Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

What We Owe the Puritans

Is explained by ME, using Tocqueville and the great Neo-Puritanical novelist and scholar Marilynne Robinson. For now, unfortunately, you can only get the first page of the article for free without walking over to your library.

Discussions - 14 Comments

Your assertion that even the protestant children of the puritans have abandoned them has been too true and accounts for a lot of Protestants' struggle for a deep intellectual tradition from which to glean.

But it is becoming an increasingly mixed truth. One of the more interesting developments in the last 30 years in evangelical christianity has been the re-emergence of a strong, reformed (calvinistic) christianity that embraces John Owen, William Perkins, Sam Rutherford, and Jonathan Edwards along with many more Puritans as people worthy of deep study and close imitation.

Reformed Churches are growing in numbers and influence enough that when Time Magazine ran a piece stating "Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now" number 3 was "The New Calvinism." Sadly, the results have been mostly theological with only a moderate amount of carry-over into the social/political realm, at least thus far.

Adam, All true and M. Robinson, because of some political prejudices, is very weak in noticing that stuff.

I am currently editing my history of a 1721 Boston smallpox epidemic that examines the relationship of science and religion in the Puritan milieu. The Puritans, especially Cotton and Increase Mather, were among the leading scientists in the American colonies, made scientific contributions to the British Royal Society of which CM was a member, embraced Newtonianism and heliocentrism of the Scientific Revolution, had massive libraries of ancient and modern learning, and wrote many books. CM was instrumental in using his knowledge of science and medicine and participation in the early Enlightenment and international conversation of intellectuals to initiate the practice of smallpox inoculation using the scientific method.

Today, I wonder whether the Protestant churches are steeped in that same intellectual tradition. They seem to have devoted almost all of their energies to disproving anything smacking of evolution and almost science in general. They are extremely suspicious of "worldly" learning and "pagan" literature. They embrace a strong conservatism and love of the American founding, but how far the intellectual roots/foundation are I'm not sure. I think I've seen a strong streak of the anti-intellectualism that Protestant scholars have worked so hard to de-bunk (successfully, to some point). They are fighting battles against learning that many Christians had seemingly settled centuries and millenia ago.

Anyone can point to scholars in journals such as First Things and the like, but I think that down among ordinary people the situation looks a lot more grim, and I am increasingly pessimistic that the arguments of George Marsden and others are not all that true. I've seen it up close at a classical, Christian school where the classical was almost entirely summarily rejected in favor of the Christian. It was all quite a shocking and eye-opening experience. I couldn't link to the first page and wish we had a summary or the whole article. It's an important trend to discuss. Thanks.

Tony, always good to hear your "on the ground," "on the front lines" reports. Keep up the good work.

Thanks, Paul. Thanks, Catholic Dad. I am one too, and I almost sent my children to the school where I taught until I got out of there. We similarly have a lukewarm private Catholic school as our only Catholic choice. But, we have chosen it because we are teaching our children staunch Catholicism at home and supplementing the education with the classics at home. We decided that the teaching of the evangelicals were too much at odds (and in many ways too inherently anti-Catholic) with the Catholic Church's doctrine and CCC. Plus, the sheer ignorance of the anti-science and anti-intellectualism was at times laughable if it weren't so frightening. It is all an extremely far cry from the Mather home in Puritan Boston. I used to believe in "Mere Christianity" and those philosophers and theologians like Peter Kreeft who sought to unite across the Tao as C.S. Lewis called it in the Abolition of Man and across denominations and even religions against the forces of secularism and relativism, but then I left my home, encountered the evangelicals, and shed my childish illusions.

Roughly, that was my experience of Protestant Christian schools, too. My experience was similarly eye-opening and heart-breaking, laughable and frightening. I wrote the humanities curriculum for a school we helped found. (A friend ran the board and like what I had done with my children.) They keep the form, but not the substance. There was the problem of finding well-educated Christian teachers. But the battle was really just as Tony Williams puts it. The number of educational "Thou shalt not(s)" truly limits education.

The "Biblical Worldview" of our original curriculum looked at everything I knew to look at, with room for expansion. (I knew my auto-didactic, home-school-mommy limitations.) It embraced Mortimer Adler's explanation of the classics as a great conversation with God. I did picture something like the Puritan's "Biblical worldview", embracing learning, as proper Christian pedagogy. Except for one lonely young Grrove City College graduate, the teachers do not know the classics beyond the descriptions in the textbooks from Christian publishers. I had become grateful that some of the literature on my reading lists was still being taught, but find they are too often taught in a strangled version. As to history, that department leaves me in deep grief. My daughter took over the classroom once they began studying Greece, as her nice teacher knew nothing at all. She rules Rome, too, God bless her.

