The Psychology of Evangelicalism

Philip Greven is a respected historian, and his book Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse addresses the issue of corporal punishment against children in its historical context and what light this can lend to the consequences of hitting, striking, and spanking children today.

In one particularly illuminating passage, he describes the psychological temperament of evangelicals, Calvinists, and fundamentalists, all of whom teach the suppression of self-will and spank their children form an early age as part of their religious framework.

Melancholy and depression have been persistent themes in the family history, religious experience, and emotional lives of Puritans, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals for centuries. Assaults on the self and self-will are the central obsession of vast numbers of men and women from the early seventeenth century to the present. Suicidal impulses frequently appear in these Protestants’ self-portraits as well, although those who write memoirs and autobiographies are usually survivors, not suicides. They may have successfully thwarted their inner impulses toward self-destruction, but the experience of conversion and the new birth rarely relieved them fully of their depressive symptoms. Michael Wigglesworth, whose apocalyptic “Day of Doom” was one of the best-selling publications in early New England, suffered from profound melancholy from his early twenties through at least his early fifties. Punishment was central to both his psyche and his theology. Many evangelicals, generation after generation, voiced their anxiety and depression in their diaries, letters, and autobiographies. In some families, such as the Mathers, melancholy afflicted fathers and sons for at least three successive generations. The persistence and, indeed, the centrality of menacholy and depression for an understanding of religious and secular experience in America, from early-seventeenth-century Puritans to lat-nineteenth-century Victorians, has been explored brilliantly by John Owen King in his illuminating book, The Iron of Melancholy. Some of the most compelling historical evidence we possess concerning the nature and history of depression comes from the religious tradition associated most directly with Calvinism and evangelical Protestantism over the last four centuries.

Closely linked to the recurrent depression evident in so many individuals is the theme of buried and smoldering anger–more often suppressed and denied, disguised and obscured, than openly acknowledged and expressed–visible in many of the most subtle studies of the life histories of Puritan, Calvinist, and evangelical individuals. The depression that manifests itself consistently throughout their lives is nearly always associated with the suppression of anger throughout their adulthood. Cotton Mather, for example, was one of the angriest men living in New England during the colonial period. His words and actions betrayed his inner rage however much he sought to deny it and obscure it from himself and others. Kenneth Silverman has noted that the preacher’s early stuttering was rooted in anger; Silverman observes the continuous impact of the “muffled rage” that Mather simultaneously vented and denied. Throughout his life, this rage underpinned his apocalyptic fantasies of the end of time. Mather “projected personal anger into visions of a world consumed, and hopes for personal vindication into sights of Christ returned to punish the wicked and avenge the virtuous.” The violence suffusing his language and his religious experience, including his intense apocalypticism, is exceptionally clear. (pp. 132-133)


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