Calvinism under a Cloud?

September 18, 2008

I have spent a cheery day reading John Stachniewski’s The Persecutory Imagination: English Puritanism and the Literature of Religious Despair. This paints Calvin’s theology in dark colours, arguing that his doctrines of election, reprobation, and temporary faith did untold damage to the psyches those that sat under the preaching of Reformed ministers in seventeenth-century England. The puritan self in particular was driven inward in search of signs and marks. This introspection would all too often lead to religious despair and contemporaries recognized that suicide had become a problem in society.

Interesting read. My instinct would be to suspect that those who left spiritual journals, a major source for such a study, would be the sort who would be more inclined to introspection in the first place. Stachniewski anticipates this objection and claims he will build a case to the contrary, so I will have to keep reading. This book is very negative about Reformed theology and describes the typical puritan pastoral approach as ‘morally disgusting’. Anyone else read it? I imagine Chris Ross has. Care to comment?

In the meantime, here is a darkly comic moment as Henry Jessey recalls a meeting between two young women:

‘Mris Sarah saw one walk about and about in a sad habit, and went to her, and asked how shee did, shee answered; In as sad a condition as ever was any. Mris Sarah, None is in a Condition like to mine. So they sate together; and after that, they went together, and spake further of their sad conditions: each counting their own state the worse’.

I call this a case of ‘My cat’s twice as black’. Stachniewski describes it as an ‘edifying contest in ultimate one-downmanship’.

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4 Responses to “Calvinism under a Cloud?”

  1. Marty Foord Says:

    Hey Richard, I haven’t read the book but I would want to test the hypothesis rigorously using sources properly. For example, anyone who did research on 21st century evangelicalism would think that we have a greater problem that Puritanism because depression and anxiety is rife: many believers are medicated and many Christian books abound about it. But is it the type of evangelicalism that is the cause? That is a complex question.For example, a Christian person prone to depression will naturally talk about their Christianity from a negative perspective, but this doesn’t mean Christianity is the cause, it’s more being affected biologically.

    So we need ways to test how prevalent depression was amongst Christians in the 17th century, find direct links (which is complex due to causes and effects), and that these links do arise from a certain theology.

    Having said all that, the church (in my experience) is a place where mentally ill people tend to congregate for a whole variety of reasons (not least because believers accept them, and that God calls those who aren’t much in the eyes of the world).

    Just my 5 cents worth.

    Blessings, bro.

    Marty.

  2. RS Says:

    Some excellent points there. The nature of the sources and the prevalence of church-going in the period make it impossible to set up a control group.
    I should mention that the author considers Erich Fromm’s paradigm singularly helpful, which should give us some idea of where he is coming from in terms of presuppositions etc.

  3. JD Says:

    Richard,
    Glad to have you back with some light reading material. The type of book that makes a ‘good’ read after a hard day’s work.

  4. RS Says:

    Actually Jim, that is the hard day’s work for me. My ‘light’ reading this week was the Edwin Sandys volume from the Parker Society.


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