The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America
Half a century or so ago, when historians of early America turned from the pursuit of past politics, they devised a category known in the academy as “social and intellectual history.” In it they stuffed nearly everything except politics, on the assumption, which the anthropologists assured them was correct, that it would all fit together. Somehow it did not.
At first it seemed that the whole business, along with politics too, might be strung together on economics. But the initial success of Charles Beard in this enterprise and his subsequent rout left the economic interpretation of American history under a cloud which Marxist historians have only recently begun to dispel. American economic history gradually separated itself from economic interpretation and now concerns itself mainly with the historical operation of economic theorems (I believe the currently preferred term is “models”) too refined for the lay historian to comprehend.
American intellectual history too extricated itself from the mass. Under the aegis of Perry Miller it achieved an independence and sophistication that enabled its practitioners to make new sense out of the extraordinary succession of ideas that began with the founding of Puritan New England. So beguiling was Miller’s analysis that it has been tempting to extrapolate nearly every other aspect of history from the ideas that he revolved before his readers; for he continually doubled back on his exposition of Puritan concepts to discover implications that stretched far beyond Puritanism and the Puritans and scraped insistently against persisting social problems.
Left to itself, American social history was in danger of becoming a history of the miscellaneous. Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, which might have furnished a spine, collapsed under scrutiny just as Beard’s economic interpretation had. But French and English historians came to the rescue with a new mode of looking at society, the demographic. Although the new mode requires extensive records of births, marriages, and deaths, which are available for early America only in fragments, it has been possible to piece together enough to build demographic histories of several early communities, for different stretches of time. The process is still under way, and through it American social history, especially of the early period, seems to be acquiring a life of its own, like economic history and intellectual history.
As each of these pursuits achieves its separate but equal status alongside political history, it begins to look as though they may eventually come together again and this time fit together. If so, the first point of intersection may lie in the relationship between religion and society, where the separation of intellectual and social history has most restricted our understanding of both. Since the time of Max Weber’s brilliant insights into the connections between Calvinism and capitalism (continually under attack but still compelling), we have had nothing but the most simplistic analyses of the complex ways in which religion in early America affected and was affected by social and economic developments.
A good example is the treatment by historians of the Great Awakening of the 1740s. Here was a religious movement involving hundreds of thousands of people, the first of many great revivals in which Americans experienced religious conversions that transformed their lives. It cries out for explanation. But historians, while giving us brilliant analyses of the theology of Jonathan Edwards, have explained the Awakening in terms that commonly bear little relation to known facts. Since the Awakening was a mass movement, it has often been interpreted as a movement of the masses (which is quite a different thing) against an upper-class religious establishment. The principal evidence offered for such an interpretation is the fact that the ministers of the Awakening did not confine the possibility of eternal salvation to the rich—as though any ministers ever had. A variant on this view is that the ministers of the Awakening were Calvinists (which they were) and that Calvinism was favorable to social reform or even social revolution, while opponents of the Awakening were Arminians and Arminianism was the religion of the rich. Only one of the facts that makes this view hard to swallow is that a century later, in the 1830s, a comparable mass revival was brought on by ministers preaching Arminianism.
No simple equation of theology with social class or social structure will explain religious revivals or any of the other complex manifestations of interplay between religious and social forces. What may be needed is a much more complex consideration of religious experience as distinct from theology and of social experience as distinct from social class. Philip Greven (a pioneer in the application of demographic analysis to early American history) has now written a book that brings us a big step in this direction. It does not try to explain the Great Awakening. It does try, but only briefly and I think unsuccessfully, to explain the American Revolution. But it offers a way of looking at religious and social experience that cannot fail to affect our understanding of those events and many others.
The Protestant Temperament is about three styles of life or “patterns of temperament” prevailing among Americans from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth. Each was characterized by a distinct mode of family life and child rearing, by a distinct type of personality, and by a distinct form of religious experience. In the “evangelical” pattern, which the author clearly finds the least attractive of the three, parents strove for absolute authority, suppressing every form of self-indulgence in themselves and their children. Obsessed with original sin, they made it the first goal of education to break the will of the child as soon as it gave any sign of having a will of its own, even before the age of one, and by methods that sound today like brain washing. Children were taught a combination of love and fear toward their parents and grew up hating pleasure, hating their bodies, hating themselves. Significantly there were usually no grandparents or servants in evangelical families to offer a warmer alternative to the stern father and mother, and the family was likely to be on the move, without strong attachments to any neighborhood. When the evangelical child became a man, he was likely to enjoy, as the primary experience of his life, a new birth in which he broke any remaining remnant of self and projected onto his God all the characteristics of his parents, joyfully submerging his will in God’s will, and waging relentless Christian warfare against everyone who wanted to enjoy life as it came.
A somewhat more appealing pattern was that which Greven designates as “moderate.” Moderate families were devout without fanaticism. Less obsessed with sin than the evangelicals, they aimed to bend rather than to break their children’s wills and cultivated self-respect. Where evangelicals wished to annihilate the self, moderates wished to control it. Where evangelicals saw depravity, moderates saw frailty. Where evangelicals aimed at asceticism, moderates aimed at temperance. Where evangelicals sought sudden conversion in a new birth, moderates sought a gradual transformation in Christian nurture. All in all, an agreeable bunch of people—and usually settled comfortably in stable neighborhoods, with grandparents standing by to make moderation even more moderate.
