Antebellum Evangelicalism and the Diffusion of Providential Functionalism

Joel L From. Christian Scholar’s Review. Volume 32, Issue 2. Winter 2003.

Antebellum evangelicals who had little or no textual access to Isaac Newton were nevertheless able to draw on the broad cultural diffusion of his ideas. For intellectuals and activists alike, the conceptual richness of Newton’s system of the world as mediated through its more accessible analogues provided the means by which the increasing social and religious heterogeneity of the nineteenth century could be comprehended as providential, coherent, and systematically ordered.

This essay argues that antebellum evangelicalism was articulated in terms of the conceptual resources of a diffuse and providential functionalism. Similarly nineteenth-century evangelicalism’s novel denominationalism and mounting individualism are best understood in terms of the prior diffusion and popularization of this account. Although Newtonian concepts infuse the social, scientific, and political theorizing of the period, they can also be found in the theological discourse—much of which was popular in orientation-and in the broader culture. The prior penetration of Newtonian analogues into theological and popular discourse provided evangelicals with rich materials whereby they could engage nineteenth-century conditions.

This essay also argues that the well-known Baconianism of antebellum evangelicals operated within the broader context provided by providential functionalism. The work of two leading antebellum evangelicals, Lyman Beecher and Alexander Campbell, reveals that providential functionalism circumscribed the territory within which hermeneutic Baconianism (inductivism) operated. The relation of antebellum evangelicalism to modern science can no longer be understood simply in terms of its Baconianism; it must also be reckoned with in terms of its conceptual relation to the innovative work of Isaac Newton.

The Ascent of Providential Functionalism

In those cosmographies that dominated late-medieval Europe, the created order, or cosmos, was finite, interlocked, and hierarchically structured. Each component of the cosmos was necessary for the integrity of the whole; failure anywhere threatened to plunge the entire cosmos into chaos. Many early-modern thinkers were traumatized by the imminence of this possibility. The rising social and religious unrest, to say nothing of the unsettling implications of the new astronomy, bespoke cosmic disharmony and impending collapse. In the seventeenth century, the English Puritans and Thomas Hobbes stiffened their resolve in the face of increasing numbers of masterless men who refused to acknowledge their rightful place in the cosmic hierarchy. The radical response of Hobbes and the Puritans to signs of impending social collapse indicates that for them, as for many of their contemporaries, nothing less than the viability of the cosmos was at stake.

The cultural ascendancy of modern science in the late seventeenth century issued from the fact that it was able to reassure those who feared the worst even as it was dismantling existing accounts of the cosmos. Isaac Newton proposed that the cosmos is a universe held together by a divine, providential purposiveness that superintends a system of interacting bodies. Even if the heavenly spheres of classic cosmography are merely elliptical tracings, even if the planets, moon, and comets trace their orbits with no apparent support or sustaining impulse, and even if there are no higher or lower orders of matter, location, or motion, the cosmos is nevertheless a universe sustained by God’s sovereign volition. The coherence of Newton’s universe does not issue from its necessary and static relations but from the law-like interactions of its elemental units. The Baron de Montesquieu clearly understood that Newton’s system of the world not only furnished a new cosmography but assurance that all was well: “[I]t is in accord with relations of mass and velocity that all motions are received, increased, diminished, or lost; every diversity is uniformity, every change is consistency.” Henceforth, a consistent order need not be a constant order.

Early in the seventeenth century Rene Descartes proposed what is arguably the first modern cosmography. He suggested that the universe is a complex mechanism which consists simply of matter in motion. In opposition to medieval (Aristotelian) accounts of the qualitative differences between types of matter, Descartes argued that “[t]he heavens and earth are made of the same matter and … even although there were an infinity of worlds, they would all be composed of this matter….” From his mechanistic physics, Descartes deduced, among other things, the rational necessity of inter-planetary vortices and the equivalence of matter and spatial extension. For the first time in western history, his account offered a completely general theory of the order of the universe, an order that is the emergent output of mechanical interactions and not the exemplification of an implicit ontology.

Isaac Newton disagreed with many natural philosophers of the seventeenth century who, like Descartes and Leibniz, supplemented their mechanical cosmographies with facile and speculative intuitions. Their fanciful “hypotheses”—to use Newton’s term of derision-flew in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

For instance, Descartes’s mechanistic orthodoxy committed him to the hypothesis that space must be completely filled with particles since motion can only be propagated by impact transmitted through a series of contiguous particles. Newton’s observational and computational data suggested, on the contrary, that space was virtually empty since the planets move almost perfectly in accord with frictionless motion. If space was filled with particles as Descartes fancied, the planets would be slowed to a complete stop by the frictional resistance offered by these particles. Therefore, in spite of the necessity imposed on it by the strictures of Cartesian rationalism, space could not be identified with matter. Similarly, the a priori commitment of mechanical philosophers to the tenet that there can be no action at a distance blinded them to the possibility of gravitational force acting between distant bodies. For his own part, Newton refused to speculate (hypothesize) on the nature or cause of gravitation:

I have not as yet been able to deduce from phenomena the reason for these properties of gravity; and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.

