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The Devil and Doctor Dwight Satire and Theology in the Early American Republic
By Colin Wells
The University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 2002 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Introduction The subject of this study is an episode in American literary and religious history in which Timothy Dwight, outspoken Connecticut poet, clergyman, and educator during the Revolutionary and early republican periods, undertook to wage war against the forces of "infidelity." My argument is that an understanding of this literary campaign makes possible a reconstruction of the more momentous ideological struggles and transformations taking place in America during this period-party warfare between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, the theological and social struggles among various groups of orthodox and dissenting Protestants, and the intellectual controversies arising from Enlightenment secularism and progressivism. Such a reconstruction, however, depends first upon an act of literary recovery, not merely of a number of lost or misunderstood works but, more important, of the ideological contexts that made the controversy surrounding infidelity so powerful in its own time, for this story has not been fully understood by modern scholars.
One reason for this misapprehension is that the specific literary work within which Dwight began his campaign against infidelity, and the key to understanding the deeper struggle around which so much of his writings center, has remained virtually unintelligible to many twentieth-century literary critics and historians. That work is The Triumph of Infidelity, an anonymously published satiric poem of 1788 directed most immediately at the Universalist theology of Charles Chauncy, longtime pastor of the First Church of Boston. The poem appeared in the midst of the Universalist controversy, a pamphlet war waged by opposing camps of Congregationalist clergymen over the doctrine of "the salvation of all men." Dwight's emphasis in The Triumph of Infidelity upon Chauncy and Universalism-what might appear at first glance simply as a heterodox form of Christianity-has left most scholars uncertain about how to treat the poem's larger claims for itself as a satiric assault against the forces of infidelity. Indeed, the increasing interest in the idea of universal salvation in the last decades of the eighteenth century has tended to be viewed as a religious or doctrinal issue, rather than as a movement containing far greater political and ideological implications within the history of the early Republic.
For readers already familiar with the larger body of Dwight's writings, including his other polemical works against Enlightenment skepticism and deism and French Revolutionary radicalism, the claim for the special importance of The Triumph of Infidelity will seem an unlikely one, standing in marked contrast to the way in which his literary and public careers have usually been understood. Dwight has been remembered as a commanding public figure in his home state of Connecticut, the popular minister and schoolmaster from the village of Greenfield Hill who in 1795 took over the presidency of Yale and, during the next two decades, transformed the college into a national institution. Scholars of American religious history-by far the largest group to examine Dwight's career closely-remember him as a theologian and author of Theology; Explained and Defended, in a Series of Sermons (1818-1819). Compiled while he served simultaneously as president and professor of divinity at Yale, this five-volume work was republished more than a dozen times in Britain and America throughout the nineteenth century. As a literary figure, he has long been known for his Travels in New England and New York (1821-1822), the record of nearly twenty years of excursions throughout the northeastern states; more recently, moreover, we have witnessed a rediscovery of Dwight's poetic career as the author of the biblical epic The Conquest of Canaan (1785) and of Greenfield Hill (1794), the ambitious and at times brilliant exercise in what has been described as "Connecticut Georgic." Dwight the satiric poet, meanwhile, the author of The Triumph of Infidelity, has remained all but forgotten.
The Triumph of Infidelity
To a modern reader attempting to make even preliminary sense of The Triumph of Infidelity-not merely a decoding of its relevant terms or identification of its topical references but at times the more modest first-order comprehension of the words on the page-the reason for its critical neglect is not hard to find. In The Triumph of Infidelity, Dwight was consciously choosing to revive in the America of the late 1780s the high Augustan mode of John Dryden and Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, to reclaim for poetry in America the status of "language as symbolic action" that had earlier made these poets such dominant voices of political criticism in their own time. Once one has learned to locate oneself in relation to the poem's satiric idiom, and in particular to a vision of contemporary history in which local events like the Universalist controversy and specific people like Chauncy, Ethan Allen, and John Murray are enveloped always within an atmosphere of cosmic implication, The Triumph of Infidelity reveals itself not merely, as Lawrence Buell has argued, as Dwight's best poem but as perhaps the preeminent example of American neoclassical or Augustan satire. Yet, on the way to this realization, one encounters a compressed and difficult work, written in the same dense, allusive mode that today makes even such acknowledged classics as Dryden's MacFlecknoe (1682) and Pope's Dunciad (1728) frustrating for modern readers.
