One of the strangest religious transitions in American history is that the Puritan congregations in New England became Unitarian Universalists. It would be hard to find a religious group who cared more about getting doctrine exactly right than the Puritans, yet within the span of only a few generations, they’d devolved into something unrecognizable as either Puritan or even Christian.
As most Americans are at least vaguely aware, the Puritans were devout and even fierce Calvinists, who literally left England because it wasn’t “pure” of Catholicism enough, were devoted to what they viewed as right doctrine. And they were anything but afraid to toss around a little fire and brimstone — as Calvinists, they readily declared most of humanity was made by God just so He could send them to Hell, and it was a son of Puritanism, Jonathan Edwards, who famously preached the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, about how God is furious with us. The Puritan communion was tightly closed, as was their Baptism. It goes almost without saying that they were Trinitarian.
Their direct descendants, the Unitarian Universalists, couldn’t be much different. They deny the Trinity, but nowadays, aren’t even sticklers for that — they have members who are openly atheist. Their website brags:
Today, a significant proportion of Unitarian Universalists do not believe in any type of god. Our congregations are theologically diverse places where people with many different understandings of the sacred can be in religious community together.
That’s not a parody: they’re actually promoting the idea that there can be a united “religious community” iin which a significant portion of the members deny that religion is true. Of course, as Universalists, they agree that Hell doesn’t exist and everyone goes to Heaven (presuming Heaven exists). And yet, these Unitarians are the direct descendants of the Puritans. What gives, and what can we learn from the humiliating fall of Puritanism?
I don’t want to turn this into a history paper, so I’ll keep it basic.
- Puritanism was, by definition, anti-Catholic: it sought to remove what it called “Popish superstition” from Anglicanism. Anything that looked like a Catholic holdover was rejected for that reason alone. They were even against the wearing of church vestments, since that’s what Catholics do.
- Within Puritanism, there were various factions: some said that the Church of England could be reformed, while others became increasingly convinced that what was needed was not internal reform, but schism, in order to create a more perfect Church.
- Puritans were united in proclaiming that the Anglican bishops had to go: these were viewed as a vestige of Catholicism. They were divided, though, on what should replace the episcopal model – some favored Presbyterianism (in which local churches are subject to a local “presbytery,” a regional “synod,” and the “general assembly,” which is the highest level of authority within the church), while others favored Congregationalism.(in which the local church is its own highest authority).
- The Puritans were united in their opposition to the Anglican bishops, and the bishops weren’t having it. Homes were invaded, Puritans were arrested, people were tortured and killed, and so forth. The ferocity with which the Church of England responded to the Puritan’s challenge lead many Puritans to give up hope on ever reforming the institution. They increasingly flocked to the Separatist camp, and many of them fled England all together, eventually establishing the Plymouth Colony in modern Massachusetts.
- Plymouth was founded in 1620, and about 40% of the starting members were Puritan Separatists. Over the course of the 1630s, some 20,000 Puritans arrived in New England, in what was called the Great Migration. So by this point, there was a sizable society of Separatist Puritans in New England.
There’s a lot of stuff I’m omitting, like the English Civil War, the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell, the killing of the King.of England, Charles I, for being too lax on Catholics (he had a Catholic wife), and so forth.
One of the Puritans to cross over to the New World in the Great Migration was the famous Puritan minister Richard Mather, the father of Increase, grandfather of Cotton (because the Mathers briefly forgot what “names” were once they made it to the New World), and great-grandfather of Samuel. Increase and Cotton were both famous New England Puritan ministers in their own right, and both they and Samuel served as pastors of Old North Church in Boston. To see how quickly the Puritan experiment failed, and turned into something far from Christianity, follow the lives of these four generations of Mathers.
When Richard arrived, Puritanism had only recently reached the New World. By the time his son Increase was an adult, the liberal Congregationalists were already the most powerful religious group in much of the colony. In fact, Increase himself served as president of Harvard until he was forced out – for being too conservative. Increase had been given an ultimatium: he could be a preacher, or he could be college president, and he was sent packing when he refused to choose. The Unitarian Universalist Historical Society explains that this was a turning point for them:
By 1699 the balance of power had shifted. In that year, a group of Boston merchants, led by John Leverett and William and Thomas Brattle, issued a manifesto calling for the organization of a new church along “broad and catholick” lines. There was no official suppression. Rather the power of this group was demonstrated when Leverett, a layman, replaced the conservative minister Increase Mather as the President of Harvard College in 1707.
Indeed, Increase Mather has been called “the last American Puritan,” because his death saw the close of a strong Puritan presence in New England. He died in 1723, his son Cotton following a mere five years later.
