Passion and Constraint in the Early Republic Religious Order

Nineteenth Century Protestant intellectuals embraced a positivistic vision of liberty in the Early Republic. Liberty in the era generally meant the freedom to pursue societal good. This American religious order was not in any meaningful way theocratic, but it was still wedded to what Yoram Hazony in his recent Conservatism: A Rediscovery has called a politic of “constraint,” typically maintained through the institutions of family and religion.

            The socio-religious conception of constraint formed a vital part of Protestant preaching and writing in the Nineteenth Century. Ministers often used the language of “passions” to describe a lack of constraint in a person’s moral, religious, or social interactions. Princeton professor Archibald Alexander urged “the importance of…government of your passions.” Men with no control over their passions were “justly compared to a ship at sea, which is driven by fierce winds, while she neither is governed by the rudder nor steered by the compass.” Indulging passions allowed them to “gain strength very rapidly.” When “the habit of indulgence is fixed, the moral condition of the sinner is most deplorable, and almost desperate.” In order to guard and constrain human vice, young men especially had to “be well acquainted with the weak points” in their characters and “know something of the strength” of their own passions. [1]

Famed Congregationalist minister Henry Ward Beecher—no stranger to struggles with passion himself—believed that cultural and social forces usually defeated men unprepared to face them. Only a “brave and strong heart” could “stand up pure in the company of artful wretches.” When societal wickedness meant to “seduce a young man, so tremendous are the odds in favor of practiced experience against innocence that there is not one chance in a thousand, if the young man lets them approach him.” Given the difficulty of withstanding societal pressure, every young man needed to “remember that he carries, by nature, a breast of passions just such as bad men have.”[2]

            Northern abolitionist ministers like Beecher shared little politically with southern clergymen of the era, but both groups saw passions and ungovernability as the chief potential vice of youth if left unchecked. William Meade, who served as an Episcopal bishop of Virginia for three decades, warned that idleness in particular was a gateway to passion taking complete control over the individual. “Those who addict themselves to lusts and pleasures,” he warned “are the sons and worshippers of Belial” Youth that devoted “themselves to the superficial accomplishments of the person more than to the solid virtues of the mind, worship the Graces.” Others who “give loose to the angry passions of the soul, worship the Furies.” To those who could not control passions or had disordered passions, “and all others who in their hearts delight in any of the things of this world more than in Him who made, redeemed, and sanctifies man,” Meade issued a stern warning. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”[3]

Religious admonitions towards constraint were not merely about an individual’s spiritual health. A New Orleans Presbyterian proposed that love of liberty meant that his congregants should have a love for “the naked majesty of law,” and it was that ardor for law and moral constraint that kept Americans from needing the “bayonet” to preserve American institutions. Early Republic Protestants never embraced theocracy or a Protestant equivalent of integralism but they did not lose sight of what they believed were necessary private and public manifestations of moral government.[4]

[1] Archibald Alexander, Counsels of the Aged to the Young (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1852), 28.

[2] In 1872 a magazine published credible evidence of Beecher’s adulterous affair with prominent American suffragette Elizabeth Tilton; Henry Ward Beecher, The Vices; or, Lectures to Young Men (London: Clarke, Beeton, and Co., 1853), 195.

[3] William Meade, The Bible and the Classics (Robert Carter and Bros., 1861), 558.

[4] William Anderson Scott, The Duty of Praying for Our Rulers: A Discourse (New Orleans, 1843), 29.

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