Thursday, December 1, 2011

Asa Shinn on Agency

The other week, I was involved in an online thread in which a Latter-day Saint commenter started a discussion of the notion of 'agency' with a couple other Evangelicals. The Latter-day Saint began by defining agency as the "power to exercise one's own moral choices", and was curious whether mainstream Christianity affirmed that we humans really do have agency. Some of my fellow Evangelicals, while affirming that we have 'free will', were concerned over the meaning of "agency", both suggesting that this was just another case of Latter-day Saints redefining an established term. One defined agency as "acting for another person or entity, not yourself", and thus being "pretty much the opposite of free will". He concluded, "I find it strange how mormons tend to assign a completely opposite definition to a word." The other Evangelical, meanwhile, suggested that Joseph Smith had perhaps been impressed by the fancy word 'agency' (and others) in a business context and had then "incorporated them into his new religion without really understanding the implications".

Now, this all seemed odd to me. I'd never had any difficulty understanding what 'agency' meant in LDS use, because I know that the concept of 'agency' is still an important one in the philosophy of action. However, to get to the bottom of things, I decided to see if the term 'agency' had any currency in theological discourse of Joseph Smith's time. The first author I consulted was Asa Shinn, an American Methodist theologian who was a somewhat older contemporary of Joseph and who became one of the co-founders of the Methodist Protestant Church. Searching briefly through two of Shinn's works, I found an abundance of references to 'agency' with usage that seems to roughly align with the way 'agency' is discussed in LDS scripture. I would love to get some LDS input on the following quotations from Shinn, both in terms of their use of the term 'agency' and in terms of how a Latter-day Saint might react to Shinn's arguments.

From Asa Shinn, An Essay on the Plan of Salvation: In Which the Several Sources of Evidence are Examined, and Applied to the Interesting Doctrine of Redemption, in Its Relation to the Government and Moral Attributes of the Deity (Baltimore, MD: Neal, Wills and Cole, 1813), 212:
He [God] is perfectly free and voluntary in all his actions, because he is omnipotent, and cannot be controlled by any other power or authority. To deny his free agency, is to ascribe our being and happiness to necessity, seeing if God be not a free agent, they depended not upon his liberty of option, and could not be otherwise than they are. It is to deny that power belongeth unto God; because a power to do any thing, includes a power to leave it undone, and to affirm a being has power, who is destitute of agency, is an absolute contradiction.
From Asa Shinn, An Essay on the Plan of Salvation, 212-213:
That God did in fact endow his creatures with free agency, is evident from their fall: for if they were not free, it is certain that they were made wicked, or else were driven into sin by some other power; if they were made wrong, the fault was in their Maker, not in themselves; and if they were forced into sin by the agency of another, God only could be the author of it, because there was no other power in the universe. Therefore we are reduced to this dilemma: either to believe that our creator is essentially wicked, or that his creatures were made free, and introduced evil by an abuse of their liberty.

But why was this agency or active power bestowed upon them? We must answer that it was essential to the enjoyment of moral happiness, or that it was not: if it was, this good and perfect gift is resolvable into the divine beneficence; if it was not, then we say God bestowed a useless power upon his creatures, which could do them no good, and which might prove fatal to their tranquillity. If we say he gave it in order to ruin them, we charge him with malevolence, and if we say he gave it for no end, we charge him with folly: therefore the only modest and rational conclusion is, that he gave it through benevolence, because it was essential to their spiritual or moral happiness.
From Asa Shinn, An Essay on the Plan of Salvation, 213:
His giving them a moral law is, of itself, an incontestable proof of their free agency. For had God intended to regulate all their actions by the force of destiny, nothing more would have been necessary than to subject them to the mechanical laws of matter, because these are entirely sufficient to accomplish the end.
From Asa Shinn, An Essay on the Plan of Salvation, 214-215:
But waving the case of beasts for the present, it is sufficient to our purpose that all men are conscious of a degree of power over their actions, and that their highest happiness arises from knowledge, and is inseparable from a voluntary choice. The exercise of virtue, or the enjoyment of moral happiness against our consent is impossible; because it implies a state of complete slavery.

