Social activist Julia Ward wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861, the same year that Henry Timrod composed his “Ethnogenesis” (the poem which kicked off part 2 of this series). In it, she penned that God will use His “terrible swift sword” to bring judgment upon “condemners” and “crush the serpent with his heel.” The wicked this New Yorker wanted to vanquish was, of course, the Southern people.
Howe, the daughter of a Wall Street Banker and Calvinist-turned-Unitarian, saw the Northern cause as a holy war – the Yankees’ manifest destiny – and the Union as the army of God, whose cannons rained hellfire upon a peaceful people. Or God’s “fiery gospel writ in rows of burnished steel,” as Howe liked to call these weapons of conquest. “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” so goes the refrain.
Howe typifies the New England crusader mindset – a self-aggrandizing moral superiority that historian Clyde Wilson terms the Treasury of Counterfeit Virtue: “a kind of plenary indulgence that automatically pre-justifies the motives of American violence and the goodness inherent in America’s acts to force the world into conformity with its ideal version of itself.” You know, progress.
She also represents the consequence of what cultural historian Richard Webster called “secular monasticism,” in which “every Puritan could become his own abbot, regulate his own day, weigh his own sins inside the dark cell of his own conscience and there prescribe and inflict the penance which he deemed just.” Puritans were the predestined elect, so why not?
It was this “rational soul” of the Puritans and their secular descendants that was the absolute sovereign, not the Lord. It required a “spiritual police force no less cruel than Calvin’s at Geneva,” where (under his theocratic rule in the 1540s) 150 dissidents were burned alive on slow-burning pyres of green wood in an effort to promulgate adherence to the theologian’s cleansed religion by civil means.
It was precisely Puritanism’s rigid totalitarianism, rational asceticism, and adherence to a fluid theology (as described in part 1) that made it a breeding ground for the progressive ethos. Eventually gone were the Jesus followers, but what remained were rootless, majoritarian radicals, who aimed to “fortify the government of their own reason.”
Their vehement opposition to Scriptural traditions and Church heritage, and emphasis on personal interpretation made Puritanism intrinsically schism-prone. With each re-creation came gaping theological holes to be filled with differing ideologies, until God and Biblical justice were altogether abandoned for “social justice.”
Even when Calvinist-borne Congregationalism became the official state religion of Massachusetts, it still couldn’t stop the constant splintering and “the spreading of the contagion of corrupt opinions,” as colonist Rev. Thomas Shepard described it. After all, change had always been at the heart of the Puritan ethic.
Yet, the core dogma of forging heaven on earth, a new Zion, held fast. It was simply passed from the hands of the Christian Hebraist fathers to their puritanical atheist sons. No longer necessary were parishes or pastors or even God. Statism became the new church and the zealotry of its members was/is stronger than ever.
People would eventually become trained in the habits of obedience to the religion of secular Puritanism, if beaten down enough through law, regulation, invasion, war, re-education, propaganda, and reconstruction. Why recognize the reality of original sin and live your life in humble accordance when there is forced sanctification of the here and now?
That’s the faith of the progressive Puritan. Presentist. Moralistic. Hubristic. Perfectible. Activist. Ideological. Reform-minded. Reinventing and forward thinking. “His truth is marching on.”
So, how else did this puritanical polity begin to unfold? Let’s pick up where my last two blogs left off.
By the 18th century, the Enlightenment was taking root on both sides of the Atlantic with its core belief that human reason was sufficient for all earthly good. From that sprang the theoretical idea of “equality.”
And not the Golden-Rule kind of concept of understanding that all men are made in the image of God and, thus, have dignity and worth, no matter his station in life or his unique differences. But rather the subversive kind of equality that wants to eradicate true human diversity. In other words, egalitarianism.
This social philosophy presupposes that people aren’t distinct, none having his own talents and desires. What is paramount is the common, the greater good, no matter the cost.
Although some positives were born out of the Enlightenment, it also fostered vapid humanism over beautiful individualism. Ego over faith. Present over past. Man over God. Worldly over eternal. Voltaire over Jesus.
And depending on where and when it took hold, it could result in liberty (the American Revolution with Jeffersonianism) or mob rule (the French Revolution with Robespierre and the Reign of Terror … and, of course, modern-day America with cultural Marxism).
The Age of Enlightenment also doubled-down on the Puritan notion of newness. As Thomas Paine’s influential pamphlet “Common Sense” stated, “We have it in our power to begin the world again.”