December 28, 2019

1. The Franklins

Ben Franklin’s father, Josiah, came to America in 1682. Josiah lived in Boston, where Ben was born in 1706. In England, Josiah had been a dyer; in Boston, he became a maker of candles and soap. Josiah probably came to America because he was an adherent of non-conforming ministers, and the English king, Charles II, was trying to force people to adhere to the Church of England.

Josiah wasn’t the first member of the Franklin family who hearkened to dissenting ministers. Ben Franklin writes thus in his autobiography:

This obscure family of ours was early in the Reformation, and continued Protestants through the reign of Queen Mary, when they were sometimes in danger of trouble on account of their zeal against popery. They had got an English Bible, and to conceal and secure it, it was fastened open with tapes under and within the cover of a joint-stool. When my great-great-grandfather read it to his family, he turned up the joint-stool upon his knees, turning over the leaves then under the tapes. One of the children stood at the door to give notice if he saw the apparitor coming, who was an officer of the spiritual court. In that case the stool was turned down again upon its feet, when the Bible remained concealed under it as before.

The word “franklin” means small landowner. When Ben Franklin visited England, he researched his family, went to graveyards, met relatives, etc. He learned that he was “the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back” (students of birth order might find this significant).

He was named “Benjamin” after his father’s brother, who spent part of his life in Boston. This Benjamin (uncle of the famous Benjamin) “formed a short-hand of his own.... He was very pious, a great attender of sermons of the best preachers, which he took down in his short-hand, and had with him many volumes of them.”1 Uncle Benjamin also wrote several volumes of poetry (manuscript volumes, probably never printed or published). And finally, Uncle Benjamin collected hundreds of political pamphlets, and bound them into dozens of volumes. His famous nephew calls him “an ingenious man.”

2. Peter Folger

Peter Folger was the maternal grandfather of Benjamin Franklin. Folger came to America in 1635, when he was about 18. He settled initially in Watertown, near Boston, then moved to Martha’s Vineyard. He worked as a teacher and surveyor, and tried to convert the natives to Christianity. As a result of this missionary work, Folger learned the native language, and became an interpreter between natives and English. Later he was asked to survey on Nantucket, and was given land on Nantucket. He spent the last 27 years of his life on Nantucket; his daughter Abiah, mother of Ben Franklin, was born on Nantucket.

Like Uncle Benjamin, Peter Folger wrote poetry, most of which wasn’t published. In 1675, when King Philip’s War broke out, Peter was living on Nantucket, which was then called Sherburne. Peter wrote a poem about the war, and said it was God’s punishment for the sins of the people — more specifically, for cruel treatment of Quakers and Baptists (Peter himself was a Baptist). Peter begins by telling the reader not to criticize his verses:

Read them in love; do not despise
What here is set before thine eyes.

Peter says he didn’t make his best effort because he didn’t expect his poem to be published:

If that you do mistake the verse
for its uncomely dress,
I tell thee true, I never thought
that it would pass the press.

Peter ends by telling us his name:

From Sherburne town, where now I dwell,
my name I do put here,
Without offence your real friend,
it is Peter Folger.

Peter complains about the cruel treatment of Quakers and Baptists:

     many godly men,
have been to prison sent,
They have been fined, and whipped also,
and suffered banishment.

This cruel persecution makes a mockery of the persecutors’ piety:

Though you do many prayers make,
and add fasting thereto,
Yet if your hands be full of blood,
all this will never do.

This is the Puritan contradiction: they left England because they were persecuted, but when they arrived in New England, they themselves became persecutors. So the settlers needed a double liberation: first from English kings and bishops, and then from Boston theocrats.

In a recent issue, I wrote, “Bradford often quotes the Bible, and often compares his experiences to those of Biblical characters.” New Englanders were steeped in the Bible, and in Jewish history. They felt that their situation resembled that of the early Hebrews. As Peter Folger puts it,

New England they are like the Jews,
as like as like can be.

