A short history of ultracalvinism

Over the last 50 years, Time magazine has become as stupid as its audience. The unfortunate fact is that anyone in 2007 who reads Time, or any magazine like it – yes, even the Economist – is simply not right in the head. (Sometimes I receive random free issues of the Economist or find a crumpled copy in a cafe, and if I accidentally read a few pages, or worse one of the leaders, I fly into a shrieking rage and have to curl up in the closet for a few hours. This rag, which I have loved since I was big enough to go on the big rollercoaster, is now devoted utterly and irreversibly to the production and distribution of official mendacity.)

However, Time was once run by the Luces and the likes of Whittaker Chambers, and it turned out a word or two in its day. And here’s something it gave us on March 16, 1942: American Malvern.

Unfortunately, any slice I could slice from this confection would be unconvincing. The whole thing simply must be read in its natural habitat.

Now isn’t that an interesting article?

Don’t the phrase “Organized U.S. Protestantism’s super-protestant new program” kind of jump out at you there? Especially being as where it is? In the first sentence? After a grand total of six words? “Organized U.S. Protestantism’s super-protestant new program?”

It’s almost as if, if you were a reader of Time in 1942, and you read an article which used the phrase “organized U.S. Protestantism’s super-protestant new program,” you’d be expected to have some idea what in the great jumping bejesus it was talking about.

Now if we scan slightly further into the text, we see some names. Who the hell, for example, is John R. Mott? Who sings of John R. Mott today? I have no idea, but apparently in 1942 he was a “well-known layman.” Only one rings a bell to me: Irving Fisher. Irving Fisher was a prohibitionist and an inflationist. Pretty much everything that doughboy done was wrong. So already, I am on my guard.

We also see some denominations, or at least institutional affiliations. And one thing we note is that all of these affiliations are essentially “low church” in nature. In the British terminology, if they are not Dissenters they are close. And the British low-church tradition is basically Calvinist in nature.

So we can sharpen Time’s wording, and describe this incomparable shindig as not just “protestant” (note the small ‘p,’ there, and the use of the word as a normal descriptive adjective of public policy, just as one might say “communist” or “liberal” or “fascist”), but in fact “calvinist.”

When you change one word it’s usually good to change two. So let’s define the 2007 descendant of “super-protestant” as ultracalvinist. (Google gave me only four hits for this concoction.) Basically meaning the same thing, but not having any weird connotations of comic-book powers, and allowing for some semantic drift.

I’ll let the content of the Time article speak for itself. Clearly, if you have trouble identifying the 2007 equivalent of 1942’s “super-protestant,” you have some kind of historical disorder. Perhaps you should spend less time watching al-Jazeera. And I also have the sad honor of informing you that Hugo Chavez is not in fact the second coming of Thomas Jefferson. If you disagree, especially if you disagree violently, with these assertions, I will have to suggest that perhaps there are other blogs you could read.

Now how should we classify ultracalvinism? Well, we can start by taking it at face value, or at least trying to. We immediately note that, unlike its equally mysterious ancestor, this “super-protestant” thing, ultracalvinism does not claim to be Christian at all. It usually claims to be secular (whatever that means) or even atheistic, although you will get the occasional Michael Lerner type who defends it as deeply spiritual.

Here at UR we know that theism and idealism are basically the same thing, and anything you can do with one you can do with the other. Just think of them as alternative surface protein variations.

(Any immune response aimed at specific gods (say, Osiris) or ideals (say, Equality, or the Environment) will be evaded almost instantly. Any aimed at all theisms, idealisms, or anything in between, is far too broad and will never work. Any aimed at idealism alone is a great way to cultivate a flourishing crop of theisms. And vice versa. This is why we are not so into the Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris-etc-etc-etc treatment here at UR.)

Ultracalvinism appears to be pretty much the same thing as “Unitarianism” – that is, in the 2007 sense of that word. This is also interesting, because Unitarians of one form or another have been running the US since the day it was born. The doctrines have changed wildly, of course, but this name has not, although now it is not so often used. But – for example – if you can detect any distinction between Unitarian Universalism and “political correctness,” for example a proposition on which the two conflict, your eyes are sharper than mine.

Often ultracalvinism even has the sheer, unmitigated gall to present itself as the opposite of Christianity. More broadly, it’s a superior revelation of which Christianity, along with all other religions, is a mere anticipation, a kind of lame-ass John-the-Baptist point-the-way figure. Backward people who refuse to accept this inevitable transition are called “fundamentalists.” If they do accept it, they are “moderates” or some other term of approbation.

This applies to all religions, of course, not just Christianity. For example, a “fundamentalist Muslim” is a Muslim (if a sort of Ossianistic reconstituted pseudo-Muslim). But a “moderate Muslim” is an ultracalvinist.

It is also interesting to track the relationship between ultracalvinism and Marxism. Is Marxism a branch of ultracalvinism? Or vice versa? Or are they siblings in some sense? Perhaps this is a fun “exercise for the reader.”

If the prehistory of ultracalvinism interests you, three books you may find interesting are The War for Righteousness by Richard Gamble, Lincoln, The Man by Edgar Lee Masters, and Three New Deals by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. A good one-piece starter is an old article of Murray Rothbard’s which was just reposted by mises.orgWorld War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals.

And there’s also the post-history of super-protestantism. A few weeks ago I mentioned a book that I claimed had the best blurb in the history of the solar system. I am now prepared to reveal the identity of this remarkable masterpiece of 20th-century verbiage.

The book was published in 1964, although my edition is from ’66, a really beautiful and timeless slipcased edition from Alfred A. Knopf. The slipcase has an elegant modernist three-color design, sea-blue and black and red, with the author’s name and the name of the book, and the translators: Leif Sjoberg and W.H. Auden. The dustcover is white linen with no design, and its front shows just the author’s name and the title, in large sea-blue italics, and then under this, in large but not tastelessly large serif roman, the quote:

“The noblest self-disclosure
of spiritual struggle and triumph,
perhaps the greatest testament
of personal devotion,
published in this century…”

This is signed, tastefully and simply, in very small italics,


The book is Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld, and it very much rewards the reader. If not precisely as author, or reviewer (or translator, for God’s sakes, what was he thinking? Gee, I can’t even begin to guess) intended.

Update: two other interesting books, chiefly notable because they are (like the Schivelbusch) written recently by well-credentialed authors who consider themselves liberal or even socialist, are Authoritarian Socialism in America by Arthur Lipow, and The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America by Richard J. Ellis. And the Bellamy salute is not to be missed.


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