The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

V. Philosophers and Divines, 1720–1789

§ 4. Jonathan Mayhew

Another thinker of ability, but of a less noble and elevated style, was Chauncy’s younger contemporary, Jonathan Mayhew (1720–1766), a graduate of Harvard in 1744, and best known for his lively attacks upon the Tory doctrines of passive obedience and non-resistance. Mayhew gained a reputation for bringing a new style and manner into preaching. The son of a father who argued with ingenuity in behalf of human liberty, he was reputed to be a cheerful, liberal man, opposed to the gloomy doctrines of former times. Thus he early declared total depravity both dishonourable to the character of God and a libel on human nature. Mayhew’s opposition to the five points of Calvinism was considered so imprudent that, at his ordination over the West Church, the Boston clergy declined the invitation to dine with the council, and one cautious cleric advised his barber not to go and hear such a heretic. Mayhew was really that, for he violently resisted the doctrine of irresistible grace, and entirely rejected the doctrine of the Trinity as taught by the Athanasian and Nicene creeds. In this he pointed the way to the coming Unitarianism, and that almost two generations before the Unitarian manifesto of 1819.

Although on the “new side,” Mayhew was opposed to the “new lights.” Long before the coming of Whitefield, he had been present at a religious revival in Maine, noticed its extravagance and fanaticism, and the people’s violent gestures and shrieks. From this early experience, he came to value “rational religion” the more highly. The phrase is significant. Upon the arrival of Whitefield in Boston in 1749, Mayhew claimed that the evangelist’s hearers were chiefly “of the more illiterate sort,” and that the discourse itself was “confused, conceited and enthusiastic.”

The old term of reprobation reappears. So, like Chauncy himself, Mayhew offers the same antidote. In place of a God of wrath and terror, he would put the Scriptural God who is represented “under the characters of a father and a king, the wisest and best father, the wisest and best king.” This sentiment eventuated in two Thanksgiving sermons On the Nature, Extent and Perfection of the Divine Goodness. In these the argument is ingenious. While Chauncy held that wisdom without goodness might be good, Mayhew held that goodness without wisdom might be bad. The political writer now appears in the doctrinal and shows that his God is no easy-going monarch whose goodness is to be considered mere good nature.

  • “As we recall certain well intentioned governors,” he argues, “who, despite their paternal affection, have wrought prodigious mischief to the State, so we may in some measure conjecture, if we are not afraid even to think, what might be the consequence of boundless power, though accompanied with universal benevolence, but not adequate wisdom, extending itself at will thro-cut the universe.”
  • But the argument must not lead to the Calvinistic cul-de-sac, whereby there is no other end for punishment, on the part of the king of heaven, save his own glory. As Mayhew in his Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers (1750) had remonstrated against the orders from Whitehall, so here he remonstrates against the immutable decrees of the Westminster Confession. His reasoning leads to a literal reductio ad absurdum.

  • Tho’ God is, in the highest sense, an absolute sovereign; yet in that ill-sense, he is not certainly an arbitrary Being.… For what glory could possibly redound to any being acting unreasonably, or contrary to the dictates of true goodness? It is peculiarly absurd to suppose that He, who accounts goodness his glory, should aim at advancing it by such a conduct.
  • With the same caustic irony with which he had flavoured his celebrated Reflections on the Resistance Made to King Charles I, Mayhew seeks to prove that the king of heaven, though absolute, is not arbitrary.

  • “The Earthly Prince,” he continues, “may take off the head of the traitor, robber, or murderer, not to gratify his own anger, but for the common good. Contrariwise, punitive justice may be a branch of goodness, but how far from goodness it would be to condemn the bulk of mankind to eternal misery.”
  • The amiable heretic of Massachusetts may here be contrasted with the rigid Calvinist of Connecticut. Edwards, in his dreadful Enfield sermon, implied that the majority of his hearers were in danger of hell fire. Mayhew calmly carried out that implication. He had taken as an appropriate text for his Thanksgiving sermon, “The Lord is good to all.” But this, for the sake of the argument, he is willing to change to, “The Lord is good to three-fourths of His creatures, and His tender mercies are over three-fourths of all His works,”—and so on down to the smallest fraction of mankind.

    Mayhew is a master of ironic attack. He discloses this in his political discourses, ranging from that against Non-Resistance to that against the Stamp Act. But when it comes to defending his views, he is weak. He declaims effectively against the terrible punishment to be meted out by the Calvinistic judge of all mankind, but, in upholding benevolence, he outdoes the most complacent deist of his day. The first of his Thanksgiving sermons contends that the nature of divine goodness admits of strict application a priori. The companion sermon attempts to make that goodness of universal extent, and goes to such extremes as praising December weather in the town of Boston. But though the arguments are forced, these provincial writings have a certain interest as being prototypes of those hollow documents, the Thanksgiving proclamations of governors and presidents.