Scholars speak of “Puritan typology,” that is, the Puritan habit of viewing Biblical events as patterns/prophecies of New England events. Viola Sachs said that the Puritans saw themselves as “the Chosen People encumbered with the mission of creating a New Canaan.”

Scholars also speak of the Puritan jeremiad, or the American jeremiad — that is, the argument that our society has fallen on hard times because we’ve sinned, and God is punishing us for our sins. We must mend our ways in order to restore our society.2 Peter Folger makes this argument, this jeremiad; he even refers to Jeremiah:

The prophet Jeremy doth say,
when war was threatened sore,
That if men do repent and turn
God will afflict no more.

King Philip’s War was taking a heavy toll on the English settlements:

The plague of war is now begun
in some great colonies,
And many towns are desolate.

The war is a punishment for our sins, Peter says:

The end that God doth send his sword,
is that we might amend,
Then, if that we reform aright,
the war will shortly end.

As a Baptist, Peter disapproves of infant baptism (Baptists believed that only people old enough to understand Christianity should be baptized). Peter complains about the persecution of Baptists:

The cause of this their suffering
was not for any sin,
But for the witness that they bare
against babe sprinkling.

Peter complains about the church establishment, the Puritan/Congregational establishment, the Harvard-educated establishment. He speaks of, “that Popish college way,” and says that the establishment values learning over faith:

They vilify the Spirit of God,
and count school learning best.

3. School Learning

The oldest NewEngland colleges, Harvard and Yale, were Congregational. The oldest college in the South, William and Mary, was Episcopalian/Anglican, since Puritans weren’t dominant in the South. Princeton was Presbyterian, Columbia and Penn were Episcopalian. Dartmouth, being in New England, was Puritan/Congregational. Rutgers was in the Hudson/Dutch orbit, and was affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church. Cornell, founded in 1865, had no religious affiliation. The first Catholic college in the U.S. was Georgetown, founded in 1789.

Brown University, located in Providence, Rhode Island, had a Baptist orientation. Brown is named after a donor, as is Harvard; Brown is named after a member of the Brown family; the Browns were wealthy merchants in Providence. The first Brown in Rhode Island, Chad Brown, was a Baptist minister, and one of the original settlers of Providence.

In the eyes of Boston Puritans, Rhode Island was the cess-pool into which were flushed Baptists, Quakers, Antinomians, and other deplorables. Rhode Island was tolerant of all faiths, and Brown was the first American college to accept students of all faiths. (The original charter of “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” granted by King Charles II in 1663, said that the colony would be “a lively experiment” in religious liberty.)

In England, too, certain universities were aligned with certain denominations. Cambridge produced prominent Puritans — John Robinson, John Winthrop, John Cotton, Thomas Shepard, Thomas Hooker, etc. Oxford produced prominent Anglicans like William Laud and Richard Hooker. During the English Civil War, Oxford supported the royal party, not the radical-Protestant party; when Charles I was driven from London, he set up his court in Oxford.

4. Sects and Seekers

During the English Civil War, there was a decline of order/authority, and numerous sects arose, radical Protestant sects, such as the Seekers, the Diggers, the Muggletonians, and the Fifth Monarchy Men. There were also groups like the Levellers, who aimed to “level” social classes.

In New England, men like Peter Folger looked askance at the upper class, the Harvard-educated class, and disapproved of paying Congregational ministers from public funds. They looked askance at the Boston theocracy, a theocracy that combined government, church, and university. Why do we need a university education if the spirit of God is within us? Why do we need Aristotle and Aquinas if we can read God’s own words in the Bible?

