A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Jeffrey Erickson
Erdmann’s book is primarily about manipulation of power by America’s elite, the façade of America’s free democracy, and the use of religion to facilitate progressive goals. Erdmann describes theosophic influence, Freemasonry, and secret societies influencing many countries, but seemingly culminating in the United States where under the pretense of a national Christian mission and promotion of human equality and freedom, progressives built a hegemony with a willing citizenry. He traces the roots of progressivism to ancient times, but reconceived as compatible with Christian belief during the Renaissance, and birthed by the Enlightenment.
The focus of Erdmann’s book and the place where Erdmann believes progressivism found a religious home in which to flourish is the United States. The book is rich with dates 1619, 1830, 1861, 1898, 1917, 1947. . . and periods of time—The Jacksonian Era, The Age of the Railroad, The Gilded Age, The Golden Age, The Progressive Era. . . signifying course changes and revisions to the American zeitgeist that irreversibly changed the United States, generally toward centralizing power and extending American influence throughout the world. Where Erdmann mentions countries, ideas, or events outside of the United States, it is either to discuss origins or to highlight them with respect to the spread of American influence throughout the world or their attempts to manage and direct the United States, as he claims England did throughout the 1830s to 1850s.
Erdmann mentions names of many important people who influenced America’s vision and the societies they belonged to. Some are widely known. Others will be new to most readers. Erdmann wants to highlight the activities of America’s elected leaders, but he no less wants to highlight the influence of America’s idealogues, scholars, businessmen, and civil servants who wielded power outside of elected office. He traces many of the people he believes are responsible for the progressive centralization of American power to the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa society, almost as if it were a political party on its own.
The subtitle of this book says that American progressivism is a religious quest. While Erdmann mentions religious-political interaction, how progressive ideas invaded the church, and the emergence of progressive church leaders, this book is about politicians using religion, not the church’s establishment of a progressive theocracy. He writes about several prominent Christian progressives. Most noteworthy among these are Charles Finney and Harry Emerson Fosdick: Finney for popularizing Pelagian soteriology and postmillennialism, and Fosdick for destroying whole church denominations by displacing biblical Christian faith with liberal theology.
This book is divided into three volumes which comprise the author’s thesis. The first section is that esoteric mysticism is the basis for a wave of postmillennial thought in the United States. In the second section, Erdmann asserts that postmillennialism inspired American progressivism. Then, in the third section, Erdmann says that America’s belief in progressivism led to American imperialism. Essentially, while America believes it is a Christian nation doing God’s work in the world, its driving motive is actually Pagan. Subdivided within these three sections are fifteen chapters. These will be developed in the pages that follow.
Volume 1: Mysticism as the basis of American Postmillennialism
Chapter 1: The continuous development of civilization begins as a concept in the late 16th century. John B. Bury predicted that humanism would cause the decline of the Christian worldview. Prior to this, Jacques Turgot had already written a full description of what progress comprises. French revolutionists also predicted that in order for genuine progress to occur, all existing social institutions would have to be dismantled. Erdmann connects Charles Darwin to paganism. He says that modern progressivism, which is composed of paganism, progressivism, and positivism, found its way to America and merging with the Christian faith, spawned patriotism, capitalism, and democracy, which form the trifecta of American civil religion.
Chapter 2: The Gospel of the Reformation is about Luther saving the church from the oppression of the middle ages, against Erasmus, who wanted to reform it from within into something humanistic. Erdmann says that Luther correctly placed the Bible into the hands of all men and also asserted that only God has free will. All of humanity is hopelessly bound in sin. Calvin followed Luther by saying that salvation is from God alone (monergistic). Jacob Arminius, who said salvation is synergistic, contested Calvin. Erdmann asserts that Arminius’s synergistic salvation forms the basis for much of evangelicalism and is human rationalism. He says that the Arminian synergism of the Remonstrants downplayed sin, improved man’s fallen nature, and portrayed being a Christian as living a moral life. In the hands of Wesleyans, it became grace overcoming the effects of sin with no need for imputed righteousness. While Erdmann asserts that Calvinistic church discipline formed the basis for a free United States, he says that Arminianism formed the basis for Liberal Protestantism.
