Burning John Calvin in Indiana

Indiana celebrates its bicentennial of statehood this year. Amid all the various commemorations, it’s good to look at our theological roots; we’re still partly shaped by them. Indiana became the nineteenth state while the influence of the Second Great Awakening rippled northward from the Cane Ridge Revival (1801) in Kentucky. Arminianism took hold amid the fervor to take the gospel to the frontier; the reformed doctrine of John Calvin found little foothold by comparison.

Some Presbyterians abandoned their reformed theology and became Cumberland Presbyterians as they migrated to the Hoosier state. Thousands more left Presbyterianism altogether and began the Stone-Campbell Movement or the Restoration Movement of the Disciples of Christ. Stronger still were Arminian Baptists who tended to minimize the importance of education and relied especially on emotion in their pleas to the unconverted. But the Methodists converted the state more than any other with their methodical emphasis and missionary zeal. They sent missionaries to the Indiana frontier in droves and quickly structured life for communities, emphasized methods of the Christian life, and established rudimentary educational systems among wilderness people. All of these groups shaped the theology of the state with their commitment to Arminianism, and their influence is still widely evident. Today, the landscape has changed and is changing, but it’s helpful to know where we started.

Camp-meetings for revival were favorite tools to gather, convert, inculcate, and organize frontiersmen. Bashing Calvinism was a favorite ploy of these preachers in the early days of our state. Baynard Rush Hall, a witness of camp-meetings wrote, “no subject is better for popularity at a camp-meeting.” His testimony from a Methodist camp-meeting near Bloomington, Indiana in 1824 captures something of the state of popular theology in that day. The following account of a sermon preached by a leading Methodist preacher and the audible response of the congregation at the camp-meeting is recorded in Hall’s The New Purchase; Or, Early Years in the Far West (New Albany: Nunemacher, 1855), p. 354-355. L. C. Rudolph retells the same in Hoosier Faiths (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 129-130. In the next post, I’ll address the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge. For now, pay attention to how this preacher portrayed foreknowledge:

Judging from the frequency of the deep groans, loud amens, and noisy hallelujahs of the congregation during the narrative, had Calvin suddenly thrust in among us his hatchet face and goat’s beard, he would have been hissed and pelted, nay possibly, been lynched and soused in the Branch; while the excellent Servetus would have been toted on shoulders, and feasted in the tents on fried ham, cold chicken fixins and horse sorrel pies!

Here is a specimen of Mr. S.’s mode of exciting triumphant exclamation, amens, groans, and, against Calvin and his followers. – “Dear sisters, don’t you love tender little darling babies that hang on your parental bosoms?  (amen!) –Yes! I know you do—(amen!  Amen!)—Yes, I know it, I know it—(Amen, amen! hallelujah!)  Now don’t it make your parental heart throb with anguish to think those dear infantile darlings might some day be out burning brush and fall into the flames and be burned to death! (deep groans)—Yes it does, it does!  But oh!  Sisters, oh! Mothers!  How can you think your babes mightn’t get religion and die and be burned forever and ever?  (the Lord forbid—amen—groans.)  But, oho! Only think—only think oh! would you ever a had them darling infantile sucklings born, if you had a known they were going to be burned in a brush heap!  (No, no!—groans—shrieks)  What!  what  what!  if you had foreknown they must have gone to hell!—(hoho! hoho!—amen!)  And does anybody think He is just a tyrant as to make spotless, innocent babies just to damn them?  (No! in a voice of thunder.)—No!  sisters!  no!  no!  mothers!  No! no!  no!  sinners no!!  He ain’t such a tyrant!  Let John Calvin burn, torture and roast, but He never foreordained babies, as Calvin says, to damnation!  (damnation –echoed by hundreds.)—Hallelujah!  ‘tis a free salvation!  Glory!  a free salvation!—(Here Mr. S. battered the rail of the pulpit with his fists, and kicked the bottom with his feet—many screamed—some cried amen!—others groaned and hissed—and more than a dozen females of two opposite colors arose and clapped their hands as if engaged in starching, etc., etc.)  No ho! ‘tis a free, a free, a free salvation!—away with Calvin!  ‘tis for all; all!  ALL.  Yes! Shout it out!  Clap on!  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Oho-oho!  Sinners, sinners, sinners, oh-ho-oho!”

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