight to relieve themselves from taxes to support the Congregational church. And Cotton’s preference for at will offerings (in the richest parish in New England) over forced tithes reappears in Chileab Smith’s schism with his son Ebenezer over ministerial salary at the end of the 18th century.

The Antinomian dissent was apparently supported by many of the Boston merchants, but Staloff doesn’t make it clear how or why the “urban bourgeoisie” transformed their dissatisfaction with the “arcane economic policy” (40) of the inner party into Anne Hutchinson’s theological break with Puritan orthodoxy. Staloff seems unclear about who’s using whom in this passage. On the one hand, he agrees with Ziff that “so long as the doctrine itself was under attack, he stood by them, but when it became clear to him…that they aimed at a social revolution and were willing even to pervert doctrine to achieve it, he abandoned them.” But in the next paragraph, “Cotton attempted to use the Antinomians in the same fashion that Mao Tse-tung used the Red Guards in his struggle for absolute preeminence against the other members of the inner party elite.” (42) So which is it? Was Cotton a theological idealist, or a cynical political infighter?

By 1637, the Quakers had identified another danger to the Puritan regime. If the orthodox leaders allowed the existence of an “inner light,” then anyone could claim a personal revelation that was superior (or at least equivalent) to the Word as preached by the ministers. The Synod of 1637 identified and condemned it as Error #53: “No Minister can teach one that is anointed by the Spirit of Christ, more than hee knows already unlesse it be in some circumstances.” (45) This is obviously true as well of Cotton’s saints, but they weren’t pressing the point and Cotton was still one of the foremost ministers in the colony. Going after him and his flock would violate the second rule. And Cotton avoided violating “the ritual code of deference that surrounded the clergy and supported their system of cultural domination.” (first rule)(50)

Eighteenth century clerics might have justified their intrusions into politics based on Puritan traditions. “At the beginning of each annual Court of Elections, a duly appointed member of the ministry would preach a decidedly political and often factionally partisan election sermon to the assembled freemen.” (74) But as the civil and religious organizations began to drift apart, crossovers of magistrates (like Winthrop) into religious theorizing began to be resisted by the ministers. It seems to have taken much longer for the ministers to be judged as incompetent to hold political opinions (if it ever happened at all).

“Harvard College (named after Rev. John Harvard of Charlestown, who died Sept. 14 1638 leaving £1600 and a library of 400 books) played an indispensable role in supplying cultural cohesion and hierarchical control. The college collected a common cultural core which, through the ministers, would be exported to every settlement in the land. By 1660, there were 135 college-trained leaders among the second generation, of whom 116 were Harvard graduates.” (q Harry Stout, 94-5) (cf New England’s First Fruits) In addition, the college graduated magistrates for the General Court and teachers for the Latin schools, to prepare the next generation of Harvard men. The college’s 2nd president, Henry Dunster, was sacked for becoming a Baptist, but he was neither banished nor excommunicated, even though standard treatment of Baptists included floggings and heavy fines. Staloff attributes this to the fact that Dunster humbly complied with his admonitors. “Here lay the key to Puritan toleration and repression: orthodox unanimity was sought not as an end in itself but as a means to cultural domination,” Staloff concludes. (100)

In 1638, the church took its first steps toward establishment. The court ordered that “every inhabitant in any towne is lyable to contribute to all charges, both in church and commonwealth, whereof hee doth or may receive benefit.” (106) This is an interesting construction, clearly showing the author’s belief that church and commonwealth are two elements of a single society that everyone is responsible to keep up. The difficulty is that the strict covenant (and Cotton’s even stricter requirement for signs of “saving grace”) disqualified most of the population from church membership. The colony’s original inclusive churches had evolved into very exclusive communities of saints. So the involuntary assessment for their support amounted to taxation without participation. This foreshadows the next century’s difficulties with establishment, and helps explain the tradition that formed the clergy’s expectation of support from their flocks.

Samuel Gorton was thrown out of Boston, and then out of Portsmouth (RI) for his heretical ideas. He went to Providence, but annoyed even the liberals there; so he went to Pawtuxit (Pawtucket). Massachusetts annexed Pawtuxit in 1642 to drive him out and secure the hinterlands from heresy, and Gorton bought land in Shawomet. “Gorton and his followers had purchased their land from Miantonomo, the sachem of the Narragansetts. Unfortunately, two of his subsachems who resided in the locality, Punham and Sacononoco, objected to the sale. In the spring of 1643, the two traveled to Boston to place themselves and their followers under the Massachusetts jurisdiction and thus regain control of the land…” (109-110) This is an interesting example, 32 years before King Philip’s War, of the natives interacting with colonial government as if they consider it legitimate.

After the Cambridge Platform, the “one-party regime” reached its peak. “The word was widely preached to forced attendance, the number of orthodox gathered churches grew, three intercolonial synods were held, remonstrants were imprisoned and heavily fined, Baptists were banished, and Quakers were flogged and executed. How much more Puritan could the Bay Colony be?” Staloff asks. The ministers were growing more distant from their people, evidenced by their correspondence. “Shall I tell you what I think to be the ground of all this insolence, which discovers itself in the speech of men?” Peter Bulkeley asked John Cotton. “Truly I cannot ascribe it to any outward thing, as to the putting of too much liberty into the hands of the multitude, which they are too weak to manage…” (115) Staloff says the laity’s loss of power in the church was partly balanced by a gain of some control over politics, as the deputies began disagreeing more frequently with the magistrates. The Halfway Covenant was the ministers’ attempt to regain control over the population, by bringing them back into the church that “saving grace” had disqualified them from.

