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Hellfire and the Puritan Premise

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David Heleniak

Beginning in 1740, a religious revival movement led by Jonathan Edwards spread through New England. This movement, the Great Awakening, was, according to Perry Miller (Errand Into the Wilderness, 13th ed.), dismissed by the religious establishment as mere "enthusiasm," an "excitement of overstimulated passions" (154). It was, in fact, reflective of Puritan culture as a whole.

Puritan culture could not escape its Calvinist roots. The Puritans never questioned the core premise of Calvinism, the premise that is, as Miller states, "[t]he essence of Calvinism and the essence of Puritanism" (93). This premise, which I call "the Puritan premise," is that God exists and He is hidden, unknowable, and unpredictable. And like the Calvinists, all of the Puritans' thoughts, words, and actions were driven by one overriding emotion, the fear of hellfire.

Reflect for a moment on Edwards' description of hell:

How dismal will it be, when you are under these racking torments, to know assuredly that you never, never shall be delivered from them; to have no hope: when you shall wish that you shall be turned into nothing, but shall have no hope of it; when you shall wish that you might be turned into a toad or a serpent, but shall have no hope of it; when you would rejoice, if you might but have any relief, after you have endured these torments millions of ages, but shall have no hope of it; when, after you shall have worn out the age of the sun, moon, and stars, in your dolorous groans and lamentations, without any rest day or night, or one minute's ease, yet you shall have no hope of ever being delivered; when after you shall have worn out a thousand more such ages, yet you shall have no hope, but shall know that you are not one whit nearer to the end of your torments; but that still there are the same groans, the same shrieks, the same doleful cries, incessantly to be made by you, and that the smoke of your torment shall still ascend up forever and ever; and that your souls, which have been agitated with the wrath of God all this while, yet will still exist to bear more wrath; your bodies, which shall have been burning and roasting all this while in these glowing flames, yet shall not have been consumed, but will remain to roast through an eternity yet, which will not have been at all shortened by what shall have been past (176).

This picture of eternal torment weighed on the Puritans' souls from the moment they arrived in America.

The Puritans of early New England were Calvinists, despite their protestations to the contrary. As Miller puts it, the Puritans "honestly believed that they were reading the Bible with their own eyes. Yet in the historical perspective, their way of interpreting the Bible must be called Calvinist" (49).

John Calvin, arguably the most influential figure of the Reformation, realized the logical implications of the Christian doctrine of the justification by faith. Because Adam disobeyed God, the theory does, God declared, in His infinite justice, that Adam, Eve--and every generation following them--should go to a special place created just for them: hell. Moreover, since human nature has been corrupted because of this "original sin," there is nothing any one of us can do to redeem ourselves in God's eyes. Our every action is tainted by our corrupt nature. We all deserve damnation. The only thing that can "save us" is grace arbitrarily bestowed upon a lucky few by God Himself. This grace, once bestowed, allows "the elect" to have faith that by allowing Himself to be executed by crucifixion, Jesus Christ (who is, at the same time, a man, God, God's son, and an entity called "the Holy Spirit") atoned for their sins, satisfying God's thirst for vengeance enough for Him to spare them eternal hellfire. Either you have this faith or you don't. If you have it, you are among the elect. If you don't, you're damned. Either way, there's nothing you can do about it.

Rather than dismiss Christianity by this reductio ad absurdum, Calvin embraced the above as a theological discovery. Calvin, in all likelihood, had some sort of religious experience which satisfied him that he was one of the elect. As the Reformation boiled at a fever pitch, similar emotional experiences were enough to assure Calvin's followers that they too were saved. The absurdities inherent in this doctrine (for example, an all-just God committing the injustice of punishing children for the crimes of their parents) were explained away by Calvin and his flock by the Puritan premise.

Reason, as Ethan Allen stated, is our only oracle. If God is truly beyond reason or nature, then on what basis can we believe in His existence or know His nature. Revelation? "The Bible is true because the Bible says it is" is a completely circular argument, and thus appeal to a supposedly revealed text does not solve the riddle of how we can know anything about an entity beyond human reason and understanding. Thus, the premise that God exists and is hidden, unknowable and unpredictable is flawed. If left unchallenged, however, it can justify belief in any theological machinations one can think of, no matter how absurd.

