May 27, 2023

1. Ezra Stiles

I read The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727–1795. The author, Edmund Morgan, specialized in Puritanism and early American history. Morgan was a student of Perry Miller, who was a pioneer in the study of Puritan thought, and a key figure in the development of “American Studies.” Miller died in his 50s, probably from alcoholism, but Morgan lived into his 90s. Morgan wrote about Virginians as well as Puritans; Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia is well-regarded. At the end of his career, Morgan wrote biographies of Washington and Franklin.

Morgan has a high reputation partly because of his skill as a stylist. His biography of Ezra Stiles is well-written, well-organized. Stiles was a natural subject for Morgan: Morgan was a Yale professor, and Stiles was a Yale president, who left behind numerous diaries, notebooks, letters, etc. But I can’t recommend The Gentle Puritan with enthusiasm; Stiles’ life was neither dramatic nor exciting.

Stiles spent about twenty years as a Congregational minister, about twenty years as a Yale president, and died at 67. He had eight children with his first wife, who pre-deceased him; his second marriage was childless. Morgan calls him “the gentle Puritan” because he was well-liked wherever he went, and he avoided quarrels; he thought that the various Protestant denominations should focus on their common beliefs, rather than their differences. Stiles was a learned man with an active, curious mind, but he wasn’t an original thinker.

When he was president of Yale, Stiles continued his researches:

With a zest amounting to passion he continued to absorb every kind of information that came his way. Just as he had paced off the streets of Newport, measured them, mapped them, and numbered the houses and their occupants, so he attacked New Haven. In the winter of 1780 when the snow lay four feet deep in the woods and even the salt water was frozen solid, he took advantage of the ice to survey the harbor and measure it with a six-rod line, employing a tutor and five seniors as his chainmen. At other times he made maps to trace the development of the town, enumerated the houses as he remembered them when he was in college, quizzed the oldest inhabitants to get estimates of the numbers in earlier days, and led students through the streets to count the existing buildings.

Because he was preoccupied with counting things, Stiles knew that the population of the colonies was rising, and would soon exceed that of the “mother country.” He knew that the independence of the colonies was inevitable; Britain couldn’t permanently rule distant colonies that were more populous than Britain itself. Likewise, he knew that slavery was temporary; “he was confident that slavery would ultimately disappear.”1 If independence was inevitable, was the American Revolution unnecessary? If abolition was inevitable, was the Civil War unnecessary? Are any wars necessary when viewed with the benefit of hindsight?

Stiles seemed to have a knack for learning languages.

His interest in Hebrew never diminished. He continued to study the Old Testament in the original.... To Sir William Jones, the great English orientalist, he explained his views in a book-length letter.... When Christoph Ebeling, the German geographer, asked him for information about Connecticut, he wrote him a brief history of the colony in eighty-six pages. During his years as president he also learned French. After six months’ study he could handle a hundred pages in an evening and began to read Racine and Voltaire. Later he took up Italian.

Stiles had a special interest in silkworms.

Once he had the college in order, his devotion to growing silkworms also reasserted itself. With a number of other enthusiasts he formed a company dedicated to spreading the growth of silk. After accumulating twenty ounces of mulberry seeds, he divided them into parcels of about 4,000 seeds each and sent them in 1789 to some ninety Connecticut ministers with instructions for planting. If the minister did not wish to undertake the task, he could arrange for someone else to do it. At the end of three years the planter was to distribute a quarter of his trees gratis to twenty or thirty families. The other three-quarters he could keep for himself. Stiles looked forward to four or five million trees spread over Connecticut, with an annual silk production worth £100,000 sterling.2

Stiles was a well-known intellectual with a wide correspondence. He corresponded with Benjamin Franklin, and Franklin helped him to connect with intellectuals in Europe. New Haven was a kind of gateway to New England, so many travelers visited Stiles. “Thomas Jefferson called on his way to embark for France in 1784, and Stiles plied him with questions about William and Mary College, after which they discussed the latest developments in natural philosophy.”3

Stiles thought about writing various books, but couldn’t bring himself to do so. “Stiles [was] one of those scholars who never cease to gather materials for a book but cannot bring themselves to write it. Though his reputation for learning remained enormous during his lifetime, and deservedly so, he left behind a pitifully small number of publications to sustain it after his death.”4 Morgan devotes a chapter to Stiles’ “Unwritten Books,” listing the following titles:

When Stiles was president of Yale, the college had about four tutors and one professor. The tutors were usually recent graduates of Yale. Stiles himself did many of the tasks that we associate with professors. Stiles organized twice-weekly debates.