Dwight's decision to present The Triumph of Infidelity as a later, American form of Augustan satire takes us to the very heart of the notion of "literary warfare," but it also poses the first major interpretive difficulty. We have always recognized the extent to which Dwight and other early republican poets such as John Trumbull and Joel Barlow imitated the formal characteristics of their earlier Augustan precursors and packed their poems with numerous specific allusions to these writers. Only recently, however, have we come to understand the deeper significance of their reassertion of an "Augustan poetic moment" in post-Revolutionary America. The first years of the early republican period were characterized by uneasiness over America's future-these are the years of Shays's Rebellion and various economic crises and interstate rivalries, which ultimately led to the calling of the Philadelphia Convention and the drafting of the Constitution. Because of this sense of crisis, as William C. Dowling has shown, American writers sought to revive the specific Augustan notion of poems as tools of ideological intervention, the same means of warding off the potential threats to the health of the Republic that Pope and Swift and John Gay had used to combat the social and political threats of their own time. This notion of literature as an ideological weapon will stand in the immediate background of my own argument about Dwight, the controversy surrounding Universal salvation, and the larger issue of infidelity, which, once invoked in The Triumph of Infidelity, would run through the remainder of Dwight's public and literary career.
At the same time, even as readers begin to recognize the general significance of the self-conscious Augustanism of The Triumph of Infidelity, the sheer number of specific allusions presents a continual challenge. The poem demands as a precondition of its intelligibility both a close familiarity with the Augustan poetic tradition and a deep comprehension of the symbolic world projected by that tradition. Here, for instance, is a passage taken from the poem's synoptic overview of the history of infidelity in eighteenth-century England. As in Pope's Dunciad, the narrative surrounding this passage involves a central demonic character who represents an inversion of the poem's own projected system of values; in The Triumph of Infidelity, befitting both Dwight's New England Puritan ancestry and the subject matter of infidelity, this character is none other than Satan, who serves as the poem's speaker for approximately half of its nearly eight hundred lines. In this passage, Satan is describing one of his most recent successes in his continuing struggle against heaven, the immense popularity of deism among the more fashionable circles of eighteenth-century English society, following the explosion of publications by John Toland, Matthew Tindal, and a host of lesser freethinkers:
As writers too, they proffer'd useful aid, Believ'd unseen, and reverenc'd tho' unread. Against their foe no proof my sons desire, No reasoning canvas and no sense require. Enough, the Bible is by wits arraign'd, Genteel men doubt it, smart men say it's feign'd, Onward my powder'd beaux and boobies throng, As puppies float the kennel's stream along. (229-236)
To see this passage as projecting an Augustan poetic world is to recognize that the concluding simile refers not simply to the workings of an eighteenth-century kennel-the gutter through which streets were cleared of filth by the flow of rainwater-but to the particular kennel depicted at the end of Swift's "A Description of a City Shower": "Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow, / And bear their trophies with them as they go: / ... Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud, / Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood." It is to recognize as well that Swift had intended this image as a withering reminder of the unflattering reality underlying precisely the same fashionable urban world to which Dwight's Satan refers above and that this irony is meant immediately to be registered by the reader of The Triumph of Infidelity. At the same time, that Satan is making this ironic quip is an equally important element of the implicit Augustan quality of the poem. Beyond the usual complication that occurs whenever Satan speaks-demanding, as in its ultimate source of allusion, John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), a translation of everything that is said into an inverted or diabolic perspective-Satan also acknowledges in a rather good-natured way the essential folly of the "powder'd beaux" and "boobies" who blindly follow the tenets of this fashionable deism without ever reading its authors. The sense in which Satan must be read as a good-natured or comic villain, more closely resembling the goddess Dulness of The Dunciad than the Satan of either the Bible or Paradise Lost, has remained one of the most misunderstood aspects of The Triumph of Infidelity.
Nonetheless, a sympathetic and attentive reading of The Triumph of Infidelity brings to light a poem that is, in its main outlines, simple enough. With the American victory in the Revolution, the rebel archangel has left behind a corrupt and declining Europe to come to the world of "freedom, peace, and virtue" that may yet be discerned in the new American Republic. (Alluding to the ritual procession of the Roman imperator in a golden chariot up the Capitoline, the "triumph" of the poem's title is Satan's passage over the Atlantic and through America in his "gloomy car" drawn by dragons.) The poem contains three speakers: Satan himself, whose long and self-congratulatory account of his conquests in the name of infidelity throughout the previous eras of human history occupies the first half of the poem; a narrator representing Dwight, whose primary role is to recount the effects of Satan's influence during the time he has been at work in America and to describe the various members of the crowd who gather around the aging clergyman, Charles Chauncy; and, lastly, Chauncy himself, who addresses the crowd on the doctrinal points of his recently published theological treatise, The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations ...; or, The Salvation of All Men the Grand Thing Aimed at in the Scheme of God ... (1784).