Neither the Calvinists nor the Puritans could shake the Puritan premise because of their overwhelming fear of eternal damnation. Once the idea is firmly rooted in someone's head that he will burn in hell for all eternity unless he is one of the elect, he will likely do everything in his power to convince himself that he is, indeed, saved. Pyrophobia, when combined with either a "religious" experience of "salvation," a theological system complex enough to seem reasonable, or both, can usually do the trick. Whichever method one uses entails, of course, avoidance on a grand scale.

The original Calvinists lived in a time of extreme emotional fervor. This allowed them to overlook the holes in Calvin's bare-boned doctrines. The Puritans, however, coming as they did after the heat of the Reformation had subsided, could only conjure up in themselves moderate conversion experiences, and therefore could not convince themselves of their salvation without a much meatier theology. And, as the emotional experiences became less and less dramatic through the years, more and more meat became necessary.

The Puritan theology is known as "federal" or "covenant" theology. It is based on a peculiar view of history in which God, though the ages, has struck various bargains with humanity. As Miller expresses it, "man has not only been in relation to God as creature to creator, subject to lord, but more definitely through a succession of explicit agreements or contracts, as between two partners in a business enterprise" (60-61).

The first was a disaster. God promised eternal life in the Garden of Eden to Adam, his wife Eve, and every successive generation that sprang from his loins (Where would they all fit?) if only he would follow one peculiar command: Don't eat the apples! Of course, Adam and Eve couldn't help themselves. They ate an apple, thereby damning themselves and most of their legacy to hell. For the Puritans, as Miller notes, "Adam had stood as the agent, the representative of all men, the 'federal' head of the race. When he, as the spokesman for man in the covenant, broke it and incurred the penalty for disobedience, it was imputed to his constituents as a legal responsibility...." (81)

Skipping over God's covenant with Abraham, God came to strike a deal with humanity called "the covenant of grace," which allowed some people to avoid hell if only they believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Miller states:

In the covenant of grace, God, observing the form, contracts with man as with a peer. But since the Fall man is actually unable to fulfill the law or to do anything on his own initiative. Therefore God demands of him now not a deed but a belief, a simple faith in Christ the mediator. And on His own side, God voluntarily undertakes, not only to save those who believe, but to supply the power of belief, to provide the grace that will make possible man's fulfilling the terms of this new and easier covenant (61-62).

Pursuant to this third and controlling contract, the Puritans envisioned, "if ... [a man] can believe, he has fulfilled the compact; God must redeem him and glorify him" (62). Although the covenant "spin" may seem, as Miller puts it, "an unnecessarily complicated posing of the same [Calvinist] issues, for the grace which gives salvation even in the covenant comes only from God and is at His disposing" (62), the extra layer of detail to Calvin's ideas to rationalize away, for a time, the tensions brewing in the Puritan mind.

Over time, more and more layers of rationalization were added, and lower and lower levels of the experience of "grace" was declared necessary. As the house of cards was built up, however, its foundation--the premise of a hidden, unknowable, unpredictable God--became ever more shaky, and the framework ever less convincing. The Enlightenment came to America, and the Puritans' attempts to participate in it highlighted their dependence on a thoroughly anti-Enlightenment premise. While Anglican writer Jeremy Taylor could theorize that "[t]here cannot be one justice on earth and another in heaven" (94), the Puritan writers were barred from reaching this conclusion. The difference between them and the Enlightenment thinkers was qualitative. Though the covenant theory allowed them to believe that by entering into a covenant with man, God voluntarily curbed his arbitrary and capricious nature so that humans could understand him, God could not be counted on to act predictably. A man could go through life jumping through all the hoops the Puritan religious establishment set up for him so that he could keep up his end of the bargain, and God might nonetheless send him to hell. The Puritans, Miller notes, "might say that God's justice was for all intents and purposes the same as human justice, but they could not say that it was invariably the same" (94). There was always the one in a million chance that He would not act as predicted.

By 1740, the "high probability of salvation" that the federal theologians promised became unsatisfactory to a great number of people. People needed absolute certainty to ease their troubled minds. The stakes were just too high. One in a million odds are not good enough when losing means an eternity in hell. Thus, conditions were ripe for Jonathan Edward's brand of neo-Calvinism. Complex theology was swept aside, and in its place Edwards delivered earth-shattering emotional experiences by his expert manipulation of latent pyrophobia. The absurdities were exposed, and people believed all the more. While it may appear that with the Great Awakening, Protestant thinking had come full circle, in the ultimate analysis nothing had changed at all.

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David Heleniak is a civil litigation attorney in New Jersey and Senior Legal Analyst for the True Equality Network.
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