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Friday, September 17, 2010

A post on reactionary Puritans for FLG

FLG and I have been having a two-year long back-and-forth on the merits of Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards (which, if you ever look at Puritan genealogies, will establish him as the descendant of Every Important New England Personality Evar), head of the Connecticut Federalists, and president of Yale, and so I finally decided to put the debate to rest by crushing FLG with sheer verbiage and writing a paper in defense of Dwight. The benefit of such an undertaking is that it gives one opportunity to read up on New England theology and arm oneself with such terms as free sovereign grace, immediate imputation, antinomianism, Arminianism, and the possibly sophistic distinction between regeneration and election, so that if FLG tries to dispute my conclusions, I can clobber him with mah newly-acquired fancypants theological vocabulary which I myself barely understand.

I promised this post to FLG a long time ago, and then I wrote a lot of it, and--like I do with all my grad school papers--gave up midway through and forgot about it. Now that it's been about eleventy years since I initially promised it and since I wrote the paper, I'm going to do a terrible, unforgivable thing and copy and paste vast swaths of the paper to my blog. You might notice a shift in tone where that occurs.

I think the main question in our dispute is whether Dwight is an extremist nutjob based on “The Duty of Americans at the Present Crisis,” his 1798 sermon arguing that the French Revolution was the seventh vial prophesied in Revelations, the millenium is nigh, and in the meantime, everyone should fight the forces of infidelity (those being, the French, the Enlightenment philosophes, and, most importantly, the Freemasons and the Illuminati) which are secretly trying to destroy America by de-Christianizing it and eventually turning it into revolutionary France. The best way to fight these evildoers is, it turns out, by going to church on Sundays. Readers of Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics will be familiar with this sermon since it is briefly noted in the beginning as an early example of the paranoid style. But Hofstadter was totally wrong and there is no such thing as an American paranoid style.

My view, after considered reading of some of Dwight's vast corpus is that, while Dwight was not a very good poet, he was definitely not crazy. The paranoia about the Masons and the Illuminati has been covered in a previous exchange, but even his skepticism about Enlightenment rationalism has roots in a conservative strain of Congregational theology of this period (the New Divinity, for anyone who cares) that saw the potential danger behind natural religion and rationalism, and watched them issue in the French Revolution.*

Some contemporary historians [and FLG], finding Dwight's style too inflammatory and his politics too reactionary for their tastes, have dismissed his argument against infidelity as mere Federalist opportunism, or as evidence of a fundamentalist impulse to turn New England into a Puritan theocracy. But Dwight’s sermons are a testament to the winding complexity and—-to modern eyes-—contradiction of Calvinist theological and political commitments in the early republic, which could not be classified either on the left or the right, even after their opposition to the French Revolution. Dwight’s sermons draw on a distinctly Calvinist logic of opposition the Revolution--one that is forward-looking, reformist, and ultimately millenarian--and illuminate the distance between European reaction to the Revolution, and the strangely un-reactionary resistance of American Puritans. [endpaperexcerpthere, sorry guys!]

The best way to read Dwight is, I think, to consider him in his theological context. (If he were a greater writer, this might not be necessary, but he was not.) His theology is the product of half a century of incessant and intense doctrinal contest in America, starting with the First Great Awakening. In fact, the contestants in these feuds mirrored with uncanny accuracy the arrangement of the parties in the French Revolution. The evangelicals of the Great Awakening fought with the orthodox Calvinist "Old Lights" over the legitimacy of their conversions, eventually won (in part because many of the Old Lights adopted versions of Deistic natural religion and rejected Calvinism altogether), then themselves split into two camps--the radicals (separatists and universalists on the frontiers of New England who became Baptists and Methodists) and the moderates (the New Divinity) who took over many of the pulpits in southern New England.

In other words, Dwight had seen the French Revolution and its disputes--over hypocrisy, antinomianism, subversion, etc--play out in advance in the realm of theology (and New England had established churches at this point so this was not an indifferent issue politically). But theology demands certain limits on these questions that are absent in the determinedly secular politics of the Revolution. You can't send a man to the guillotine for falsely believing he is saved--the state of his soul can only be known for certain by himself and by God, and other men can no more than suspect that he is lying, but they have no authority to go further. But the Committee on Public Safety could transform sin into political crime committed by enemies of the Revolution, whose “unconverted” souls found their correction not in God but in the guillotine. In secular politics, as Arendt points out, accusations of hypocrisy encounter no limits. Thus, for Dwight, that “Three millions of Frenchmen have perished in the Revolution…The siege of Lyons, and the judicial massacres at Nantes, stand, since the crucifixion, alone in the volume of human crimes.”

What is most interesting about his opposition to the Revolution is not that it's reactionary or conspiratorial or anything like that. It's rather how different it is from European opponents like Burke and de Maistre and Barruel, from whom he actually cribs much of his material on the Masons and the Illuminati. It is so intensely Protestant. The past has no authority for Dwight, and he does not want to go back to a more orderly, pre-Enlightenment epoch, but rather into a more orderly, post-Enlightenment millennium. Like Samuel Hopkins, who was a prolific anti-slavery writer in addition to writing some of the foundational systematic theology of the New Divinity, Dwight looks to social reform as the appropriate response to decaying faith. This seeming immunity to the traditionalist impulse runs through the most otherwise conservative of late 18th century Puritan divines, and while it is baffling to me, it is neither absurd nor delusional. And it seems in some way quite important to understanding contemporary American conservatism and its continuing distance from its European counterpart.

*I know that everyone and his brother will jump down my throat now to insist that the French Revolution was not Rousseau's fault, and Rousseau would even have condemned it and if only people had read Rousseau more carefully and reflected on it better and blah blah... I agree that all this is true and good, except that it hardly stopped anyone from misreading Rousseau and cutting off heads. In any case, Dwight's enemies were primarily second-rate English rationalists--Tyndal, Chubb, Shaftesbury, and also Hobbes. In earlier sermons on infidelity that were not targeted at the French Revolution, this is more clear.