A Theological Interpretation of American History

~ A Theological Interpretation of American History ~

By: C. Gregg Singer

1: Introduction

2:  Deism in Colonial Life

3:  Transcendentalism and the Rise of Democracy

4:  Social Darwinism: Theological Background and Political Implications

5:  Social Gospel and its Political Effects in American Life

6:  Theological Liberalism After 1920

7:  The New Deal and its Consequences

8:  World War Two and After

9:  Conservatism and Liberalism, theological and political from 1950-1980

10:  Conclusion

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CHAPTER 1:  Introduction

Singer introduces the reader to the different schools of historical interpretation.

The Marxist school, represented by Frederick Jackson Turner, tries to interpret American history through the lens of Marxist economic theory, and focuses on the American frontier as the major informative influence on life and culture.

The “democracy” historians, focus on the intellectual growth of the middle class and the “triumph” of the bourgeoisie.  The development of history, especially American history, is seen as a march from top-down rule towards the rule of the majority.  While reading, I thought of the words of my Western Civilization teacher at college, who would fall under this camp of historiography.  He claimed that his entire course was a study of the rights gained by “us” the “people” after struggling against the aristocracy and kings, who (more often than not) were willing to brutally oppress the lower classes.  While not ideal, I thank God I have someone teaching me Western Civ. from this perspective as opposed to the Marxist one.

Singer also says there is a general “economics” way of looking at American history, which is championed by Charles A. Beard.

Each of these schools might have some bit of truth in them, says Singer, but in the end, to really get the story right, we need to look at America from a theological perspective.  In other words, what sort of theological ideals did early Americans share, and how did those ideals shape history?

He begins with a discussion of the Puritans and notes that they were more than just religious zealots (as they’re so often characterized).  They had a worldview that rejected both democracy and the excesses of monarchy.  Singer cites an interesting quote from John Cotton:

“Democracy, I do not conceive that God ever did ordain as a fit government either for church or for commonwealth.  If the people be governors, who shall be governed?  As for monarchy and aristocracy they are both of them clearly approved and directed in Scripture, yet so as referreth the sovereignty to Himself and setteth up theocracy in both as the best form of government in the commonwealth as well as in the church.” (cited on page 18).

Why Puritan society in New England eventually declined is a much-debated topic.  Singer suggests that “science” become more and more prominent to New England intellectuals, forcing theology out of its long-held place of respect.  But, he attributes the biggest blow to the influx of Deism into the colonies…which is the subject of chapter 2.

CHAPTER 2:  Deism in Colonial Life

A surprising chapter.  Instead of glorifying Jeffersonianism, Singer paints Jefferson and his followers as the bad-guys of this time-period.  They were radically anti-clerical revolutionaries, intent on bringing about their new utopian social order, inspired by deism.  Their deism caused them to reject not only a sovereign king, but a sovereign god as well.

According to Singer, the Declaration of Independence was radically liberal and almost anti-Christian (despite the rhetoric used therein), where as the later creation of the Constitution was much more conservative and presided over by those with a worldview much less hostile to Christianity.

Singer says this on page 37:

“The American Revolution in its basic philosophy, was not Christian, and the democratic way of life which arose from it was not, and is not, Christian, but was, and is, a deistic and secularized caricature of the evangelical point of view”

Deism eventually declined and the unitarianism it spawned had to find a new inspiration.  It found it in “transcendentalism”, which is the subject of chapter 3.

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One Response to A Theological Interpretation of American History

  1. rogerunited says:

    I had developed a rather low opinion of Jefferson from reading the quotes libertarians like to use. Searching out the sources of some quotes, I found some later period writings from after his presidency. Pre presidency he was more of an ivory tower philosopher, post presidency he is more conservative and pragmatic. I think having to produce results matured him somewhat. For that reason I now have more respect for him.

    However, I think Singer is probably correct about jefferson’s views of religion and Christianity. Jefferson seems to have been a true child of the enlightenment and the Declaration only pays lip service to God.
    I don’t see that much to recommend the Constitution either, though. If I recall, it doesn’t mention God at all and seeks to secure the “blessings of Liberty to ourselves” by the power of “We the People”. Humanism.

    Compare both to the Magna Carta.

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