After Jonathan Edwards: The Courses of the New England Theology

By Oliver D. Crisp; Douglas A. Sweeney | Go to book overview

10
Taylorites and Tylerites

Douglas A. Sweeney

YALE’S NATHANIEL WILLIAM Taylor and the Taylorite-Tylerite controversy have long served as benchmarks for the study of American religious history. Planted firmly in historical memory by classic texts in the field, they are used to measure all manner of historical developments, from the diminution of what Perry Miller depicted as America’s “Augustinian strain of piety” to the spread of what Nathan Hatch called “the democratization of American Christianity.” But nowhere have the Taylorites and the Tylerites loomed as large as in discussions of what Joseph Haroutunian decried as “the passing of the New England Theology,” the rich tradition of religious reflection that stemmed from the thought of Jonathan Edwards and later foliated in the work of his Edwardsian successors. Indeed, despite their claims to Edwardsian paternity, New Haven’s Taylorites especially have symbolized for decades a declension in New England away from Edwards’s bold theocentric vision. Though unfavorable, this symbolism has granted them a historical stature larger than life and guaranteed them a lasting, though awkward, place in the American historical canon.1

Although the Taylorites and the Tylerites are legends of American religion, few of us know very much about them. What we “know,” moreover, we have usually learned second- or thirdhand, and the significance of their dispute is easily misconstrued. Even when theological controversies constituted the most important episodes in many histories of American religion, leading neoorthodox church historians (with the support of their secular sympathizers) dismissed the Taylorites out of hand as important but lamentable Protestant moralists, un-Edwardsian theological pragmatists, and anthropocentric accommodators to the modem spirit of liberal democracy. Most others classify the Taylorites as part of a nearly comatose “Old Calvinism,” as latter-day leaders

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