Chapter 3: The Esoteric conception of an earthly paradise begins with the pagan idea that nature can explain the existence and order of everything. Erdmann says that there is only one esoteric tradition, but it manifests in many ways. He says that the Renaissance revived esoteric thought within the church, intending to unite the two. The Reformation interrupted this movement, but it continued, not within the church, but as a constant rebellion against it. Alchemy, hermeticism, the philosophers’ stone, kabbalism, astrology, and other pagan practices continued in the practice of science, and in secret societies. Francis Bacon was of particular importance. Erdmann credits him as the father of science, scientism, and depicts these as the pathway to salvation. He discusses the formation of the Rosicrucians from esoteric roots and their efforts to reunite Christian denominations under one teaching, as well as the activities of several other esoteric groups. Erdmann says Old Testament themes were recast as ways to push humankind towards perfect living. Erdmann says these ideas found their way to colonial America through various early colonists. They were assimilated by the Quietists, Pietists, Puritans, and Methodists.
Chapter 4: Prophetic vision of a hopeful future continues to highlight the activities of secret societies in Europe, primarily in England. Erdmann discusses millennial teachings. He says that while there were premillennials in colonial America; premillennialism held almost no influence. It was Puritan postmillennialism that drove the American Revolution. The Puritans believed that the end of the world was close and that it was their duty to usher in the millennium through technology. Erdmann also talks about what he calls the “Pennsylvania Religion,” an eclectic group of Pietists, Lutherans, Quakers, and other various religious backgrounds who were interested in theosophy and hermeticism, and Jewish mysticism. Through Peter Müller, these groups were successful in influencing George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. They also ensured that freedom of religion and the separation of church and state would be fundamental in America. Erdmann characterizes Jonathan Edwards as a Neoplatonist. He says together these forces overthrew Calvinism, instead teaching that humans can will themselves to lead better lives. This teaching paved the way for future liberalism.
Volume 2: Postmillennialism as the inspiration for American Progressivism
Chapter 5: The urge for revolution in an enlightened age discusses Puritan utopianism and the push for pure democracy in America. He says that along with this desire was a desire among the Puritans to get rich through cooperation with Freemasons and pirates. Leading families in the American colonies operated through the former and financed the latter. While Erdmann says that wealthy families in all colonies financed pirates and took part in the slave and alcohol trade, he focuses on New York (The Livingston family) and Boston’s many families and the secret societies they formed, out of which have come much of America’s leadership. Besides slave and rum trading, these families later forcibly sold opium in China. Erdmann says that Freemasonry and other secretive societies have held a consistently powerful influence on America. One aspect of Freemasonry is that very few people actually know what it is about. This keeps it such a positive force while wielding such nefarious influence on all aspects of American society—including the church. Through Freemasonry, mercantilism became the first American economic system. Mercantilism favors the rich at the expense of the rest of society. Erdmann characterizes the founding fathers as desirous of rebelling against their own government for the sake of expanding their own wealth, often made through dubious ventures.
Chapter 6: The quest for human perfection opens with a description of a unitarian push to liberate slaves, grant women’s rights, curb alcohol consumption, and generally reform society. Secular democracy begins taking on a religious tone. This movement conceived civil religion, which then fostered a truly egalitarian society. When Andrew Jackson, former Grand Master of the Tennessee Freemasons, became President, America began transforming from a Republican Democracy to a Romantic Democracy. The former is hotly contested by factions of differing beliefs to one in which there is a tightly controlled zeitgeist by a state ideology assimilated by the public without their full awareness. Erdmann says that American Romantic Democracy is the belief that the United States will usher in the millennium. It is the New Jerusalem. Andrew Jackson personified this ideal and reveled in the imperialist spirit of Manifest Destiny. The Democrats disdained Calvinism because it denied man his self-determination. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it wicked. Erdmann says during this period, the earlier Neoplatonism and Unitarianism melded with Democratic Romanticism. Unitarians and Presbyterians united against slavery. Transcendentalism became popular because Americans had an increased interest in mysticism because of the growing belief that man could understand and mystically unite with God. Though in many ways transcendentalism opposed the church, transcendentalists and Christians cooperated on common postmillennial beliefs.