Within several decades, Newton’s account was widely regarded as the definitive repudiation of rationalistic physics and whatever remained of classic ontology. A “system” which had been previously understood as a permanently and ontologically ordered whole could now designate the emergent output of the interactions of individual particles in accordance with universal principles. In private, Newton speculated that the general features of his system were applicable to other domains, including aesthetics and religion. Responding to an inquiry by John Harington, he wrote: “… I am inclined to believe some general laws of the Creator prevailed with respect to the agreeable or unpleasing affections of all our senses; at least the supposition does not derogate from the wisdom or power of God, and seems highly consonant to the macrocosm in general.” And in an unpublished paper written near the end of his life, Newton suggested that the scriptural injunctions to love God and neighbor were “laws of nature, the essential part of religion which ever was and ever will be binding to all nations ….” Although he was reticent to speculate publicly on the extension of his theory to other fields, Newton’s personal correspondence and manuscripts leave little doubt that he believed in the broad applicability of systemic concepts, analytic methods, and general unifying principles. It is not surprising that the universality and explanatory beauty of his system of the world prompted Newton and many of his followers to search for similar features in other provinces of thought.

Within a generation of the Principia, the social and moral worlds were increasingly regarded as purposive systems, that is, they were thought to consist of elemental functions interacting in accordance with an overarching and providential volition. The components or functions of these systems could only be appraised in terms of their relation to the overall purpose of the system and not in terms of any absolute criteria independent of the system itself. Even vices must be appraised systematically, that is, in light of their function within the socio-moral system as a whole. Giambattista Vico in his Scienza nuova (1725) suggested that “out of these three great vices [ferocity, avarice, and ambition] which would certainly destroy man on earth, society thus causes the civil happiness to emerge…. the passions of men who are entirely occupied by the pursuit of their private utility are transformed into a civil order which permits men to live in human society.” Bernard Mandeville argued in 1729 that “[t]he whole Superstructure [of civil society] is made up of the reciprocal Services, which Men do to each other.” The social system was sustained, in Mandeville’s controversial view, by the interplay of various vices or passions, including pride, shame, fear, and ambition. Francis Hutcheson, the father of the Scottish Enlightenment, took issue not with Mandeville’s understanding of social systems but with the elements that animate them. He argued in 1742 that human affections “all aim at good, either private or publick: and by them each particular Agent is made, in great measure, subservient to the good of the whole. Mankind are thus insensibly linked together, and make one great System, by an invisible Union.” In subsequent European social thought, a harmonious whole would no longer entail an underlying ontologically necessary order. On the contrary, in those social theories modeled after Newton’s system, social harmony emerges from the interaction of elemental units in accordance with universal principles analogous to gravitation.

Thinkers in the eighteenth century also rapidly adapted Newton’s system to political and economic speculation. Political Newtonianism allowed thinkers to countenance the possibility that vices play a positive role in the political economy. Although few theorists in this period would overtly endorse vices as such, there was little reticence to investigate the ways in which a wise legislator could direct these energies towards the good of the whole. Adam Ferguson suggested that even cowardly or selfish persons ineluctably contribute to public prosperity, provided they are circumscribed by well-designed institutions that enable nations “to subsist, and even to prosper, under very different degrees of corruption, or of public integrity.” For Ferguson as for many thinkers in the Scottish Enlightenment, divine benevolence issues in a providential system whose universal principles achieve maximal human happiness in spite of and even through human failings. Other prominent political thinkers such as David Hume, David Hartley, Jeremy Bentham, and Claude Helvetius readily assumed the intellectual mantle of the esteemed Newton. In one notable case, Jeremy Bentham challenged Helvetius’s allegation that he (Helvetius) was the Newton of legislation. Bentham was not diffident in asserting that “he was the Newton, and Helvetius only the [Francis] Bacon.”

The providential-functionalist system was immediately applied to religious reflection as well. Margaret Jacob has convincingly shown that the Latitudinarian division within the Church of England rapidly adopted providential-Newtonianism in its attempt to reform the Anglican Church and defeat their deist, atheistic, and sectarian rivals. In their view, the providence of God, as manifest in the social, political, and religious realms, always issues in a stable order. The supervisory operation of divine providence assured them that even heterogeneity of religious, social, and political views could still be gathered up into a moderate, reasonable, and comprehensive (Protestant) Christianity. Furthermore, as Jacob shows, the Latitudinarians were able to rationalize the emerging market economy in terms of the benevolent operation of divine providence in spite of its socially and politically disruptive tendencies. Here again, order and stability would naturally flow from the providential supervision of the economic functions set adrift in the emerging free market.

Bishop Butler’s Analogy of Religion (1736) similarly argued that God’s moral government could be adduced from the system of the world with its fixed laws, predictable moral consequences, and variety of interacting parts. Even though he shared a providential-functionalist view of nature with many of his deist antagonists, Butler demurred from their view that this marvelously contrived system was adequate for salvation or that it was free from all mysteries. Following Locke, he insisted that what “reason could no way have discovered” must be supplemented by a revelation external to the natural system.