At Yale, as at every university from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, an essential part of the weekly program was debating. [Stiles] set the students to arguing questions that brought the Yale curriculum almost painfully up to date. He made the students apply their history, political theory, and moral philosophy to the most controversial political questions of the time, varying the topics as public issues varied.

Some topics that Yale students debated:

“Disputations were the keystone of Stiles’ curriculum.”5

Stiles was a Congregational minister, and the son of a Congregational minister. In a Congregational church, the congregation governs themselves; they often form the church themselves, choose a minister themselves, etc. An Episcopal church, on the other hand, is run by the episcopus, the bishop. The Puritan or Congregational Church was “bottom-up,” while the Episcopal or Anglican Church was “top-down.”

The Puritans came to New England to escape Anglican persecution. Puritans were numerous in New England, and the Congregational Church was the only church that received state support in New England. But some areas of New England, such as Rhode Island, had non-Congregational churches — Baptist, Episcopal, Quaker, Jewish, etc.

Since Episcopalians were allied with Britain’s Anglican Church, Episcopalians were more likely to be Tories. Congregationalists, on the other hand, having fled Anglican persecution, were more likely to favor independence from Britain. (The Southern Colonies, such as Virginia, were largely Episcopalian, but many Southerners favored independence nonetheless.) Since the Congregational Church was self-governing, it prepared its members for democracy, and prepared them to resent government by British officials.

The original Puritan settlers of New England felt that they were a chosen people, a city on a hill, watched and admired by all mankind, spiritually superior to the British. They felt that they had restored the beliefs and practices of the original apostles. They felt that their Christianity was genuine Christianity, while Catholics and Anglicans had overlaid Christianity with beliefs that had no basis in the Bible.

After a generation or two, however, Puritans realized that their city on a hill didn’t live up to their lofty hopes. There were arguments over theology, and there was much attention paid to worldly matters. It seemed that pure religion had a large number of impurities. And so Puritan ministers developed the “jeremiad,” which Morgan defines as

a sermon in which New England ministers, after the heroic days of the founding had passed, recited the afflictions with which God was now visiting his backsliding people, identified the sins that had provoked Him, and warned of much direr chastisement if the people failed to repent and return to the ways of their fathers.6

When the American Revolution succeeded, and a new democratic nation was established, Stiles felt that America had once more become “a city set upon a hill,” an example for all mankind.

The Puritan dream [Morgan writes] was coming to life.... American freedom and American purity of religion would set the world such an example that people would never again be content to sit quietly under tyranny.... With mounting excitement [Stiles] watched the French people wrest power from their king and assert their rights as men. The power of freedom, first demonstrated in America, was exerting itself even more rapidly than he had anticipated.7

Stiles’ faith in the French Revolution was excessive; he couldn’t admit that the French Revolution had spun out of control, and become a new form of tyranny. “I believe,” Stiles wrote, “there must be more use of the guillotine yet. As I believe it has hitherto been exercised with great justice in general, so there is remaining much more hurtful and poisonous weeds to be mown down in the Field of Liberty, before Right, Liberty, and Tranquility can be established.”8

Stiles’ faith in American democracy was equally naive:

The common people [Stiles wrote] will generally judge right, when duly informed. The general liberty is safe and secure in their hands. It is not from deficiency of abilities to judge, but from want of information, if they at any time as a body go wrong. Upon information from an abundance of enlightened characters always intermixed among them, they will ultimately always judge right, and be in the end the faithful guardians and support and security of government.9

This boundless optimism might be compared to the optimism that many people felt after the Russian Revolution.

* * * * *

Imagine that you were a Puritan in 1740. You go to church on Sunday, and you hear the minister talk about the majesty of God, the terrors of Hell, the splendor of Heaven, the importance of Bible study, etc. Impressive, right? Then you go to church again the following Sunday, and the minister talks about many of the same things. After listening to hundreds of these sermons, it might get a bit stale.

