A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

By Bruce Kuklick | Go to book overview

3 Theological Dispute, 1750-1858

The New England Theology

When Jonathan Edwards died, he left a corpus of writing that attracted the labors of gifted thinkers for the next century and a quarter. The committed interpretation of this writing has been called the New England Theology. Its adherents, usually proponents of denominational Protestantism in New England and the Middle Atlantic States, adapted Edwards's teachings to a changing society and intellectual climate, and also resolved problems they believed he had handled inadequately. Although these men, like Edwards, usually expounded ideas already prominent in Western Christianity, a peculiar system emerged, a chapter in the history of theology. In American speculative thought, the New England Theology forms a tradition comparable to later American pragmatism.

The first and most important group of followers had begun refining Edwards's ideas even when he was alive. Opponents called them men of the New Divinity, because, it was claimed, they introduced novel doctrines into Calvinism, more indebted to modern philosophy than to religion. Joseph Bellamy, Samuel Hopkins, Nathaniel Emmons, Jonathan Edwards the Younger, and Timothy Dwight were its leading lights.

The New Divinity was succeeded by the New Haven Theology, focused around the stunning thought of Nathaniel William Taylor and his colleagues at Yale. Later, Henry Boynton Smith and the New School Presbyterianism of Union Seminary in New York picked up Edwardsean themes, and the philosophy of religion formulated at the Andover Seminary in Andover, Massachusetts, from the time of Leonard Woods and Moses Stuart to that of Edwards Amasa Park also reflected Edwards's impact. Although Andover was more conservative than innovative, more tenacious than expansive, the tradition ended only with Park's retirement in 1881.

The New England Theology molded other thinking. The New Divinity influenced liberal religious thought in Boston, which overthrew Calvinism at Harvard in the early 1800s. Many of the creatively religious of the mid-century were indebted to Germany. But these men—James Marsh, Horace

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