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THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN PROTESTANTISM AN IN1;'ERPRETATION N. -F. LANGFORD T HE history of the Protestan t churches in America _ has two phases. The first did not survive a cen tury of American growth. The second has prevailed until our own times, and 1s now probably nearing its end. The first was a projection of old-world Protestan tism. The second was the product) partly 9f ~igh teen t.h-century in tellectual trends thr.oughout the Wes tern world, but also of distinctively American elements; and the· remarkable longevity of the phase is in large measure owing to the social and econolnic conditions of a frontier con tinen t. - . The barrenness of religious life in America since the eighteen th cen tury can be comprehe.p.ded onJy in the ligh t- of this historical distinction. The dreary spectacle of Amt;rican church history has· not been generally understood , partly, perhaps, because those who migh t be in a position to appreciate its .dreariness have not been tempted to -analyse it. Secular historians, having no religlous axe to grindJ could at least have been helpful by pointing out necessary distinctions. As it is, denominational historians, who -have pretty well monopolized the subject) have failed to distinguish in American history between what is native and wha.t is alien to Reformation theology. Yet without the differentiation between two profoundly dissi.milar modes of thought) the characteristics of eitller early or modern American religion cannot. be grasped. To depict merely a process of evolution is sound only on the general historical principle that one thing leads to another. To portray a steady broadening down to a state of religious maturity is a device fit !Jnly 95' THE UNIVERSITY 9F TORONTO QUARTERLY for modernist apologists, and not for the conscientious historian or theologian. The distinction between the two phases can be expressed as the distinction between two concepts of moral- I ity._ _ Sixteenth-century Puritans did not talk about moral men; they spoke of godly men. When Calvin expounded the moral law, as contained in the Ten Commandments, the pain t of his exposition was that men , since the Fall, could not keep this law except in Christ. Man is depraved , incapable of doing good. Therefore the sole means of satisfying God-that is, by keeping His lawis not within his grasp. The resolution of this dilemm~ is the 'sacrifice of Christ,_which atones for man's inherent sinfulness} and without which all men are damned. The contemplation of these doctrines produced the' discipline known as Puritanism, whereby men sought to avoid the aggravation of that evil which was their quality as fallen creatures. An abhorrence of immoral conduct, and an earnest striving after r.ighteousness, would naturally spring from this faith. But the visible Purita~ism wh. ich catches the eye of historians, philosophers, and other critics, is bu t an external result of a theological point of view; and pure Calvinism'never identitled conformity to outward observances with genuine. righteousness, which is an attribute of God. The Calvinist hoped, and even strove, to be pure before the sight of God; but he did not think of making himself acceptable by a reformatory process or by obedience to a simple moral code. In the nineteenth century, the moral law was regarded as a set of spe-cific rules of conduct, whlch could and must be obeyed. A man was judged by h~s quantitative conformity to these rules. The organized religious forces of the country sought increasingly to obtain the formal regulation ofpublic conduct by the standards laid down 96 AMERICAN PROTESTANTISM by themselves. Specific virtues were recommended, not simply because they were prescribed by the Bible, but , also, because of their utility in practical iife. Finally, emotional piety-itself, perhaps, counted as one of the civic and personal virtues-, provided the driving force of moralized religion. In the intervening century-the eigh teen th-'-is the key to this discrepancy in points of view. A survey of the history of American Protestantism will make the distinction clear, and may also reveal the factors which produced the characteristic religious thought of this continen t in the modern...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 95-112
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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