May 3, 2020

1. Perry Miller on the Puritans:
The Church Covenant

In earlier issues, we’ve seen how the Puritans had a mania for covenants/contracts. We’ve seen that the Social Contract (by which the state is established, and the individual joins a state) arose at about the same time (c. 1575) as the Covenant of Grace (by which the individual becomes a Christian). Historians can’t determine which came first, since the Political Contract and the Religious Contract seem to arise together. We’ve seen that the Bible mentions covenants in at least two places (Genesis 17 and 2 Kings 11:17); the Puritan interest in covenants was inspired, at least in part, by the Bible. We’ve also seen that the Puritan interest in covenants was probably inspired by the rise of written contracts, which took place around 1600, and gradually replaced the medieval practice of relationships based on status and loyalty.

Perhaps the Political Contract and the Religious Contract arose together because they’re both part of a broader trend: the rise of the individual. In earlier times, the individual was seen as the passive recipient of religion and politics; church and state act on the individual. Now the individual plays a role, he makes a choice, he counts for something, he acts. Hegel argued that the theme of history was the emergence of the individual. Durkheim spoke of the “cult of the individual” in modern society. In ancient Egypt, the individual counted for nothing; in ancient Greece, the individual counted for something; in modern times, the individual counts for a great deal.1

Perhaps the next step in the process is for the individual to view thoughts/feelings/intuitions as his own, rather than God-inspired, to trust his own thoughts/feelings/intuitions, and to set aside the notion of God. Theology develops into psychology. The rise of the individual seems to lead to the decline of God.

The grandchildren of the Puritans — Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, etc. — put their faith in their selves rather than the Bible.2 Nature is as awesome and beautiful as it was for the Puritans, but now it’s seen just as nature, instead of the handiwork of God. The connections and relationships in nature are seen as properties of the universe, rather than signs of God. The impulses and capacities of the individual are seen as properties of human nature, rather than God within.

The idea of God is set aside, like the training-wheels of a child’s bike. The individual stands on his own feet, a part of the universe. And once the idea of God is set aside, we look back on it and think, “How did people ever believe in such a wild idea?”

If the theme of history is the emergence of the individual, the psychological growth of the individual, then we can assume that early peoples had only a rudimentary kind of individuality. The early Hebrews, for example, couldn’t have had a fully-developed individuality. But they did have contracts, both political and religious, and I’ve argued that contracts indicate the rise of the individual. Is my argument flawed?

The Book of Kings says that the priest Jehoiada “made a covenant between the Lord and the king and the people, that they should be the Lord’s people; between the king also and the people.” In these contracts, we have a people, we don’t have an individual, we don’t have a solitary individual committing himself to God, committing himself to the state. The contracts in the Old Testament aren’t Puritan-style contracts, they aren’t expressions of individual choice/will/faith. Puritan contracts, both political and religious, are acts of an individual, and signs of the modern growth of individuality.

In earlier issues, I’ve discussed several kinds of covenant that were popular with the Puritans, but I haven’t yet discussed the Church Covenant, by which individuals pledged themselves to each other and to God, and formed a church. The Church Covenant was characteristic of Congregationalism, and NewEngland Puritanism. Those who came to New England were often graduates of Cambridge, disciples of Ramus, believers in Covenant Theology, and, above all, adherents of the Congregational approach to church polity.

They came to New England with lofty goals, their voyage was “a positive crusade for an idea,”3 and this idea was Congregationalism — the members of the congregation create and manage the church, it isn’t given to them by bishops. Church members are selected for the ardor of their faith, not simply because they live in a certain neighborhood. Jonathan Mitchell, minister in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said that the “erecting of Christ’s kingdom in whole societies [was] our design, and our interest in this country.”4

In a Congregational church, all are not equal. Only those who have had a conversion experience, and have devoted themselves to God, can be church members. In a typical NewEngland town, 20% of adult males were church members, and only this select group could vote — could elect the governor and other officials. Miller: “It was of the essence that the membership be carefully selected and that only those be admitted who were evidently converted, for none but saints could really exercise free will or stand to the terms of a pact.”5

