Men and Movements in American Philosophy

By Arthur E. Murphy | Go to book overview
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PRELUDE

THE PURITAN BACKGROUND

The earliest permanent European settlers of New England brought with them little in the way of material goods. They had few skills to enable them to withstand the rugged conditions of life in the northeastern section of what is now the United States of America. To compensate for these deficiencies of goods and skills, they had a strong faith in the rightness of their beliefs, and a conviction that this rightness was of God. These views, so strongly authenticated to the settlers, made up the religion of the Puritans and their philosophy. We must take the philosophy of Puritan New England as our point of departure as we try to unravel the strands of thought which have gone into the making of the American mind.

At the very outset, we should emphasize the fact that most of what the Puritans thought and taught was in no way novel. The Puritans were the heirs of the whole Christian tradition. They were, it is true, Protestants; but the heritage of medieval Christian thought was as much a part of the background of Protestantism as it was of Catholicism. The differences were not in the fundamentals of faith but in the superstructure. Protestantism emphasized the idea that salvation was a matter lying directly between an individual and God, and therefore it placed less stress on the church as an intermediary in achieving salvation. Thus Protestantism heightened, though it did not invent, the sense of human dependence upon God.

Of the various patterns of Protestantism, the one which the Puritans accepted was that of the followers of Calvin. It was the special place of Calvinism in the Protestant movement to resist the tendencies to extreme individualism and sectarianism which were latent in the Protestant conception of salvation. By insisting that God alone had the power to elect those who were to be saved and that nothing that men could do contributed in any way to their election, the Calvinists made God the sole determiner of human destiny and the constant center of human concern. This Calvinist view further intensified the notion of human dependence upon God, the exclusive ruler of all the

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