Finally, there was the “genteel” pattern. The adjective indicates that we cannot quite approve it without being labeled elitist or effete or overprivileged. This type of family did not make its appearance in America until the eighteenth century. It required a standard of living that enabled parents to turn over the daily care and discipline (if any) of the children to servants. With all the unpleasant aspects of child rearing transferred to surrogates, parents could indulge themselves and their children in affection. Everything that the evangelicals sought to suppress, especially the self, the genteel nourished. Selfrespect came naturally to them. They were comfortable with their own passions and ambitions, confident of their superior position in society, and confident that God would never deny salvation to such good-hearted creatures as they found themselves to be.
Professor Greven’s taxonomy of temperaments is not the result of quantitative or demographic analysis but of old-fashioned, impressionistic reading in old-fashioned sources: diaries, letters, and sermons. He demonstrates the characteristics of his three types only by copious quotations from these documents. There is not a graph or table in the book. He thus saves himself from the savage onslaughts that quantitative historians commonly mount against the work of their peers, but opens himself to the old-fashioned criticism of those who may have formed different impressions from the same documents. He has, however, disarmed much of this criticism by refraining for the most part from identifying his types either with social class on the one hand or theology on the other. Although the genteel temper was almost by definition confined to those who could afford it, moderates and evangelicals could be found in all ranks. He does see an affinity for the Church of England among the genteel, a tendency to Arminianism and to an inclusive church membership among moderates, and a tendency to restricted church membership among evangelicals. But these tendencies are not essential to his classifications.
What may bother historians about these classifications is that they are ahistorical. Historians deal in change, and they may find it disconcerting to see the eighteenth-century founder of Methodism, John Wesley, linked under the evangelical banner with John Robinson (the minister of the Pilgrim fathers), Issac Backus (leader of the eighteenth-century New England Baptists), Michael Wigglesworth (the seventeenth-century author of The Day of Doom), and Francis Wayland (the nineteenth-century president of Brown University). The phrase “over the centuries” keeps cropping up, as seventeenth-century Puritans are likened to nineteenth-century Unitarians. To those who have cut their teeth on intellectual history, what these two have in common may appear to be not worth talking about, any more than the common display of the genteel temper in both Thomas Hutchinson (the loyalist governor of Massachusetts) and George Washington. If two leaders of opposite sides in the American Revolution belong in the same category of temperament, will the categories be of any use in explaining the Revolution or any other historical event?
The author’s attempt to use them in this way in his brief epilogue is not altogether persuasive. He argues that the personality structure of the evangelicals made them the most ardent revolutionaries, that the Revolution offered an outlet for the anger against themselves and their parents that they had so long suppressed, that they were more prone than other men to see conspiracy behind every move of the “mother” country and its father-figure king. And he goes on to maintain that they would have created a totalitarian sort of republic, that “not even the successful struggle against the alleged conspirators could make evangelicals comfortable with personal autonomy and self-will, for the republic they were to create in place of the monarchy was designed to suppress the self altogether.” Apparently the country was only rescued from this fate by the moderate and genteel, especially genteel Virginians, who were less addicted to conspiracy theories.
Well perhaps, but one immediately thinks of objections. What about the way in which the moderate John Adams managed to outdo evangelicals in detecting conspiracy everywhere? What about the readiness of the genteel Virginian George Washington to see the British ministry as “endeavouring by every piece of Art and despotism to fix the Shackles of Slavery upon us”? It would take more demonstration than the author offers to show that his moderate and genteel folk were any less paranoid about British authority than his evangelicals. And if evangelicals were particularly keen for the Revolution, what do we make of the diatribes of John Wesley (continually cited to illustrate the evangelical temper) against it? Perhaps we can discount Wesley because he was not an American, but what about the American Baptists and Quakers, also cited as evangelicals, who played a less than conspicuous, if not lukewarm, role in the Revolution?
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to judge the book by the epilogue. In it the author seems still gripped by conventional interpretations. His portrayal of the revolutionary zeal of evangelicals and the later reactionary success of the genteel looks like an attempt to accommodate the old notion of an internal revolution by radical (evangelical?) democrats against a local ruling class, giving way to a Thermidorean (moderate, genteel?) reaction in the adoption of the Constitution. This is to reduce the Revolution once more to simplistic terms. Forget the epilogue. The great merit of The Protestant Temperament lies not in its explanation of any historical event but in its introduction of a new set of intellectual tools for examining the whole of early American history. We have heard a great deal about psychohistory in recent years, but most of it, in American history at least, has been flawed by doctrinaire application of Freudian dogma with little regard for fact. Greven does not purport to be writing psychohistory, but his classification of religious temperaments, however disturbingly ahistorical, is rooted both in the historical sources and in psychological perceptions. It makes more sense than any other application of social psychology to American history that this reviewer has seen. At the very least it gives us definitions of the domestic climate within which religious ideas circulated. When it has been properly digested, it may just furnish a way to bring social and intellectual history together again.