Thomas Hooker's Terrifying God



4 comments
Jonathan Den Hartog 

With the beginning of the new semester, I find myself back at the beginning(s) of narratives for both the United States, generally, and American Religion more particularly.

One of the places to start is with the Puritans. But, can anything new be said about them? It turns out, several things can be. Indeed, there might be enough to stretch across this entire fall.

In answer to that question, I recently received a new volume from RiAH World Headquarters--Baird Tipson's Hartford Puritanism: Thomas Hooker, Samuel Stone, and Their Terrifying God.

Tipson has retired from academic administration, but in this volume he returns to his earlier interests in religious history.

Rather than staying in Massachusetts Bay, Tipson pays attention to the distinctives of Connecticut Puritanism. In Hartford, Hooker preached Puritan doctrine while his assistant Samuel Stone taught it more systematically.

Tipson thinks Hooker is in need of a re-branding. Public memory and scholarly descriptions have alternately portrayed Hooker as a democratic spirit, leaving behind the elitism of Boston; as a Calvinist modernizer who opened the door to human action in preparation for salvation; and as a careful chronicler of spiritual regeneration. As are many puritan studies, this one is an extended answer to Perry Miller, who saw in Connecticut an opening wedge of human action and democracy to counter established Calvinism.

Frederic Church's 1846 painting of Hooker's journey to Hartford envisions him as a democratic pioneer.
In contrast to these views, Tipson carefully reads Hooker's full corpus to show that he remained an elitist and an enforcer of moral and spiritual codes, that he reinforced the strongest reformed outlooks toward predestination, and that he was actively defining how his congregants should experience their conversions. The resulting picture bears a truer mark, while showing both Hooker's daunting character and his distance from contemporary attitudes.

The book benefits from larger trends in puritan studies (lower-case "p" preferred). An important one is to place greater emphasis the English character of the movement. Thus, studies increasingly see the puritan movement  as not simply transatlantic but primarily English. Francis Bremer has been influential in this reconsideration, especially in his biographies of John Winthrop and John Davenport. This strategy works well with Hooker, who spent the first fifty years of his life in England and there developed all of his significant opinions.

Tipson pays close attention to Hooker's English background. Following the lead of historians of the English Reformation, Tipson is able to place Hooker's strong preaching and non-conformity as marked but not all that distinct from the English Protestant mainstream of the early 1600s. He pays close attention to those preachers who influenced him (John Rogers of Dedham), the "godly" circles he ran in, and the culture of which he was a part. The defining years for Hooker were thus not on the frontier, but during his time as a public theological lecturer and teacher in the English village of Chelmsford.


A second trend Tipson draws on is the turn back to theology, to articulate the major concerns as participants understood them. Here, Michael Winship, among others, has made great contributions. In this mode, Tipson is comfortable elucidating Hooker and Stone's theological categories and placing them on the spectrum of reformed Protestant thought. That is, Tipson begins by taking Hooker's thought seriously enough to read what he wrote.

To do this, Tipson makes a wide survey of Christian theology to understand Hooker's views on predestination and conversion. He concludes that Hooker was not just an Augustinian but an "extreme Augustinian." In this, he closely followed the theology of puritan divine William Perkins. Double predestination (either to salvation or damnation) rested entirely on divine decree, and nothing human beings could do could alter that decree. Such a God was "terrifying"--not only invoking awe and terror among those contemplating Him but as a God who might use terror (and the preaching of terror) as a path to conversion.

With such emphasis on Hooker's theology, I wondered much more Hooker's American setting. The Hartford of "Hartford Puritanism" receded far into the background. Although Hooker's message did not change in the new world--apart from becoming more pointed against opponents--the application of those ideas certainly occurred in a new setting. Thinking of David D. Hall's A Reforming People, I wondered how further grounding in the new Hartford settlement might make sense of how Hooker engaged his culture, attempted to discipline and frontier settlement, and simultaneously contributed to traditions of self-government.

Also, Tipson gestures toward but doesn't resolve the connections between Hooker's version of puritanism and the growth of evangelicalism in the Great Awakening a century later. John Coffey, in an important article, has tried to sketch such connections. Tipson splits the difference, marking Hooker's puritanism as simply a transition from the early reformation to the Great Awakening.

To my mind, this was a missed opportunity. Hooker's preaching helped to shape the religious culture of the entire Connecticut River Valley. Rather than to connect Hooker to George Whitefield (as Tipson does), the more logical connection would be to Jonathan Edwards. Although Edwards used 18th century categories, he was committed to preserving the message and outlook of his puritan forebears. Indeed, to my reading, it seems Hooker would have been quite comfortable with "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." This connection was geographic, genetic, thematic, and theological.

Still, this study of Hooker (and Stone) reminds us of the religious impulses present long before an America nation was dreamed off. It can thus caution us of too-easily tying all historical figures into a common, national narrative and instead remind us of powerful views that left their mark on the religious lives of English settlers in the wilderness.

4 comments:

Paul Harvey at: September 6, 2015 at 3:17 PM said...

RiAH World Headquarters used to be my office in Columbine Hall before the feds came in and shut it down. Glad to see still going strong with the books in the new headquarters.

Tom Van Dyke at: September 6, 2015 at 8:14 PM said...

A second trend Tipson draws on is the turn back to theology, to articulate the major concerns as participants understood them. Here, Michael Winship, among others, has made great contributions. In this mode, Tipson is comfortable elucidating Hooker and Stone's theological categories and placing them on the spectrum of reformed Protestant thought. That is, Tipson begins by taking Hooker's thought seriously enough to read what he wrote.

Excellent, JDH. So much religion writing seems to be sociology, the theology itself fungible.



Freeborng at: September 7, 2015 at 7:06 PM said...

Thank you for the post. For more on George Whitefield, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George Whitefield, opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in England and Ireland. The book also richly brings to life the life-changing effect on a Great Britain sadly in need of deliverance from addiction to gin and illiteracy. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement's effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is www.francisasburytriptych.com. Again, thank you, for the post.

Jonathan at: September 9, 2015 at 2:16 PM said...

Paul, I was glad to see the book come my way, and I'm glad the Blogmeisters are still distributing them!

Tom, thanks for the comment! Obviously, there's a connection between the theology and the sociology, and we need to untangle it. In the case of Tipson on Hooker, it was interesting to see a serious engagement with what kind of Reformed thinker Hooker was. That type of careful distinction is helpful. If anything, it pointed to Hooker as a advocating a strong position within the puritan movement. More and more I think Tipson's "Extreme Augustinian" label was not far off.

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