This year we cannot afford to send our daughter to the Christian school. She thinks she will get a better education in public school, but I have my doubts. A lack of emphasis on the Christian does not translate to a greater emphasis on the classical.

Tony: About a month ago while at dinner with a group of parents from our kids' school (we were at an out-of-town basketball tournament), I recommended "The Abolition of Man" to them! They trust "Mere Christianity" (it's something of the "Summa" for evangelicals), and so I thought AoM might serve as an intellectual bridge for them...and between us. There have been no subsequent signs of that happening. I also recommended Christopher Derrick's "Escape From Scepticism" to one of the sons who's at a large public university now....and encountering, for the first time, the howling winds of modernism and post-modernism. My own illusions may be shed soon enough. I hope not, because the luke-warmness of our local Catholic HS is not only destructive, but ridiculously expensive. But we're living your dilemma. I never knew the Mathers (pere et fils) were so committed to the intellectual life. That's good to know. Pax.

May I suggest the works of Perry Miller for all those who would know the true depths of the Puritan's legacy. An astonishing (if severe) people they were, and we own them many debts (both good and bad).

Redwald - you are right. No one has come close to matching Perry Miller and the Puritans. Sure, later generations have nipped around the edges and wrote dissertations, articles, and books in reaction to some of his points, but they have never come close to surpassing him nor in really revising him very much. Catholic Dad ~ You mention expense - I think we live in the same town . . . Williamsburg? We sound like we're having the very same experience! Check out my "Pox and the Covenant: Franklin, Mather, and the Epidemic that Changed America's Destiny" published next April for an elaboration of the above (available for pre-order from Amazon in my shameless plug :)

Kate, it's sad to lack such a knowledge of Greece and Rome as a teacher. Besides laying the foundations of Western civilization and creating essentially every modern aspect of art, culture, and philosophy, the classics of the ancient period can provide a great starting point for complex issues of vice and virtue and the human condition even within (and perhaps even more so) a Christian classroom ~ as I'm sure you already know.

My wife and I are committed Catholics who were exposed to a second rate liberal arts education, and took third-rate advantage of it. (e.g. Devoted, though superficial, reading of Plato; no reading of Aristotle. Hey, I'm still grateful.) From our experience of our kids' {largely Evangelical} Christian school, Tony is right on the mark. Especially among the parents at the school, there is a presumption against evolution and a deep distrust of anything not explicitly Christian in literature (and the arts in general). Makes for uncomfortable chit-chat during sports events, etc. So why do we as Catholics send our kids to the school? Because, in our experience, the local Catholic high school long ago jettisoned any rigorous intellectual assent to, and formation in, the Faith. We figure that routine exposure to at least Scripture (as well as to demonstrably better kids morally) is superior to the bleached (and even derided) exposition of the Faith transmitted at "St. Get-Into-A-Good-College-With-A-Veneer-Of-The-Appearance-of-Catholicism HS" that is our alternative. Tony's post gets to the heart of a genuine and consequential loss among Protestants...and ourselves.

Yes, and it is sad the for the average American, as if we have no past. Especially, we had no ancients, nothing interesting before America. There is nothing but pyramids and knights, except what folks might feel like watching on TV or at the movies. In my last class, "Beowulf? I know the story! I saw the movie!"

Congratulations on your book. If you ever manage to start a school, keep me in mind. I would love to teach there.

Thanks, Kate. Yeah, if I win the lottery, I'm funding a classical school here in Williamsburg!

I never would have guessed that to understand the Puritans and a medical innovation that I would delve so deeply into studying Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Hooke, and Wren, and the scientific revolution in general. It's critical for understanding Puritan thought and very interesting to see how easily they adopted modern science. A few scholars erroneously credited the Puritans with initiating the scientific revolution, mistakenly downplaying the rich role played by the Catholic Church and various religious orders during the Middle Ages, but it does show how they reconciled their faith and modern science.

If the story of evangelicals in the 20th/21st centuries is written, it would be very different. One would have to understand Darwin and modern science to understand just how reactionary and how at odds most of them are with those ideas and modernity generally rather than reconciled with their faith.

I find that to understand anything takes a lot whole lot more reading and study than anyone tells you. I think of that as the curse of the autodidact. That isn't your problem, is it?

The Catholic Church will be paying for the trial of Galileo for a long time. As to what else you write, yes. I argued that if we were secure in our faith then "ideas and modernity" were no threat. You can imagine how that went over.

Keep buying those lottery tickets.

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