Thursday, August 14, 2014

James Christianson on Puritanism and Mormonism

Puritan Mission

Christianson begins his description by capturing the self-ascribed mission of the Puritans.
Immersed in both the excesses and successes of what they saw as a faltering Reformation, Puritans were convinced that God would not permit their age to miss its destiny. In their view the elect of God, the saints of the latter days, were entering a new land Canaan "where the world might see a specimen of what shall be over all the earth in the Glorious Times which are Expected." All the perceived shortcomings of the Reformation in the Old World would be remedied in the uncontaminated environment of New England. (p.15)
This inflated sense of destiny so unabashedly proclaimed by seventeenth century Puritans reflects the conviction that it was their divine mission to fine-tune and perfect the Reformation, bringing it to its ultimate conclusion. As a matter of strategy, God reserved New England as the final battleground out of which Zion, the city of God, would emerge. ... For the first time since the advent of the Savior, God was establishing his covenant with a people who would "worship him in all his holy ordinances" (p.15).
Christianson gives a list of direct quotes from leading Puritans to undergird that claim, all taken from Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, Boston (Beacon Press) 1961, pp.469-470.
[Peter Bulkeley wrote:] "We the people of New England ... are as a city set upon a hill, in the open view of all the earth, the eyes of the world are upon us, because we profess ourselves to be a people in Covenant with God. Our function is to || walk so that all nations will say, 'Only this people is a wise, and holy and blessed people.' The Lord has purposefully kept us few, weak and poor, so that we may excel in grace and holiness alone." (pp.15-16)
With this mind frame, divines such as John Cotton could label the Puritan commonwealth as the New Heaven and the New Earth (p.16), and divines such as Thomas Hooker saw the Day of Judgement at hand because New England was the final statement necessary:
[Thomas Hooker wrote:] "Truth had made the last disclosure conceivable within the frame of time [in the erection of the New England way, RCK]. ... Any further discovery would surpass the possibilities of earth and commence the reign of eternity." (p.16) 

Puritan Colonization

Between 1628 and 1640, 42% of the 50K English citizens to come to the New World were Puritans (p.16). They came to evade the persecution under James I, who thought their 39 Calvinistic articles to reform the Church of England were reactionary and the Puritans in general anti-monarchical (p.16). But they came with the plan to return some day and finish the reformation of the Church of England, "bearing the kingdom on their shoulders, welcomed by those who would recognize and wish to accept the work that God had wrought" (p.16), as Christianson put it.

Theirs was the best organized and best executed effort to colonize the Americas (p.16). They came "as their own masters, paid their own way, and took up land as free men." (p.17) 
[...] their purpose was to "restore the primitive, apostolic church pure and unspotted by human accretions or inventions." Along with Massachusetts Bay, Puritans colonized Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Haven as centers for the expression of God's will. (p.17)
An avant guard of 200 had arrived in 1629 to prepare for the larger groups that followed (p.17). The first winter of 1630 was still hard, but the Puritans neither looked for gold nor a fight with the Indians, rather trading and coexisting with them in relative peace (p.17).