The life of Cotton’s son, Samuel, is also quite telling. Samuel gave the funeral sermon for his father in 1728, and was pastor of the family church, Old North. In 1741, he was dismissed for being too liberal, and formed his own church instead. That’s significant, because by 1768, the pastor of Old North Church was John Lathrop, who began as a Calvinist, but became a Unitarian. The Church which once found Samuel Mather too liberal now had no problem with a pastor who denied the Trinity, and from 1802 until its closing, Old North became formally Unitarian.
Along with the rise of Unitarianism (the rejection of the Trinity) came the rise of Universalism (the rejection of Hell). We can see this in Samuel Mather’s own writings: in 1782, he wrote, All Men Will Not Be Saved Forever: or An Attempt to Prove That This is Not a Scriptural Doctrine, and to Give a Sufficient Answer to a Pamphlet Entitled, “Salvation of All Men,” to attempt to combat the growing phenomenon. In this, he largely failed.
By the time Samuel died, in 1785, the Universalists and the Unitarians had largely won. For example:
By the close of the 18th century many of the largest churches, especially but not exclusively in eastern Massachusetts, had become markedly liberal in theology. Their ministers and lay members were openly, though not confrontationally, Arminian and unitarian. To these liberals, freedom of the human will was both a reality of common experience and a necessary corollary to the goodness of God, without which the justice of God would be meaningless. They rejected as unbiblical the traditionally held Calvinist doctrines of original sin, total depravity, predestination and the trinity. They adopted positive doctrines of the nature of humanity and the possibility of continuing moral, spiritual, and intellectual growth.
Nor was the triumph of Unitarianism over Puritanism restricted to New England. The “ancient chapel of Toxteth,” in Liverpool, England, where Richard Mather preached his first sermon (at age 15) in 1611, became “Toxteth Unitarian Chapel” in around 1774. So within a generation of Richard Mather arriving in Puritan New England, the rise of Universalism had begun. By the time his great-grandson died, its coup was nearly accomplished, and the last vestiges of Calvinist Puritanism were virtually extinguished.
On Tuesday, I was fortunate enough to talk to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago about this. He had given a talk and done a book-signing on the roof of CIC. Both in his talk and in the Q and A after it, he spoke about American religious history, and it was clear that he had a much better grasp on what Calvinism is than the average cradle Catholic. So I posed this question to him.
He was careful to distinguish between how they became Universalists from how they became Unitarians. His view on how they became Universalists was fascinating: he essentially said that they took the Calvinist notion of God’s sovereignty seriously, and responded to it. I think he’s right. Calvinism teaches that God’s election to salvation is unconditional. So you don’t need faith to be saved. Instead, traditional Calvinists believe that you have faith, because you’re already saved. It’s an effect of salvation, not a cause. If that’s true, then there’s not really a coherent reason that God couldn’t simply elect everyone to salvation.
I think that there are other causes to blame, as well. Congregationalism played some role. Since the highest level of authority is the local church, it wasn’t very hard for heretics to take over prominent churches. A few outspoken members of the church, or a popular tract, and before you know it, the majority of the church is persuaded to a new theology. This became particularly pronounced given New England’s trade economy. With lots of non-Puritan merchants coming in and out, the Puritans were quickly exposed to new ideas which their churches weren’t able to completely suppress.
Another obvious culprit is their view on Scripture alone. They rejected Tradition and Creeds, because they’re Catholic, seeking to rely upon their own interpretations of Scripture instead. Left with only Scripture, as the quote above showed, they quickly ran into problems proving things like “original sin, total depravity, predestination and the trinity.” Indeed, this is a recurring problem within churches without Tradition: look at the rise of Oneness Pentecostals today, who seek to follow the Scriptures, but don’t see how the Bible promotes the Trinity. Without anything like a creed, the Puritans were left to argue over competing interpretations of the Bible alone. Majority ruled, and the majority was clearly heretical.
So while it’s not really true that sola Scriptura always leads to heresies like Universalism and Unitarianism, it is true that as a system, it pulls out all the guard rails, like Tradition, the Church, Councils and Creeds. And unwittingly, it seems like Calvinist theology may help push the car a bit nearer that awful cliff. Certainly, the experience of both New and Old World Puritanism, in which Calvinism was left to run free, suggests just such a conclusion. Now, I’ve certainly gone beyond what Cardinal George said, and his own comments were off-the-cuff, but as a starting point for an examination of how the Puritans fell so hard and so fast, I think it’s worth putting forward.