Change in Religion - The New England American Literature

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      CHANGE IN RELIGIOUS THOUGHT.—Since the death of Jonathan Edwards in the middle of the seventeenth century, New England had done little to sustain her former literary reputation. As the middle of the nineteenth century approaches, however, we shall find a remarkable group of writers in Boston and its vicinity. The causes of this wonderful literary awakening are in some respects similar to those which produced the Elizabethan age. In the sixteenth century the Reformation and the Revival of Learning exerted their joint force on England. In the nineteenth century, New England also had its religious reformation and intellectual awakening. We must remember that "re-formation" strictly means "forming again" or "forming in a different way." It is not the province of a history of literature to state whether a change in religious belief is for the better or the worse, but it is necessary to ascertain how such a change affects literature.

Religion - The New England American Literature
Change in Religion

      The old Puritan religion taught the total depravity of man, the eternal damnation of the overwhelming majority, of all but the "elect." A man's election to salvation depended on God's foreordination. If the man was not elected, he was justly treated, for he merely received his deserts. Even Jonathan Edwards, in spite of his sweet nature, felt bound to preach hell fire in terms of the old Puritan theology. In one of his sermons, he says:—

      "The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath toward you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire."

     This quotation was not given when we discussed the works of Edwards, because it misrepresents his most often recurring idea of God. But the fact that even he felt impelled to preach such a sermon shows most emphatically that Puritan theology exerted its influence by presenting more vivid pictures of God's wrath than of his love.

      A tremendous reaction from such beliefs came in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), pastor of the Federal Street Church in Boston and one of the greatest leaders of this religious reform, wrote in 1809 of the old Puritan creed:—

      "A man of plain sense, whose spirit has not been broken to this creed by education or terror, will think that it is not necessary for us to travel to heathen countries, to learn how mournfully the human mind may misrepresent the Deity."

      He maintained that human nature, made in the image of God, is not totally depraved, that the current doctrine of original sin, election, and eternal punishment "misrepresents the Deity" and makes him a monster. This view was speedily adopted by the majority of cultivated people in and around Boston. The Unitarian movement rapidly developed and soon became dominant at Harvard College. Unitarianism was embraced by the majority of Congregational churches in Boston, including the First Church, and the Second Church, where the great John Cotton and Cotton Mather had preached the sternest Puritan theology. Nearly all of the prominent writers mentioned in this chapter adopted liberal religious views. The recoil had been violent, and in the long run recoil will usually be found proportional to the strength of the repression. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes even called the old theology largely "diabology." The name of one of his poems is Homesick in Heaven. Had he in the early days chosen such a title, he would either, like Roger Williams, have been exiled, or, like the Quakers, have suffered a worse fate.

      Many adopted more liberal religious beliefs without embracing Unitarianism. Perhaps these three lines voice most briefly the central thought in man's new creed and his changed attitude toward God:—

 "For Thou and I are next of kin;
 The pulses that are strong within,
 From the deep Infinite heart begin."

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