What Happens When Sola Scriptura is Affirmed?

A Lesson in Early American Protestant History

From The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan O. Hatch (Yale University Press, 1989), Chapter 6 entitled "The Right to Think for Oneself" (pages 179-183). Endnotes are in parentheses [ ].


The most telling evidence of the revolt against history and against Calvinist control is the distinctive way that many populists chose to read the Bible. Any number of denominations, sects, movements, and individuals between 1780 and 1830 claimed to be restoring a pristine biblical Christianity free from all human devices.

"In religious faith we have but one Father and one Master," noted the Universalist spokesman A. B. Grosh, "and the Bible, THE BIBLE, is our only acknowledged creed-book." [1]

"I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me," claimed Alexander Campbell, "and I am as much on my guard against reading them today, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever." [2]

Protestants from Luther to Wesley had been forced to define carefully what they meant by sola scriptura. They found it an effective banner to unfurl when attacking Catholics but always a bit troublesome when common people began to take the teaching seriously. For the Reformers, popular translations of the Bible did not imply that people were to understand the Scriptures apart from ministerial guidance. Thus when dealing with a scholar such as Erasmus, Martin Luther could champion boldly the perspicuity of Scripture, its clarity for all:

"Who will maintain that the public fountain does not stand in the light, because some people in a back alley cannot see it, when everybody in the market place can see it quite plainly?"

Yet when confronted with headstrong sectarians, he withdrew such democratic interpretations and admitted the danger of proving anything by Scripture:

"Now I learn that it suffices to throw many passages together helterskelter whether they fit or not. If this is the way to do it, I certainly shall prove with Scripture that Rastrum beer is better than Malmsey wine." [3]

John Calvin similarly charted a careful middle course in defining what biblical authority should mean:

"I acknowledge that Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom; but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man, at his pleasure, may assign."

In the same vein, the Westminster Divines defended their flank against the Anglicans by arguing in the 1640s that on matters of church government and forms of worship the Scriptures contained all that a person needed to know. With the sectarians of the English Civil War in mind, however, they included in the Westminster Confession the statement that the whole counsel of God was "either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture." [4]

It is equally clear that the eighteenth-century evangelicals John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Isaac Backus, and others did not think of viewing the Bible as a source of authority independent of theology and the mediations of clergyman. Wesley called himself a homo unius libri, a man of one book, and Whitefield repeatedly exhorted his charges to return to the simplicity of Scripture. Yet they came to verbal blows, and soon the Methodists divided over abstract theology in the Calvinist-Arminian debate. Similarly, even the "high-flying" New Lights of New England and the South never sustained a convincing case that theology per se, the good and the bad, should be discarded in favor of Scripture alone. Jonathan Edwards lauded the spiritual perception of common folk, but he also noted that "the less knowing and considerate sort of people" could easily be deceived in the very process of studying the Bible. [5]

The Great Awakening, then, failed to set the Bible against theology, history, and tradition. In the middle of the eighteenth century, however, rumblings of this kind came from an unexpected quarter.


The first Americans to underscore the right of private judgment in handling Scripture were, oddly enough, ministers who opposed the evangelical tenets of the Great Awakening. As New Lights in New England worked to make people more theologically self-conscious, often by rewriting church covenants to include strict doctrinal standards, theological liberals increasingly resisted strict creedal definitions of Christianity. The future president of the United States, John Adams, like many of his generation, came to despise theological argumentation. He reported in his diary in 1756,

"Where do we find a precept in the Gospel requiring Ecclesiastical Synods? Convocations? Councils? Decrees? Creeds? Confessions? Oaths? Subscriptions? and the whole cart-loads of other trumpery that we find religion encumbered with in these days?" [6]

To gain leverage against the entrenched Calvinism of the Great Awakening theological liberals redoubled their appeal to depend on the Scriptures alone. "Why may not I go to the Bible and learn the doctrines of Christianity as well as the Assembly of Divines?" the prominent Boston clergyman Jeremy Belknap asked in 1784. Simeon Howard, a more liberal minister, exhorted his colleagues to "keep close to the Bible" and to "avoid metaphysical additions." He also advised clergyman to "lay aside all attachment to human systems, all partiality to names, councils and churches, and honestly inquire, 'what saith the scriptures.'" [7]