Chauncy's central role in The Triumph of Infidelity will no doubt be surprising to those who remember him mainly as Jonathan Edwards's great antagonist in the earlier New England controversy occasioned by the Great Awakening, the defender of a sober and traditional Puritanism against the seemingly radical newer emphasis upon revivalism and religious affections. But Chauncy lived nearly fifty years after the Awakening, long enough to publish his own radical treatise. In it, he asserts that the great truth of Christianity, hidden from previous ages, is now revealed: the damnation promised to sinners in the Scriptures is not eternal, but will be simply a period of tribulation during which souls are purified and refined through repentance until, at last, they are welcomed into heaven. This notion of even unrepentant sinners' being promised a future of eternal happiness, regardless of their earthly crimes or vices, would make the doctrine of universal salvation immediately controversial in the years surrounding Chauncy's publication of The Mystery Hid. Dwight would have just this controversy in mind when he would portray Chauncy as nothing less than the great agent of infidelity in America, the central figure in Satan's plan to corrupt the still-virtuous and pious American citizens by cloaking his latest form of infidelity in scriptural interpretation.
Yet the great paradox is that Chauncy, one of New England's most prominent clergymen and the product of the same Covenant theology as Dwight, is from the beginning of The Triumph of Infidelity put into the intellectual and moral category of those "infidels" more commonly identified by eighteenth-century Christianity as its true enemies: skeptics like Voltaire and David Hume; materialists like Holbach and La Mettrie; deists and freethinkers like Toland, Tindal, the third earl of Shaftesbury, and Thomas Paine. It is with peculiar clairvoyance that Dwight saw Chauncy and such writers as Voltaire and Paine as on some deeper level kindred spirits. Indeed, Dwight's recognition that this New England clergyman, preaching a wholly agreeable doctrine of an all-merciful and benevolent diety, was an unwitting creature of the cold materialist universe portrayed in such works as Holbach's System of Nature gives The Triumph of Infidelity its special importance within the history of American religious and philosophical thought. This assertion also leads us outward from The Triumph of Infidelity and the controversy over universal salvation to the more significant ideological struggles that would occupy Dwight for the remainder of his career, struggles over French Revolutionary radicalism and Jeffersonian Republicanism and the larger discourse of the inherent virtues, capabilities, and rights of man.
Universalism, Progressive History, and the Nunc-Stans Perspective
Dwight recognized in Chauncy's doctrine of universal salvation the latest version of what students of intellectual history have called eighteenth-century Pelagianism. This view of human nature and human existence takes its name from Augustine's fifth-century antagonist Pelagius, who had declared the doctrine of Original Sin to be only a myth, human nature to be wholly innocent, and virtue to be attainable through a simple act of will. Pelagianism had entered eighteenth-century English moral philosophy through Shaftesbury and the Cambridge Platonists, came to dominate European Enlightenment thought through Jean Jacques Rousseau and others, and, through its effect on such men as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Joel Barlow, began to exert an important influence in the United States. The Triumph of Infidelity thus emerges as much more than a satiric blast fired in a local theological controversy; even in 1788, one can see taking shape a more momentous struggle over the moral nature of the new American Republic as a whole and what this nature implied about the political course the new nation should follow.
The true momentousness of this warfare would not become wholly evident, even to Dwight, until the violent divisions of moral allegiances brought about by the French Revolution had been fully felt on the American side of the Atlantic. By this time, the mild theological reveries of Chauncy's doctrine of the salvation of all men would within the sphere of political thought be reborn as Jeffersonian democracy, the complex myth of American exceptionalism, inevitable progress, and social perfectibility that would promise to all men-or at least to all those clever or fortunate enough to live in America-a new form of salvation within history. During these years, the symbolic warfare that had begun against Chauncy and Universalism would be carried on in specifically religious terms in Theology and the other sermons Dwight would deliver from the Yale pulpit, such as The Nature, and Danger, of Infidel Philosophy (1798). It would be carried on in social and political terms in the Travels and in such public addresses as The True Means of Establishing Public Happiness (1795), and, of course, in poems from Greenfield Hill to his last substantial poem, "An Extract from 'The Retrospect,'" published on the eve of Jefferson's first presidential term.
Excerpted from The Devil and Doctor Dwight by Colin Wells Copyright © 2002 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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