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

XXII. Divines and Moralists, 1783–1860

§ 3. Samuel Hopkins

Hopkins was born of Puritan stock at Waterbury, Connecticut. Roused to religious conviction at Yale by his college mate, David Brainerd, and by the revivalist Tennent, he heard Edwards before graduating in 1741, and, still not sure that he was a Christian, “concluded to go and live with Mr. Edwards” at Northampton as a student of divinity—which he did off and on till 1743. Then he was settled and ordained at Housatonic (later Great Barrington), where he had to contend with Indian attacks, malaria, and the Dutch settlers in his congregation; taking comfort, however, in a second intimate contact with Edwards while the latter was conducting the mission to the Stockbridge Indians. In 1769 the poverty of Hopkins’s congregation, together with their opposition to his stiff doctrine, led to his dismissal.

In the next year he accepted a call to the First Congregational Church at Newport. The Rev. Ezra Stiles, then minister of the Second Congregational Church and later (1777–95) President of Yale, opposed the call, but preached a learned sermon at Hopkins’s installation, and remained on friendly terms with him despite radical differences in doctrine and temper. In Newport, too, Hopkins became acquainted with the Channing family: William Ellery Channing, then a boy, heard him preach and was repelled by his harsh doctrine. Though the Revolutionary War wrecked his church, he remained with it, and in the lean years following wrote his System of Doctrines Contained in Divine Revelation Explained and Defended (1793). After 1770 he also produced his sermons and pamphlets against slavery, probably the most readable of his works, being somewhat less impeded than the others by the pitiless iteration and verbose pedantry of his style. He seems to have aided in procuring the passage of the Rhode Island laws of 1774 and 1784, respectively forbidding the importation of negroes and declaring free all children born of slaves after the next 1 March. In failing health and with a dwindling congregation, he ministered faithfully until his death in 1803.

The formula associated with Hopkins’s name, and most definitely set forth in his posthumous Dialogue between a Semi-Calvinist and a Calvinist, is “Willingness to be damned for the glory of God.” It is the upshot of all his strict Calvinist theory of decrees, election, and evidences. Rejecting the benevolists’ belief in a mild Deity, he transfers “universal benevolence” from God to man—of whom he then requires it. The germs of the doctrine are to be found in Edwards’s theory of virtue as consisting in love for universal being; and some of Mrs. Edwards’s own religious experiences while Hopkins resided at her house might well have suggested to him his extension of the doctrine. For with him the willingness to be damned is not merely the acme of mystical devotion, but an indispensable evidence of grace—a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition of salvation. If you are not willing to be damned, then you are sure to be.

Hopkins thus carried onward and reduced to a system the materials which Edwards left unco-ordinated. So tough-minded was he that in his hands what might otherwise have been an efflorescence of tender mysticism became a dogma of terror. Naturally it roused intense opposition, but this, together with the logical completeness of the system, focussed attention upon it; so that it remained a powerful influence until the time of general emancipation from theological terrors.

Hopkins personally met his own requirements of benevolence. His combination of terrific doctrine with a kindly and self-denying personal life among his Newport parishioners is the underlying theme of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, The Minister’s Wooing. His philanthropic opposition to the slave trade, said to be the first open opposition by an American clergyman, rendered him so unpopular among the prosperous traders of Newport that he was left to die in poverty with the feeling that his work was unaccomplished. Futile, he must have felt, was his letter of remonstrance and admonition (1802) to his revered master’s grandson, Aaron Burr, upon the latter’s dangerous courses; and his Farewell to the World is a pathetic review of the state of man as he then beheld it in all portions of the globe, particularly in Newport among his congregation. It is not a hopeful view. Hopkins could not foresee the success of his opposition to slavery; and he could scarcely have believed, even if told, that his doctrine of disinterested benevolence had so impressed young Channing with the boundlessness of human generosity and the infinite worth of man that it became with him one of the points of departure for a new hopefulness.