Charles Chauncy, pastor of Boston's First Church for sixty years (1727-1787), is the most prominent example of an exclusive appeal to Biblical authority in order to unravel theological orthodoxy. Chauncy was persuaded to emphasize Bible study by reading the works of English divines, such as Samuel Clarke's The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1712) and John Taylor's The Scripture-Doctrine of Original Sin (London, 1740). Both authors used a "free, impartial and diligent" method of examining Scripture to JETTISON, respectively, the doctrines of the Trinity and of Original Sin. [8]

During the 1750s, after the Great Awakening, Charles Chauncy spent seven years engaged in the approach to Bible study expounded by these English authors. In the spring of 1754 he wrote to a friend,

"I have made the Scriptures my sole study for about two years; and I think I have attained to a clearer understanding of them than I ever had before."

His studies led him to draft a lengthy manuscript in which he REJECTED the idea of eternal punishment and embraced universalism. He kept this work in his desk for over a quarter-century, its conclusions, he confessed, too controversial "to admit of publication in this country." He was nearly eighty when he finally allowed a London publisher in 1784 to print The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations...or, the Salvation of All Men. To justify his conclusions, Chauncy relied on the biblical force of his argument, "a long and diligent comparing of Scripture with Scripture." He explained to Ezra Stiles, "The whole is written from the Scripture account of the thing and not from any human scheme." This unorthodox biblicist would have been gratified indeed by the reaction of one minister who, finding the book's arguments convincing, wrote,

"He has placed many texts and passages of Scripture in a light altogether new to me, and I cannot help thinking his system not only rational, but Scriptural." [9]

Well into the nineteenth century, rationalistic Christians -- many of them Unitarians and Universalists -- argued against evangelical orthodoxy by appealing to the Bible. Unitarian Noah Worcester's arguments were typical. He challenged people to think for themselves, to slough off a "passive state of mind" that deferred to great names in theology. "The Scriptures," he declared, "were designed for the great mass of mankind and are in general adapted to their capacities."

Worcester assumed that mysteries such as the Trinity would be discarded by a disbelieving public once people learned to explore the Bible for themselves. He recounted his Unitarian conversion in a book appropriately entitled Bible News of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Concord, NH, 1810). [10] In the same vein, Charles Beecher defended his rejection of his father Lyman's orthodoxy by renouncing "creed-power" and raising the banner of "the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible." [11] By the 1840s, however, when Charles Beecher had moved beyond the pale of orthodoxy, a different and decidedly more evangelical notion of biblicism had taken root within American culture.

Change in Christian thought, as Edmund S. Morgan has suggested, is usually a matter of emphasis. Certain ideas are given greater weight than was previously accorded them, or one idea is carried to its logical conclusion at the expense of others. "One age slides into the next," he says, "and an intellectual revolution may be achieved by the expression of ideas that everyone had always professed to accept."[12]

The study of the religious convictions of self-taught Americans in the early years of the republic reveals how much weight was placed on private judgment and how little on the roles of history, theology, and the collective will of the church. In a culture that mounted a frontal assault upon tradition, mediating elites, and institutions, the Bible very easily became, as John W. Nevin complained, "a book dropped from the skies for all sorts of men to use in their own way." [13]

This shift occurred gradually and without fanfare because innovators could exploit arguments as old and trusted as Protestantism itself. Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Backus had all argued for the principle ofsola scriptura; unschooled Americans merely argued that they were fulfilling that same mandate. Yet, in the assertion that private judgment should be the ultimate tribunal in religious matters, common people started a revolution.

This populist hermeneutics had considerable appeal because it spoke to several pressing issues. It proclaimed a new ground of certainty for a generation distressed that it could no longer hear the voice of God above the din of sectarian confusion. This approach to Scripture also dared common people to open the Bible and think for themselves. It even challenged them to limit religious discussion to the language of the Bible. Finally, this approach freed people from staid ecclesiastical traditions, thus befuddling the respectable clergy.