Puritan Personality

Christianson finds the Puritan reverence for intellectual capacity noteworthy.
The Puritans also stood apart from all other colonists in their respect for learning and their emphasis on the intellectual training of the young. (p.17)
As one of them recorded in 1643, "After God had carried us safe to New England and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God's worship, and settled the || civil government, one of the things we looked for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to our posterity." (pp.17-18) [taken from John Higham, The Reconstruction of American History,  New York 1962. RCK]
Not solely a a philosophy of faith, Puritanism included a basic tenet that man was to exercise his natural powers, his logic, and his reasoning, in order to understand the Bible, the physical universe and human relationships. By using his mind, he [i.e. man] was doing the will of God. (p.18)
Puritanism taught that man could not be saved in ignorance, and since only spiritual regeneration could put one on the right path in life, the individual was responsible to forge ahead on a perpetual course of self-cultivation. (p.18)
Christianson cites John Higham (1962) on the important influence that Puritanism had on American culture, who not only pointed out the early onset and the duration---almost 100 years---of their influence, but the persistence of their influence through their traditions and institutions (p.18).
Until far into the nineteenth century American Literature was mostly New England Literature written by Puritans and their descendants; American colleges were mostly New England colleges founded by Puritans or their descendants, ... [including, RCK] Harvard, the oldest and most Puritan of all .... Until quite recently, New England dominated American culture and New England was wholly Puritan in origin. (p.18) [= Highham (1962), pp.26-27]
This reverence for the intellectual found expression in the way the organized the frontier life.
Given the rigors of frontier life which allowed the individual little leisure time, they made a choice, and that choice was education. A formal education system, preceding comparable programs in other colonies by a century, together with the vigorous printing of sermons, poetry and history created the intellectually-charged climate of Puritan society. (p.18)
Analog to the way the Mormons feel misunderstood, Christianson worries that modern interpreters have misunderstood the Puritans as "prying busybodies incapable of enjoying life's simplest pleasures" (p.19).
Though it was generally accepted that the colony should be led by those who stood highest in the sight of God--at least 90 percent of the people where in sympathy with this idea--some characterize the rule of Puritan divines as despotic. (p.19) 
Politically, the Puritans were far right in their support of the connection between church and state (p.20).
They felt the state should protect the || church, and the church must in turn support the state. (pp.20-21)
Puritans were also strong constitutionalists, clinging to the Protestant doctrine that "the conscience of the individual is the ultimate judge of right". Thus, "man must refuse to obey a law, however legitimately promulgated, which violates his own sense of right." (p.21)
Christianson points out that this attitude fired both the Nonconformism of a Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as the Mormons in their acceptance of plural marriage (p.21).

Puritan Covenants

Christianson returns to the "city on the hill" imagery in the Puritan self-interpretation (p.21).
The sense that this was a peculiar society, designated by Deity to erect a community more perfect than any that men of the Old World had known, and that it was America's foreordained mission to be an example to all other nations is the substance of America's Puritan heritage. (p.21)
And Christianson sketches the core belief succinctly.
The heart of the Puritan hope for America as a promised land, a place of destiny, was embodied in their concept of covenant, and in their attempt to cement the individual to God, the church to God, and society or state to God. (p.21)
Christianson sketches the role of the covenant thinking in Puritan thought, even as a response to predestination, and the identifications of the salvation process that entailed (p.22).
Though they would never completely let go of it, Puritan theologians distanced themselves from the doctrine of predestination by developing a series or network of covenants. (p.22)
By 1700 ministers spoke regularly of the Covenant of Grace, which embraced an invisible contract between the individual and God; of the Covenant of Baptism, wherein offspring of the saints were bound to the church since it was assumed that, having been born under the Covenant of Grace, they too were the elect; of the Chruch Covenant; the social Covenant; even a National Covenant. (p.22)
In effect, all that they were or would ever become was laid on the alter with a covenant and promise. In return they had God declaring, "This is the covenant that I will make on my part, I will be thy God .... You shall have all things in me that your heart desires: the covenant again that I require on your part is, that you may be perfect in me, so that though a man be subject to infirmities, yet if he have a single heart, an upright heart, the Lord accept it." As this statement implies, perfection was a matter of direction rather than position. Puritans emphasized not what a man was, but what he was in the process of becoming. (p.22) [quoting Miller, New England Mind, p.377, RCK]
Christianson then paraphrases Miller's exposition [pp.376-377, RCK].
Christ, as exemplified in the Atonement, assumed the Covenant of Works initially given to Adam. Man, made bankrupt by the Fall, is approached by the Lord who guarantees him relief, providing him a way to make good his just debts. Man in turn, demonstrates his recognition of and gratitude for this by developing faith in, believing on, and obeying the Lord. He who does these things binds God by the Covenant of Grace to sanctify and glorify him. (p.22)
Since Abraham had bound himself first under the Covenant of Grace (Genesis 17), the Puritans were children of Abraham, the "Great Pattern Believer" (p.22).
The origin of the covenant, its historical development, and its culmination were the meanings of history, a thread which bound together the story of mankind. God never does anything for his people unless "he doth it by || virtue of, and according to his covenant." (pp.22-23)
God had effectively tamed Himself by entering into the covenant, and given up of His liberties (p.23).
The essential point of the covenant was that it mad possible a voluntary relationship between God and man even though man's will was "impotent" and God's grace "irresistible". The grace-induced faith of the individual not only regenerated his faculties, but also enabled man's reason and will to assert themselves, thereby giving free, rational consent to the contract. (p.23)
The notion of the covenants was flexible over time, "diverse, according to the ages" (p.23).
Allowed to grow with time, covenants were first dispensed through conscience, then through prophets and ceremonies, and finally through Christ, through the preaching of the word, and through sacraments. (p.23)
Sincere faith and repentance could keep the covenant from breaking even in the face of the impurities that mortal man exhibited (p.23). Indeed, it was counter-productive and one of the Devil's wiles to let the individual be overcome by "poring upon our misdeeds" (p.23). The most important thing was not to cease striving (p.24).
Salvation and damnation were entirely matters of will. Hence men were saved for trying, not for succeeding; where the unregenerate were damned, not because they failed, but because they did not try. (p.24)
Under these terms, Puritans believed that "no man was exempted, no man debarred, no man hindered to take grace" (p.24).
But almost more important was the physical signals of salvation in the individual's life.
On the other hand, those who, upon critical examination of themselves, saw that they were abiding the terms of the covenant both as the fruits were manifest in their lives and as they saw a change wrought in their hearts, would know their election was sure. This change was variously attested to by signs, inner light and dreams, or the bearing of testimony. (p.24)
[[And it is "the fruits ... manifest in their lives" that powers the Protestant spirit of Capitalism, not necessarily the double predestination, as Max Weber had assumed. RCK]]