Chapter 7: Ideas of America’s new age describes the welding of postmillennialism and secular nationalism into an American Christian history. Erdmann says that the Second Great Awakening (1790-1850) was primarily about the new thing that the United States is: A progressive act of God and a completely novel country in the world. By 1830, the idea of America as the new republic chosen by God to usher in the millennium was complete. Although American ideology was built on a foundation of diverse beliefs, Romantic Democracy was never fully realized. Among the influences in leading America into progressivism, Charles Finney stands foremost. Finney, a revivalist, preached idealism, patriotism, conversion by free will, and common-sense philosophy. Erdmann says that Finney, the “father of the modern revival movement,” is responsible for America’s burned-over districts—most notably in Western New York. Finney changed the church and preaching by saying that it was the responsibility of the preacher, not God, to create the enthusiasm necessary for spiritual regeneration. Like progressives, Finney was interested in transforming society for good. Finney further polarized the church through his Pelagian views on redemption. Controversy of Finney centers on whether he is completely or anti-biblical. Out of the Second Great Awakening came social reform movements and a push to stop sins such as card playing, dancing, sabbath breaking, and drinking. Many of these became law because Finney believed that the church needed to use state power to usher in the millennium.
Chapter 8: The development of authoritarian progressivism observes that the US Civil war is a historical anomaly because its story has never been revised. Though he says that economic considerations were far more influential than the idealistic desire to end slavery. He says that the “Young America” movement, a European Freemason influence, fomented hatred between the North and South, intending to weaken the United States so they could reintegrate it into the British Empire. He says, however, that the Civil War ended up having no influence on any country outside of the United States. Following the war, U.S. power was increasingly consolidated at the federal level as the U. S. forced China to accept opium trade, Freemasonry in the Federal government acted to subsidize financiers, and businesses, forging the American governmental system into what Erdmann calls “corporatism” or state monopoly capitalism. The North sought war against the south to subjugate it, and so it could bolster northern power in Washington. Erdmann says that the civil war left a devastating scar on America, but following the war, churches encouraged a spirit of ecumenism and evangelism to continue on the path toward the millennium. Meanwhile. Native Americans were the subject of genocide, and American Industry produced industrial tycoons.
Chapter 9: Religious essence of Progressivism may be better termed “The secular millennium.” It begins with the statement that progress, evolution, decent, and growth became synonymous terms in the 19th century. Though the church wanted to change the world, the acceptance of Darwinism as scientific truth changed the meaning of sin. The cooption of Social Darwinism altered the direction and meaning of progress. Erdmann says it is fortunate that Darwinist thought did not completely overthrow the Western biblical foundation or it would have eradicated the constitutional state, free market economy, families, schools, and churches. Erdmann says that 19th-century evangelicalism split into conservatism, which appealed to the middle class and was not concerned with social sin, New Theology, which was concerned with historical-critical analysis of the Bible, and the higher life theology, which believed in the imminent return of Christ and was concerned with worldwide Christian missions, spiritual healing, revival, and correcting social injustice. Because of the poor industrial working conditions at the time and its urgent message, New Theology gained traction in the culture while hiding its totalitarian socialist agenda.
Erdmann writes about four men impacting progressive-religious ideology in the 19th and 20th centuries: Henry Demarest Lloyd, James Mark Baldwin, James Burnham, and Carroll Quigley. Lloyd predicted that the industrial age would produce a new religion through a two-stage process. First, the discord in society would destroy outdated ideas and institutions that were no longer appropriate to the social order. Then humans could shape their future how they felt best—without the constraint of the mistaken philosophies of the past. Humanity would redeem itself. Baldwin described a three-stage process of human development: The first depicts human dependence on biology. The second describes humanity’s possibility of escape. Third, it postulates ways in which humanity changes its biology and environment, and escapes its social bonds, progressing to a point of perfection. This is human destiny. Burnham described society’s escape from capitalism into managerialism—a state in which expert managers would control industry and government alike, working to effect economic and social equality among all persons. Mass media would need to be harnessed to convince people that this is the highest form of democracy. Last Quigley proposed the technocracy, in which experts control everything. They would provide the right and appropriate choices citizens can make, using their expert authority to protect society from extremist and fundamentalist ideas.