By Butler’s time, John Calvin’s system of religion, which had encompassed the entire life of the confessional community, including its pastoral care, church discipline, and communion of the saints, was clearly receding. Although Calvin’s phrase, system of religion, adapted well to Newtonian speculation and persisted well into the nineteenth century, the eighteenth century witnessed a noticeable reduction in its scope as well as a transformation in how its various aspects were related. The gradual transmutation of a life-encompassing system of religion, understood in the classic sense as a permanently ordered whole, into a system of doctrine, understood as a collection of propositions systematized by a controlling purpose, was motivated in no small part by the increasing availability of Newtonian concepts and the counter-reformational and deist attacks on specific reformed doctrines. The reformed response to these attacks came in the form of a point-by-point rebuttal that defended the disputed doctrines in increasing isolation from confessional processes and the conceptual relations between doctrines. This attack-and-response apologetic propelled reformed orthodoxy towards a more narrowly doctrinal self-conception and further individuated doctrines that had been rationally interconnected in Calvin.

This trend towards doctrinal atomization that serves as an important prelude to the introduction of functionalist notions in the following century can be seen not only in orthodox circles but also in Herbert of Cherbury, the reputed father of deism. Herbert’s turn towards epistemology in De veritate (1624) sought to undercut religious antagonisms by inquiring into the epistemic conditions underpinning religious knowledge. The only way in which pompous and violent charlatans could be neutralized, in Herbert’s view, was by an appeal to fundamental religious notions that issue from the universal wisdom inscribed within each person. True religion consists in assenting to these common notions that are “clearly accepted at all times by every normal person.” For Herbert, the common notions that form the essence of all true religion include:

  • There is a Supreme God…
  • This Sovereign Deity ought to be Worshipped…
  • The connection of Virtue with Piety… is and always has been held to be, the most important part of religious practice…
  • The minds of men have always been filled with horror for their wickedness. Their vices and crimes have been obvious to them. They must be expiated by repentance…
  • There is Reward or Punishment after this life.

Not only are these doctrinal elements prior to any confessional or ecclesiastic manifestation, they are presented to the consciousness of individuals as individuated notions. Strictly speaking, however, it is not only the universality of these doctrinal elements that commend them-they also tend towards personal holiness and religious consensus. With respect to the place of doctrine in the larger scheme of things, Herbert radicalizes the tendency already found in the reformers towards the abstraction of particular doctrines from determinative settings. The doctrinal individualism nascent in the reformers and Herbert will soon emerge in those theologies that assume it as a precondition of their providential-functionalist understandings.

By the mid-eighteenth century, both deists and their orthodox rivals generally accepted the view that the religious life was an analogue of Newton’s system. God’s secret councils (Calvin) and hiddenness (Luther) were hastened into the noonday brightness of universal principles amenable to human scrutiny. Increasingly, the divine was seen to operate within a univocal system that he shared with his creatures and in which his purposiveness is definitively articulated. Although God’s purposes cannot be deduced from rational metaphysics or a priori premises, they can be induced from within the created realm. Particular doctrines were increasingly shaped in accordance with this overarching conception. The reformational and deist controversies ineluctably moved doctrinal beliefs along a trajectory from the centrality of reliance and trust (with their implied confessional or communal contexts) toward an account that emphasized intellectual assent to demonstrable propositions. Doctrines, as functions within transparently purposive religious systems, were increasingly honed into clear, rational, and tangible matters of fact.

In the eighteenth century, deists and orthodox alike believed that the world system had been created for a single, controlling purpose. For many, God’s overarching purpose was to manifest his benevolence through a moral system designed to promote human happiness. Bishop Butler suggested that “the ultimate end designed in the constitution of Nature and conduct of Providence is the most virtue and happiness possible….” He also suggested that the end towards which both natural and revealed religion aim is the “final happiness” of our natures. Adam Smith argued that “by acting according to the dictates of our moral faculties, we necessarily pursue the most effectual means for promoting the happiness of mankind, and may therefore be said, in some sense, to co-operate with the Deity and to advance as far as in our power the plan of Providence.” Even the radical deist Ethan Allen advanced the notion that natural religion was conditioned by the goal of religion in general, namely, to make mankind “ultimately happy.” The eighteenth century witnessed widespread agreement that the purpose of the providential-functionalist system could be specified in terms of human happiness. It also witnessed a correlative movement toward an explicit, finely articulated, doctrinal conception of religion.

For the medieval or early-modern thinker, the glory of God was manifest in the rational or ontological order exemplified in creation. In the modem period, God’s relation to creation was increasingly conceived in terms of the purposive instrumentality that he “imposed on the universe … by sovereign fiat.” By the eighteenth century the divine purpose, which had been partially hidden in God’s secret councils for the reformers, had emerged into full articulation. Premises in arguments for the existence of God asserting the fallenness of man and the necessity of divine grace increasingly gave way to arguments that induced divine attributes from the benevolent order exemplified in purposive systems. Design arguments, which appeal to highly general facts about the created world and its implicit purposiveness, were increasingly called upon to justify belief in God’s existence. Uniquely Christian premises having to do with grace, biblical revelation, Christian communion, or the Trinity figure less and less in arguments for God’s existence and what can be known about his nature.

