Call from Tomorrow--video
The Growth of Moral Agency

American Reformation


The second person of focus in Amy Kittelsrom's The Religion of Democracy is Mary Moody Emerson, an aunt of Ralph Waldo who journaled extensively and helped to influence her nephew's thought.  Kittelstrom uses Emerson's journals and letters to cover a significant change in American Congregationalism which she calls the American Reformation, as the old Calvinism gave way to liberal Christianity.

Mary's father, the Rev. William Emerson, was one of the leaders in this movement and the minister who mustered the forces in Concord when the shot was fired that was heard round the world.  According to Kittelstrom, he preached with gender-inclusive language in the 18th century.

She read and rejected the neo-Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards, insisting on the importance of free will, prefiguring William James.  Kittelstrom writes, "Free will formed an essential part of the dignity of the soul, indicating a human capacity for moral action that, along with the endowment of liberty and the other inborn mental powers, pointed first to the reality of the soul's immortality and then, just as vitally, to the means of its advancement toward God's likeness."  

The liberal side in the split with the neo-Calvinists emphasized the virtues.  For example,

A spirit of humility is the appropriate fruit of reflection on one's inborn mental powers, not pride, and not any exalted sense of what humans can do on their own.  Keeping in mind the truly exalted--God's moral perfection, and the glory of his design--the faithful Christian must strive to extend toward other creatures of God not only forbearance of faults but also active interest in their interests, and active recognition of their own hidden inner sparks of the divine.

This chapter also covers the English dissenters that the New Englanders were reading.  Kittelstrom writes, "what was dissent in England gradually became the establishment in New England."  For example, the Cambridge Platonist Benjamin Whichcote who wrote (also anticipating James) that religion "doth not deserve that Sacred Name, if it does us no Good."  These dissenters also laid the ground for the future inclusive pluralism.  For example,

Religion itself seeks the universal moral good, so justice demands inclusion.  In practice, then, friendly engagement across lines of doctrinal difference rather than cool tolerance of those lines fulfills a religious truth deeper than such differences, because religion 'consisteth in a profound Humility, and an universal Charity.' . . . Tolerance is not only a reasonable policy, then; it is an active practice of Christian fellowship in the common pursuit of moral virtue based on a combination of insight into one's own sinfulness and acknowledgment of everyone else's inherent divinity.

This cultivation of virtue led to the importance of education for liberal Christians who went about founding schools (Horace Mann arises from the movement, for instance).  Those with education were to be valued while education was to be opened up for everyone so that everyone had a chance to contribute to culture and decision-making.

An interesting aside was Mary Moody Emerson's reaction to reading David Hume.  Kittelstrom writes, "Hume could not pull the rug out from under M. M. Emerson's faith because her understanding included not understanding everything--included awe, the vivid internal sense of both ongoing revelation and sin."

Most enjoyable in this chapter is the reminder that political liberalism emerged out of Christian faith and virtues.  Again,

Among these new Boston liberals of the early republic, the social values of impartiality, candor, humility, and right reasoning resulted in practices of taking diverse viewpoints, including those of non-Christians, seriously. 


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