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  • Writer's pictureObbie Tyler Todd

Did Puritanism Birth Unitarianism?

Acclaimed New England historian Perry Miller contended that “Unitarianism is as much the child of Puritanism as Methodism.” (The Puritans, I. 4) What he intended by such a provocative statement was not that Puritans had bequeathed a moralistic, anti-Trinitarian theology to their spiritual descendants. Instead Miller meant something about the multifaceted ethos of Puritanism. With the Great Awakening, the seeming tensions that existed in robust Puritan theology began to fracture, and what ensued were Christian denominations owing much to the Puritan legacy, but whose overemphasis upon one or more point of doctrine became the source of their theological (and sometimes heretical) imbalance. Furthermore, for better or for worse, the shadow of Puritanism stretched far beyond theology. According to John Coffey, “Puritanism has been credited (and blamed) for bequeathing a puzzling set of legacies, including the spirit of capitalism, scientific enterprise, Anglo-Saxon sexual repression, companionate marriage, liberal democracy, American exceptionalism and religious bigotry. Puritans have been hailed as midwives of modernity, and censured as reactionary foes of enlightened values.” (“Puritan legacies”) Puritanism was as deep as it was wide. Therefore what exactly would lead a known scholar such as Miller to make such a suggestive statement? The answer begins in the Enlightenment.

Seventeenth century Puritans were men and women who lived at a particularly “scientific” time in the history of the world. Previously held beliefs about cosmology, physics, anthropology, psychology, and theology were being overturned in radically new ways. The Elizabethan Puritan movement itself was spawned largely at the University of Cambridge, and was no less political and liturgical than theological. According to Patrick Collinson, Puritans were those “hotter sort” of Protestants who sought to wed divine revelation with the highest degree of human reason in their pious pursuit of “practical divinity.” Theirs was a highly intellectual faith. However, this intellectualism was never at odds with their deeply Scriptural religion. For example, Thomas Cranmer once wrote to a colleague, “Although in such weighty matters of Scripture and ancient authors, you must needs trust your men, without whom I know you can do very little, being brought up from your tender age in other kinds of study, yet I, having exercised myself in the study of Scripture and Divinity from my youth, whereof I give most hearty lauds and thanks to God, have learned how to go alone, and do examine, judge, and write all such weighty matters myself.” (Vol. 1, 64) Reason was the handmaiden to revelation, and this misunderstood Protestant emphasis has often given Puritanism a seemingly individualistic label. However, such an assertion ignores their simultaneous desire for community. Puritanism was at once both communal and personal, both heartfelt and intellectual, both political and ecclesiological. It is this particular intellectual legacy that Puritanism would bequeath to a later generation, many of whom would divest themselves from a high view of Scripture (e.g. Unitarians). For this reason, many feel Miller was justified in his assertion, although we might properly add “illegitimate” to his case for Unitarian children. Puritans were themselves children of the Enlightenment; however their illegitimate Unitarian offspring were as well…without the commitment to orthodoxy.

Conversely, Miller’s comment about Methodism seems not quite as controversial. With its origins in 18th century Anglican Oxford and its focus upon the “new birth” and justification by faith, Methodism has been called a “new species of Puritanism” precisely for its revivalistic bent on rigorous and pious religion. For this reason Miller felt at liberty to describe Methodism as the “child” of Puritanism: its enthusiastic emphasis was something one could describe as extremely “Puritanical,” although Wesleyan Methodism’s suspicion of antinomianism, fixation with “perfection,” and two-stage plan for salvation would lead many to question its Puritan roots.

Still, according to Henry D. Rack in his Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (1989), the bifurcation between Puritanism’s rational and enthusiastic elements is not as clean and quick as we might think: “the relationship between ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Revival’ in this period is more complex than is allowed for by simple notions of the latter being a ‘reaction’ against the former.” (32) Rack’s thesis is quite clear from the title: Wesley was a “reasonable enthusiast” who inherited a highly intellectual and rational religion from his Puritan forbears. The Great Awakening was not simply a scene of religious and political chaos; its promoters and progenitors were learned men who appealed to the Bible in rational ways. Due to its Puritan foundation in Scripture balanced with an equally acute commitment to the work of the Spirit, rational Puritan thinkers like Jonathan Edwards contended that the Awakening was in fact a work of God. (The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, 1741) The Awakening was not mere emotionalism, and Revival sermons bear witness to the deeply pious and intellectual preaching that still existed under the “Puritan canopy.” (Noll, America’s God) Nevertheless, in his The New England Soul (1986), Harry Stout observes the fracturing that began to take place from disputes over the Great Revival:

“Their debates were not only an issue of ‘enlightenment’ versus ‘piety,’ as some historians have maintained, but also a clash of rival academic theories and social orientations that had been building for generations. Chauncy represented an extreme aspect of the intellectualist tradition that emphasized the ‘understanding,’ and strict clerical control over congregations. Edwards spoke for the voluntarist tradition that emphasized the ‘affections’ and favored more active lay involvement in church affairs. For four generations these rival impulses had coexisted in the colonial pulpit, but under the press of the new revivals they separated into opposite and irreconcilable positions.” (209)

With the era of the Great Awakening, the Puritan balance began to slowly unravel into ecclesiological, political, and theological extremes. For this reason, Stout identifies Puritan descendant Charles Chauncy as a forerunner to Boston’s well-known Unitarian tradition for his highly intellectual pulpit that became so inimical to emotionalism of any kind. Did Puritanism birth Unitarianism in some ways? Historically speaking, it appears so, though only through theological aberrations greatly exacerbated over time by Revival and Enlightenment. For this reason, in his American Puritans (1956), Perry Miller also contends, “Without some understanding of Puritanism, and that at its source, there is no understanding of America.” (ix)

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