Philocrites : Liberal religion : Notebook 1.20.03

September 26, 2002

The ethic of morality and the ethic of vocation

Richard H. wrote:

I remember when I was a member of Arlington Unitarian that then Rev. Kim Beach spoke of the difference between Unitarian Boston and Quaker Philadelphia as the difference between the "ethics of morality" and "ethics of . . . . " something else.

This is a reference to a contrast examined closely by E. Digby Baltzell in Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, a book I have been meaning to read for some time. I think Beach may have described the contrast between the Quaker "ethic of morality" and the Puritan "ethic of vocation." Check out chapter six, "Puritan and Quaker Patterns of Culture: The Theology of Culture"; there's a great comparative table on page 94 that people on this list would find quite interesting.

Baltzell makes an important distinction about the nature of God's calling. The Quakers understood God's will as expressed directly to each individual through the "Inner Light," which calls them to withdraw from the snares of the world into a life of personal righteousness. They valued their religious lives quite apart from their professional and cultural lives. They were egalitarian, sectarian, inward looking, and perfectionist pacifists.

The Puritans, however, understood God's will as expressed to individuals particularly, and saw their professional and cultural lives as expressions of their religious lives. (The "Protestant ethic" is a Puritan phenomenon, but not a Quaker phenomenon, Baltzell says.) They valued hierarchy (ordained ministers, trained at Harvard); favored institutions; and believed in transforming the world. Although sectarians in England, the Puritans in America built a dominating and established church; they looked to scripture and reason for authority; they were crusaders in war (e.g. the Revolution, the Civil War). (These patterns persisted long after the Puritans evolved into Congregationalists and Unitarians, incidentally, although the Unitarian Transcendentalists developed some Quaker-like forms of mysticism and egalitarianism.)

The Quakers believed that righteousness would emerge from personal conscience; the Puritans believed that righteousness would be enforced (or "cultivated," in the Unitarian version) by social institutions.

One fascintating contrast Baltzell draws: The Quakers were optimistic about man, pessimistic about institutions; the Puritans were optimistic about institutions and pessimistic about man. He also suggests that the Quakers tended toward "anti-institutional spontaneous perfectionism," while the Puritans tended toward "institutional compromise." Each type has clear weaknesses and strengths, from my perspective.

Baltzell also makes an interesting point about war:

War is an evil that the Catholic tradition deemed an inevitable aspect of sinful men's ways. The Roman church mitigated the evil, however, by the concept of a just war, and the double standard of morality allowed the perfectionist ideal of peace to guide the clerical elite, especially the members of the monastic orders, who were not required to bear arms. Rarely have modern Catholics viewed war, as the Calvinists and Puritans did, as a moral crusade against evil. (They once did, of course, in the Crusades.) Catholics, like most Episcopalians, have been reluctant fighters. Thus, in our own Civil War . . . the Northern Episcopalians, in the Catholic tradition, were reluctant participants; the descendendants of the Puritans, crusading idealists against evil; and the Quakers, perfectionists above the conflict. (101-102)

The Quakers saw the world as fallen, and understood the faithful as all being called to the same standard of righteousness. Participation in worldly matters — statecraft, warfare, business — was an affront to righteousness. Many Quakers, Baltzell says, made an uncomfortable peace with business, but maintained their reluctance about statecraft and warfare. He notes, for example, that the major "Founding Fathers" were all from Massachusetts or Virginia: not one was orignally from Philadelphia. Even famous Philadelphia resident Ben Franklin was a Boston boy, baptised in the Congregational church.

The Puritans also saw the world as fallen. They saw the state as having particular obligations to enforce morality, however, and thought of vocation as obligating individuals to fulfill particular duties in society. The Puritans and their descendents generated an elite in Massachusetts that exercised tremendous power for almost 300 years. Baltzell is intrigued by examples like John Adams, his son John Quincy Adams, his grandson Charles Francis Adams, the diplomat, and his great-grandson Henry Adams, the writer. The Quakers produced nothing like this lineage.

What's interesting to me is that Unitarians inherited many of the Puritan characteristics, which played out hugely on into the twentieth century. Think of Unitarian "old families" like the Eliots, for example: three different presidents of the American Unitarian Association, a president of Harvard, more ministers than you can count, and even the poet and convert to Anglicanism, T.S. Eliot.

UUCF-L 9.26.02

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