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Historic Diaries: Marsh, 1834

Theological Debate with a Farmer

Editor's Note:

As the two of them walked the Wisconsin landscape discussing religion, they epitomized forces that were pulling American religion in opposite directions.


Messersmith appears to espouse some romantic views just emerging in American culture: the central importance of unique, individual experience; and that the primary importance of the conscience of the individual as the source of religion. Rev. Marsh, on the other hand, embraces an older, Puritanical, view, that we are all sinners unable to save ourselves, and require God's divine merciful help to keep us from falling into damnation.


The same debate was just then raging in the mind of a young Boston minister named Ralph Waldo Emerson, who would soon become the guru for tens of thousands of people who felt more like Messersmith than Marsh. Over the next two generations, the romantic view of human nature would displace the Puritan one in most Americans' minds.


[Sept] 13th Sat.


Waited the whole day for Mr. Blish to return from Helena and was intending to go to the Blue Mounds and pass the Sab[bath] there.


During the day had much conversation with Mr. M[essersmith]. In the morning we walked out to see his cornfield; this was large, 17 acres, I believe, and cultivated without the hoe, by means of the harrow and plough.


Mr. M. related to [me the] practice of the Lutheran church of catechising their children and when they arrived at a certain age they are required to attend ... or a kind of catechising where they are taught the principles of the L[utheran] religion and after this are received into full communion with the church and partake of the sacrament whether they give any evidence of a change of heart or not. Still they covenant or engage to renounce the world, the flesh and the devil and to lead a Christian life, yet it is to be feared that few do it in sincerity and that by far the greater part eat and drink unworthily. The minister for catechising etc. receives two dollars for each individual. This course of proceeding Mr. M. said he thought improper and impious to enter into covenant with God and the church whilst they had no personal religion.


His mind rather appears to be tinctured with universalism, and he brings up a great many objections against the doctrine of election; particularly where God is said to burden the heart... God orders and controls all things and we cannot save ourselves. We must therefore wait God's time.


Waited all day but saw nothing of Mr. Blish, and concluded to pass the Sabbath here and preach at Dodgeville.



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