Calvinism and Methodism get Americanized

Posted: August 25, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Book Reviews, History, The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism

Chapters 13-17 of America’s God consider the process by which the two major theological traditions in early America became Americanized; in other words, each began using the language and assumptions that fit with the broader culture’s republican and commonsense philosophies.  This meant the softening of beliefs about man’s inherent and inherited depravity into a more free-will belief that people chose to sin, influenced by the fall of Adam.  This meant modifying the traditional Calvinist belief that naturally sinful people had to be called by God, and the traditional Methodist belief that naturally sinfully people were rendered able to choose only by God’s “prevenient grace” made possible by Christ’s universal atonement (in other words, only God’s grace rendered people able to choose or reject Christ).  In both traditions, there was also a greater confidence that human beings could know the truths of religion through common sense and a “Baconian” approach to the Bible that imitated the scientific method.  There was also a greater effort to speak about God not as an absolute ruler of the universe, but as a benevolent ruler that did not engage in tyranny, showing the concern of the republican culture in America.

Noll believes that both Calvinism and Methodism became Americanized through different paths, although both involved debate with theological opponents.  For Calvinists, there was a great concern that a healthy society demanded continued revivals, and that the traditional Calvinist emphasis on God’s initiation of salvation did not provide a good foundation for revivals.  The most radical example of this from someone in a historically Reformed denomination is Charles Finney, who believed that overturning the traditional Calvinist beliefs was the only path to revival.  Another part of the Calvinist changes was the debate with the Unitarians, who denied the Trinity.  These debates also helped to “Americanize” Reformed theology.  Noll believes that the modified Calvinists who emerged in the early 1800s did not seek to change theology for the sake of change, but rather to defend and revive the Christian church.  For them, a strong church led to a strong and free society.  Even a conservative leader like Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary adhered to the Baconian view of reading Scripture, used the rhetoric of common sense, and believed in the agreement of Christian and republican ideas, although his Calvinism remained much more traditional.

Methodists, on the other hand, already had the idea of free will embedded in their theology,  but they did not defend it in American terms (i.e., using commonsense philosophy).  Through the influence of American Methodist leader Francis Asbury, Methodist theology stayed grounded in John Wesley’s interpretation of the Bible.  Noll believes that the Americanization of Methodism occurred as they debated with the Calvinists, and began to explain Methodist free will theology in philosophical terms rather than in Wesley’s terms.  The exception was the “Holiness” strain of Methodist theology pioneered by Phoebe Palmer, which retained its strongly Scriptural base but also did not make much impact in intellectual culture.

Here is Noll’s summary of the different paths toward Americanization:

Methodist theology Americanized as it sought to win respectability and to win over Calvinists, whereas the older traditions from the colonial era had Americanized in order to forge a national destiny under God. (364)

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