Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Protestant Temperament

Regardless of their field, most Historians focus on the external world of their subjects in the form of actions and ideologies.  Action and ideology are evident through examination of records, speeches, business accounts, and laws passed, providing the evidence historians use to create an image of the past.  The view of the past, and those who shaped it, however, are left incomplete by the exclusion of the internal mental and emotional structures of the people who lived in the past.  This is the core of Philip Greven’s rationale in The Protestant Temperament, which examines Americans’ beliefs through the early 19th century.  Greven argues that understanding American Protestants’ religious experiences provides a more coherent and complete picture of the influences shaping the United States from creation through the present.  Greven divides American Protestants into three broad categories, Evangelicals, Moderates, and the Genteel, based on their religious doctrine and general approach to life.  Evidence of emotion and belief, which are much more difficult to discern, describe, and document, is gleaned from letters, speeches, sermons, and journals.

Greven defines Evangelicals as a Protestants who believe in salvation through grace only, but who also experience a particular emotional reaction to that religious doctrine. Greven’s Evangelicals also insist on the complete subjugation of the will and the self to God.  Evangelicals are further differentiated from Calvinists in Greven’s system by their struggle to maintain a state of grace rather than acceptance of the doctrine of predestination.  Early American Evangelical belief that they must submit their entire being to God shaped all of their activities from discipline of children and family structure to the organization of churches, and their interactions with other people.

In order to allow their children to more easily enter the state of grace conferred by the complete subjection of the self to God, Evangelical parents’ first mission was to break the will of their infant children.  Only by ensuring that children were completely subject to the will of the parents were Evangelical parents able to ensure that children would follow God’s dictates, but would more easily subject themselves to God, earning salvation.  This was the core of Evangelical belief – that the individual will and conception of self must be completely eradicated in favor of the Almighty.  Greven describes the Evangelical approach to childrearing as “Love and Fear”, meaning that children should both love their parents and fear them, which also typified the Evangelical relationship with God.

Evangelicals insisted on an ascetic lifestyle of strict discipline, diet, and somber clothing, with none of the common sources of entertainment allowed.  Thus, dancing, cards, romances, or theatre were all denied them.  Greven argues that beyond denying these to only themselves, Evangelicals wished to deny them to all other people in order to remove the temptation of these sinful delights from themselves.  The problem of temptation seems particularly difficult for Greven’s Evangelicals to resolve, leading them to insist on what they saw as doctrinally pure churches, excluding those not saved, or with different theological ideas.

The need for purity and conformity, combined with what Greven describes as suppressed anger and aggression resulting from the breaking of their wills as children and again as part of the conversion experience, drove Evangelicals to aggressively attack their opponents in the public arena.  Anger was acceptable for Evangelicals only when directed against those they saw as the “enemies of God”, taking on the role of religious warriors fighting against the infidel in all of its guises.  This role allowed Evangelicals to develop a sense of self that they otherwise fought to suppress in an effort to subject themselves fully to God’s will.

In contrast to Evangelicals, “Moderates” did not work to deny, or suppress the self, but to discipline the self.   Moderates’ different views of authority and the nature of salvation allowed them a more nuanced approach to life.  Moderates were still religious people, but they believed that salvation could be achieved through a gradual process rather than a sudden and cataclysmic event.  This stemmed from the view that God “established knowable rules and limits,” and that mankind was given free will in order to come to a state of grace of their own accord.

The stark difference in worldview from Evangelicals led Moderates to radically different methods of childrearing, which did not include crushing the wills of children.  Moderates emphasized duty rather than fear in their children, in an effort to gain voluntary obedience.  The children of Moderates, thus retained their will, but learned to control it.   This meant that moderates were free to engage in what Evangelicals would consider dangerous and sinful activities such as playing cards or eating fine foods, but were under the onus of restraining any tendencies toward gluttony or other vices.
At the most liberal end of the spectrum, Greven places the “Genteel.”  Genteel households were most common among the wealthy, with the emphasis in relationships was on reverence for those in authority. Genteel families indulged children in their desires rather than teaching an ascetic lifestyle or one of discipline.  Religious observances for Genteel families were a matter of form over substance, with the expectation that people who participated in the Sacraments, and were generally good would be saved.

Greven’s argument is an interesting one, despite the challenges inherent in methodology and sources.  A major concern is the relative paucity of sources that discuss the issues that he wishes to examine – Genteel individuals’ writings, like those of William Byrd do not delve as much into the inner life of the writer, focusing on external issues.  This makes the issue of divining emotional responses and motivations much more difficult.  Trying to interpret these things without sufficient evidence is fraught with peril, as the beliefs of the researcher may loom larger in the analysis to fill the gaps.  This potential may be why the Evangelicals receive more attention, with the Moderates and Genteel relegated to more supporting roles.


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