Monday, May 25, 2009

Year of Calvinism: America's Teacher

These, my dear brother, are some of my views of the calvinistic doctrines and their effects. These doctrines, in the main, I do believe to be evangelical...

Noah Webster, 1809

Yes--the man that wrote your 1828 dictionary was a Calvinist.

He was born-again by the power of the Spirit during the Second Great Awakening in 1808. The year of his conversion his two older daughters and wife attended the local Congregational church to his chagrin. They were attracted to the local revival. He disliked "enthusiasm" in religion, preferring a "rational religion" of being good to the neighbor and acknowledging a divine Being. He could not swallow the doctrines of Calvinism found in the confession of the Congregational church. He even desired to attend the Anglican church instead, yet he was torn to see his family thus divided. He rationalized his resistance to the revivals of the town,

"The impressions [religious concerns] however grew stronger till at length I could not pursue my studies without frequent interruptions. My mind was suddenly arrested...I closed my books, yielded to the influence, which could not be resisted or mistaken and was led by a spontaneous impulse to repentance, prayer and entire submission and surrender of myself to my maker and redeemer."

This account, written to his brother-in-law, explained that his life was radically changed by the sovereign power of the Spirit,

"This my dear friend, is a short but faithful narration of facts. That these impressions were not the effect of any of my own passions, nor of enthusiasm is to me evident, for I was in complete possession of all my rational powers, and that the influence was supernatural, is evident from this circumstance; it was not only independent of all volition but opposed to it. You will readily suppose that after such evidence of the direct operation of the divine spirit upon the human heart, I could no longer question or have a doubt respecting the Calvinistic and Christian doctrines of regeneration, of free grace and of the sovereignty of God. I now began to understand and relish many parts of the scriptures, which before appeared mysterious and unintelligible, or repugnant to my natural short my view of the scriptures, of religion, of the whole christian, scheme of salvation, and of God's moral government, are very much changed, and my heart yields with delight and confidence to whatever appears to be the divine will."

Such a change in his heart brought a public boldness missing today. The opening quote about Calvinism is found in the article, "Doctrines of the Gospel Explained and Defended," which was published in the Panoplist in 1809, two-hundred years ago. It highlights key doctrinal points, as summarized above, explaining in a newborn way the doctrines of special Providence (God is intimately involved in every-day life), regeneration and predestination and free-will. Webster concludes:

"I am therefore of opinion that the doctrines of divine sovereignty, the divinity of Christ, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and free grace through Christ, are fundamental in the gospel scheme of salvation. Those who reject these doctrines appear to me to tear out the vitals of Christianity, leaving nothing but a lifeless skeleton. The cold doctrines of Arminianism almost exclude the divine agency in man's salvation...In short, they never reach the heart, and appear not to alter the life and character."

He responded to a rebuttal of this article (under the pseudonym Calvinist) but ceased anymore public debate thereafter. Being a young Christian he felt unequal to the task. Yet such an attitude did not reflect a weak man. For soon after his conversion his fatherhood and career were radically changed. He began anew his domestic fatherhood with daily family worship. And he began anew his destined role as the father of American education.

[Biographical information from Notes on the Life of Noah Webster, p.44ff.)

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