The “saints” in the congregations resisted this change, because it devalued the position of the laity overall. A larger and generally less educated congregation increased the power of the minister, by widening the distance between him and his flock in terms of biblical knowledge and theological authority. But the distance between the people and their leaders continued to grow. The synod of 1646 authorized the General Court to pass laws regulating religious behavior. In addition to a number of finable offences, they decided “the death penalty was prescribed for blasphemy and, more pointedly, for any person who dared ‘reproach the holy religion of God, as if it were but a polliticke devise to keep ignorant men in awe.’…Failure to attend the ministers’ public exercises—‘the ordinary meanes to subdue the harts of hearers not onely to the faith, & obedience to the Lord Jesus, but also to civill obedience, and allegiance unto magistracy;--would draw a fine of 5 shillings for each such occurrence.” (125) Clearly, these measures were not adopted for no reason.

In 1657 the Quakers came and threw themselves into martyrdom, apparently interesting a lot of common people in the process. Staloff claims “the ultimate significance of the Quaker movement for the orthodox Bay regime was that it thus forced the magistrates and ministers to neutralize the danger of an unchurched majority that might easily be induced to support heterodox dissent.” The solution was to bring the people back into the church using the halfway qualifications. “Discipline was our great Interest,” claimed Increase Mather. (136) “The most important way in which the half-way covenant centralized church power was by devaluing lay consent,” (137) as well as the learning and emotional commitment required to qualify for membership. Of course, only full members could vote.

By the mid 1670s, the magistrates were using friendly clergy regularly to support their political agendas. The 1676 pre-election speaker, Harvard graduate William Hubbard, told his audience that those who called for “a parity in any Society, will in the issue reduce things into a heap of confusion.” (174) In other words, shut up and do what we tell you. The problem the people faced was, the messages from the pulpit were becoming more fragmented, as the clergy’s unanimity started to fray. Sometimes, the message was downright incredible, even for Puritans.

“Do not say that the Ministers of God cannot tell you why this Judgment has come,” Increase Mather told his listeners. Mather tried to reclaim the clergy’s authority over day-to-day secular events, by claiming to have prophesied King Philip’s War. He predicted further troubles for the colony, unless the people obeyed his directions for making peace with an angry God. A reforming synod was called in 1679, that adopted most of Mather’s proposals. Interestingly, it was Solomon Stoddard who turned the synod from requiring testimony of saving grace, to “a personal and publicke profession of their Faith and Repentance,” (181) which paved the way for the half-way covenant. Staloff’s chronology seems confused here (or more likely his narrative is just too convoluted), but I should look into the debates between Stoddard and the Mathers (Cotton and Increase), and follow the thread down to Stoddard’s grandson, Jonathan Edwards. (cf Mather, A Discourse Concerning the Danger of Apostacy, 1677)

Mather’s perpetual insistence on an immanent crisis wore his supporters out. By 1682, Mather was complaining that Satan attacked the people in his church, and “he causeth them to sleep at Sermons.” (182) Mather warned his listeners that “God himself is speaking to you…though by mortal men like unto your selves,” (183) and that not only the minister but the almighty was offended when they dozed off. But his sermons had strayed so far from any relevance with their lives that they were unable to stay awake for them.

The colony’s relationship with the British Crown also suffered from Increase Mather’s stubborn insistence on his own infallibility. When it became clear that the king wanted changes in the Bay charter, reflecting increased religious liberty and toleration of other sects, Mather declared that there could be no compromise. At the 1684 elections, Mather purged the “accommodationist” members of the Court, and prayed for deliverance. On Feb. 6 1685 after fasting and meditation, Mather claimed that “God will deliver New England!” Coincidentally (when did Mather claim his vision?), King Charles II died the same day.

Unfortunately for Massachusetts Bay, James II suspended the colony’s charter and disbanded their government. The Dominion of Edmund Andros ended with the Glorious Revolution, but unlike Rhode Island and Connecticut, Massachusetts was not allowed to reinstate its previous government. Increase Mather negotiated a new charter, which was far less generous than the deal the other colonies got. Staloff concludes his account by observing that the “calumnies heaped on Mather perfectly symbolized the breakdown of cultural domination for which he had been largely responsible.” (188)

Radical Sects ignores the irreligious

Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982)

Mentioned by Gilmore in his notes and bibliography. Covers the religious sectarianism of the revolutionary decades (1770-1790). Completely ignores any challenges to religion from the outside. As if there were no rationalists, materialists, “infidels,” deists, or atheists at all in New England. The overall effect is to misrepresent the radical impulse, as if it was a denominational issue debated and decided within the religious community.

This isn’t useful to me. Although the religious scholars see a huge difference between the Old and New Light Congregationalists, to me they’re pretty much all Calvinists. The Baptists in Ashfield are interesting, with their appeal to King George III for their rights
against the Puritans and their supporters in the Massachusetts legislature. But Marini doesn’t mention even this. Ashfield gets a brief nod as a site of Shaker activity, but without acknowledgement that the Ashfield Congregational Society voted to run Mother Ann and the “tremblers” out of town.

I think there
is some interesting history buried in the stories of these churches and their disintegration into rival sects in the revolution and early republic. But I’m more interested in what these changes say about the social situation in towns like Ashfield. What if Baptist hisotry in Ashfield was as much about resistance to the people (mainly river-valley proprietors) running the Congregational Society as it was about theology. It’s easier for me to see Chileab Smith as a social dissident than as a theological disputant. We’ll see how that plays out. In the meantime, Radical Sects goes in the discard pile.