Why did the village parson first obtain his religion at the university and then require that his wages be guaranteed by “the power of a compulsory law made by a Commonwealth?” Was he afraid to rely upon “the free gift and contribution of those individual persons wrought upon by that man’s ministry?”3

“Massachusetts did not abandon its state support for Congregationalism until 1833.”4

In response to the criticisms of Peter Folger and others, Harvard President Charles Chauncy said that learning foreign languages was necessary for a “true understanding” of Scripture, and the liberal arts were necessary for a “correct interpretation” of Scripture.5 All the arts and sciences fitted together, like stones in an arch, and they culminated in theology, the keystone. Chauncy pointed out that if radical ministers were inspired by God, and the Bible was inspired by God, then the radical ministers had the same authority as the Bible! Surely this was a recipe for religious and civil chaos.6

Men like Peter Folger said that the Congregational establishment championed learning because they wanted to protect their salaries, their privileges. One Harvard speaker said that, without Harvard, “the ruling class would have been subjected to mechanics, cobblers, and tailors.”7

In Western Europe, the further you went from Rome, the weaker the hold of the Catholic Church.8 In northern Germany, for example, there were fewer Catholics than in southern Germany. We find something similar in early America: the farther you go from the seats of learning, from the urban centers, the more emotional and radical religion becomes.

During the Great Awakening (around 1740), and again during the Second Great Awakening (about a century later), emotional preaching was often found on the periphery of civilization, in frontier communities. Perry Miller speaks of, “the increasing hunger of the crowd for a style of preaching which finally swept the backwoods in the Great Awakening, the passionate harangue that depends for nothing upon college training or book learning.”9 This type of piety believes that “sheer emotional fervor is infinitely preferable to... intellectual discipline.”

Western New York, sometimes called The Burned-over District, was a hotbed of religious fervor around 1830; it was blazing with passionate preaching. New denominations sprang up, as in England in the 1640s. Among the denominations/religions that arose in western New York were the Adventists and the Mormons.

Jung said that Protestantism had a tendency to fragment into countless denominations; he said that this tendency was a proof of its “bankruptcy.”10 Catholics argued that the only bulwark against the fragmentation of Christianity, against wild individualism, was the Catholic Church. Protestants had appealed to the Bible in their argument with Catholics. Catholics insisted that what Protestants were really appealing to wasn’t the Bible, but rather their interpretation of the Bible.

Some Catholics argued that man, as a result of Adam’s Fall, could not rely on his own reason, he must rely on the church that was instituted by God himself, the Catholic Church.11 These Catholics argued that Protestants, by disagreeing among themselves and splintering into countless denominations, had proven that we can’t rely on reason to interpret the Bible; the Catholic Church is the only safe harbor.

While Catholics relied on the clergy and the sacraments, Protestants read the Bible and debated the meaning of Christianity. Puritan ministers instructed their congregations in the fine points of theology. “The proficiency of New England farm hands in threading the mazes of free will, foreordination, and fate around the kitchen fire was a never-ending source of admiration to visitors.”12 Puritanism raised the educational level of the population. One thinks of Ben Franklin’s uncle, taking notes on sermons with his own short-hand system. How many Catholics would take notes at church services?

The Puritans at Harvard studied a broad range of subjects. They admired humanists like Erasmus, and read Greek and Roman authors. They also read medieval philosophers; Miller speaks of “the all-pervading influence of medieval scholasticism.”13 The medieval worldview was beginning to be challenged in Europe by Bacon and Descartes, by the new physics and the new math, but these cutting-edge ideas made little impression in New England, at least not during Harvard’s first decades. “The settlers of New England retained with few alterations the cosmology of the Middle Ages.... They left intact the medieval educational program of the trivium and quadrivium.”14

The Puritans were scornful of the “implicit” faith of Catholics, the Puritans aimed to know as well as believe. The Puritans weren’t satisfied with pious feelings, they developed an elaborate intellectual system. Miller says,

If a Puritan sermon is compared with an evangelical discourse of the eighteenth or nineteenth century, the extremely intellectual character of Puritan religion becomes immediately apparent; though there are Puritan paragraphs that glow with emotion or reflect intense experiences, these are purple patches in an otherwise closely knit, carefully reasoned, and solidly organized disquisition.15