Those who weren’t church members, the remaining 80%, were expected to attend church, listen to sermons, and pay taxes to support the minister. Their children couldn’t be baptized, so the division between The Elect and The Rest was perpetuated to future generations. “The keys to the kingdom of heaven were the ordinances: the sermon and the Lord’s Supper for the visible elect, the sermon and baptism for their children, and the sermon alone for the non-members.”6

Presbyterians looked askance at Congregationalism. They said, If the congregation governs the church, doesn’t that mean that the church is a democracy? Miller says that “all the world abhorred” democracy.7 Congregationalists said, it’s not democracy, it’s government by the educated.

The Puritan leaders assumed, as though it were a matter beyond question, that learning would forever by respected and heeded in a consociation of saints, that the people would never themselves presume to judge of any tenet but would wait upon the judgment of the properly qualified.8

Samuel Stone, a minister at Hartford, said that a Congregational church was “a speaking aristocracy in the face of a silent democracy.”9 The church must follow God’s plan, and only the educated elite could understand the will of God. As the 1600s drew to a close, however, ministers began to argue about the will of God, the “silent majority” grew restive, and “tumultuous disorders” broke out in some churches.

We often think of Puritan New England as a theocracy, since only church members could vote, orthodoxy was enforced, Quakers were hung, etc. Miller reminds us that, in the early 1600s, all European governments were theocracies; toleration wasn’t preached until the late 1600s.

The civil magistrates of New England, conceiving of themselves as the executives of Christian states, took unto themselves powers to which every European government of the early seventeenth century assumed it was entitled, to expel or execute heretics and to punish disturbers of the ecclesiastical peace. They felt themselves obliged by their office not to tolerate errors, to forbid within their jurisdictions all churches except the orthodox. They were to look after “the establishment of pure religion, in doctrine, worship, and government, according to the word of God”.... On all sides there was agreement that the function of a state was to lead its members to the good life.10

Since NewEngland colonies were small, they could root out heretics; on the other hand, in a big country like France, heretics could usually find some remote corner where they could dwell undisturbed. In the late 1600s, New Englanders wanted to continue rooting out heretics, they were reluctant to accept the new principle of toleration; they had to be forced to be tolerant.

But the NewEngland colonies were “theocracies with a twist” — while rooting out heretics, they saved space for individual choice. Since they viewed religion as a covenant between God and the individual, they couldn’t force the individual to subscribe to that covenant.

Massachusetts and Connecticut were coercive theocracies, as consistently intolerant as any absolute monarchy, and yet they were strangely compelled by their own assumption to mark off and preserve inviolate a sphere of human volition, a field of action in which they had to permit individuals a fundamental freedom, even the freedom to go to the Devil.11

As one Puritan put it, “Christ’s people are a willing people, faith is not forced.”12 Faith is an inner experience. During the Middle Ages, people of faith often entered monasteries, which were isolated from the world. The Congregational churches of New England tried to combine the inner and the outer, combine individual choice with community responsibility.

By its inherent nature, grace was a capricious and chaotic visitation; the ecclesiastical theory transformed this anarchic flame into a voluntary and sober subjection to order. It asserted the continuity of inward rectitude with outward conduct, causing that illumination which transcends the earth to produce on earth a law-abiding society, harnessing man’s most acute sense of life and liberty to a sense of civic duty.13

NewEngland Congregationalism was an ambitious attempt to attain the Christian ideal, not in the seclusion of a monastery, but in the “full catastrophe” of reality, and amid the challenges of living in a wilderness.

2. Ravelstein

I saw an interesting discussion on C-SPAN about Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein. The discussion took place on May 18, 2000 and featured four panelists: Werner Dannhauser, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Joseph Bottum, and Mary Ann McGrail. Ravelstein was published about three weeks before the discussion, when Bellow was 85. Abe Ravelstein, the protagonist of the novel, is based on Allan Bloom, a friend of Bellow’s who had died in 1992. Ravelstein was controversial, and the discussion was lively, because people had strong opinions on the question, Did Bellow treat his dead friend cruelly?

