Saturday, May 13, 2006

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate

The debates over social welfare and other domestic social policies in America today are shaped by three religious currents within Protestantism.  These theological views are seldom discussed openly, yet they play a powerful role in determining federal and state public policies toward the impoverished, the ill and disabled, and those unable to find work at a living wage.

Liberal and Progressive policies for social reform and public welfare are legacies of ideas pioneered by the Quakers, the Unitarians, and other dissident religious reformers who rejected the notions of the early Calvinists and evangelicals.

From the 1730s through the 1770s there was a Protestant revival movement in the colonies dubbed the First Great Awakening. A line of Protestant preachers including Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley shaped the theology of the First Great Awakening.

Edwards was a fiery preacher who still held to Calvinst orthodoxy: man was born bad, and God had predestined the Elect for Heaven. Alas, poor Edwards, he was a man mostly misunderstood. Those who heard and read his sermons (printing sermons in pamphlet form was a common practice) thought Edwards was saying people could change their fate by becoming more ardent Christians. Sometimes the theological fine points get lost in the oratory.

As the revival swept the colonies, many reported a highly emotional experience of conversion after hearing sermons at large public meetings. Unlike Edwards, Whitefield and other preachers broke with Calvinist orthodoxy and challenged the idea of predestination. They suggested that sinners who embraced Jesus in the conversion experience could find a place in Heaven.

Predestination of the Elect was too elitist and static a brand of Christianity for a new society that claimed to be a classless society and valued individuality and initiative in the quest to conquer the frontier. The ideas of spiritual growth, and equality before God, started a public discussion about the need for the government to provide for public schools. It also planted the seeds for the anti-slavery movement.

At the same time, this view could be adapted to tell alienated workers that by accepting Jesus as their savior, they could learn to live with their earthly stress and subjugated status by looking forward to the future day of salvation.

The new evangelists tended to be zealous, judgmental, and authoritarian. Not everyone was happy with the results of the First Great Awakening, and some rejected the trend and remained on the traditional orthodox Calvinist path. Others rejected both and developed what became Unitarianism as a response.

The three tendencies in colonial Protestantism during the early 1800s were:

1). Orthodoxy in the form of northern Calvinist Congregationalists and southern Anglicans;

2). Revivalist rationalism and evangelism that drew not only from the Congregationalists and Anglicans (later called Episcopalians), but also swept through the smaller Protestant denominations such as the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians;

3.) Unitarianism, still relatively small but influential in the northeast.

(Unitarianism emerged as a theological tendency before the name itself was formalized).

Recall that Axel R. Schaefer identifies these religious traditions with three different ways that the proper policies for social reform and public welfare are viewed today:

  *  Calvinist/Free Market: based on changing individual social behavior through punishment.

  *  Evangelical/Revivalist: based on born again conversion to change individual behavior, but still linked to some Calvinist ideas of punishment.

  *  Liberal/Progressive: based on changing systems and institutions to change individual behavior on a collective basis over time.

Many ideas on social reform that are now supported by mainline Protestant denominations were initially promoted by religious dissidents such as the Quakers and later the Unitarians.

Quakers had been concerned with prison conditions since the late 1600s in both England and in colonial Pennsylvania, and they introduced the idea of prison as a means for reform rather than punishment.  They also promoted the "conception of the criminal as at least partially a victim of conditions created by society" which implied that society had some obligation to reforming the criminal (Jorns, p. 170). In the early 1800s Quaker activist Elizabeth Gurney Fry launched a major prison reform movement in England, and these ideas were carried to the United States.

The Unitarians rejected the Calvinist idea that man was born in sin and argued that sometimes people did bad things because they were trapped in poverty or lacked the education required to move up in society. In the early 1800s the dissident Unitarians split Calvinist Congregationalism and succeeded in taking over many religious institutions in New England such as churches and schools. Harvard (founded as a religious college in 1636 by the Puritans), came under control of the Unitarians in 1805 as the orthodox Calvinist Congregationalists lost religious and political power.

The Unitarians took the idea of transforming society and changing personal behavior popularized by the First Great Awakening and shifted it into a plan for weaving a social safety net under the auspices of the secular government.

This idea of a social safety net was expanded in federal public policy during the New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While criticisms of New Deal social welfare policies are often packaged in political or economic language, the underlying theological basis for some of these arguments is seldom examined.


Adams, David K. and Cornelis A. van Minnen, eds. 1999. Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Beliefs, and Social Change. New York: New York University Press.

Ammerman, Nancy T. 1991. "North American Protestant Fundamentalism." In Fundamentalisms Observed, The Fundamentalism Project 1, eds., Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991).

Hatch, Nathan O. 1989. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press

Jorns, Auguste. 1931. The Quakers as Pioneers in Social Work. Trans. Thomas Kite Brown. New York: MacMillan, pp. 162-171.

Marsden, George M. 1982. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marsden, George M. 1991. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.

Moore, R. Laurence. 1986. Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schaefer, Axel R. 1999. "Evangelicalism, Social Reform and the US Welfare State, 1970-1996," pp. 249-273, in David K. Adams and Cornelius A. van Minnem, eds., Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Beliefs, and Social Change. New York: New York University Press. (I have used slightly different language to describe the sectors identified by Schaefer).

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1956 "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropologist, 58, no. 2 (April): 264-281.

Whitney, Janet. 1936. Elizabeth Fry: Quaker Heroine. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.

Ported from Talk to Action
Post comments on this article at

God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series
Part One: Coalitions
Part Two: Calvinist Settlers
Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate

Based on the Public Eye article "Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration"
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates

Chip's Blog