The problem of imposing governance on such an individualistic set of people was not without its own trickery.
... Puritan leaders viewed as one the social and religious destiny of the latter-day children of Israel they were called to shepherd. (p.24)
[[They had learned from Thomas Hobbes, if no one else, that man was a wolf to his fellow men. RCK]]
Government was necessary; otherwise "there would be no living together for mankind" and the world would become "a den of thieves and robbers." The dilemma they faced was how to impose leadership and laws on people whose natural tendency was to oppose and disregard both As with the individual, so with society or the state, the answer lay in establishing a further covenant. (p.24)
Theologically, the interpretation was that the lordship of Christ over the soul engendered a love for all of mankind as well, which provided the hook for community appreciation (p.25).
Being thus united [in the fullness of God's spirit, RCK], they combined their wills to form a community, a city of Zion, wherein men walked in righteousness and prepared for the day of judgement. (p.25)
Thus was justified the state as an instrument of God's authority and goodness (p.25).
Men consented to covenants both spiritual and political whereby they agreed to behave "with a dutiful subjection to the eternal laws of God as expounded by those upon whom God had bestowed administrative authority." (p.25) 
[Puritan leaders instructed:] Look as in a Common-wealth or Kingdom, none hath the benefit of the Law, but those that subject themselves to the Law: none have the protection of authority, but those that obey it .... If wee will have God to be our God to pardon us, and to blesse us, we must have him a God over us to govern us after his own will. (p.25) [= Miller, New England Mind, p.427 RCK] 
This blessing was conceptualized in economic terms and advantages.
Marke the agreement between us and the Lord: He propounds the law, and saith, that if we will keepe the law, he will bless us abundantly in || all things, house and land .... Then the people they agree and say, 'Content, Lord, whatever thou sayest we will doe.' (pp.25-26)

