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DIVERSE CURRENTS IN COLONIAL CHRISTIANITY

June 7th, 2010

The separation of Church and state, secularism and Statism are not new. In fact, early Colonial Christianity, strengthened by the Puritans and responsible for establishing a Christian foundation in our country, came under attack by false doctrines that started to infiltrate the orthodox Christian theology and faith. Beginning in Europe and spread to the colonies, these beliefs had a significant impact in changing the headway the Puritans had made. In the larger scope of  our country’s early days, it remains evident that God was acknowledged as the Supreme Being and Provider. The founding fathers said and wrote as much and relied on these truths to establish this country. Divine Providence ruled in the end.

The following excerpts from “Diverse Currents,” Chapter 8 of Christianity in the United States by Daniel Dorchester [American Vision Press, Powder Springs, Georgia, 2009; originally published by Philips & Hunt, 1888] provides us with a glimpse of how these diverse currents began and the course it took. These excerpts cannot and do not capture the full story. If you are interested in learning more, check our endnotes for the web site and contact information for American Vision Press. [1]

DIVERSE CURRENTS

An inspection of the religious life of the colonial era reveals new currents of theological sentiment, silently but steadily setting in, at various points, against the long accepted theories. In the subsequent periods they will appear as more active assailing forces, openly antagonizing the old beliefs and seriously engaging the attention of the world.

Section 1. – The Inception of American Skepticism

As early as the middle of the seventeenth century symptoms of this great revolt appeared, in the English mind, in the gradual unfolding of the principle that the natural consciousness of the Divine existence and man’s conscience are all the materials necessary for the construction of a perfect religion, and that Christianity is of no value except as containing germs of this natural religion. In the course of the following century these sentiments obtained a formal recognition under the name of English deism, accompanied often with a denial of the historic verity of the Christian records and a denunciation of the Christian system as priestcraft. The history of English deism covers a period of about one hundred and seventy-five years (1625-1800) [2]  from Herbert to Gibbon, embracing groups of essayists, poets and novelists distinguished for splendid talents and extensive acquisitions. A large portion of the English mind was tainted with these ideas, and a serious deterioration in faith and morals became apparent.

Introduction into America


The celebrated French and Indian war, extending through a period of nine years (1754-1763), afforded an opportunity for their inculcation. During this war American citizens were brought into deistical sentiments. “Most of their American companions had never heard the divine origin of the Scriptures questioned, and their minds were, of course, unprovided with answers even to the most common objections. To such objections as were actually made was added the force of authority. The British officers were from the mother country—a phase of high import—until after the commencement of the Revolution. They came from a country renowned for arts and arms, and regarded by the people of New England as the birth-place of science and wisdom.

The period of intervening between the French war and the Revolution was characterized by a perceptible relaxation of morals, and it is certain that religion suffered serious decline.

The Unitarian departure had its inception in the introduction of the famous “halfway covenant,” which was adopted in the infancy of the colonies, only forty-two years after the landing of the Pilgrims. This measure was a politico-religious expedient resorted to for the purpose of relieving themselves from embarrassments growing out of an extreme and impracticable application of Christianity to the relations of the Church and the civil power.

It has been already observed that the early churches of New England held very strictly to the necessity of saving faith and spiritual regeneration as conditions of membership. And their religion was not a dreamy speculation, or a mere sentiment, or an abstraction, but it was carried out in concrete forms in the practical details of life. Religion was the stock upon which every things must be rejected. Hence we find the State growing out of the Church. Under their regimen no person could hold public office, or vote in elections, or enjoy any of the ordinary privileges of citizenship, who was not a member of the Church.

In 1633, Rev. John Cotton preached a sermon in Boston, entitled, “A Discourse About Civil Government, in a New Plantation, whose Design is Religion.” Its object was “to prove the expediency and necessity of intrusting free burgesses, who are members of churches, gathered amongst them according to Christ, with the power of choosing from among themselves magistrates and men to whom the managing of all public and civil affairs of importance is to be committed.” This was in accordance with the general usage of the New England colonies. [3]

Religious ideas were carried into everything they did. The recluses of the Middle Ages had removed religion from practical life, into caves and cloisters, but the Puritans reversed the order and carried it into the most common affairs. Thus actuated, they made the franchise of the Commonwealth dependent upon church membership, and the latter upon a genuine religious experience. A solemn form, too, was observed in the relation of religious experience before the Church, and inquiries were made into the previous conviction for sin and the radical character of the change. Thus were the membership of the Church and the franchise of the State hedged in with impressive and uncompromising religious ideas and usages. [4]

[1] Editor’s note to article
[2] Herbert died 1648; Hobbes, 1679; The Earl of Shaftesbury, 1713; Toland, 1722; Mandeville, 1733; Collins, 1729; Woolston, 1733; Morgan, 1743; Tindal, 1733; Chubb, 1747; Bolingbroke, 1751; Hume, 1776; Gibbon, 1794
[3] The Ecclesiastical History of New England, By Joseph B. Felt. Vol. l, pg. 169
[4] Endnote: These excerpts are taken from “Diverse Currents,” Chapter 8 of Christianity in the United States by Daniel Dorchester [American Vision Press, Powder Springs, Georgia, 2009; originally published by Philips & Hunt, 1888]. For further information, visit their web site at www.americanvision.org or telephone 1-800-628-9460