Chapter 10: Implementing a Progressive social order discusses the same era as Chapter 9, but describes the changing dialogue within the church during this period. Erdmann lists several preachers. Josiah Strong proclaimed science as God’s providential means of perfecting the world. Shailer Mathews sought to bring Christian theology in line with process philosophy. Historical criticism of the Bible acted in concert with Protestant Liberalism. Erdmann says that while Fundamentalists put up a strong fight, but in the end, it was for naught because Fundamentalism also denied a distinction between creator and creature, rejected original sin and the sacrificial atonement of the Cross, and believed that human willpower could overcome the sinful heart. Erdmann says the two most important developments in America’s civil religion during the 19th century were the idea of God as king giving way to God as father, and the idea of salvation as the deliverance of the elect giving way to political transformation. There was an increasing belief among liberal ministers that the state would solve social problems, and solving social problems on earth is tantamount to salvation. Darwinism became the way to understand economics, education, all the sciences, and religion. By the early 20th century, the National Education Association (NEA) had standardized education and was promoting progressive values. With the dawn of the 20th century, the national battle between the bureaucracy and profiteers had maneuvered the United States into a governmental system Erdmann calls Corporatism or state monopoly capitalism.
Chapter 11: America’s military attacks as a world power is an idea that came out of the dreams of northern entrepreneurs following the Civil War. This is in contrast and in conjunction with the Southerner’s vision of expanding American territory. Erdmann says that the founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Paine and George Washington, had warned America against becoming an empire. He says Washington in particular was influenced by the Protestant Reformation and the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment. Erdmann says that the Biblical principles that shaped American Foreign policy remained in effect for around 120 years. These were that national unity and citizens’ civil rights could only continue if the United States refrained from overexerting itself overseas. During the 19th Century, the United States expanded across North America. By 1895, The United States, stretching from coast to coast, having taken vast sums of land from Mexico, and purchased Alaska, was the most enviable country in the world. The Monroe Doctrine, which the U.S. had hardly mentioned since 1823, suddenly came into use. Erdmann says that the Spanish-American war of 1898 transformed the United States from republic to empire. Imperial democracy was born. The United States began meddling not only in the Western Hemisphere, but in the Far East as well. Erdmann says Woodrow Wilson was one of the most important presidents. He inherited the mantra of manifest destiny and transformed it into the deeper notion of America as a Christ nation. This transition to overseas entanglement resulted in less freedom and prosperity for the American people, who footed the bill for foreign expansion.
Chapter 12: The era of American Imperialism depicts the gross consolidation of federal power during World War I. Erdmann says it was Edward Mandell House who set up the politicians he wanted to see in power and then subsequently remained their advisor. One of House’s prodigies was Woodrow Wilson. House thought Wilson capable of transforming America into state monopoly capitalism. Erdmann characterizes Wilson as power-hungry. He says that Wilson wanted control over foreign territories, and saw the constitutional separation of powers as an obstacle to effective government. Wilson invaded Mexico to interfere with their revolution and sought desperately to enter WWI despite his voiced intentions of peace. Erdmann says the United States’ entry into WWI brought heretofore unheard-of presidential authority, constituting a turning point in American history. Wilson’s idea of a Christ nation came from Wilson’s liberal Presbyterian belief that Jesus was a social reformer. During Wilson’s tenure, Federal taxes tripled or more. The government recklessly printed money to offset the national debt that grew by as much as a billion dollars a month in 1918. The Federal government instituted socialist policies which guaranteed businesses war profits. Espionage and Sedition acts were passed to influence and censor public opinion. The draft was instituted. The National Defense Act and the Lever Act were passed. These gave the Federal Government power over industry, fuel, and food production. Wilson refused to give up these powers following the war. Erdman says that Wilson’s power grab paved the way for Roosevelt’s New Deal and for the perpetuation of constant war to facilitate state power and develop a sense of nationalism among the populace.
Chapter 13: The Ideological battle against Militarism starts with Erdmann accusing American and British historians of purposefully villainizing Germany following WWI for the sake of covering up Wilson’s imperialistic motives for leading the United States into war. Then he discusses William Graham Sumner, a sociologist William Sumner, a turn of the century sociologist. Though Sumner did not believe in natural rights, believed in human natural responsibility and advocated a hands-off governmental approach. Sumner was concerned about the development of an American plutocracy, paternalism, and imperialism. He was ignored. Erdmann then presents WWI as the culmination of English, French, and Russian aggression against Germany. He says that for Wilson, this war was an opportunity. Erdmann says that with the onset of war, U.S. historians gave up their professorships in droves to join the war effort. He says this sort of thing naturally removes objectivity from the history books. Following WWI, several books were published denouncing the war, and war in general. These included The Genesis of the World War, War is a Racket, Road to War, and Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry. Erdmann says that these books, written by people of excellent reputation, damaged the authors, and could not overcome Lincoln’s idea of American war as a “Treasury of Virtue.”