Providential functionalism is epitomized in those antebellum evangelicals whose doctrinal systems were elaborated in terms of discrete functions united by a narrowly determined purpose. These doctrinal systems were made possible by the traumatic and fragmenting religious controversies that had extracted doctrinal “elements” from their determinate contexts. Thus freed, evangelical doctrines were now available for functionalist reorganization. For antebellum evangelicals, doctrines will no longer be justified ontologically, nor by their rational relations with other doctrines, nor even by the account they give of communal life but by their relation to the singular purpose imposed on the providential-functionalist system as a whole.

Providential Functionalism and the Evangelical System

The rediscovery of Francis Bacon in the first half of the nineteenth century was occasioned in part by the place given him in the Scottish Enlightenment. Both Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart, two of the most influential thinkers of the late Scottish Enlightenment, adopted a Baconian methodology in response to the critical work of David Hume. They argued that the skepticism that followed from Hume’s devastation of the Cartesian-Lockean program was itself subverted by common intuitions and the a priori judgments implicit in sense perceptions.

In spite of the sophistication of Bacon’s, Reid’s, and Stewart’s nuanced methodology, a popular common sense realism that stressed the importance of a simple turning towards observable facts arose in antebellum America. The widespread adulation of Lord Bacon did little to propagate the intricacies of his method. What passed for Baconianism was only nominally Baconian. Instead of providing a comprehensive methodology for unifying the sciences as per Bacon’s program, antebellum Baconianism assumed the more modest task of defending orthodoxy against skepticism, idealism, and various forms of infidelity. Antebellum evangelicals who readily adopted nominal Baconianism showed little interest in their master’s methodological reliance on experimentation, his search for falsifying instances, or his critique of those who merely collected isolated instances. Nominal Baconianism provided the means whereby antebellum evangelicals could resist the encroachment of speculative systems by a straightforward appeal to facts without being subject to the strictures that Bacon himself placed on all such simple appeals to facts.

Theodore Bozeman points out, furthermore, that both the Scottish realists and their American followers did not distinguish between the methodologies of Bacon and Newton. The latter was typically esteemed for the fact that he was the highest embodiment of the Baconian methodological ideal. For instance, in 1820 the American Journal of Science praised Newton as “incomparably the greatest” exemplification “of the excellency of the Baconian system.” In the 1830s Ralph Waldo Emerson praised Newton for having put into execution the plan of Bacon. And as early as 1760, John Gill called for a Baconian inductivism conjoined with a Newtonian systematization.

… in the last age, the Cartesian system of philosophy greatly obtained, as the Newtonian system now does. Medicine, jurisprudence, or law, and every art and science, are reduced to a system or body; which is no other than an assemblage or composition of the several doctrines or parts of a science, and why should divinity, the most noble science, be without a system? Evangelical truths are spread and scattered about in the sacred Scriptures; and to gather them together, and dispose of them in a regular, orderly method, surely cannot be disagreeable; but must be useful.

Gill’s amalgamation of a Newtonian system and a nominally Baconian inductivism is made possible by the inattention of many thinkers to the methodological strictures of classic Baconianism, the fact that Newton himself gave an important place to a type of induction, and the largely unnoticed differences between Bacon’s and Newton’s methodologies. As we will demonstrate below, antebellum evangelicals were able to superimpose a providential functionalism on top of their minimalist inductivism. Further, the methodological starting point of evangelical inductivism, namely, the facts of Scripture, turns out to be conditioned by the purposive systematization previously provided by providential functionalism.

In the early nineteenth century, the Disciples of Christ advanced a conception of evangelicalism that invoked the doctrinal atomism and systematizing purposiveness common to other providential-functionalist systems. Alexander Campbell, the founder of the Disciples, affirmed that the “Bible is a book of facts, not of opinions, theories, abstract generalities, nor of verbal definitions … The meaning of the Bible facts is the true biblical doctrine.” For Campbell and many other evangelicals, systematic theology rests on a (nominally) Baconian substratum of facts that cannot be deduced from a priori principles. The relevant facts in Campbell’s system are the doctrinal propositions scattered throughout the Bible that must be observed, collected, and only then rendered into doctrinal structures.

When Campbell contemplated the necessary conditions for transdenominational cooperation, however, his appeal tellingly ignores the possibility of a doctrinal consensus arising out of inductivist procedures. Campbell’s quest for a transdenominational convergence subtly migrates from his nominally Baconian inductivism to the providential-functionalist account. He argues that it is the purpose of the church that systematizes and unifies the diversities within American religion. The cooperative amalgamation of evangelical churches can only occur, in his view, if evangelicals consider themselves to be part of a “great national organization” that “has the conquest of the whole world in its prayers, aims, plans, and efforts.”

The end towards which it strives-the conversion of the world-profoundly conditions Campbell’s transdenominationalism. The “economy of heaven,” to use his telling phrase, is systematized by this overarching purpose. The doctrinal atoms that are scattered throughout the Scriptures can only be assembled inductively once they have passed the muster of the purpose of the religious economy as a whole. In other words, the purposive economy of heaven has already pre-screened the “facts” of Scripture before the inductivist methodology comes into play. The priority of providential-functionalism is shown in its a priori delineation of biblical data into two opposing camps: those elemental doctrines that permit cooperation in the task of converting the world, and those that do not. It is not surprising that once Campbell has ascertained the singular purpose of the providential economy and suitably limited his inductivism to those facts that function positively with respect to it that he is able to induce supporting “facts” from within the Scriptures.

