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Posts Tagged ‘University of North Carolina Press’

Sweeney’s Booknotes: John Witherspoon’s American Revolution

Gideon Mailer, John Witherspoon’s American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

WitherspoonThis book is not about Edwards. But it does discuss Edwards, revising the way we think about the legacy of his Calvinist engagement with British moral philosophy.

John Witherspoon was one of Edwards’ successors in the presidency of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Born in Gifford, East Lothian, Scotland in 1723, he sailed to America 1768, serving as Princeton’s sixth president and a major civic leader in the nascent U.S. (Edwards had died a decade earlier, in 1758, while serving as the school’s third president.) During his 26 years in office (1768-94), he taught one U.S. president (James Madison), one vice president (Aaron Burr, Jr.), 49 members of the House of Representatives, 28 Senators, three Supreme Court justices, one secretary of state, three attorneys general, and two foreign ministers. More than 11% of his graduates became college presidents. Witherspoon himself served as a delegate to the Continental Congress (1776-82), worked on three national standing committees and dozens of congressional committees during the Revolution, and was the only ordained clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence.

In a fine summary statement of his book and its significance, Mailer, a British historian trained at the University of Cambridge but based now at the University of Minnesota Duluth, writes, “John Witherspoon’s American Revolution considers the ways in which Witherspoon’s Presbyterian evangelicalism could compete with, combine with, or even supersede the civic influence of Scottish Enlightenment thought in the British Atlantic world. It uncovers the association between evangelical Presbyterian religion and Anglo-Scottish unionism and the impact of such an association on social, religious, and political developments in American patriot discourse and in early national America. And it highlights the eventual legacy of Presbyterian political theology, through Witherspoon’s students, in nineteenth-century America” (pp. 12-13).

For several decades, most scholars have suggested that Witherspoon underwent a major sea change as he moved to America. Though an evangelical Calvinist and leader of the Popular party in the Church of Scotland, he became a leading promoter of the moral sense theories of the Scottish Moderate party as he settled in the colonies–thus functioning, ironically, as a conduit of the less Calvinistic Scottish Enlightenment in America during the age of Revolution. (The Scottish Popular party emphasized total depravity and the role of conversion in enabling civic virtue. The Moderates, by contrast, held a more optimistic view of the moral and intellectual potential of the populace, regardless of conversion. Their disagreement became especially important during the era of the American Revolution, many of whose leaders agreed that the health and success of their republic, or any democracy, would depend on the inculcation of virtue in its citizens.)

Mailer disagrees with the sea change thesis, claiming that Witherspoon retained and taught a Calvinistic view of human potential till the end, thus serving as a conduit of both kinds of Scottish thought in early U.S. history. As he told the boys at Princeton, conversion was required for the best kinds of civic virtue in the new nation. Or as Mailer explains the matter in the book’s introduction, “Witherspoon continued to claim that religious regeneration initially required a personal admission of sin, with the help of the Holy Spirit. The latter assisted individuals as they struggled to acknowledge the necessity of grace in supplying a regenerated moral sensibility. Provided their acknowledgment of iniquity was genuine, individuals would then receive divine mercy and a new moral understanding wrought by the ‘grace of God’ and the ‘Grace of hope.’ Societal stability, in such a formulation, required enough individuals to become similarly awakened. Moral sensory philosophy [i.e. of the Moderate kind], in Witherspoon’s opinion, failed to acknowledge such a requirement. Common sensory perception might allow individuals (and their leaders) to apprehend the difference between right and wrong in some circumstances. But Witherspoon’s evangelical hermeneutic tended to differ from the notion of sensus communis [taught by the Moderates] in warning that initial moral conceptions did not imply a predictable ethical reaction, benevolent or otherwise” (pp. 10-11).

Just as Edwards, then, repackaged traditional Calvinism vis-à-vis the work of the British moralists, employing their philosophy to valorize the moral lives of everyday people even as he distinguished this from truly Christian virtue, so Witherspoon did the same in his own day and age—for a broader body politic engaged in the founding of a righteous new republic. “The nature of the association between Witherspoon’s developing moral philosophy and the earlier values of the College of New Jersey founders, Samuel Finley, Samuel Davies, and Jonathan Edwards,” Mailer argues, “needs reassessment as well. In many ways, Witherspoon continued their synthesis of evangelical moral theory and formal instruction . . . . It is important to keep in mind that revivalism was not always antithetical to the conceptual terminology of moral sense theory” (p. 146).

