Individualism   /   Spring 2002   /    Articles

The Protestant Structure of American Culture

Robert N. Bellah

Let me begin with a passage that expresses in a few highly condensed words why I believe Protestantism has provided the fundamental structure of American culture. It is a warning from a Unitarian leader, Henry W. Bellows, to his fellow Unitarians in the middle of the nineteenth century. Historically Unitarianism is an offshoot of Congregationalism and carries tendencies within Congregationalism, and Protestantism more generally, to a kind of logical conclusion. Bellows named that conclusion “individualism.” As he put it, writing in 1859,


…the sufficiency of the Scriptures turns out to be the self- sufficiency of man, and the right of private judgment an absolute independence of Bible or Church…. No creed but the Scriptures, practically abolishes all Scriptures but those on the human heart; nothing between a man’s conscience and his God, vacates the Church; and with the church, the Holy Ghost, whose function is usurped by private reason; the Church lapses into what are called Religious Institutions; these into Congregationalism, and Congregationalism into Individualism—and the logical end is the abandonment of the Church as an independent institution…and the extinc- tion of worship as a separate interest.11xHenry W. Bellows, as quoted in Conrad Wright, Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches (Boston: Skinner House, 1989) 156.

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