If it be asked, why was not the will inclined to choose all the proper means of happiness, as necessarily it is inclined to choose happiness as its end, in preference to misery; I think the proper answer is, that it was impossible for creatures to possess moral rectitude, and of consequence, moral happiness, without the liberty of option, or, which is the same thing, without a degree of power, which essentially implies that agency of will that can choose one thing or its contrary; - that can perform an action, or omit the performance of it - that can determine, or omit the determination.

If this be true (and that it is so, I hope to prove directly) it clearly follows that the reason why God did not hinder the introduction of moral evil, by making it impossible for his creatures to sin, was because it could not be done without making it impossible for any creature to enjoy holiness or moral happiness. God left his creatures free, because God is love; and being love, he delights to see his creatures enjoy that sublime felicity, which the chains of destiny would have deprived them of forever.
From Asa Shinn, An Essay on the Plan of Salvation, 230:
Had it been our Saviour's purpose to save mankind by force, or any particular part of them, he doubtless had power sufficient to accomplish his design, without dying on the cross; and had such a compulsive system been consistent with the moral attributes of God, I have no doubt but he would have done so: he would have changed every man from sin to holiness, or rather, from bad propensities to good ones, by an absolute and irresistible influence; but the actions of a person thus compelled could have no relation to morality, and therefore God's moral perfections demanded that they should be saved, if at all, in a way that should not destroy their agency: for this reason our Saviour's atonement had relation to the moral attributes alone, and therefore his plan must be so laid as only to influence sinners by motives, and leave them to the liberty of choice.
From Asa Shinn, On the Benevolence and Rectitude of the Supreme Being (Philadelphia, PA: James Kay, 1840), 72:
Another attribute constituting the greatness of the Deity, is his Almighty Power. By this we mean his ability to do any thing which it is possible for agency to do. The bounds of possibility are known only to himself; but to some extent we are able distinctly to conceive them. [...] To say that God has Almighty Power, is to say, in other words, that he is an Almighty Agent. He who does any thing without agency, does it by necessity, which is not power, but the want of it. Whenever an agent acts, he could, at the same time, have omitted the action; and therefore He who possesses the greatest power, enjoys the most perfect liberty of any being in existence.
From Asa Shinn, On the Benevolence and Rectitude of the Supreme Being, 73-74:
There is, in short, no other alternative but to believe either that God is a perfectly Free Agent, or to embrace a system of atheism. An intelligent being without agency, that is, without power, however good in his disposition, and however clear in his intelligence, could do nothing; and his understanding could serve no other purpose than to gaze at the course of necessity, as a man bound down with a chain might look up and watch the course of the wind and the clouds.
From Asa Shinn, On the Benevolence and Rectitude of the Supreme Being, 99:
Secondly, our agency, or freedom of will, is another gift bestowed on us by infinite goodness. This power is essential to three great purposes: 1. to furnish each individual with the happiness of spontaneous action; 2. to give each the capacity to contribute to the good of society; and 3. to render both men and angels amiable in the sight of their Maker, as his cheerful, free, and voluntary servants and children. Without the gift of moral agency, all these great and valuable ends would have been prevented; and both men and angels would have been placed on a level with brute creatures in the scale of existence.
From Asa Shinn, On the Benevolence and Rectitude of the Supreme Being, 129:
Is it not a plain contradiction to say that a man is at liberty, at the same time that his will is bound to one certain course of action? And besides, for aught we know, freedom of will is essential to intelligent existence; so that the existence of a creature with mental endowments, and destitute of all agency, is as impossible as for matter to exist without occupying space.
So how does Shinn's use of "agency" compare to that found in the LDS tradition? And does Shinn present a good case for the reality and importance of both divine and human agency?