This book will be tough sledding for all but specialists in early American intellectual history, but it sets the record straight on a most important aspect of the legacy of Edwards. Highly recommended.

Sweeney’s Booknotes: Darkness Falls on the Land of Light

Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

WiniarskiThis finely researched project is a gold mine for students of New England church history. Its author, a professor at the University of Richmond, has provided us a volume of nearly 600 pages, which cites over 200 manuscript collections and builds upon a database of more than 1,200 church admission relations (i.e. spiritual narratives) from dozens of different towns throughout the region.

Winiarski details what he describes as a catastrophic “breakdown” of New England Congregationalism under the stress of nascent evangelicalism during the Great Awakening. His is “a tale of insurgent religious radicalism” during and after the 1740s, “an avalanche of innovative and incendiary religious beliefs and practices” inspired by George Whitefield (pp. 8-9 and passim). “The middle decades of the . . . century were the dark night of the collective New England soul,” the author claims, “as ordinary people groped toward a radically restructured religious order. The outcome of that struggle—the travail of New England Congregationalism—transformed the once-puritan churches from inclusive communities of interlocking parishes and families into exclusive networks of gifted spiritual seekers” (pp. 19-20), and transformed their homeland from a “gospel land of light” (p. 115 and passim) to a land of spiritual stridency, belligerency, and schism.

The book has five parts. Part One, “Godly Walkers” (pp. 23-130), “examines the widely shared religious vocabulary through which church membership candidates during the period between 1680 and 1740 pledged to ‘walk answerably’ to their doctrinal professions.” This was the region’s golden age, by Winiarski’s telling, one that “was tolerant, inclusive, steady, and comforting” (pp. 17-18). Part Two, “In a Flame” (pp. 131-206), describes the strategies through which evangelicals like Whitefield called the region’s Congregationalists to swap the kindly faith of New England’s “godly walkers” for a born-again fissiparousness. Part Three, “Exercised Bodies, Impulsive Bibles” (pp. 207-284), interprets the ecstatic Spirit possession purportedly promoted by Whitefield and his followers by zooming in on efforts of a Hartford magistrate, Joseph Pitkin, to discern it in a young revival convert, Martha Robinson of Boston. Part Four, “Pentecost and Protest” (pp. 285-364), shines a light on the ministries of flame-throwing evangelical preachers like James Davenport, who burned the books and vanities of less divisive Christians, dubbed their neighbors hypocrites, and split the region’s congregations. Part Five, “Travels” (pp. 365-506), narrates the demise of the old church order that resulted as schismatics put an end once-and-for-all to the golden age of Congregationalism.

The protagonists in Winiarski’s tale are not usually intellectuals like Edwards, but layfolk empowered by their preachers to act up. Still, Edwards does play an important role in the story, throwing fuel on the fires that were burning down New England (perhaps unintentionally—it’s hard to tell) by insisting in the late 1740s that his people give him testimony about the work of the Spirit in their lives before joining the Northampton church officially. Not only did this move get him sacked, the author says, by inclusive church members. It encouraged the region’s radicals to become separatists, a trend that even an evangelical like Edwards had opposed. As Winiarski avers, “the Northampton qualifications controversy signaled the beginning of the end for the churches of the Congregational standing order. . . . Edwards’s dismissal from Northampton laid bare the gaping fissures that had emerged in the gospel land of light, as ministers and lay people struggled to distinguish traditional relations and professions of doctrine from the inspired narratives of conversion” required by evangelicals (pp. 459-60).

Winiarski’s story is a bit overdramatic. There had been schismatic Protestants as long as there had been Protestants, even in New England. Further, Edwards’ closest allies stayed within the standing order (just as Edwards had commended), transforming it with Edwards’ own evangelical principles, healing most of the rifts caused by more schismatic Christians, and fighting against their churches’ disestablishment to the end (in the 1830s). Winiarski projects a far-too-unitary image of New England church history on the eve of the Awakening, and a too-chaotic view of the same religious landscape in the wake of the revivals. The land of light did change over the long eighteenth century—in part as a result of New England’s Great Awakening–but not quite as darkly and explosively as Winiarski claims.

Just when many started to worry that colonial New England had been mined for too long–and had little left to offer serious scholars of religion–Winiarski’s research has proved them wrong. This is one of the best compendia of New England social history to appear in many years. Despite my reservations regarding the book’s thesis, I recommend it highly. Students of the region will be building on its findings for decades to come.