Puritan Ethic 

James Christianson correctly points out that the economic projects of the blessing, this need to be validated temporally in one's status of election through blessings, became both a guiding principe and a problem.
Out of the need, even the demand, for assurance as to when and if a man was of the elect, an emphasis, which in time grew into a monster, was placed on the temporal rewards of righteous living. (p.26)
It was this doctrine of the Calling [as a farmer or a merchant or a minister, RCK] that led many of the rising merchant and capitalism class of the seventeenth century to embrace Puritanism. They viewed their success as a sign of regeneracy. Salvation could be achieved through actions of a disciplined, industrious, frugal, sober nature. (p.26)
As Higham (1962), p.40, pointed out, the Puritan ethic had some clear expressions.
Business as a calling, the moral significance of profits and thrift, the moral dignity of work, the distrust of aristocratic leisure and dilettantism,  the suspicion that the poor are shiftless and hence ungodly, .... (p.26)
Christianson rightly insists that this attitude was one of the prime legacies of Puritanism to the American experiment.
This ethic, and expression of dynamic individualism nourished by abundant resources in the New World, came into conflict with the Social Covenant which emphasized subjection to God, and as a result, class distinctions and the ethic won out. (p.26) 
As the quality of living increased, two generations later found the communities lax in the eyes of their ministers (p.27).
 Within forty years, easy living, few hardships, and the absence of religious commitment so altered the temper of Puritan communities that hardly a sermon was given that did not sound a note of alarm. (p.27)
With time, there were calls for the celebration of Christmas; fortune-telling became a viable business again; and eventually a brothel opened in Boston (p.27) [= Miller, New England Mind, p.472]. The connection between economic success and religious purity was clear to the clergy.
Since it was God's doing that New Englanders were blessed with wealth beyond their needs, since he liberally provided for them in order to encourage orthodoxy, the clergy faced a serious dilemma. History and now their own experience taught that commitment and orthodoxy were near-certain casualties of sustained economic success. (p.27)
Thus, there was as if a vicious pattern existed in the world that played out in New England as well.
A nation reforms with the aid of divine grace; God rewards its efforts with material prosperity; the reformed are then seduced by their security, and in three generations the nation is back where it started. (p.27) [= Miller, New England Mind, pp.474-475, RCK]

Puritan Demise

Puritanism foundered, in Christianson's reconstruction, externally on its economic success, which allowed eliminating God from the justification loop, and internally on the resistance of the Anglican Church to the Puritans' reform efforts (p.28).
God rewarded the New Englanders with riches for their holiness. Their land and livestock were both sufficiently fruitful and the ocean yielded up an abundance of cod, providing an economic boon to the colonial economy. (p.28)
As secular inducements became paramount, God was forgotten, and men consecrated their labors to the pursuit of wealth. (p.28) 
A major reason for the decline of the emotional appear within the movement was the refusal of the mother church in England to come to terms an purify itself. (p.28) 
Puritanism was not up to the task of converting those outside its group to the faith (p.28) and shriveled up.
Puritanism relied on the inbred strength of those covenant generations produced by the 20,000 pioneers who journeyed to New England in the first decade of settlement. (p.29)
Like the Latin language of earlier centuries, once Puritanism no longer served a useful purpose, it was discarded as a living element in a society which formerly fostered it. (p.29)

Puritanism and Mormonism

Christianson now takes a confessional view in assessing the relationship between Puritanism and Mormonism (p.29).
There was far too much that was right in Puritanism for its development to have been mere historical coincidence. (p.29)
Thus, Christianson places Puritanism into the salvation narrative that climaxes in the rise of the LDS movement.
Could they have observed the century that followed the demise of the kingdom they initiated, the Puritan fathers would not have been disappointed with the fruits of their efforts. In addition to much that is American, democratic and constitutional in our heritage, we acknowledge the role they played in conditioning nineteenth-century Americans, especially those with New England roots, in what might be called the Kingdom concept. As the Puritans sought God's Kingdom, so did later generations await its coming. A nation of seekers || emerged from the Puritan quest for the original Church of Christ. (pp.29-30)
From his confessional vantage point, Christianson can treat the Puritans as the water that prepared the soil for the true harvest (p.30).
The Latter-day Saint movement went on to become the kingdom of God on earth, but Puritan ideas, Puritan covenants, Puritan commitment paved the way. Both set out to serve God, and both did. Both are authentic; each fulfilled its purpose. They are as alike and as different as the terms Reformation and Restoration. (p.30)

Bibliographical Record

James Christianson, Puritanism and Mormonism: Parallel Paths, Parting of Waysin: Donald Q. Cannon (ed), Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: New England, Provo UT (BYU), 1988, pp.15-32.

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