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Lessons For Modern Religious And Political Beliefs In Colonial New England Decline Of Calvinism


The following excerpts are from Vernon Parrington’s 1928 Pulitzer Prize winning The Colonial Mind 1620-1800. They are about the decline of Calvinism in Colonial New England.

(The picture is of John Calvin.)

While this subject may not have been on your mind lately, read the excerpts for a sense of why ideologies and theologies fall out of favor with the public and fail.

Ideas that mean something and are useful to people must have both root and branch. There must both a core logic and a visible benefit.

While it’s true that many folks may place more stress on the visible benefit, you don’t have to be that way. It’s your call.

From Parrington— To preach with convincing force one must appeal to the common experience; dogma must appear to square with the evident facts of life….When it ceases to be a reasonable working hypothesis in the light of common experience, it is no longer a controlling influence in men’s lives….In an aristocratic society it is natural to believe that God has set men apart in classes; but as the leveling process tended to strip away the social distinctions, the new individualism undermined the older class psychology.

As the (17th) century advanced the growing dissatisfaction with Calvinism received fresh impetus from the new social philosophy of France. The teaching of Rousseau that in a state of nature men were good…..would appeal to men whose experience was daily teaching them the falseness of the traditional dogmas (that men were inherently wicked.)

Although the provincial colonial might not come into immediate contact with such speculative philosophy, in the long run he could not escape being influenced by it.

Calvinism had taught that people were depraved by nature. Living in small villages and in many respects dependant upon each other, people saw this was not true. The old faith faded away.

This fading away can happen to any idea that does not adapt to new times or that can no longer make the political case.

Regretfully, we have seen liberalism fail in this political sense in the last 40 years. Though, hopefully, that is now changing.    


September 20, 2007 - Posted by | Books, Colonial America, History, Politics


  1. Living in small villages and in many respects dependant upon each other, people saw this was not true. The old faith faded away.

    Does not experience reminds us that we do not do the good we know we ought to do? Depending on your philosophical starting point, this either is or isn’t “evidence” that as it has stood since the Fall of Man, we are not good by nature.

    Just keep in mind that what will lead you to the conclusion that we are depraved by nature or not, will be your philosophical presuppositions not experience itself.

    Comment by Laz | September 20, 2007

  2. You mean someone who comes to help me churn my butter or fix my blunderbus—that person might still be wicked?

    That’s rough stuff!

    Comment by Neil Aquino | September 21, 2007

  3. Sorry Neil, your confusion is my fault for not clarifying some things.

    The term “total depravity” can be somewhat misleading. Why? Because it suggests utter depravity.

    Utter depravity means a person is as wicked as he can possibly be, suggesting both total and complete corruption, lacking even in civil virtue (deeds that conform outwardly to the Law of God).

    The person churning your butter is performing an act of civil virtue, he is loving his neighbor, which is part of the Law of God. Yet it is it not strange how so simple a command in reality, proves so difficult to follow?

    The doctrine of total depravity does not teach that man is as wicked as he could possibly be.

    For example, Adolf Hitler (often held up as the epitome of human evil) surely had behavioral patterns which were not utterly base, he probably loved his mother and perhaps was kind to her on occasion. Yet these acts of kindness do not excuse Hitler from his total depravity or from the hideous things he went on to gain infamy for.

    According to the Bible (whatever one may believe about it, this is where Calvin came up with “total depravity”), acts of civil virtue do not blot out the times in which we miss the mark.

    While the butter churner has performed a good deed it does not, it cannot, liberate him from the depravity found in all men after the Fall. This liberation is only found in Christ not in acts of religiosity.

    I’m not asking you or anyone else to accept these things, I merely try to lay out, as faithfully as I can, the view the Reformers, whom Calvin was one of, held.

    As for Rome’s view, well since I left that church in my youth, you’d have to procure a Catholic.

    Comment by Laz | September 21, 2007

  4. No. I got you the first time. Though I’m very glad to have your comment and it will edify others as to your views.

    I just wonder if these were very pratical people given how tough life must have been. For all real purposes, it just might have been about visible deeds when you are in a remote wilderness.

    Comment by Neil Aquino | September 21, 2007

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