Lyman Beecher, an influential Congregationalist pastor, was one of the first to articulate a providential-functionalist rationale for nationally oriented evangelical activism. In his view, the social, moral, and political order that the disestablished church and the New England Standing Order could no longer sustain must be reconceived on new grounds. Recent scholarship confirms that antebellum evangelicals such as Beecher were not simple reactionaries trying to re-assert the old Standing Order. In fact, Beecher’s evangelical system is remarkably successful in its attempt to orient American society to a novel providential-functionalist understanding of the social and religious orders. For the first half of the nineteenth century, evangelical activism took the lead in a broad-based quest for new ways to establish a new social, moral, and political order in the rapidly democratizing republic.

Beecher’s important sermon, “The Faith Once Delivered to the Saints” (1823), begins with the assertion that the “faith once delivered to the saints” is “the doctrines of the Gospel.” This equation of the faith with specific and selected doctrines indicates how thoroughly Beecher has disassociated the confessional or communal aspects of religious life from the faith. The identification of the faith with a selected set of tenets perpetuates the doctrinal atomism that is a precondition for all providential-functionalist systems. The disengagement of doctrines from determinate contexts provides the occasion for their reorganization into functionalist or systematic accounts. What was delivered to the saints is not a comprehensive way of life but a system of doctrinal elements that has been “held substantially, though with some variety or modification, by the true church of God, in all ages.”

Beecher affirms, furthermore, that the evangelical doctrinal system is a purposive moral system that derives directly from the moral government of God whose sole purpose “is to express his benevolence.” Like the other benevolent systematizations that proliferated in the post-Newton era, Beecher’s evangelical system has an explicit aim-the salvation of mankind. For Beecher, the elemental doctrines of the gospel are identical with the evangelical system and are fundamental to God’s purpose, since without their instrumentality “God does not renew and sanctify the hearts of men.” Although God’s benevolent purposiveness adopts a variety of instrumentalities in the history of his dealings with mankind, it nevertheless provides a singular criterion by which the status of particular doctrines can be determined: insofar as a doctrine is efficacious in leading to the renewal and sanctification of hearts, it is both evangelical and essential. For Beecher as for Campbell, doctrines can only enter the evangelical system if they are demonstrably related to the purposiveness of the providential system as a whole. The procedure for inducing them from the Scripture is clearly subordinate to the demands of the providential system of which they are a part.

Although Beecher shares Calvin’s view that Christian doctrine antedates the church, he is much more restrictive than Calvin as to which doctrines are part of the requisite system. For Beecher, evangelical doctrines must be efficaciously linked to God’s salvific purpose. Only the evangelical doctrinal system that transcends and precedes all confessional bodies provides a criterion by which churches, organizations, and individuals can be identified with the true church. The faith once deliveyed to the saints when understood as the doctrines of the Gospel is thus restricted in two ways: in its claim that doctrinal elements constitute the faith, and its confinement to those doctrines that overtly lead to personal conversion.

The fact that a doctrine can be derived, by induction or otherwise, from the Scriptures cannot fully account for its inclusion in a doctrinal system, since a limitless array of doctrinal systems can be erected from the data found in the Scriptures. Furthermore, since the debates between the so-called liberals and the evangelicals were often debates over the interpretation of proof-texts, Beecher argues that no mere collection of Scriptural facts can be decisive. Just as Campbell turned away from inductivism in his quest for transdenominational unity, Beecher does so in the case of the doctrinal disparities among those committed to the data of Scripture. In light of this hermeneutic stalemate, Beecher turns to the providential-functionalist system as a suitable adjudicator in the internecine debates over the interpretation of scriptural data. The explicit purpose of the providential-functionalist system the preeminence of personal conversion-provides the only clear criterion for demarcating the elements of a truly evangelical system from their liberal counterparts.

For Beecher, the criterion derived from the explicit purposiveness of the providential system not only settles the hermeneutical question in favor of the evangelical system, but it also highlights the importance and uniqueness of evangelical activism. The efficacy of the evangelical system is directly observable in that it leads, as a matter of fact, to the salvation of unbelievers. And, as an observable fact, liberal systems do not! A single criterion, namely, the successful execution of the purpose of the benevolent economy, governs both evangelical hermeneutics and activism. Is a given doctrine/practice necessary for conversion? Does a given doctrine/practice enable cooperation among evangelicals? If an affirmative answer can be given to both of these queries, the doctrine or practice in question is to be retained as part of the evangelical system. The positive results that issue from evangelical exertion certify that its doctrinal elements and practices are indeed elements of God’s great system, which was designed to achieve exactly what the evangelical system achieves.

In keeping with his overarching purpose, Beecher’s God has always worked through the instrumentality of visible societies organized solely for redeeming mankind. These purposive societies, which Beecher identifies with the Church of God, commenced their “operations” soon after the Fall. Each organizational form, whether patriarchal, national, territorial, or Christological was uniquely adapted to achieving God’s singular purpose in its historical setting. The sole task assigned to this succession of purposive organizations is the conversion of the lost. This defining task also provides the basis on which these diverse organizations and agencies can be comprehended as unified. In the current era, the universal church consists of individuals, congregations, denominations, and voluntary associations who subscribe to the evangelical system and the propagation of its message. Beecher’s universal church is thus a providential-functionalist system of variegated agents who adhere to and propagate common doctrinal elements and who function relative to a common purpose and thereby share in common cooperative endeavors. Unlike John Calvin who understood the universal church as local churches united “in one truth of divine doctrine,” Beecher understands the universal church as a collection of heterogeneous agencies and doctrinal elements systematized by a singular purpose.

