Humanism and The Tradition of Dissent

This chain of events, which arrayed both the Stuart kings and the Cromwellians against the high Calvinism of the Puritan party, requires us to revise a common interpretation of our American religious history with respect to the tradition of religious liberty. The popular wisdom has it that a succession of sects came to America as persecuted minorities, only to set themselves up as a religious establishment and persecute others in turn. Nothing could be more contrary to the facts. Those who subscribed to the tradition of dissent, of “soul liberty” – and who in consequence of this conviction denied the right of the legal power to intervene in matters of conscience – remained remarkably consistent in this position through many generations. The popular wisdom is based on the deplorable habit of labeling all non-Anglo-Catholic Protestantism of the 17th century as “Puritan.” Always an elite, the Puritans were a party, originally within the Angelican church, who sought, not disestablishment, but rigorous reconstruction of the state religion in conformity with their high-Calvinist ecclesiasticism. The confusion is easy to come by. Except for the “spirituals,” mystics who like the Quakers subordinated creed and scriptures to the direct guidance of the inner light, most of the dissenting Protestants of England subscribed to the stern predestinarian theology of Wycliffe, derived from an older and more ascetic Augustinian Catholicism (but attributed by popular belief wholly to the New Testament). Unlike the separatists, Calvin was an ecclesiastic totally of the continental establishmentarian mentality. He accepted the historic succession of the ordained clery, the authority of the early ecumenical councils – including the historic creeds they had produced – a modified sacrament of communion, and the duty of the state to support the true faith and suppress heresy (his approval of the burning of Servetus in Geneva serving as the most dramatic example). The separatists generally rejected all of this out of hand. The visible church consisted of any band of convinced believers, bodies such as their voluntarily gathered and frequently outlawed conventicles; the historic succession of the clergy was disregarded or rejected, and communion was reduced to a common meal of remembrance. The authoritative teaching power of the church dissolved into the authority of the individual conscience guided by the Holy Spirit in the light of scripture. And for the Quaker, even scripture generally took a secondary place to the direct inspiration of the conscience by the inner light. These teachings are not to be confused with rationalism, deism, and free thought; but with such independency of individual judgment at large, rationalism and free thought could not be far behind. Not only did the Society of Friends produce Thomas Paine (who, like many of his time, could not live within the confinements of the sect), but the mindset of Paine’s enthusiastic lower-class mass following in England, during the French Revolution, was the outcome of a centuries-long incubation of Lollard-Separatist independency joined to the advancing skepticism of the Enlightenment. This hybrid species, combining the social habits and egalitarian traditions of the old dissent with the newer skepticism that derived from the emerging sciences and speculative philosophy, produced the Age of Reason, first crystalizing in Britain into a post-LockeanNewtonian deistic mode and then, once the ferment crossed the channel, into the more uncompromising, and often atheistic, version of the French. (One may call this a re-crossing of the Straits of Dover, since on the scientific, speculative side of the hybrid, the parental stock stemmed substantially from continental humanism and the recent revolution in mathematics and science, resting on foundations laid by Galileo and Descartes.)

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