This is exactly what John W. Nevin and Philip Schaff found so galling about America's "sect system." Powerful ideas such as "no creed but the Bible" took hold in popular religious movements, even if they seemed to bear little meaningful relation to the evolution of those groups. Nevin was particularly aware of the gap between a rhetoric that promised to calm sectarian strife and the actual practice of following the Bible -- which seemed to multiply denominations endlessly :

"But what are we to think of it when we find such a motley mass of protesting systems, all laying claim so vigorously here to one and the same watchword? If the Bible be at once so clear and full as a formulary of Christian doctrine and practice, how does it come to pass that where men are left most free to use it in this way, and have the greatest mind to do so, according to their own profession, they are flung asunder so perpetually in their religious faith, instead of being brought together, by its influence." [14]

He was equally struck with the dichotomy between the rhetoric of people going to the Bible for themselves and the reality of a few strong figures imposing their own will. Nevin claimed that the "high-sounding phrases" of liberty, free inquiry, and an open Bible masked a new kind of ecclesiastical domination that would "kill all independent thought and all free life" :

"The liberty of the sect consists at last, in thinking its particular notions, shouting its shibboleths and passwords, dancing its religious hornpipes, and reading the Bible only through its theological goggles. These restrictions, at same time, are so many wires, that lead back at last into the hands of a few leading spirits, enabling them to wield a true hierarchical despotism over all who are thus brought within their power." [15]

This divorce of democratic aspiration from the realities of an emerging capitalist society was endemic to Jacksonian America, as John Murrin and Rowland Berthoff have noted. Because of their Revolutionary heritage, Americans had trouble admitting that competition could undermine freedom of opportunity as well as freedom of thought. [16] Yet common people, Bibles in hand, relished the right to shape their own faith and submit to leaders of their own choosing. Folk who were given acceptance, dignity, and meaning by the Methodists, Mormons, and Millerites found precious few occasions to complain about religious authoritarianism.


[1] John L. Winebrenner, History of All the Religious Denominations in the United States (Harrisburg, PA, 1853), 595.

[2] "The Christian Baptist," (April 3, 1826), 229.

[3] E.P. Rupp, "The Bible in the Age of the Reformation," in The Church's Use of the Bible Past and Present, ed. D.E. Nineham (London, 1963), 84; Martin Luther, Works (Philadelphia Edition), 39:75-76.

[4] A. Skevington Wood, The Principles of Biblical Interpretation: As Enunciated by Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin (Grand Rapids, 1967), 92. On the Westminster approach to the Bible, see Jack Bartlett Rogers, Scripture in the Westminster Confession (Grand Rapids, 1967); and John G. Leith, Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making (Richmond, 1973).

[5] For Wesley's use of Scripture, see Mack B. Stokes, The Bible in the Wesleyan Heritage (Nashville, 1979), 19-26. Edwards discusses this danger in The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven, CT, 1964), 2:143-44.

[6] Adams, The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams, 10 vols (Boston, 1856), 2:5-6, quoted in Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (Boston, 1955), 231.

[7] Wright, Beginnings of Unitarianism, 235.

[8] Edward M. Griffin, Old Brick: Charles Chauncy of Boston, 1705-1787 (Minneapolis, 1980), 109-25. Henry May suggests that the Arian Samuel Clarke was one of the three most read and quoted divines in 18th-century America; see May, The Enlightenment of America (NY, 1976), 38. Chauncy acknowledged his debt to John Taylor for a method of examining the Bible in The Mystery Hid (London, 1784), xi-xii. See Wright, Beginnings of Unitarianism, 176.

[9] Wright, Beginnings of Unitarianism, 176.

[10] Chauncy, Mystery Hid, 359; Griffin, Old Brick, 11, 176. See Noah Worcester's article "On Humility in the Investigation of Christian Truth," in The Christian Disciple vol I, no 4 (Boston, 1813), 17-22. Worcester elaborates on this hostility to human creeds and confessions in his book, Causes and Evils of Contention Unveiled in Letters to Christians, a favorite of the reformer Lucretia Mott. See Otelia Cromwell, Lucretia Mott (Cambridge, MA, 1958), 39, 204.

[11] Charles Beecher, The Bible a Sufficient Creed (Boston, 1850), 24, 26.

[12] Edmund S. Morgan, ed. Puritan Political Ideas (Indianapolis, 1965), xiii.

[13] John W. Nevin, "Early Christianity," in Yrigoyen and Bricker, Catholic and Reformed, 255.

[14] Nevin, "Sect System," 137.

[15] ibid, 144.

[16] Rowland Berthoff and John M. Murrin, "Feudalism, Communalism, and the Yeoman Freeholder: The American Revolution Considered as a Social Accident," in Essays on the American Revolution, ed. Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson (Chapel Hill, NC, 1973), 282-88.