Illuminated initial A

rminianism originally refers to the doctrines of the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). From its beginnings Arminius's theology sets itself against Calvinism in its belief in the compatibility of human will with God's sovereignty as well as in the more inclusive belief that all, not simply the elect, may experience salvation. During Wesley's and Edwards's time, the term Arminian took on an increasingly vague meaning to include approaches to faith that value works over saving grace. Antinomianism (the term itself traces back to the Gnostics), lends itself even less to precise definition. In short it refers to the belief that a state of grace exempts the individual from following moral law. In its most extreme form, it distinguishes sharply between the spiritual and bodily state such that the unimportance of the latter allows for complete insubordination. It would initially, then, appear problematic to associate Edwards with such a dangerous idea, particularly since many of his contemporaries associated the opprobrious term with the impulsive excesses of the Great Awakening (Marsden, Jonathan 279). I take it to embody, rather, a particular abstention, not only from lawless acts but also from "works" in general because, in the Calvinist universe, all action is irrelevant to the individual's spiritual estate. In this context, then, antinomianism comes to embody an essential ontological problem: it is the paradoxical disjunction between the soul's predetermined inviolate state as it confronts the transitory world. I seek to elucidate the ways in which this metaphysical problem affects the concept of self-formation in the American bildungsroman.

In England the legacy of Wesley's Arminian vision of self-formation translated into the central importance many Victorian novelists placed on action, or what the protagonist "does." As George Levine puts it, "the question of vocation—what to do for a living—blends with the question of vocation—what to do morally" in the most exemplary Victorian bildungsromans of the period ("Jane" 90). On the other hand, in America Edwards's antinomian predicament between the fixed state of the soul in conflict with sin and the mutable world would extend quietly into the nineteenth-century American literary visions of self-formation through characters' confrontations with large-scale, life-shaping forces that become less cosmic in origin but remain nearly as irresistible. As such this legacy would appear to be comparatively indirect in its influence in comparison with its German or English counterparts, no doubt due in part to the fact that, post revolution, the very concept of "elect" had slowly metamorphosed from a static ontological condition of the individual (to "be one of the elect") into a dynamic secular activity pertaining to an entire culture—"to elect" as something one does. [13-14; emphasis added]

Related Material


Bennett, Kelsey L. Principle and Propensity: Experience and Religion in the Nineteenth-Century British and American Bildungsroman. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. [Review]

Last modified 18 November 2014