Robert Baird, whose influential Religion in America (1844) followed the providential-functionalist account of the evangelical system very closely, sought to assure his perplexed European readers that all was well with American religion. In his view and contrary to published reports in Europe, the voluntary system of antebellum Protestantism manifested a unifying tendency. Although there was nothing like a national church in America, the widely shared evangelical system manifested a powerful impulse towards religious homogeneity: “[W]hen viewed in relation to the great doctrines which are universally conceded by Protestants to be fundamental and necessary to salvation … they [evangelical denominations] all form but one body, recognising Christ as their common Head.” Agreement on the doctrines necessary for salvation provides the basis for evangelical unity, cooperation, and even national religious coherence. In Baird’s view, the doctrines necessary for salvation-”repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ”—provide an adequate basis for national unity. When viewed through the lens of those doctrines directly linked to salvation, there is, in Baird’s apologetic, very little diversity of opinion within American religion. In spite of the seeming confusion and competitive sectarianism in the America scene, European Protestants could rest assured that “all is systematic order … Momentary collisions, it is true, may sometimes happen-there may be jostling and irritation occasionally— yet they all fulfill their appointed parts and discharge their appropriate duties.”

Although orthodox doctrines do find a place in the evangelical system, they are retained as atomic units and only insofar as they bring about certain states of affairs. Specifically theological or rational considerations play little direct role in this dynamic system. The status of doctrines within antebellum evangelicalism shifts from exegetical or confessional warrant toward a pragmatism that adopts or retains them on the basis of their ability to forge consensual relations, promote conversions, and provide a source of national unity. In this way, the social and moral efficacy of the doctrinal system, which must be continually monitored, provides a dynamic feedback loop that inevitably imposes modifications (typically simplifications) on the contents of the system.

For Campbell and Beecher, the inductivist hermeneutic plays a subservient role in the development and determination of evangelical doctrine. For them, an inductivist foray into the Scriptures can only proceed once the purpose of the religious system as a whole is known and the efficacy of a given doctrine appraised with respect to that purpose. Campbell and Beecher’s evangelicalism is not so much underpinned by a nominally Baconian hermeneutic as it is by providential functionalism, which provides the parameters within which evangelicals can construct the doctrinal systems and activist techniques necessary for their transdenominational cooperation.

Providential Functionalism and Evangelical Ecclesiology

The early nineteenth century witnessed a noticeable decline in the emphasis placed on the organized church by evangelicals. This growing inattention to classic ecclesiology, or what I call ecclesiastic ecclesiology, is a natural concomitant of the ascendancy of a systemic or providential-functionalist ecclesiology. The movement from ecclesiastic to systemic ecclesiology is apparent in evangelical accounts of the universal church. As noted previously, for Calvin the universal church consisted of all churches (read: congregations) that adhere to “one truth of divine doctrine.” The unity that exists between congregations consists in their common election, doctrine, discipline, and eschatological anticipation that they will be united under the manifest reign of Christ. Contrariwise, Herbert of Cherbury, and those who follow his lead, displaced the center of ecclesiology away from parishes and communal confessionalism toward a universal church that consists of little more than assent to common notions. Particularistic aspects of local parishes and the vigilant co-presence of the (local) saints were increasingly overlooked in favor of a universal church that is the true church only insofar as it is not local.

George Whitefield, who played an important role in the first great awakening, based his itinerant revivalism in a reformulated ecclesiology of the universal church. He believed that unity among all denominations could only occur when Christians were willing to abandon their peculiarities-chiefly matters of ecclesiological practice-and preach the simple gospel of Jesus’ love. Whitefield was persuaded that “unless we all are content to preach CHRIST, and to keep off from disputable things, wherein we differ, GOD will not bless us long.” And since God is the “householder of the whole world,” evangelicals should “look upon all places and persons as so many little parts of His great family.” Whitefield’s universal church calls individuals to transcend their parish and congregational confines. He assured his scattered flock that this universal church is a real parish even though it consists of individuals scattered around the globe. And lest this global congregation be without the services of a minister, Whitefield gladly offered himself as its cosmopolitan priest.

The universal church of revivalist itinerancy proffered a new ecclesiology for those who wished to extricate themselves from parochial limitations and join the worldwide movement of God’s Spirit. This novel ecclesiology reduced communal confessionalism to a simple gospel message and posited a super-parish that, although it operated within the traditional nomenclature of the universal church, was in reality predicated on “a mobile, dynamic, expansive, [and] potentially unbounded community held together voluntarily by a common spirit among individual members of every locale.” By the mid-eighteenth century, revivalism had forcefully propagated a systematic ecclesiology that was destined to have a long career in evangelicalism. The revivalists’ universal church was dynamic, translocal, and nonparochial, and it unified its individuated components by virtue of a controlling and singular purposiveness. It was, in other words, conceived in terms of the providential-functionalist economy.