Puritans of the seventeenth century took a methodical approach. Everything was defined and categorized and given a place in the vast system of thought. “The great difference between Calvin and the so-called Calvinists of the seventeenth century is symbolized by the vast importance they attached to one word, ‘method.’”16 Miller contrasts Calvin’s Institutes with Ames’ Medulla: “Where the Institutes has the majestic sweep of untrammeled confidence, the Medulla, though no less confident, is meticulously made up of heads and sub-heads, objections and answers, argument and demonstration.”17

While method was a characteristic of Puritan intellectuals, confidence was another characteristic. Miller says they had a “positive and serene conviction” that reason agreed with revelation, learning buttressed piety, all the arts and sciences fit together.18

One might compare the Puritans to the High Middle Ages, and one might contrast the Puritans with the late Middle Ages. In the late Middle Ages, confidence was at a low ebb, skepticism and nominalism were corroding the life of the mind. “Among the late scholastics,” Miller writes, “reason had turned back upon itself, and the sublime trust of earlier centuries in the nobility of the intellect gave way to agnosticism, skepticism, and a flight for refuge in submission to authority.”19 Miller speaks of, “the disillusionment that had withered philosophers of the late Middle Ages.”20

But the Puritans were confident that they could find truth, organize it, and set it forth in vast encyclopedias. Miller says that the reference works of Alsted and Keckermann were especially popular in New England.21 Puritans believed that ministers should have a broad education; they believed that all the arts and sciences are servants of theology (ancillae theologiae). As Alsted put it in his encyclopedia, all the disciplines aim at “the glory of God and our eternal salvation.”22

I find Miller’s remarks interesting because I suspect that we’re living in a time when reason turns back against itself, when philosophy doesn’t dare to grasp the universe, but instead gets stuck in studies of language and logic. One of the characteristics of my philosophy is that I skip over language and logic, and construct theories of the universe, and everything in it, I’m confident rather than skeptical/disillusioned.

I differ with the Puritans insofar as my approach is un-methodical — like Calvin’s or Nietzsche’s or Montaigne’s. The Puritans felt that they possessed truth, all that remained was to methodically expound it. I feel that I’m discovering truth, that the time isn’t ripe for methodical exposition. I agree with the Puritans that an all-encompassing theory is possible, but I sketch that theory in broad outlines, not detailed encyclopedias. One might compare the original thinker to the explorer of a continent, whereas the methodical thinker is comparable to a surveyor.

A large theory, an all-encompassing theory, isn’t necessarily dry, it can be the basis for art, art that appeals to the whole person. Miller says that the “supreme statement of the Puritan spirit” wasn’t an encyclopedia, but rather a fictional, allegorical work — Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.23 The Puritan spirit was both emotional and intellectual.

We shouldn’t try to distinguish, Miller writes, between Puritan and Calvinist. “Puritan thinking was fundamentally so much a repetition of Luther and Calvin, and Puritans were so far from contributing any new ideas, that there is reason to doubt whether a distinctly Puritan thought exists.”24 There was, however, one point on which Puritans diverged from Calvin: Puritans believed that each congregation should manage their own affairs; the Puritan approach was Congregational/Independent, whereas Calvin believed in managing congregations from a central authority. In other words, Puritans differed from Calvin in the same way that Puritans differed from Presbyterians.

Puritans felt that the ultimate authority wasn’t Calvin, but rather the Bible. Calvin and the other reformers were only re-discovering the true meaning of the Bible. Leaders like Calvin “always seemed to inaugurate new epochs in the history of thought, but in reality they merely returned to what had been lost or concealed.”25 Even a revolutionary idea like Luther’s doctrine of justification was actually a return to an ancient truth. This applies not only to religion, but to intellectual history generally. One of my favorite ideas, the idea that everything is connected, is revolutionary in our time, but it’s actually a return to an ancient truth.