Most of the panelists were critical of Ravelstein. Bottum said that Bellow was past his prime, no longer capable of the sort of concentration required to write a top-notch novel. Dannhauser and Himmelfarb blamed Bellow for denigrating Bloom, and exposing his homosexuality, which Bloom tried to keep private. Bellow tells us, in Ravelstein, that Bloom was “great-souled,” but then shows him in a negative light — preoccupied with fancy clothes, fancy lodgings, etc. As Himmelfarb put it, Bellow tells us that Bloom had a great soul, but doesn’t show us that great soul.

Several panelists spoke of Bloom’s teaching talent, and faulted Bellow for not depicting that. Bloom may have been the ultimate LeoStrauss disciple, but his flashy, hedonistic lifestyle was poles apart from Strauss’s lifestyle. Strauss appears in Ravelstein under the name “Felix Davarr.” Bloom was a student of philosophy, and a champion of the Great Books, while Bellow was an acclaimed novelist, so their relationship can be viewed in terms of the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry. Bellow’s mockery of Bloom can be compared to Aristophanes’ mockery of Socrates.

In the audience were Irving Kristol, Bill Kristol, Francis Fukayama, Bill Galston, and perhaps Ben Wattenberg (the person whom I think was Wattenberg looks a bit like Bellow himself).

In his early days, Bellow was a left-wing radical. He even made a pilgrimage to Mexico to meet Trotsky, but arrived the day after Trotsky was assassinated; he went to the morgue to see his idol’s blood-stained body. As the decades passed, Bellow drifted to the right. He took a dim view of the radicals of the 1960s.13B

Bellow’s cultural conservatism was akin to Allan Bloom’s. After Bloom wrote an essay called “Our Listless Universities” in 1982, Bellow suggested he expand the essay into a book. So Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which became a bestseller.

Bloom criticized the contemporary worldview, the view that there is no Truth, that all ways of life have equal rights. Instead of seeking The Good Life, we adopt a lifestyle, we say “Do your own thing.” The supreme value is

openness, the disdain for the ethnocentric.... Schools once produced citizens, or gentlemen, or believers; now they produce the unprejudiced. A university professor confronting entering freshmen can be almost certain that most of them will know that there are no absolutes and that one cannot say that one culture is superior to another.... Convictions have disappeared.... Students in our best universities do not believe in anything, and those universities are doing nothing about it, nor can they. An easygoing American kind of nihilism has descended upon us.

Bloom reminds me of Mark Edmundson, who made a splash about ten years after Bloom; in an earlier issue, I called Edmundson “the Allan Bloom of our time.” Edmundson argues that reading a great book should be a life-changing experience, not an adornment of “the cool consumer worldview.” Edmundson complains that today’s students lack “a capacity for enthusiasm,” as Bloom had complained that today’s students have “souls without longing.”

3. Galileo Forged

I enjoyed a documentary called “Galileo’s Moon,” which is available at It’s about an Italian antiquarian and book-thief, Massimo De Caro, who forged a book by Galileo. The forgery was so skillfully done that a panel of experts declared the book genuine, and a NewYork book-dealer bought the book. Indeed, people believed that a book from the 1600s was impossible to forge.

Finally a scholar named Nick Wilding exposed the fraud. Then people became hesitant to buy old books, since it was clear that modern technology could forge them. Even if they were authenticated by a panel of experts, they could still be forgeries.

The head of the panel of experts, Horst Bredekamp, says that he wanted to believe the forged book was genuine because it confirmed his own research. The forger had used Bredekamp’s research in making the forgery, and told him so in an e-mail exchange. I’m reminded of the papyrus forgery that I discussed in an earlier issue. “Since the papyrus provided evidence for her own view of early Christianity, she wanted it to be authentic.”

Perhaps the panel of experts focused too much on the book, and too little on the provenance of the book. Where did it come from? Who brought it to light? The panel of experts should have known that the book came from De Caro, and that should have raised suspicions. In the case of the papyrus, the object seemed genuine, but its provenance was suspicious, and that eventually led to its exposure as a fake.

