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VOCATION AMONG THE PURITANS & THEIR HEIRS

I was given a copy of Tabletalk yesterday. I had not read this publication for quite a while. I have really enjoyed it in the past. The particular issue that I was given, entitled Proud Mediocrity: Facing the Addiction of our Culture (September 2006), was no exception. It was very well done, especially the article by George Grant, entitled “A Passion for Truth.”

I was intrigued, however, by a statement made by Chris Donato in his good piece, “In the Service of the King.” He linked the waning of “the Christian ideal of vocation”—rigorously implemented by the English Puritans—to the “religious and political repression of the seventeenth century” and the replacement of the “fatalistic hyper-Calvinism of certain Puritans” by the “mechanistic Deism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment” (page 17). This is extremely intriguing! And of course, in the small space allotted for the article, only a potted version of this thesis could be given. But it would be fascinating to pursue it further.

Donato seems to assume or assert four things.

First, the attacks on the Puritans in the Restoration era by Charles II and James II undermined the Puritan concept of vocation. Why was this so?

Second, certain Puritans were hyper-Calvinistic. Which Puritans were hyper-Calvinists? Well, certain Baptist authors in the eighteenth century are often accused of being hyper-Calvinists—I am thinking of men like John Gill and John Brine and John Skepp (the term needs to be well defined to include Gill)—but historically these men are not Puritans. If we rule out these men, I am not sure who Donato has in mind.

Third, this hyper-Calvinism precedes the “mechanistic Deism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.” Actually, though the chronology is the other way around. Does this undermine the thesis though?

Fourth, Evangelicalism did not maintain the Puritan view of vocation. But is this so? I think one can see a Puritan view of vocation in John Wesley’s view of work and wealth, for instance (via his maternal grandfather, the Puritan Samuel Annesley). You see it when Evangelical authors address domestic issues—consider Samuel Stennett on domestic duties in his sermon series on this topic.

But these are only initial thoughts. I would love to see someone track through the idea of vocation in the 18th century, asking the question, did it change from the Puritan view? And when did it change and why?    

Dr. Haykin, you do me the honor of referencing my article. It’ll keep me sharp, I assure you.

Thanks for noting that the allotted space for Tabletalk articles makes it difficult to take more than cursory swipes at indulgent theses. Indeed, a few lines in a blog response can hardly do it justice:

1) It is my understanding that the characteristic religious Puritan fervor of the people was increasingly quenched during the Restoration — obviously publicly — but privately too. This is why I wrote that “it wasn't long before people were leaving their religion at home whey they left for work each day.”

My analysis of the situation is simply this: the later Puritans did not treat “vocation” in the same manner as the earlier Puritans (or the magisterial Reformers, for that matter). Early on, one’s particular vocation (i.e., job) was wholly circumscribed by one’s general calling to Christian faith and obedience. But from the mid-century on, it seems the understanding of one’s particular vocation devolved into that which simply ought not to interfere with religious duties such as Sabbath observance (how the Sabbatarianism of most Puritans relates to this is an interesting question to be sure, but beyond our scope here).

While I think the original intent of the Reformers was to correct the mistaken medieval distinction between sacred and the secular work, I do not think the Puritans eventually maintained that corrective. A major catalyst in exposing this, in my opinion, was the Restoration.

2) I did not intend to use “hyper-Calvinist” in its technical sense (i.e., that movement bequeathed to certain 18th century Baptists). For that I am sorry, as I am sure to have only caused confusion. I meant to use it in the more subjective “I think this guy smacks of hyper-Calvinism” sense. It’s more an allusion to the seeds or emergence of said Calvinism. And that means, of course, that the point is debatable. For instance, I had in mind the Crispian controversy and some of those who took up sides with him, which leads us to the next point…

3) As I hadn’t intended to use “hyper-Calvinism” technically, my assertion that it gave way to the “mechanistic Deism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment” might not be the gaff it appears to be, though it may be disputed whether or not hyper-Calvinism results in Deism (I’m certainly willing to admit that the rationalistic Arminianism of the Cambridge Platonists, for example, is equally culpable).

I actually had Locke partly in mind (Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Charles Blount, and John Toland notwithstanding), who, in point of fact, had more to do with the devolution of calling into secular utilitarianism than just about anybody. I know he was a contemporary of the Crispian controversy, but if we pursued a discussion of which earlier Puritans I think were sowing the seeds of hyper-Calvinism, then I might be revealing more about myself than anything substantive.

4) I do not think evangelicalism has maintained a proper sense of vocation as calling. In fact, I think we evangelicals today are generally bereft of any notion whatsoever of this concept. We are with respect to our economic lives, in a phrase, practically or functionally atheistic. To be sure, there have been exceptions during the past two centuries. But the “intrinsic secularity of modern economic life” (as Craig Gay calls it), provides an atheistic cage (of dehumanization and the like) that we have willingly entered and that we can just as willingly leave.

Regarding the question itself of how vocation as calling devolved into secular utilitarianism, see R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), as well as Robert Michaelson’s “Changes in the Puritan Concept of Calling or Vocation,” New England Quarterly 26 (1953): 315–36. It’s also worth noting that guys like Wesley and Stennett spoke of these matters probably as a means to challenge the devolution they were witnessing around them. Consider the following from Wesley:

“I fear wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore, I do not see how it is possible in the nature of things for any period of revival of religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. …although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away. Is there no way to prevent this — the continual decay of pure religion?” (Southey, Life of…, 308).

In our age of wealthy churches run by market models and parishioners more attuned to Wall Street than the golden street, how much more germane is this for us?

So much more could be said, of course. But I do thank you for your insight and your seeking clarity, Dr. Haykin. Peace to you and yours in this Advent season,

Chris Donato

Chris:

Thanks for your extremely helpful response and clarification. Your comments are very helpful. On the fourth point, I was actually asking whether or not the 18th century Evangelicals had failed to maintain a sense of calling. I agree with you that it is clear contemporary Evangelicalism has failed in this.

There is really a monograph here which could be very helpful. Maybe it is something you might want to tackle.

Every blessing as we celebrate the Advent of the King,
Michael.

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