EDIT: I've decided to introduce a few brief quotations from an author other than Asa Shinn: Methodist bishop and theologian Randolph Sinks Foster. The following comes from R. S. Foster, Objections to Calvinism as It Is, in a Series of Letters Addressed to Rev. N. L. Rice, D.D. (Cincinnati, OH: Hitchcock and Walden, 1849), 36, 46-47, 51:
I object to the doctrine of decrees, as held by Calvinists, in the second place, because it is inconsistent with, and destructive to the free agency of man. [...] Thus we prove upon the system both that it makes God the author of sin, and destroys the free agency of man. [...] Freedom and liberty, I believe all admit, are essential to accountability; and hence the well-grounded apprehension of our Calvinistic brethren, at the imputation, that their doctrine is destructive to freedom of agency. [...] By destroying the agency and accountability of man, I charge the system further, with destroying the moral character of human acts and volitions - with rendering the terms, vice and virtue, good and bad, as conveying the idea of moral quality - not predicable of man. If the system be true, man is no more a moral being. Do what he may, he is not vicious - he is incapable to be virtuous. He never sins - he cannot; nor the opposite. [...] Morality supposes agency - the system, by inevitable deduction, denies it; and the two fall together.
I note that, between these volumes and some additional works quoted therein, "agency" seems to have been roughly synonymous with will and liberty (indeed, Shinn glossed it with "freedom of will" as a synonym), and denoted the power to choose to act; it could be qualified as "free" or "moral", though it could also appear without such additional qualifiers; and it could be ascribed to both God and humans.


  1. I think Asa Shinn's use of free agency is very much in line with the way other Christian, political, and philosophical writers of the time were using the term. I personally find nothing objectionable in what you've presented here.

    Can you tell me where to find this material? Can it be found online somewhere? I'd be interested in reading more about what he said, if possible.

  2. Hello, Matthew! Thank you for dropping by! I agree with you, Shinn's use seems to be unobjectionable. These particular writings can indeed be found online through the Internet Archive, and I've added links to the first citation of each in the above post.

  3. Thank you for the links. They were very helpful.

    In your updated post you mention that agency, "...seems to have been roughly synonymous with will and liberty...." Let me give you an alternative point of view. Agency is usually defined as power, action, operation, instrumentality. If your paradigm is to equate agency with will and liberty, then you can find those ideas within many of the cited references, but if you prefer to use the conventional definition, all the references to agency are completely understandable as well. It's all a matter of perception.

    Here are some places where Shinn equated agency with power: " affirm a being has power, who is destitute of agency, is an absolute contradiction." (Essay, p.212) "But why was this agency or active power bestowed upon them?" (Essay, p.212) "An intelligent being without agency, that is, without power...." (Benevolence, p.72)

    Here's the reference that sounds most like "agency" is being equated with "freedom of will": "Secondly, our agency, or freedom of will, is another gift bestowed on us by infinite goodness. This power is essential to three great purposes...." (Benevolence, p.99) Now for the other point of view using the conventional definition of agency. Shinn may be referring to the "freedom of will" as "our agency" (i.e., the "power" referred to in the following sentence). In other words, "This power" in the second sentence may reflect "our agency" in the first sentence, and the agency or power to which Shinn refers is the freedom of will bestowed upon us by God.

    If "agency" in the following example means something like "freedom of will", then the construct, "agency of will," is a bit odd: "...which is the same thing, without a degree of power, which essentially implies that agency of will that can choose one thing or its contrary; - that can perform an action, or omit the performance of it - that can determine, or omit the determination." (Essay, p.214) I would tend to read this simply as "power of will" and avoid all confusion.

    It's also easy to find in Shinn's writings examples where "agency" can be easily understood to mean action, operation, or instrumentality, again according to conventional usage. I would suggest that Asa Shinn (and his contemporaries as well, for that matter) used "agency" following the conventional meaning. I would follow "Occam's razor" in this case, and use the conventional definition of agency.