The early nineteenth century witnessed a proliferation of voluntary societies that flourished in the moral space afforded them by disestablishment, the attenuation of traditional forms of association and authority, and this novel conception of the universal church. Lyman Beecher was ebullient about the prospects of these societies in light of the fact that disestablishment had weakened the social and moral potency of the churches. Within a few decades, however, these aggressive societies would fundamentally challenge the centrality of the American churches and their corresponding ecclesiologist.

In the end, voluntary societies dissipated the hegemony of ecclesiastic ecclesiology. As early as 1802, the Presbyterian Synod of Pittsburgh explicitly styled itself as a missionary society, thereby adopting the ecclesiology implicit in voluntary societies. The second article of the Synod’s constitution indicated that its purpose was “to diffuse the knowledge of the Gospel….” This does not mean that it intended to diffuse the knowledge of the Gospel in addition to its traditional tasks of disciplining, instructing, and offering the sacraments to its diocese, but rather that all of its endeavors would henceforth be subsumed under this overarching, purposive orientation. For perhaps the first time, an entire synod set aside its ecclesiastic ecclesiology and adopted what is a providential-functionalist or systematic ecclesiology.

Within a very few years, the breathtaking success of the voluntary societies demanded the attention of denominational leaders. In 1809, a delegate to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church noted that the voluntary societies were invigorating parishioners and were “producing almost incredible effects upon the moral and religious state of the community.” By 1819, Lyman Beecher, still very much a staunch Congregationalist, could nevertheless equate local churches and missionary societies since both fell under the auspices of the universal church and therefore shared the task of evangelizing the world.

By the early 1830s, evangelical benevolent societies began accepting workers who were, in the minds of influential Presbyterians at least, inadequately qualified for the gospel ministry. As a response to these declining standards and the growing urge to compete directly with the wildly successful benevolent societies, the view was broached that the entire Presbyterian Church ought to consider herself a missionary society. John Holt Rice, a professor at Union Seminary in Virginia, claimed that the Presbyterian Church “… is a Missionary Society, the object [purpose] of which is to aid in the conversion of the world … every member of the Church is a member for life of said society….” Within a year, fellow Presbyterian Charles Hodge, writing in the influential Biblical Repertory and Theological Review, argued that “…every Church, that would be faithful to the great obligation [purpose] for which the Church was instituted, ought to consider herself a MISSIONARY SOCIETY, bound to maintain in perfect purity, and to spread abroad to every creature, all the doctrines and institutions of Christ.” In 1847 the Presbyterian Church officially ratified the view that the entire denomination should be construed as a missionary (voluntary) society.”

Other communions followed a similar course in the nineteenth century. By the end of the century, most had made their peace with and entered into the providential-functionalist ecclesiology of Whitefield’s and Beecher’s universal church. In 1835 the Protestant Episcopal Church, stopping short of declaring the entire communion a voluntary society, nevertheless affirmed that every confirmed member was ipso facto a member of the missionary society controlled by its General Convention. Congregationalists also came to understand that the evangelical system that they had eagerly endorsed as the basis of the interdenominational societies implied more generally that no setting is privileged with respect to the purposive mandate given to the universal church. For example, in 1865 the National Council, after declaring its continued support for several major independent benevolent societies, (re)defined Congregationalism as “one branch of Christ’s people.” By 1875, Ray Palmer, who was deeply opposed to the creeping centralization of Congregationalism, could nevertheless affirm that pastors, churches, and voluntary associations were “simply different branches of one comprehensive organization for Christian work.”

The growth of denominational self-consciousness after the mid-1830s should also be understood in terms of the systematic or providential-functionalist ecclesiology. It is not, in the first instance, a simple reassertion of ecclesiastic ecclesiology’s confessional, liturgical, and territorial identity. It issued, rather, from the awareness that its rivals-the voluntary societies and other evangelical denominations-share its defining purposiveness and doctrinal elements. Hence, there is no principled ground whereby these encircling rivals can be prevented from pursuing these common objectives in areas traditionally reserved for a given church or denomination. The denominational self-consciousness of the mid-nineteenth century arose because for the first time denominations, organizations, and individuals were strictly and broadly competitive and therefore precariously redundant; each was merely one agency among many who were jointly carrying out what is ostensibly a single purpose, namely, the conversion of the lost. The shared purpose of evangelical organizations not only provided a basis for cooperative activism, but also implied in theory and in practice that the widespread pursuit of this purpose would inevitably bring various agencies into direct competition. Denominational self-consciousness is a natural response to these competitive pressures.

This new, self-conscious, denominationalism put the benevolent societies on notice that the denominations also intended to be organizing and unifying impulses reaching throughout the world and not merely “stabilizing institution[s] located in one place.” This new denominationalism, which is rooted in the identity of evangelical doctrine and purposiveness across a broad range of organizations and settings, laid the groundwork for the interdenominational and ecumenical efforts of the late nineteenth century. If the various evangelical denominations are simply “branches” of the universal church and they share a single defining purpose and doctrinal core, they are, insofar as the new denominationalism or transdenominational cooperation can countenance, indistinguishable. The systemic equivalence of denominations, local churches, and voluntary societies also paved the way for churches and denominations to absorb the agency programming pioneered by the voluntary societies. Church programming, which was adopted from the voluntary societies, would have been inconceivable if not for the organizational equivalence posited by providential-functionalist ecclesiologies.

