Why America Is Different: Puritans, Circuit Riders, and the Free Market. (Anywhere but Here: America, Religion & the Rest of the World)

By Doyle, Rodger | Free Inquiry, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Why America Is Different: Puritans, Circuit Riders, and the Free Market. (Anywhere but Here: America, Religion & the Rest of the World)


Doyle, Rodger, Free Inquiry


To understand why America differs so much from other Western nations in regards to religion, go back to John Calvin, the sixteenth-century French-born lawyer who became the driving intellectual force of the Protestant Revolution. On the eve of the American Revolution, most churchgoers were either Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Quaker, or members of other some denomination inspired by Calvin's teachings. These denominations, sometimes collectively referred to as the Puritans, accounted for more than 90 percent of all church adherents at the time of the American Revolution. Some colonists, it is true, followed that other great Protestant rebel, Martin Luther; but in the colonial period and in the early decades of the new republic, Lutherans and other Christians, including Catholics, were numerically unimportant.

Most Americans today, of course, are no longer Puritan in morals, but Puritan ways of thinking about work, the family, and society still influence America at the beginning of the third millennium. Calvin's theology has not endured--the doctrine of predestination, for example, has long since been abandoned by most Protestant Americans--but his social and cultural views still resonate. In sixteenth-century Europe, Calvin's theology had tremendous appeal to the rising urban merchants and artisans, who resented the corruption of the church with its outmoded customs, such as the prohibition of interest in commercial transactions. But it was Calvin's insistence on the dignity of manual labor, and indeed of manual labor as a spiritual activity, that particularly appealed to merchants and to artisans. It was this nascent middle class that was to make Calvinism the most widespread and influential Protestant creed. In contrast to its popularity among the middle class, Calvinism had little appeal to peasants. The resul t was that middle-class notions of personal conduct and polity would permeate America, where peasant culture never flourished.

It is sometimes said that Calvinism made capitalism possible, but capitalism was flourishing in Europe for hundreds of years before Calvin. Perhaps it is closer to the truth to say that both capitalism and Calvinism evolved in tandem as responses to the growing aspirations and power of the urban merchant and artisan classes. It is probably no accident that Protestantism, as it developed in America, easily accommodated itself to the corporations that came to dominate the United States after the Civil War.

Calvin's adopted city Geneva, was engaged in a struggle for independence from the house of Savoy. From the very beginning, Calvinism evolved in opposition to princely claims, unlike Lutheranism, which thrived through alliances with the princes. In his masterpiece, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin insisted that "It is safer and more tolerable for the government to be in the hands of the many." Calvin, of course, was not a modern democrat. He was not overly concerned with the rights of the non-elect, but his anti-authoritarian view contributed to Puritan political thinking and is one of the roots of the modern notion of limited government.

The Calvinist ethic encouraged hard work, thrift, and accumulation. It frowned on habits that seemed incompatible with these virtues, such as drinking, fancy dress, the wearing of jewelry, dancing, gambling, and marital infidelity. Calvinism was an ideal religion for those who struggled under the harsh conditions of American frontier life, which put a premium on stoic virtue. The austerity demanded of adherents extended to church architecture and decoration. Calvin was opposed to any portrayal of God in human form, for that way led to idolatry. And so, at a time when Catholic and Lutheran churches were adopting the baroque style, Calvinist churches were modest and unadorned. Opposition to visual art did not extend to the secular sphere. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Why America Is Different: Puritans, Circuit Riders, and the Free Market. (Anywhere but Here: America, Religion & the Rest of the World)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.