The Influence of Separatism Over Harvard and the First Generation of Americans

Thursday, February 26, 2009

One place where the mix of separatist inclination and traditional establishment was dramatically highlighted was a across the Charles river from Boston, in the town of Cambridge, where in 1636, a college was founded and named after its first major benefactor: John Harvard. Harvard was not a college similar to what we might think of colleges now. The universities of Europe still moved in the 1600’s in the circle established by scholastic theology in the Middle Ages, which is to say that the chief tool of learning was logic, not the laboratory experiment. The principal source of truth was authority, not nature. The principal language was Latin, with the principal authority being Aristotle.

17th century thinkers aspired to the creation of a summary of all knowledge. A framework that William Ames, the greatest of English Puritan academics, called tecnologia, which would, they hoped, perfect the whole man. They emphasized chiefly what we today would call classical learning. The six arts of logic, theology, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics and physics. They included virtually nothing that we would call professional of vocational studies, including nothing that we might call practical.

The Art of Argumentation

Logic was the art of discoursing well. It concentrated on the arrangement of arguments in sharp-like fashion from the general to the specific. An arrangement which would assure victory in argument and a full exploration of the terms of the argument. That explains why the New Englanders were so intent on college-building so quickly. The culture of Puritanism was built upon logical argument. It was built on the exposition of Biblical texts. Calvinism itself was very much an exercise in the arrangement of logical and interrelated theological axioms. To preach well was a department of discoursing well, so you needed an institution which trained people in discoursing well.

Puritan preaching, in fact, developed a rigorous methodology that was patterned after university logic, in which the preacher was expected to follow a stated three-part formulae. First would come the doctrine: a particular biblical verse or biblical verses would be read out and then they would be taken apart, term by term, for the exposition of every possible meaning. The next part of the sermon would be the uses: those various meanings would be reassembled in a series of linked and persuasive theological propositions. Then the preacher would turn to the application. These applications or uses would be turned into a series of practical, everyday rules for living or self examination, or maybe just for pious mediation.

Pious meditation. It was on that last point that a question was bound to be presented. If the purpose of Harvard college was the raising of a ministry who could pose practical questions, who could create an atmosphere of pious meditation, then why was that the education that fitted them for this was based on what everybody admitted to be an education in pagan classical authors: Aristotle, Cicero and so forth.

Using the Ancient Pagans and the Source of Knowledge

Medieval universities had coped with this by asserting that the study of these pagans could be redeemed by understanding that God actually used them to announce the truth, or that the truths that pagans articulated had somehow been borrowed from the Bible. Or that all truth is God’s truth, even if that are the pagans that discovered it first. But if Protestantism was supposed to involve a comprehensive renovation of Christianity, then it was going to be difficult to stop that renovation short of questioning such rationalizations. That questioning settled principally on two issues, the logic curriculum and the structure of human psychology.

Logic, in both the medieval and Protestant uses of the term, referred to both the origins of knowledge (epistemology, how we know things), and the arrangement of that knowledge to yield truth statements or axioms. The Puritans were realists, which is to say that they understood that the senses convey real information about the world around us. The measure of one’s intellectual insight laid in how one arranged the data one encountered into orderly relationship. This order was an entirely logical one, not an experimental one. But it did assume that there was order in the nature of things, imposed by the God who created things. Discerning that order was very much a matter of getting propositions about God and nature that illuminated the inner essence of things and the hidden will and plan of God.

Unfortunately for the aspiring Harvardian in the 17th century, protestant scholastic textbooks all united in offering different ways of arranging these propositions about God and nature. The question for the pious New England student turned on who’s system yielded the more theologically orthodox protestant conclusions. On that point there was very little agreement.

William Ames, representing the more radical approach to intellectual system building, was critical of using the ancients as the foundation for moral reason. For instance, Ames believed that ethics should not stand as an independent study on its own, with its teachings hammered out by logical connections between moral axioms. Ames believed that ethics should be studied only as a department of theology, which is a shorthand way of saying that there was no moral truth or theory of moral truth worth studying apart from Calvinistic Protestant Christianity. The highest kind of life for a human being, wrote Ames, is that which approaches most closely the living and life-giving God. So, any attempt to study ethics, apart from what God had revealed about the topic, was pointless. Why go to Aristotle? Why go to Cicero? God’s revelation of this truth in the Bible was the only material from which to lift a logical system of moral philosophy.

Ames was skeptical that the classical pagans could convey moral truth purely by the efforts of unassisted reason. Ames did not object to the notion that knowledge was the fruit of logic, that it resulted from linking correct propositions to correct propositions; but he was unconvinced that ethics could be based on the same data or the same premises as natural philosophy. This had direct implications for the study of human psychology (although the scholastics had no idea of the social science discipline called psychology). I’m saying this precisely because ethics, according to Ames, could not be rightly understood as a function of unassisted reason. This is the way scholastics understood human physique.

