Catholick Calvinists

In 1730 Thomas Foxcroft, the pastor of Boston's First Church, voiced a lament that in New England the old zeal had yielded to a "Catholick Spirit, as 'tis called.'' Across town, Benjamin Colman, the pastor of the Brattle Street Church, found nothing to lament: to him an "enlarged Catholick Spirit'' was a badge of intellectual breadth and generosity, and he especially praised Harvard College for providing the ''free Air'' in which it could flourish. By expanding the reading lists, the Harvard faculty—John Leverett, William Brattle, and Ebenezer Pemberton — had encouraged Harvard students to read the Cambridge Platonists, English Latitudinarians, and natural philosophers. Increase Mather warned of ''Pelagian and Arminian'' principles, and Cotton Mather complained that students were reading "rank poison,'' but after Lever-ett's appointment as tutor in 1685, the ''catholick'' ideal reigned at Harvard.1

No precise meaning defined the ''catholick spirit,'' but the heart of it theologically was a cautious shift of emphasis toward the natural. The shift was visible, for instance, in the growing interest in a discipline of ethics distinct from the exegesis of biblical commandments; the Harvard tutors introduced the Enchiridion Ethicum of the Cambridge Platonist Henry More to students during the 1680s. The college also founded a professorship of natural philosophy and encouraged students in philosophical studies. None of this brought any immediate challenge to Calvinist orthodoxy, but the catholick spirit implied a sensibility and a rhetoric that worried the conservatives.2

Benjamin Colman irritated conservatives when he returned in 1699 from a four-year sojourn in England to be the pastor of the new Brattle Street Church, which announced that it would admit members without a narrative of conversion. Traditionalists felt aggrieved, and it did not help that the congregation defined the duties of the pastor and his flock by appealing to ''the dictates of the law of nature'' or that Colman introduced to provincial Boston a ''grand and polite'' rhetorical style modeled after the prose of Joseph Addison in England. But Colman's theology illustrated the caution that marked the new spirit.3

He published ninety books and sermons, which included reflections on earthquakes and smallpox inoculation, and his admiration for natural philosophy was evident at every turn. He urged his readers to seek the divine majesty by reading ''the vast Roll of Nature, written within and without'' in the light of the ''new philosophy,'' with its marvelous discoveries of motion, gravitation, and planetary attraction. The cosmos conveyed to him the immensity of God. Yet he never called Calvinist theology into question, and he combined his interest in natural philosophy with a conventional supernaturalism. While he thought that earthquakes resulted from secondary causes, he thought also that they signified the wrath of God. While he urged modesty in eschatological speculation, he felt that it was not immodest to say that Christ would make his physical return only after the fall of the Antichrist, the conversion of the Jews, and the church's period of peace and tranquility, just before the final battle with Satan. He insisted that his ''favourite subject'' was the covenant of salvation through Christ, and he was said to have never referred to natural theology without linking it to the revelation in Christ. Although he asserted that reason alone could discern God's existence, he thought ''the book of nature'' fully legible only to the mind illumined by biblical revelation.4

Nonetheless, Colman represented a clerical group who were drawn to the language of natural theology and natural law. Puritan moralists had always recognized a natural law, but by 1715 John Wise (1652-1725) of Ipswich defended congregational polity almost exclusively on the basis of ''the Light of Reason as a Law and Rule of Right.'' Drawing on the continental natural law theorist Samuel Pufendorf, Wise argued that congregational ''democracy'' had its origin and justification in ''the Light of Nature'' that was innate in ''the Original State and Liberty'' of humankind. He thought the light of reason owed its existence and authority to the creative power of Christ, but having secured this point he built his argument entirely on the ''Natural Libertie, Equitie, Equality, and Principles of Self-Preservation'' mandated by the law of nature.5

One telling expression of the new spirit came in a reevaluation of natural religion. In 1730, John Bulkley of Connecticut contended in his treatise on The Usefulness of Reveal'd Religion, to Preserve and Improve that which is Natural that the ''weightiest matters'' — judgment, mercy, and faith — belonged to the realm of natural religion, the faith and obedience taught by ''Nature, or Natural Light.'' Long before Christ this natural religion taught men and women to love God, hope for immortality, expect eternal reward and punishment, love themselves, and treat their neighbors with justice and charity. The purpose of the biblical revelation was not to replace but to preserve and improve this natural religion, partly by reaffirming its truths, partly by revealing additional ones. Bulkley expressed wonder that deists should criticize a revelation that was intended to confirm their own natural religion. He thought that the deists should recognize that both sides shared a common interest in the cultivation of virtue.6

New England Calvinists had always said that theology was practical, retaining the medieval sense of the distinction between the practical and the theoretical. In the eighteenth century, some of them began, without fully noticing, to define the practical as the ethical, a definition that narrowed the scope of the medieval usage. With increasing frequency, the catholicks spoke of the imperatives of virtue, including the virtue of self-love. But self-love was only one of the many duties that the catholick ministers pressed on their readers. They wrote on moral obligation, the imitation of Christ, and ''obedience to the divine law.'' As John Barnard emphasized in 1738, living ''according to the Christian scheme'' meant for them not only believing ''the Doctrines of Christ'' but also fulfilling ''the moral Duties which he requires.''7

Yet the catholick theologians proposed no alteration of Calvinist doctrine. Although they drew their images from natural philosophy, fashioned a rhetoric attuned to natural theology, preached ethics and virtue from their pulpits, and said that rational creatures owed God a rational service, which included the gathering of rational evidence for the truth of Christianity, they were confident that such affirmations were consistent with total depravity, predestination, and invincible grace. They shared with their predecessors an interest in conversion, eschatology, and providential causation. In most ways, they were still conventional New England clergy, but they subtly modified and expanded the older vocabulary in order to make more room for natural causes and moral virtues.8

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