Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Altar of Liberty: Enlightened Dissent and the Dudleian Lectures, 1755-1765

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Altar of Liberty: Enlightened Dissent and the Dudleian Lectures, 1755-1765

Article excerpt

In 1750, Paul Dudley of Massachusetts endowed an annual lecture series at Harvard College for the purpose of upholding the dissenting Protestant Church against the "damnable heresies of the Romish religion." To any student sitting in the audience, the substance of the lectures was neither shocking nor unusual. These disputations simply encapsulated an ideology that pervaded the colonies during the Revolutionary period. The Dudleian lecturers promoted a specific strain of Protestantism that wedded Low-Church ideals with Enlightenment rationality. The resulting amalgamation upheld an anti-authoritarianism that was inescapably tied to the mind. The attentive students understood that attacks on "Romish" doctrines and practices had a religious and a political meaning. High-Church ecclesiology, whether Anglican or Catholic, contained a principle of subordination that had long been associated in these dissenters' minds with "arbitrary" and "tyrannical" political rule. By upholding the freedom of conscience and the right of private judgment, lecturers defended a religious philosophy that denied any role of a human mediator between God and humans. On the eve of the American Revolution, this antiauthoritarianism provided a coherent ideology that gave meaning to British imperial actions, such as the Stamp Act crisis, that vexed the colonists.1

Scholars of the British Enlightenment have spent the last few years detailing the parameters of this intellectual movement. Dubbed by one scholar as "Enlightened Dissent," this worldview united Low-Church Protestantism, Newtonian science, and Whig political thought. Moderate churchmen emerged in the seventeenth century to create the basis of what became a "middle way" between "skepticism" or Deism and religious "enthusiasm." By relying on the mathematical certainties in nature discovered during the Scientific Revolution, several British Anglicans and dissenters tried to bolster a rationalized Christianity that emphasized natural law. These men created an outlook that stressed the rationality and benevolence of God and man. They also supported religious and political toleration because they believed the individual conscience was the most important link between God and man and should be protected at all costs. Therefore, efforts to expand the freedom of the conscience by breaking down doctrinal barriers or expanding participation in political affairs became a standard feature in their writings. Restoration proclamations such as the Act of Uniformity in 1662 drove the dissenters out of political and ecclesiastical power and the Revolution Settlement of 1689 did not fully settle the debate. For the next century, Enlightened Dissenters continued to challenge what they viewed as "arbitrary" political and ecclesiastical authority grounded in tradition and convention rather than reason. These men promoted the belief that the mind created a democratic existence where God directly communicated a Truth to all rational humans, which they were expected to grasp and freely act upon.2

While Enlightened Dissent rested on a core set of beliefs, the eighteenth-century movement incorporated a broad and often disparate group of people. It could, and did, include Unitarians like Joseph Priestley and Arians like Richard Price, orthodox dissenters like Robert Robinson and Robert Hall, and latitudinarian Anglicans like Bishop Hoadley and Samuel Clarke, who challenged strict doctrinal matters and the divine right theories of church and state while maintaining their positions in the Church of England. Enlightened Dissenters in America spanned an equally broad range. Unitarians like Thomas Jefferson and Ethan Allen constituted the most radical of these dissenters. By denying the divinity of Christ and the revelatory aspects of many of the scriptures, this small, but important, group of men represented the extremes of rational religion. While their doctrines would come under the scrutiny of most Americans, they shared with all Enlightened Dissenters a belief in a benevolent, rational God, an orderly universe, and a general toleration toward religious matters. …

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