Erdmann says that during the interwar period, Harry Emerson Fosdick facilitated progressivism within the church. His famous sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists win?” successfully marginalized fundamentalists into the 21st century. His denial of key biblical doctrines and advocation of natural explanations for everything miraculous sidelined reformed Christians as well. Erdmann credits Fosdick with the help of John D. Rockefeller Jr, for facilitating liberal theology’s takeover of the Presbyterian church of America and the many Baptist schisms. Fosdick changed the belief among previously pacifist voters. Many now thought it America’s destiny to usher in the new world order, even if it meant going to war.
Chapter 14: The Age of American global dominance recaps Erdmann’s thesis, that the U.S. Constitution was drafted and approved to financially benefit the Founding Fathers. Americans wanted a powerful army to drive Native Americans out and they needed governmental authority to tax to fund it. Once the West had been won, the U.S. turned its military force to facilitate financial gain overseas. The Open Door Policy in the Far East, meddling in Central and South America, and WWI was all for American profit. Erdmann says the U.S. did not fire the first shot in WWII, but America provoked it. The one mistake America made in its imperialism was submission to Russia following WWII.
Chapter 15: Postscript reiterates how diverse ideas such as Calvinism, Deism, Transcendentalism, and Social Darwinism have formed the American spirit. Among them, Calvinism alone is the outlier. The others coalesced together to meld an impenetrable Western belief in the power of progress. Though pagan thought is a kindred belief, Erdmann says progressivism differs from paganism in one major respect. Progressivism asserts that humanity is becoming “wiser, freer, happier, and better.” It is moving towards perfection. Erdmann believes that Arminianism, and later Unitarianism, which through church activism led America into progressivism which, by the late 19th century, transformed the government into a Social Democracy without affecting the Constitution. He says that at the beginning of the 20th century, leading politicians, industrialists, and intellectuals conspired to create an elitist and mutually beneficial system. Erdmann says that by 1936, progressivism was almost ubiquitous throughout the world. Erdmann describes the continued loss of American freedom and America’s march into a totalitarian state right up through the Obama presidency. He says this largely facilitated with the consent of the churches because of neoconservatism and postmillennial belief. Despite the grim picture of heresy he paints, he concludes with encouragement to his reader to hold fast to the faith. Christ is on the throne, and He will return to redeem the world.
Erdmann portrays an American History behind the American mythos as a nation missioned by God. This book is so dense with information about people and events from the enlightenment through the present day that many readers will wish it was better footnoted or that many single-sentence declarations were elaborated on. But it is well footnoted. It is the density of information and references to specific events and persons—some of whom are relatively obscure—that will leave some readers hungry for clarification. The flow of the book is also a little choppy because Erdmann is putting together diverse sources and trying to describe their synergistic effects in creating and directing the American mythos while secretly facilitating the power of the elite and the marginalization of the citizenry. Readers will want to remember that this is a summary of Erdmann’s larger three-volume work which is only available in German.
One thing he does to reconcile the two is to identify that the American mythos is more or less complete by 1830, not beginning then, showing that the mythos existed at least immediately following the ratification of the U.S. constitution. The rest of U.S. history is the manipulation of the American public towards fulfilling that mythos.
To the potential offense of some readers, the author is strongly biased toward Calvinism. Throughout the book, he declares that the only Christians with a defense against progressivism are Calvinists. He describes anyone who is not a Calvinist as actively participating in the paternalist, totalitarian, and imperialist system he says the United States is increasingly becoming. Erdman’s defense of Calvinism is one-dimensional. He is arguing for God’s sovereignty over man through the soteriology of the TULIP, which affirms God’s full agency in effecting human salvation. While Arminians may have to hold their noses while they read, this is still a worthwhile book for all Christians. Erdmann cautions his readers to remember three things: God is in full control of His creation, the church is not the state, and the church does not use the state, but vice versa.
Buy the books
THE TRIUMPH OF PROGRESSIVISM: A RELIGIOUS QUEST FOR AN IDEAL SOCIETY, by Martin Erdmann