The Colonial Era

The colonial character of American religious experience was already evident in the theological achievements of the New England Puritans, the early European settlers who were most self-conscious about theological issues. In setting out to establish a “godly commonwealth” during the middle decades of the seventeenth century, they adapted for the new American environment what British Puritans had been proposing in their effort to reform the Church of England. Prominent in that thinking was devotion to the Holy Scriptures, concentration on the “new birth,” an assumption about the unity of society under God, and commitment to the church as the key bond between personal religion and national righteousness. The biblical theme of covenant provided the grand device for binding Puritan theology together. The many meanings of the covenant began with God’s choice of Old Testament Israel and his work in Jesus Christ, but went on to provide a framework for forming churches and a device for reforming society. The genius of covenantal theology was the provision of a single concept for personal religion, formal theology, church formation, and social order. Capable first-generation ministers like John Cotton of Boston and Thomas Hooker of Connecticut, along with conscientious laymen like the governor of Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop, articulated this unified theology with considerable success. Later, leading pastors like Increase Mather and his prolific son, Cotton Mather, were forced to patch up the covenantal system in adjusting to changing circumstances at the end
of the seventeenth century.
In what would become a common American pattern, strong theological positions generated strong theological dissent. In the first Puritan generation, Roger Williams of Rhode Island challenged the theology used by leaders of Massachusetts to justify their appropriation of Indian lands and their insistence on religious uniformity. The Bible-savvy Anne Hutchinson was expelled from Massachusetts for daring to suggest that the Puritan system of covenants undercut the strong emphasis on grace that had sparked the original Puritan movement. By the third generation, significant criticism of “the New England Way” came from Solomon Stoddard of Northampton, Massachusetts, who argued that the Lord’s Supper should be used to seek converts rather than to ratify covenant privileges for church members. John Wise of Ipswich, Massachusetts, challenged church leaders like

the Mathers by urging more independence for local congregations. Such criticism joined with the pluralization of New England society—which by the eighteenth century included Baptists, Anglicans, Scots dissenters, and even a few Catholics and Jews—to render full-orbed Puritan theology defunct. But even as it declined as a total system, elements of Puritan theology continued to shape later American history, especially the Puritan pattern of reasoning directly from the Bible to con- temporary issues and Puritan ideas about the possibility that nations could be in covenant with God.
Perhaps the high point in American theological history occurred right at the end of the Puritan era, and just as the colonies were beginning to feel new effects from populist and scientific movements. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), a grand- son of Solomon Stoddard and successor in his pulpit, has increasingly been recognized as America’s most compelling theologian. The remarkable recovery of interest in Edwards was spurred first by secular historians during the 1930s, especially Perry Miller, who was responsible for propelling a sharp renewal of interest in the Puritans. Since Miller’s death in 1963, fascination with Edwards has continued to expand in a flood of scholarship. That scholarship pays tribute to the subtlety of his thought, which was marked by creative fidelity to traditional orthodox Calvin- ism and immersion in the Scriptures, but also by unusually perceptive engagement with his era’s foremost intellectual problems.
Edwards’s writings on the colonial revival known as the Great Awakening kept his name alive during the nineteenth century, but his more demanding studies in metaphysical theology and religious psychology came to be largely dismissed by thinkers who favored faculty psychology as an explanation for human action and evolutionary naturalism as the best rendering of the physical world. At the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth, Edwards’s reputation suffered another setback among theological modernists who found his view of God too demanding and his view of human nature too pessimistic. For their part, fundamentalists neglected Edwards because of his consistent intellectual rigor, despite the fact that they maintained at least a shadow of some of Edwards’s own convictions. The striking renaissance in Edwards scholarship took place in the 1930s, with the rise of neo-orthodox theology, the use made of Edwards by major figures like H. Richard Niebuhr, and the growing realization that Edwards had engaged the thought of his age with rare prescience.
Edwards’s writings ranged broadly over theology proper, theological metaphysics, ethics, religious psychology, and the person. His vision penetrated as deep as his reach was broad. In constant engagement with both scriptural sources and modern learning, he proposed a God-centered conception of the universe that incorporated many findings of modern thinkers. Thus he read with appreciation Sir Isaac Newton on gravity and the natural world, John Locke on perception, and “the new moral philosophers” (Francis Hutcheson and the Earl of Shaftesbury) on the affections as basic for moral reasoning. Yet in all cases, Edwards also offered

criticisms that tried to pull modern thinking toward classical Calvinism. Specifically, he postulated God’s will as an ongoing cause of the physical universe in order to counteract materialist implications drawn from Newton. He undermined Locke’s empiricism with a counterargument asserting a theocentric idealism centered on the mind of God . And while accepting a voluntaristic ethics, he reversed Hutcheson and Shaftesbury by insisting that God’s grace was an essential foundation for genuine virtue.
Edwards’s writings, which aimed at differentiating genuine religion from the spurious, have never been out of print, but his metaphysical theology and his theocentric ethics have found only a few adherents. If, however, the recent recovery of interest in Edwards is marked more by respect than imitation, that respect is wide and deep, and it continues to grow.

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