De Caro himself appears in the documentary, and says how much fun he had. He seems to be living a comfortable life, despite his arrest, confession, and conviction. Perhaps his political connections enabled him to avoid jail, and avoid paying restitution to the library he plundered. It must be admitted that he taught the book world some valuable lessons; the next forger won’t be able to fool people as easily.14

4. Ibn Khaldun

In an earlier issue, I discussed the Puritan worldview, and I wrote, “Perhaps Americans are more divided because they no longer share a belief, a vision.” Ortega said that a nation must be based on “an inspiring plan for a life in common.” NewEngland Puritans had such an “inspiring plan,” and they influenced the U.S. as a whole.

Now I learn that the Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun developed a philosophy of history based on the concept of shared purpose:

In A.D. 1377, the Arab scholar and retired statesman Ibn Khaldun published his famous Preface to the study of world history. His aims were not modest. Ibn Khaldun’s wide study and even wider travels had led him to conclude that there were universal laws of social dynamics, and he intended to use his book to lay out an all-encompassing theory of human civilization.

The most original contribution of his Preface was the concept of asabiyyah, or group solidarity. For Ibn Khaldun, the basic pattern of human history was the dynastic cycle, the rise and fall of civilizations, and asabiyyah — the sense of common purpose and social cohesion — was the source of power that allowed collective action during the growth phase of a dynasty or civilization. Yet, in turn, success and prosperity acted to undermine the sense of solidarity that had allowed one group to rise to power. Thus, civilizations corrupted inevitably and from within.15

Perhaps Ibn Khaldun was thinking of the social cohesion of the early Muslims. Inspired by Muhammad’s teachings, these early Muslims built an extensive empire, and an advanced civilization, starting from nothing. Then their civilization was gradually corrupted by prosperity.

5. Miscellaneous

A. Nietzsche says that with the old aristocracy decaying, and the old culture decaying, a philosopher in our time will be completely independent, completely divorced from society.16 David Brooks says that only an engaged intellectual like Jane Jacobs is useful/desirable. So we’re “stuck between a rock and a hard place,” we can have disengaged philosophers, or we can have “engaged intellectuals” who aren’t really philosophers.

B. I saw a movie from 2019 called The Farewell. It’s about a Chinese family, some of whose members have immigrated to the U.S. and Japan. It’s often compared to the 2018 movie Crazy Rich Asians; it’s a gloomy, austere version of Crazy Rich Asians. As I watched Farewell, I felt that a screen-writer was trying to tell us serious things about serious subjects, but I never found these remarks interesting. I never felt that the characters were real people, I never felt that the world of the movie was a real world, I was never drawn in, I never “suspended my disbelief.” The public liked Farewell, critics raved about it, I don’t recommend it.

C. Lawrence Wright is a writer for New Yorker. His novel about a pandemic, The End of October, was released about a week ago. Wright won a Pulitzer Prize for his non-fiction book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Wright’s new novel is a well-researched and prescient study of pandemics, not a hastily-written book designed to capitalize on the current virus. (Wright also wrote a prescient work in 1998 about Muslim terrorists attacking New York City — a screenplay called The Siege.)

D. Laurie Garrett was working toward a PhD in Biology when she switched to journalism, and became a science reporter. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for her articles about Ebola, and she also wrote about HIV. In 1994, Garrett published a bestselling book about pandemics called The Coming Plague, and she’s been predicting a pandemic for the last 25 years. Garrett has been called one of the “CoronaVirus Cassandras.”

© L. James Hammond 2020
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1. The Western world has seen a spread of democracy in modern times. Is this a result of the rise of the individual? Or a result of the rise of equality? back
2. Ruskin says somewhere that all the leading writers of the 19th century were moving away from Christianity (I think he uses the expression “all the strong men”).

In an earlier issue, I wrote, “Emerson was a champion of the unconscious avant la lettre. Emerson tells us that ‘we must go alone,’ we must ‘stay at home,’ and put ourselves ‘in communication with the internal ocean,’ rather than going abroad ‘to beg a cup of water of the urns of other men.’ Is there a better synonym for ‘unconscious’ than ‘internal ocean’”?