Human Nature and Belief in God

From the very beginnings of European universities in the 1100’s, the inner life of human beings had been pictured as a series of faculties: will, understanding, judgement and so for. Right reason was dependent on adequate comprehension of how these faculties operate. There was, unhappily, no consensus on how the faculties were to be appropriately arranged. The greatest of the scholastics, Thomas Aquinas, was an intellectualist, which is to say that he believed the intellect to be the queen of the faculties.

A number of important protestants, including Calvin, agreed. But there was also one tradition in medieval thought, going all the way back to Augustine, which found human behavior too much unpredictable to be the result of the governing intellect. Instead, these Voluntarists, including Ames, gave to the will the place of greatest power. True Christian faith, wrote Ames, has a place in the understanding, but it cannot be received without genuine turning of the will towards God. Belief involved understanding, but understanding alone did not define belief. The will, said Ames, must be moved and rechartered to embrace the good.

Harvard Curriculum and the New Structure of Society

The Harvard curriculum swayed steadily between the competing demands of these theories. And with good reason. Intellectualism implied one sort of relationship between Church and society, and Voluntarism implied a very different one. A church order like the one in England could claim the allegiance of all the people of Massachusetts if what was necessary was only an intellectual ascent to theological propositions. If what Massachusetts Bay wanted most was the creation of a somewhat modified, somewhat more pious and purified version of the Church of England; such an intellectual ascent was all that was needed to induct everyone in that society into the church. So, it only made sense to teach at Harvard that the intellect was indeed the queen of the faculties.

But if, as Ames insisted, it was the will the true queen; then God could be served by nothing less than the full conscious embrace of those propositions as an active love. And that only by divine grace. If the voluntarists were right, then the corresponding notion of the church and society had to be that of the separatists, who denied admission to the church to all but those who could made a conscious willing profession of divine grace.

Of course, to embrace voluntarism meant surrendering the pretence that Puritanism was only about rehabilitating the Church of England. It meant revolutionizing any basis for establishing a puritanized version of a national church in Massachusetts. But if that happened, then Massachusetts’ society would become completely detached from the Church, it would, even worse, become exactly the sort of pagan society described by the classical authorities that the Puritans were so suspicious about.

The Harvard curriculum, at first, shifted uncomfortably in the shadow of William Ames. Ames, who died in the Netherlands in 1633 as yet another Puritan exile from English religious oppression, was the most dearly loved of all Puritan theologians. The high personal standing he enjoyed in the Puritan churches made it difficult to keep Ames from being put at the center of the Harvard curriculum.

The founders of Harvard were of Puritan beliefs by conviction and of scholastic tradition by habit. And habit meant that Ethics should be taught at Harvard as a stand-apart subject, starting with Aristotle. And Massachusetts went on its way, trying to think of itself as an integrated Christian society, just as in the Middle Ages it had been. The problem was that between 1630 and 1660 subtly it became much harder to keep the old intellectual habits at Harvard. Part of this arose from an unpleasant and unanticipated development in the history of New England. The Puritans had children who did not necessarily wanted to be Puritans, or not at least in the way their parents had been. It was the first instance of what would be a common experience among immigrants to the New World.

Separationism and the New Generation

The generation born in America enjoyed all the blessings of the environment that the immigrant generation had helped to build in America and probably took them for granted. At worst, it actually experienced a sense of embarrassment among the enthusiasm and sacrifices that brought their parents to leave the old country in the first place.

In this case, a new generation was born in New England which felt none of the urgency of piety that took their parents to abandon England for the New World. And far worst than merely feeling embarrassed, the new generation found itself entangled in a web which their parents had spun as they thought for their own good and for the greater glory of God.

What New England’s second generation discovered was the downside of the separatist impulse to exclude all but the gracious from the church. They had never known the oppression of the crown. With that, they lacked the passion and determination to find grace in their own souls. Since grace, and not birth, was what qualified New Englanders for membership in the churches, the separatist impulse in Puritanism left them on the outside of the churches starring in. As it did so, the claim of Massachusetts to be a godly society began to weaken. After all, how can a society consider itself godly when its children are outside the discipline of the church and cannot confess enough faith to join it.

Linked to that challenge from inside, was a second challenge from the outside. By 1687, the English government finely reached out to impose control over Massachusetts’ affairs. Revoking the original Massachusetts Bay Company charter, introducing Church of England worship into Boston, and even restructuring Harvard. There was yet a third challenge to the godly New England by the 1680’s. This came from entirely intellectual rather than political sources. That was a spectacular revolution in thought, called the Enlightenment.