Puritanism and Natural Theology/Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction/The Founders and the Bible/The Most Sacred Freedom: Religious Liberty in the History of Philosophy and America's Founding/The Lively Experiment: Religious Toleration in America from Roger Williams to the Present/Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists; Maryland and the Politics of Religion in the English Atlantic 1630-1690

By Moots, Glenn A. | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Puritanism and Natural Theology/Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction/The Founders and the Bible/The Most Sacred Freedom: Religious Liberty in the History of Philosophy and America's Founding/The Lively Experiment: Religious Toleration in America from Roger Williams to the Present/Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists; Maryland and the Politics of Religion in the English Atlantic 1630-1690


Moots, Glenn A., Anglican and Episcopal History


Puritanism and Natural Theology. By Wallace W. Marshall. (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2016, Pp. x, 171. $23.00); Was America Founded as a Christian Nation ? A Historical Introduction. By John Fea. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, Pp. xxxi, 292. $30.00); The Founders and the Bible. By Carl J. Richard. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, Pp. x, 385. $42.00); The Most Sacred Freedom: Religious Liberty in the History of Philosophy and America's Founding. Edited by Will R. Jordan and Charlotte C. S. Thomas. (Macon; Mercer University Press, 2016, Pp. 178, $24.00); The Lively Experiment: Religious Toleration in America from Roger Williams to the Present. Edited by Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, Pp. xv, 342. $73.00); Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists: Maryland and the Politics of Religion in the English Atlantic 1630-1690. By Antoinette Sutto. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015, Pp. xi, 259. $39.50.).

Wallace Marshall's Puritanism and Natural Theology argues that natural theology and evidentialism played an essential role in Puritanism. Marshall's thesis contradicts a familiar narrative wherein Puritanism is cast as the opposite of rationalism, the Enlightenment, or modern science, and Puritanism's theological successors are presumed revolutionary by advancing, for example, the immortality of the soul or the moral certainty of revelation by natural evidence or reason alone. Marshall argues convincingly while Puritans (English or American) harbored concerns about deploying natural theology inappropriately, they readily prescribed it in many contexts, including pastoral work and evangelism. Some Puritans (e.g. Matthew Henry, Richard Baxter) even asserted that natural theology could (with regenerating grace) suffice to save those who never heard the gospel. Puritans also thought that natural theology could be used with scripture, though its use was often prefatory to revealed theology.

Marshall's contrarian thesis reminds one of Kierkegaard's resolution to create difficulties everywhere. If Marshall is correct, intellectual historians are forced to rethink the narrative wherein natural theology was a rearguard action against skepticism or Deism, for example. Ditto for histories of Puritanism itself-for example, the idea that Cotton Mather's interest in science was atypical or that (as Mark Noll has erroneously claimed) Puritans expected divine revelation to be the first and last word on any theological question. Marshall even challenges the legendary Richard Muller on whether Arminians or Socinians were the first to press natural theology into the service of salvation. Marshall discredits the supposed discontinuity of Puritans with medieval theologians. He likewise challenges the presumption that reformed scholasticism's aggressive use of reason in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries broke with its predecessors.

Marshall's iconoclasm also distances the Puritans from Calvin on the use of evidential proofs and demonstrates how one motivation for natural theology's use were crises of doubt among some of the greatest Puritans (e.g. Baxter, Thomas Shepard or the Mathers). In fact, many Puritans believed that one ideal antidote for the temptation to atheism (whether in the individual or in society) was recovery of naturalistic arguments for the existence of God. Of course, not everything in Marshall comes as a surprise. Perry Miller demonstrated Puritan interest in the natural world almost a century ago and Robert K. Merton credited Puritanism with the rise of the scientific method. Furthermore, anyone familiar with the work of Reformed theologians knows how they frequently deployed arguments from experience, history, or pagan classics to assert that the Word often asserted truths already known. The Westminster Confession, for example, refers multiple times to "the light of nature," "reason," and "common sense."

With all of this on the reader's plate, however, the biggest problem with Marshall's book is that it is simply too short. …

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Puritanism and Natural Theology/Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction/The Founders and the Bible/The Most Sacred Freedom: Religious Liberty in the History of Philosophy and America's Founding/The Lively Experiment: Religious Toleration in America from Roger Williams to the Present/Loyal Protestants & Dangerous Papists; Maryland and the Politics of Religion in the English Atlantic 1630-1690
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