- A Paradise of Reason: William Bentley and Enlightenment Christianity in the Early Republic
Although William Bentley (1759–1819) did not pastor a very large church in Salem, Massachusetts, he ranks as one of the most interesting religious figures in the early Republic. The kind of Christianity he advocated was unique, that is, if we agree with the thesis presented by J. Rixey Ruffin in A Paradise of Reason: William Bentley and Enlightenment Christianity in the Early Republic. Within the pages of Ruffin's elegantly written and theologically sophisticated monograph, one finds the story of the rise and fall of perhaps Salem's most controversial clergyman. Bentley upheld what Ruffin labels "Christian naturalism" (4), a combination of Arminianism, rationalism, liberalism, deism, Unitarianism, and eventually Republicanism.
Besides an introductory chapter and prologue, the book essentially consists of two parts covering Bentley's intellectual progression: part I (chapters 1–5) looks at the years between 1783 and 1791, and part II (chapters 6–10) examines Bentley's life and thought between 1791 and 1805. In the first half of the book, we learn just how radical Bentley was as a New England cleric. During the time that his Calvinist colleague James Diman, at the East Church in Salem, was preaching that humanity is incapable of saving itself, Bentley was delivering discourses with an Arminian bent, teaching that grace could be earned because humans had the ability to act morally. The two men differed on the sacraments as well. Diman allowed communion only to those who could affirm that they had experienced a new birth, but Bentley permitted anyone to partake of the Lord's Supper (32–7). As opposed to Diman, Bentley baptized children born out of wedlock without requiring a confession of guilt from the parents, baptized people at their respective residences rather than at church, and had no qualms performing this rite on days other than Sunday, all radical adulterations of normal ministerial protocol in New England at that time (83–4).
With Bentley, we find a man who cannot be placed in any one theological camp. He is Arminian in that he opposed the total depravity of Calvinism—empowering individuals to make their own moral choices—but he is closer to Socinianism in saying that Jesus could wield no spiritual power of his own: Christ was nothing more than a man to Bentley. Like the deists, Bentley denied that miracles continue to take place and argued that God is no longer active in the world. Yet different from the deists, but similar to Latitudinarians, Bentley surprisingly confirmed the legitimacy of the miraculous accounts in scripture. Miracles, he reasoned, were necessary, but only during biblical times, to convince an uneducated, unsophisticated, and unenlightened people the value of moral living. As it turns out, Bentley was no Latitudinarian either, since he eschewed the placement of spiritual value on the sacraments and conversion (71–3). What emerges is a very unusual theology, placing Bentley "in a category of Christians that was his alone" (61). Indeed, Ruffin calls Bentley "a one-man faction of reasonable Christianity" (76).
In the second half of the book, Ruffin shows how Bentley's convictions changed in the 1790s. Politically, he evolved into an avid Republican, preaching the necessity of civic virtue all the while alienating the wealthy capitalistic merchants in his congregation who felt betrayed by Bentley's outspoken support for America's [End Page 547] embargo against Britain. Earlier in his career Bentley had conceived that wealth was a sign of morality, and that the poor were lazy and deserving of their predicament, but his opinion altered over time to one that had a greater sympathy for the downtrodden, coming full circle to blame social inequality on corrupt politicians and an incessant materialistic culture (109–30). Once committed to Republicanism, Bentley proved to be a key contributor to Jefferson's party by writing articles for the misnamed Impartial Register and backing Salem's rising political star Jacob Crowninshield, a parishioner in the East Church who...