5. The Mail Bag

In response to an earlier issue, a reader asked me, “How do you define ‘soul’?”

I can’t define soul, I don’t do definitions. The soul is sort of like the unconscious. It’s that which survives after we die (if there’s life after death). It’s that which separates from our body in a Near Death Experience.

I don’t define words, but the meaning of words should be evident in context. If a writer does his job, the reader shouldn’t need a dictionary. Example: “The coach was ticked because his players weren’t making any effort.” It’s clear from the context that “ticked” means angry.

If you ask a random person what he thinks when he hears “soul,” that will tell you how I use “soul.” We should use words according to their common meaning, we should use words as the “man on the street” uses them. Words allow us to communicate only if we use them according to their common meanings.

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography. Perry Miller speaks of, “the Puritan passion for learning, for argumentation and demonstration.”(The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, Ch. 5, p. 112) back
2. See, for example, Edmund Morgan’s review of Sacvan Bercovitch’s American Jeremiad (The New York Review of Books, July 19, 1979, “The Chosen People”) back
3. Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, Ch. 3, p. 79 back
4. Established Churches in Early America back
5. Miller, p. 85. These are quotes from Perry Miller, not Charles Chauncy. back
6. One might say that Emerson and other Transcendentalists took this bold step, they said that everyone has the same inspiration as the Bible, and therefore we shouldn’t slavishly obey ancient texts. back
7. p. 84. Miller says that Harvard’s mission, first set forth in the original commencement program, is now inscribed on a gate at Harvard: “After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had built our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government, one of the next things we longed for, and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”(p. 75) This doesn’t mean, however, that Harvard was founded solely to educate ministers; “Professor Morison has shown incontestably that Harvard College was not... merely a theological seminary.”

The two tablets below flank Johnston Gate, on the west side of Harvard Yard (middle of west side). The first tablet is the above mission statement. The second gives details about the founding of Harvard. It was founded with public money, chiefly to educate ministers. It was located in Newtown, which was re-named Cambridge, perhaps because many of Harvard’s founders had attended Cambridge University.


8. There are exceptions to this rule, such as Ireland. back
9. p. 77 back
10. Psychology and Religion: West and East (Collected Works, v. 11), “Psychotherapists or the Clergy,” par. 861 back
11. “From the beginnings of the Reformation it had become obvious that the Protestant appeal to Biblical authority was in reality an appeal to the Protestants’ interpretation of it.” Certain Catholic apologists argued that “since the reason of man was utterly corrupted, his only hope was surrender, blind and implicit, to the guidance of faith, and therefore of the instituted church.”(p. 70) Since this approach rejects reason in favor of faith, it’s often called “fideism.” Fideism is often associated with Protestant critics of reason, such as Pascal and Kierkegaard. back
12. p. 86 back
13. p. 92 back
14. See pp. 94, 100 back
15. pp. 67, 68 back
16. p. 95 back
17. p. 96. William Ames was an English theologian, author of The Marrow of Theology (Medulla Theologiae). Another methodical theologian was Petrus van Mastricht. back
18. p. 102 back
19. p. 101 back
20. p. 102 back
21. Even Leibniz admired Alsted’s encyclopedia; Leibniz tried to make a new encyclopedia that would update and enlarge Alsted’s. back
22. p. 107 back
23. pp. 71, 72. One might compare the Catholic to an obedient factory worker who thinks little, and the Puritan to an entrepreneur who’s always planning strategy.

Miller says that two English Puritans were especially important in making the anti-Catholic argument, John Owen and Richard Baxter. Miller says that Puritans didn’t realize that by championing independent thinking/reasoning, they were making the Bible less important. Baxter said, “The most religious, are the most truly, and nobly rational.”(p. 73) back

24. p. 92 back
25. p. 93. For more on discovery as finding what was lost, click here. back