Miller says that the Puritans had “an overwhelming realization of an inexorable power at work not only in nature but in themselves, which they called God.”(p. 489) Couldn’t we use the term “nature” for the external power, the term “unconscious” for the internal power, and drop the term “God” altogether? back

3. p. 433 back
4. p. 433. Did the Bible authorize Congregationalism? Presbyterians and Anglicans insisted that there was no Biblical authority for Congregationalism. The New Testament speaks of churches, but not church covenants. Congregationalists responded, There are covenants in the Old Testament, and they aren’t repealed in the New Testament, therefore church covenants are “still the revealed will of God.” The New Testament can’t speak openly of covenants: “In the days of the New Testament, the magistrates and princes of the earth being aliens and enemies to the church, the apostles thought it meet to speak of this covenant not plainly, but as it were in parables and similitudes.”(pp. 437, 438)

Presbyterians also said, What about the 80% that aren’t church members? Are you sure they aren’t regenerated? “Were they to be left under no religious supervision?”(p. 450)

The Congregational goal was a lofty one — a Christian utopia. “Flowing from the piety, from the tremendous thrust of the Reformation and the living force of the theology, came a desire to realize on earth the perfect church order, cleansed of corruption and purified of all unregeneracy.”(p. 440) This goal, according to Miller, was one of the driving forces behind Congregationalism. Another driving force behind Congregationalism was community spirit: “Springing from the traditions of the past, from the deep and wordless sense of the tribe, of the organic community, came a desire to intensify the social bond, to strengthen the cohesion of the folk.”(p. 440)

Though their piety was intense, the Puritans were sober and controlled, they had a “strong sense of social responsibility.”(p. 443) Church members had duties to each other, and to society: “The church covenant was their act of confession, not merely of their faith but of their social conscience.”(p. 445) New England Congregationalism combined fervent faith, sober citizenship, and individual choice: “The supreme achievement of the New England doctrine was not merely that it embodied the true church in the earthly without overturning the reign of law and political order, but that it achieved this end in a church constituted through the consent of mankind.”(p. 444) back

5. p. 436. “Those without the pale, who under the first charter of Massachusetts Bay amounted to some four fifths of the total population, might have a vote only in town meetings.”(p. 440) “The Connecticut settlements did not expressly confine the vote to church members, but provided for a ministerial supervision of the electorate that achieved by less obvious means the same control.”(pp. 439, 440)

Church membership in New England reminds me of party membership in a Communist country; church members form an elite, not unlike party members. back

6. pp. 443, 444 back
7. p. 450 back
8. p. 451 back
9. p. 452 back
10. p. 457 back
11. p. 458 back
12. p. 459 back
13. p. 462 back
13B. There’s an excellent timeline of Bellow’s life at the start of a book called Saul Bellow: A Literary Companion. I found the timeline at Google Books (it’s called “Chronology of Bellow’s Life and Works”) back
14. Click here for a NewYorkTimes article on the Galileo forgery. In an earlier issue, I discussed a case of map-theft (for more on this case of map-theft, see this Youtube video). back
15. “The Coronavirus Is Accelerating History Past the Breaking Point,” by Kyle Harper, coronavirus-is-accelerating-history-past-the-breaking-point/#

Ibn Khaldun’s Preface is also called the Prolegomena or Introduction or Muqaddimah.

Did the early Romans (c. 300 BC) have the same cohesion as the Puritans and the Arabs? What was the shared worldview of the Romans? Was it purely nationalistic — Rome uber alles? Was it based on written law and the ideal of justice? Was it based on culture/literature/civilization? Or were the Romans held together, not by a shared worldview, but by danger, necessity, external enemies? back

16. “Today... when only the herd animal receives and dispenses honors in Europe... today the concept of greatness entails being noble, wanting to be by oneself... standing alone and having to live independently. And the philosopher will betray something of his own ideal when he posits: ‘He shall be greatest who can be loneliest, the most concealed, the most deviant.’”(Beyond Good and Evil, #212) back