Sore legs and sore head

May 14, 2004

My quads are sore today, perhaps because I went running yesterday. I will run again tomorrow, if I can manage it around participating in the community flower planting day. If not, then Sunday will be good enough - right now the challenge is to keep my knees healthy, not to build up wind and muscle fitness, so I don't have to run every day or even every other day.

My head is also sore. I am wrestling with a tricky problem in chapter three. I will go below the fold to write up what it is that I think I want to argue - I find it incredibly helpful to use the blog to explain the points I am trying to make in my work prose.

The basic problem that I have is that I see two clearly defined trends in the early nineteenth century; I want to argue that they are connected; and I am having trouble connecting them.

Both trends involve a movement away from strict religious doctrines and towards feel-good religion. This is not a new trend for me to notice. Goofs like Laurence Moore wrote about it. Ann Dougless also wrote a very smart book based on not enough evidence and made a similar argument (she looked at Unitarians and then wrote about all Protestants, so the book itself is not so useful).

The first trend is revivals. As American religion went to a revival pattern and as revivalists engaged in a remarkable churching of the American people, they used techniques of steam religion and social pressure to teach a simpler, more positive, and more optimistic faith. Basically, they told people that their salvation or damnation was not eternally decreed before time began and it was not dependent on a lifetime of faith and works; instead a person was told that they had to make an immediate decision for heaven or hell, that this decision would matter, and that their eternal fate hung in the balance and would be decided RIGHT NOW. It was a very effective way to induce emotional conversions. It also emphasized the human ability to choose God over God's power in overcoming sin. Some folks liked this and did it, a few disliked it and opposed it, and from that tension the Presbyterian church schismed. This is not new stuff.

The second trend is providential and is new. I argue, based on my reading of the primary sources, that in the early 19th century most Americans rejected the old Providential covenant which had promised that the nation would prosper if it heeded God's will and would be punished if it fell from God's path. Instead they accepted only the positive half of that deal - the nation would prosper because God had blessed it. The first half, the negative half, involved identifying and rectifying national sins, and that meant pointing fingers and engaging in a blame game, one that divided religious groups from one another. So they dropped that -- think about the reception that Falwell and Robertson got when they blamed 9/11 on American sexual practices.

The notion of providential blessings continued - that is after all the desire in the ritual exclamation "God bless the United States of America" which appears in some public rituals and almost every State of the Union Address. But, what happened in the early 19th century, was that the blessing came to be undeserved or barely deserved.

So, how do I connect the decline in negative providence with the increase in steam religion? That is what I am wrestling with at the moment. My current thought is that both notions downplay both the power of sin and God's transcendent role in the universe. If a person can choose God over sin, then free will is effectively greater than original sin, and while theologians may insist that it was only Christ's atonement that gave free will that power, still at the end of the day Arminian soteriology encourages people to emphasize their decisions and to downplay God's power.

Similarly, the decline in Providence involved a sort of wishing-away of national sin. If God will bless or punish according to a nation's actions, and he is always invoked as blessing the future, then clearly the nation is relatively sinless. Humans may be asked to choose future courses that will meet with Divine favor, but no matter what we choose we are told that there will be a carrot at the end of the road, and that the stick has been misplaced and will never be applied.

My writing challenge is thus to add these discussions of sin and human ability to the text, to square the fact that the folks who embrace post-Calvinist versions of revival theology are also folks who insist that the nation must pursue certain courses in order to maintain Providential favor, and then create a crescendo in Providential discourse that will coincide with the schisms in the Presbyterian Church and the American Bible Society in 1835-7. That last is the sticking point, although the crash of 1837 might give me the window that I need.

And back to writing - this think piece helped.

Posted by Red Ted at May 14, 2004 11:01 AM | TrackBack

Be sure to stretch. More and longer than you need to. And take some extra Vitamin C during these first few days/weeks of workout. And of course, water, but you knew that.

Posted by: Me. at May 14, 2004 10:44 AM


If you take a look at the documentary history of the Unitarian controversies of the early 19th century, you'll find everything you need to support your thesis. Your thesis is correct. The Unitarians simply played out the historical trends a little earlier than everyone else.

Posted by: Melanie at May 15, 2004 10:31 AM
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