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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Reason and Experience in Early American Faith

In the early days of the United States of America, reason served as the great leveler, tearing down what were seen as tyrannical authorities and elevating the common man. Appeals to common sense in the political arena made their way into theology, particularly exemplified in the Unitarian movement. In theology, reason was expected to overthrow the tyranny of the Episcopal church which held the people captive by its creeds and philosophical arguments for the Trinity. However, reason was unable to establish a theological consensus. Theological debate continued, with each side appealing to reason. As these debates raged on, a Christian faith built on reason failed to trickle down to the masses, who instead found faith in the new republic through the experientially rooted holiness movement of Phoebe Palmer. Creating a sketch of this progression necessitates first defining “theistic common sense” and the role reason played within it. Then, the Unitarian movement must be defined in light of its role as a theological revolution based on reason. Finally, the inability of this rational brand of Christianity to permeate the public consciousness in a long-term manner will be demonstrated by a comparison of Daniel Whedon and Phoebe Palmer.

Theistic common sense was a synthesis of republicanism and the new moral philosophy of Europe with theology. The new moral philosophy rested its understanding of the world on psychology and common assumptions regarding morality rather than on Aristotle and the Christian scholastics. Historian Mark A. Noll explains it in these words: “Generically considered, this new moral philosophy promoted ‘commonsense moral reasoning,’ or an approach to ethics self-consciously grounded upon universal human instincts.” [1] The new moral philosophy sat nicely aside republican emphases on the power of the individual and a rejection of tradition as authoritative. When these two streams found their way into theology, it necessitated a rejection of orthodox Calvinism with its emphasis on human depravity. Instead, theistic common sense emphasized the natural virtue of all individuals and saw the Christian faith as a way of developing the virtue innate in everyone. Consequently, theistic common sense emphasized the ability of all individuals to know the truth about both God and morality through their rational nature rather than through ancient authority structures.

The Unitarian movement, as exemplified by William Elery Channing, serves as an excellent example of how reason was used to subvert tradition. Channing himself explained the rational for the emphasis he placed on reason in his theological method: "The Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books. We believe that God, when he speaks to the human race, conforms, if we may so say, to the established rules of speaking and writing. How else would the Scriptures avail us more, than if communicated in an unknown tongue?" [2] Channing assumed God to be rational and to speak in a way which accords with reason, leading him to conclude: “If revelation be at war with this faculty, it subverts itself, for the great question of its truth is left by God to be decided at the bar of reason.” [3] For Channing, the church’s teachings regarding the Trinity, the deity of Christ, original sin, and predestination did not meet this test. The conclusions of the Unitarians and Channing served as a radical example of a common theme in the American Church: a rejection of tradition as an expression of authority, instead accusing it as being an expression of tyranny. Channing could easily sympathize with the sentiments, if not the theology, of Samuel Miller in this regard: "‘Every man is required to examine, to believe, and to obey the gospel for himself.’ Presbyterianism conformed to ‘apostolic and primitive order,’ and it mirrored ‘the simplicity that is in Christ.’ High-church episcopal claims, by contrast, represented ‘corruptions of apostolic simplicity,’ they were ‘of a nature allied to the doctrine of Papal infallibility,’ and they did not fit well in a polity where ‘equal rights and privileges are enjoyed by all.’" [4]

However, this emphasis on reason was unable to take root in public consciousness. The people favored experiential religion over rational religion. This trend can be observed in the example of Methodism with rational religion exemplified in Daniel Whedon and experiential religion exemplified by Phoebe Palmer. Whedon defended the mind’s intuitive abilities and argued for a reliance on the moral sense and the reasoning of the mind. He denied a hereditary guilt passed on from Adam. Nor did grace play a major role in his understanding of human ability. In his theological emphases, he was in step with the new moral philosophy and saw reason as the proper vehicle to knowing God [5]. On the other hand, Palmer’s theology was not first argued from reason, but was shaped by her own experience of being freed from sin by the grace of God. The Bible played a central role in her understanding of her experience. Noll concludes: “The latter insistence [on Scripture] was particularly important, since it pointed Palmer and like-minded believers away from the self-conscious reliance on formal philosophy.” [6] It was this experiential religion which took root in the common Methodist congregants, and which would influence the Methodist church long after the new moral philosophy had died out. [7] It would appear that reason, in its efforts to reject the elitism of the old world churches found itself as the elitism of the new world, unable to find its way into the commonplace faith of ordinary people in the same way experiential religion was. A nation whose faith story had been shaped by the Great Awakening simply was not ready to turn aside from experience to pure rationalism.

In conclusion, while appeals to reason in the early American church attempted to overthrow older church authority structures, it was unable to take root in public consciousness, indicating the intellectuals of the new nation and the common people had different expectations of faith. While the common sense theists and Unitarians wanted faith to “make sense” in accord with the thought-processes of the day, the average congregant wanted a faith they could claim for their own and experience in their day to day life. A religion of reason was unable to fulfill these desires for experience in the same way as the Holiness movement.

[1] Mark A. Noll, America’s God, p. 94.

[2] William Ellery Channing, Unitarian Christianity, p. 2

[3] Ibid. p. 4

[4] Samuel Miller, Letters concerning the Constitution and Order of the Christian Ministry as Deduced from Scripture and Primitive Usage. Quoted by Mark A. Noll, America’s God, p. 240

[5] Mark A. Noll, America’s God, pp. 357-358.

[6] Ibid. p. 360.

[7] Ibid. p. 362.

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