Bellamy, Joseph (1719-1790)
Joseph Bellamy (1719-1790)
New divinity leader
Local Origins. Although he became one of early America’s most widely known religious figures, Joseph Bellamy spent most of his life working in rural Connecticut. He was born in Wallingford, Connecticut, on 20 February 1719. Bellamy was raised on a farm, yet attended Yale College, graduating at the age of sixteen in 1735. From Yale he became an informal student of Jonathan Edwards, who was the minister of Northampton, Massachusetts, and the most sophisticated theologian of eighteenth-century America. Edwards was a leader of the revivals of the Great Awakening, and Bellamy followed him in promoting that work. In November 1758 Bellamy became the minister of a newly formed church in Bethlehem, in rural Litchfield County on the Connecticut frontier. He remained in that pulpit for the rest of his life, although he preached widely in Connecticut, bringing his fervent preaching about the “new birth” that was the center of the emerging evangelical wing of New England Congregationalism to many people.
Consistent Calvinism. Bellamy’s great contribution to American culture was the development of the New Divinity theology, or Consistent Calvinism, as its adherents called it. Bellamy built on the thinking of his teacher, Edwards, whose work allowed old ideas to speak to a new generation. In a series of books published in the 1740s and 1750s Edwards had revitalized traditional New England Puritanism by blending its core ideas drawn from the work of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer John Calvin, with the psychology and philosophy developed by John Locke at the end of the 1600s. Bellamy continued this work. In his own preaching and writing he continued to emphasize the central tenets of traditional Calvinism, including the ideas of natural human depravity, God’s predestination of the elect for salvation, and the necessity of conversion to Christ. But he developed the notion of God as a moral governor, in response to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment emphasis on reason and fairness in the governance of the universe. He explained the presence of sin in moral terms, as something that God permitted in order to allow for the exercise of justice and forgiveness rather than as something actively caused by God as punishment for Adam’s fall from grace. Christ’s death, therefore, was not meant to satisfy God’s anger but to express God’s love for his straying children. Bellamy saw these ideas as consistent with the religion of his Puritan forebears, but in fact they were important modifications of the orthodox Calvinism that had prevailed in New England to that time.
Social Theology. Bellamy also went further; he was especially concerned with the social aspects of religion and considered Edwards’s thought lacking in its ability to address the complex moral problems of the revolutionary era. Bellamy’s preaching emphasized God’s law and the responsibility of his listeners to honor God by obeying it. But instead of obeying the moral law in order to earn their salvation, Bellamy argued that true Christians would obey the law because they had already been saved by God, or regenerated. For him, part of his religious work was to spread morality, and so he came to focus on promoting the godly society, as well as encouraging the individual conversions that were behind that society. For example, while his sermons tried to convince the individuals in his church of their need to reject sin and embrace God, he also founded one of the first regular Sunday schools in order to teach morality to the entire community. He argued that the emerging market economy encouraged selfishness and sinfulness. He praised thrifty yeoman farmers, who were more interested in a stable family life than in amassing a fortune, and offered a vision of a new economy based on love of God, not greed. As Bellamy became a socially and politically important figure in Connecticut, he expanded his ideas to include government, which he thought also should have the moral order as its goal. This position led Bellamy to support the independence movement in 1776, when he concluded that British rule only encouraged immorality and injustice. From this time on he added republican language to his sermons, painting the new nation as a just and moral society organized on godly principles. He and his colleagues praised liberty, but it was a liberty that existed within the order established by God. As Americans established their own government and society, Bellamy was not afraid to criticize them for departing from God’s way, even as he praised them for departing from England’s way. Doing this, Bellamy laid a groundwork for the social reform efforts of American Protestants in the nineteenth century, one of the principal legacies of the New Divinity movement.
Later Career. Bellamy’s ideas became influential even though he rarely left his own pulpit in Connecticut. In 1750 he published True Religion Delineated, a huge book outlining his ideas and describing the way to come to Christ. In many reprints, it became one of the steady sellers of early America, found in many families’ homes. Bellamy was also an educator, beginning a seminary of sorts in his own home, taking in college-age men and newly established preachers, teaching them about “true religion” and how ministers could promote it. He taught many of the leading ministers of the late 1700s, including Jonathan Edwards Jr., Nathaniel Niles, John Smalley, and David Austin. These men in turn reached others and together formed the core of an important group of evangelical Protestants that came to dominate American religion through the revivals of the 1800s. Between 1765 and 1783 Bellamy’s students took more than half of the parish appointments available in New England, and the New Divinity dominated the sermons heard by people in the interior of New England. Stiles recognized Bellamy’s importance when he termed him the “Pope of Litchfield County” and worked to prevent the spread of his ideas at liberal Yale College. Bellamy died on 6 March 1790.