Since all ministry settings and activities function within the same providential system and share a fundamental parity, a particular branch of the universal church can only be preferred on the basis of its superior ability to carry out the defining purpose shared by all agencies. If all doctrinal or confessional peculiarities are suppressed for the sake of cooperation, then all ministry settings are in a strictly competitive position. This singularity of purpose, parity of ministry settings, and globalization of ministry scope set the stage for all-out battle for ministry market share among antebellum evangelicals. It is no wonder that the early nineteenth century saw the emergence of an aggressive agent system that hired professionals to expand and maintain fluid constituencies of supporters and clients. The sturdy boundaries that had defined ecclesiastic parishes herewith gave way to shifting and vulnerable constituencies that remain intact only insofar as the effectiveness of an agency can be shown vis-a-vis its rivals.

Evangelical parish ministers, missionaries, secretaries of societies, teachers, professors, evangelists, revivalists, and activist individuals were increasingly looked upon as functionaries of the encompassing religious economy; they were “equally engaged in the legitimate ministry of the one church.” Churches, denominations, colleges, Sunday schools, and even individuals could now be jointly described as agencies, instrumentalities, or auxiliaries. No one expressed this new ecclesiology of the universal church as a providential-functional system more clearly than Robert Baird:

These communions [evangelical denominations], as they exist in the United States, ought to be viewed as branches of one great body, even the entire visible Church of Christ in this land. Whatever may have been the circumstances out of which they arose, they are but constituent parts of one great whole … all are in their proper places and to the mind of him who assigns them their places, and directs their movements, all is systematic order …

As the evangelical united front gained momentum in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the believer found herself surrounded by individuals, parishes, denominations, local voluntary societies, and national benevolent organizations, all of which subscribed to the evangelical system. As this system of vigorous agents asserted itself against the forces of sectarianism, free thinking, and social disintegration, it successfully defined and unified evangelicals across confessional lines. Its parity of organizations, doctrine, and purposes, however, pressed the individual forward as the locus of authority, since she alone could determine which agency best achieved the defining purpose of the providential system. The singular purposiveness that furnished the larger cooperative effort with a means of soliciting broad support also eradicated any a priori basis whereby she could attach her loyalties to any given organization or setting. The fact that she alone must continually determine which organization is most effective defines her over against the activities of these agencies; in other words, it individuates her. As the sole disinterested adjudicator, she must stand apart from these agencies of the universal church. Even her parish church, that immemorial locus of religious life, is now simply one among many agencies seeking to advance the gospel message on behalf of a fluid constituency.


Providential functionalism scripted antebellum evangelicals’ exploitation of their social and doctrinal circumstances. Much of their success can be attributed to the fact that they broadly shared this view. Their providential-functionalist ecclesiology not only admitted a variety of new actors into the religious economy, but it provided a rationale for the uncoordinated efforts of individuals, parish churches, denominations, and extra-parochial organizations. Insofar as these disparate efforts were directed at the defining purpose of the whole, they jointly participated in the unifying divine purpose itself. The post-reformational centrifugal forces that had individuated societies, doctrines, and parishes were countered in antebellum evangelicalism by the centripetal force of a universal purposiveness analogous to gravitation.

Even though nineteenth-century evangelicals operated within an identifiable intellectual tradition, they were for the most part inattentive to it. The urgency of their circumstances in the first half of the nineteenth century simply overwhelmed any attempt to understand themselves as participants in the broader sweep of westem social and intellectual history. It is not surprising, therefore, that evangelicals were not conscious of the importance of their theory of doctrinal and activist processes. Evangelicals simply did not notice the conceptual and institutional linkages between their characteristic individualism, purposiveness, nationalizing and internationalizing impulses, homogenizing denominationalism, and eclipse of ecclesiastic ecclesiology.

The historiography of antebellum evangelicalism must henceforth reckon with the providential functionalism at the heart of the movement. The successes and failures of nineteenth-century evangelicalism seem particularly tied to the trajectory and fortunes of the providential-functionalist conception. Furthermore, the place of Francis Bacon in antebellum evangelicalism needs to be reconsidered in light of these findings. It appears as if Bacon, the methodologist, scarcely figured in the positive theorizing of antebellum evangelicals; his influence seems to be limited, especially in comparison with providential functionalism.

The cultural forcefulness of providential functionalism declined precipitously in the period after the Civil War. Non-theological accounts of social systems were aided immeasurably by the success of Darwinian survivalism that fundamentally challenged the alleged purposiveness of biological systems. Social and religious analogies drawn from Darwinianism would rapidly displace those emanating from providential functionalism. Thus shorn of its providential purposiveness, functionalism nevertheless persisted as an important way to rationalize social activism. Even if divine purposiveness was increasingly problematic, governmental benevolence, for instance, could design social systems in accordance with its enlightened purposes. Ironically, antebellum evangelicalism bequeathed an expansive, and increasingly secular, functionalism to those who inherited its institutions, social concern, and activism.