Arminianism and Virtue

In 1726 Cotton Mather could boast that among the ministers of the two hundred New England Congregational churches, he found not a single Armin-ian. By 1734, John White, pastor of the church in Gloucester, saw things differently. In his New England's Lamentations he charged that some of the "young men'' now openly preached the "Arminian scheme.'' Jonathan Edwards also thought that 1734 marked the beginning of "the great noise that was in this part of the country, about Arminianism."9

By the eighteenth century, the label "Arminian" acquired an expanding range of meanings. When such English "Arminian" theologians as Daniel Whitby, Thomas Stackhouse, and John Taylor criticized Calvinism, they meant to reject not only predestination but also imputed guilt, imputed righteousness, and original sin. Whitby's Discourse on the Five Points in 1710 initiated a round of anti-Calvinist critiques founded in biblical exegesis. By 1740 John Taylor of Norwich argued in his Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin, Proposed to Free and Candid Examination that the doctrine of original sin was incompatible with biblical teachings about God's goodness, holiness, and justice. He thought that the idea of native depravity made God responsible for evil because it implied that he sent his creatures into the world with insuperably sinful inclinations. Taylor acknowledged the ubiquity of sin but denied its heritability; sin was, in his view, a personal act, not an inherited status.10

In the 1730s, New Englanders began to accuse one another of Arminianism, though the accuracy of the charge remains open to question. Some of the accused complained bitterly about "being branded with the opprobrious Name of an Arminian,'' and most of the celebrated cases were ambiguous. In 1733 in North Yarmouth, Maine, a church council brought the minister Ammi Cutter to trial for alleged Arminian views, but it cleared him. Robert Breck, who settled in 1735 in Springfield, Massachusetts, faced charges that he thought the heathen who obeyed the light of nature could be saved, but he subscribed, during the squabble, to the canons of the Synod of Dort. The trial of Benjamin Kent in Marlborough, Massachusetts, in 1735 posed a clear alternative. Kent's church dismissed him for denying the eternal decrees, describing election as conditional on good works, and rejecting original sin. But the next incident was more ambiguous. In 1738, the Second Parish in Eastham dismissed Samuel Osborn, who had preached that Christ's sufferings did not abate the obligation to obey the law, that men and women could "do that upon the doing of which they shall certainly be saved,'' and that obedience was a cause of justification. But Osborn did not deny that faith and obedience resulted from the special grace of election. Eleven other ministers declared him orthodox. He might have been no more than a catholick Calvinist linking theology more closely to moral virtue.11

During the 1740s, critics of Calvinist doctrine became bolder. In 1743 a group of Boston laymen decried ''rigid Favourers of the Doctrines of Calvinism.'' In the same year, William Balch of Bradford, Massachusetts, said that the Apostle Paul had understood ''faith'' to include moral obedience. In the ensuing pamphlet battles, Balch argued that everyone received grace ''sufficient'' for salvation and that this grace could be resisted. His argument carried him outside Calvinist boundaries. In 1744 Experience Mayhew, the minister on Martha's Vineyard, published Grace Defended, in which he tried to revise Calvinism by arguing that Jesus died for everyone, that God offered grace to all, and that all had the liberty to accept or resist the offer. His revisions left in place little of traditional Calvinist doctrine.12

As a self-educated theologian, Mayhew had limited influence against the clergy from Harvard and Yale, but in i749 Harvard graduate Lemuel Briant published a provocative sermon on The Absurdity and Blasphemy of De-pretiating Moral Virtue in which he asserted that the ''pure religion of Jesus'' suspended ''our whole Happiness upon our personal good Behaviour.'' Briant would always deny that he was Arminian, since he did not attribute justification to the merit of personal righteousness, but he inserted into his sermon a long paragraph that obliquely criticized the doctrines of unconditional election, original sin, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. A council of seven churches deplored his errors. Its moderator, the aged Samuel Niles at Braintree, charged that Briant had deprecated ministers of ''Calvinistical Character and Perswasion'' and made Christianity a ''meer scheme of Morality.'' It was sometimes difficult to distinguish the ''catholick'' spirit from Ar-minian deviation.13

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