American Religous Experience

Leo P. Hirrel. Children of Wrath: New School Calvinism and Antebellum Reform. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998).

               At the beginning of this decade, one reviewer wrote: "Religious history of several kinds is flourishing, and it is flourishing in no era more obviously than from 1660-1859."1 As this decade comes to a close that statement remains true as is evidenced by Leo Hirrel's Children of Wrath. In this work, Hirrel seeks to explain the New School Calvinists' antebellum reform efforts in the context of their theology.

         The book is divided into two parts. The first half is contextual in nature, while in the latter half Hirrel discusses the reform activities of the New School Calvinists. In Chapters One through Five, the author focuses on the development of New School theology from its Puritan origins through the post-revolutionary New Divinity period. This material introduces the pre-1820 New England Calvinist theology with its emphasis on the depravity of man and its characteristic "theocentric" focus. This theology was modified in the mid-eighteenth century by Jonathan Edwards and in the post-revolutionary period by Edwards' student, Samuel Hopkins, and the Hopkinsians. These efforts were attempts to make the faith more attractive, even as these reformers worked hard to remain within the pale of orthodoxy.

         The centerpiece of this historical background occurs in

"Hirrel rejects the monolithic model of Calvinism in favor of a dynamic paradigm that connects the New School Calvinists to the real world of the antebellum period, as their theology became their ideology of reform. "

Chapter Two, as Hirrel identifies the essential elements of the New School Calvinist theology that will eventually drive their reform efforts. This derivative Calvinist thought incorporated four major points. First, morality became the basis of the theology "with God serving to distribute the rewards and punishments." (33) Second, the New School argued that humans had the ability to "recognize and accept fundamental truths." (33) Furthermore, humans had the ability to reject God's saving grace. Finally, they believed that truth was, by its very nature, objective. The second and third points represented substantial deviations from the traditional Calvinist view of humans as deprived.

         In the second part of the book, Hirrel dissects the New School Calvinist reform movements to expose the theology that drives them. The reform movements are three: the anti-Catholicism crusade, the temperance movement, and the benevolent societies. In his review of these subjects, it becomes clear that the New School sense of reform is significantly different from the later reform movements of the Progressive Era. The New School reformers sought to save the souls of humans. In so doing, they moved forward confident that the truths that they expanded were unchanging. That their truths were so self-evident that those exposed to them would certainly accept them. But they also realized that the depravity of humans fostered opposition to the truth and was capable of the foulest of evil.

         This belief in a rigid, fixed truth, however, led them, in the temperance movement, to "ultraism" in which they condemned all alcoholic use. In the anti-Catholicism crusade, their rejection of Catholicism as a part of Christianity and their belief in human depravity led them to accept as accurate Maria Monk's fantastic stories of sexual degeneration in the French Catholic convents. Likewise, in their fight for abolition, their vision of all slave holders as completely depraved led them to accept all the heinous practices of slavery as common and universal. Finally, it was the New School benevolent societies that clearly depicted the motivation of these reformers. Their goal was not to provide for the physical needs of the poor and underprivileged; rather their firm belief in "objectively valid truths" moved them to work for the moral improvement of the suffering poor. (160)

         This is a challenging and wonderful little book for several important reasons. Its story is a mix of history and theology, in which theology is the vehicle for change. Hirrel rejects the monolithic model of Calvinism in favor of a dynamic paradigm that connects the New School Calvinists to the real world of the antebellum period, as their theology became their ideology of reform. Hirrel gives us another understanding of a group of people who were intimately involved in the antebellum reform movements. He sets aside the cynical interpretations of past historians who delved into psychology and politics to explain the motivations of reformers. He relies upon the plain words of the New School Calvinist reformers that show their true, if sometimes misguided, dedication to religious values. From this work we also receive a better understanding of what reform can mean. Living in a society that is at times nearly overwhelmed by relief and reform operations in the wake of what seems, at times, all too regular natural and human-provoked disasters, Hirrel shows us that some reformers--the New School Calvinists--were driven by a theology.

         There are two difficulties with the work, however. The theological discussions of the first part of the book are detailed and thorough, but they make the book unsuitable for anyone except the advanced students of this subject. Furthermore, as one progresses in the discussion of the reformers, one must wonder if such detailed discussions of the evolution of New School Calvinist theology are relevant and necessary for the subsequent examination of the reform efforts.

         Unfortunately, Hirrel also falls prey to a reoccurring problem in American religious history. Early in the book, he states that "At the close of the colonial period of American history the American people retained a strongly religious orientation." (9) Later, he returns to this point as he argues that "For the remainder of the early national period, a substantial portion of American Protestants remained committed to their religion with an exceptional intensity." (69) These statements stand as mere rhetoric unsupported by either data or reason, and are examples of the criticism of raised by Jon Butler: "To much writing on early American religion still rests on highly questionable assumptions about the breadth and depth of lay adherence to formal Christianity."2 These comments are unnecessary for Hirrel's argument and would have best been omitted.

         Despite these flaws, Children of Wrath represents an expanding concept of religious history in which theology can become an important analytical perspective as historians attempt to understand and explain American society.

Thomas Carney, West Virginia University


1. Mark A. Noll, "Evaluating North Atlantic Religious History, 1640-1859," Comparative Studies in Society and History, 33 (1991): 415. Return

2. Jon Butler, "The Future of American Religious History: Prospectus, Agenda, Transatlantic Problematique," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, 42 (April 1985, No. 2): 179.

homeReturn to the American Religious Experience Main Page