Perhaps this is why the history of religion is a series of revivals. Religion tends to become stale, flat, uninspiring, until an itinerant minister comes to town, preaches for three hours, and makes everything new and fresh; God becomes really majestic, Hell really terrible, Heaven really splendid, etc. Then the itinerant minister leaves town; his teaching doesn’t have a chance to become stale. He leaves behind a congregation that’s stirred up, awakened, ready to burn their luxury goods and their ungodly books, ready to listen to new, passionate ministers, ready to break away from their previous minister.

Around 1740, a Great Awakening swept through the colonies. The key figure in this movement was a 25-year-old British preacher, George Whitefield. This movement is sometimes called the First Great Awakening, to distinguish it from later revivals. After Whitefield’s tour of the colonies, other itinerant preachers appeared, and congregations were divided between the new, passionate approach, and the cooler, traditional approach. The passionate preachers often inspired “bodily effects” in their hearers, such as “swoonings, outcries, and convulsions.”10 The passionate school were called New Lights; their critics were called Old Lights.

One of the most gifted and learned ministers in New England was Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was a New Light, he was a minister in Northampton, Massachusetts, he initiated a revival movement in the 1730s, and he helped organize Whitefield’s tour. One of the tenets of the New Lights is that God can choose anyone, for any reason, to be saved; you can’t earn salvation by good deeds. This is consistent with the original teaching of Calvinism that some people are predestined for salvation, while others are predestined for damnation.

The opposing school was called the Arminian school; it taught that your conduct, your choices, affected whether you were saved or damned. The Arminian school was started by a Dutch theologian around 1600. New Lights often threw the pejorative “Arminian” at Old Lights.

A sermon by George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards often persuaded the listener that he was a miserable sinner who didn’t deserve salvation; his only hope was to throw himself on the mercy of God in a “conversion experience.” One of Edwards’ famous sermons is called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (Wikipedia calls it “a classic of early American literature”). Some of Edwards’ listeners were persuaded that they were miserable sinners, but weren’t exalted by a conversion experience, so they took their own lives; one historian spoke of a “suicide craze.”

The Great Awakening of the 1740s might be compared to other revival movements, such as Savonarola’s movement in Renaissance Florence. The Islamic world had an especially significant revival movement, known as the Wahhabi or Salafi movement. As one historian wrote, “During the 18th century, a new Puritan state had come into being... in Muslim Arabia. As a Calvin of the desert, there appeared Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahab.”11 In the first half of the 19th century, there was a revival movement on the American frontier, especially in western New York; this movement is called the Second Great Awakening. During the Civil War, a revival swept through both armies in the autumn and winter of 1863-64; one soldier said “there was divine service every day and night.”12

Stiles’ father, a Congregational minister, was critical of the Great Awakening; he was an Old Light. Stiles himself tried to calm controversies with a balanced approach, rather than pushing things to an extreme. In Connecticut, many ministers subscribed to the New Divinity, which was an offshoot of the New Light movement. New Divinity ministers sometimes took extreme positions, such as arguing that those who died in infancy were eternally damned because they hadn’t had a conversion experience. Such extreme positions alienated many people, and led to a religious decline in Connecticut.

Some of Stiles’ contemporaries abandoned Christianity altogether, and became Deists. Deists rejected revealed religion, holy texts, and tried to demonstrate God’s existence from nature; they weren’t atheists, but they weren’t Christians either.

After Stiles died in 1795, the moderate, liberal wing of Congregationalism (the Old Lights) developed into Unitarians. Unitarians (such as William Ellery Channing and Andrews Norton) rejected the old Puritan teachings of original sin, total depravity, and predestination. Unitarians influenced the Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, etc.).

Stiles didn’t try to use rational arguments to justify Christianity. He stayed with the Bible; instead of rational arguments, he preached “thus saith the Lord,” and he tried to scare people with the terrors of Hell. He tried to follow the original Puritans, New England’s founders; his approach was well-received in his time; it was a “happy medium.” After his death, however, his approach petered out, and many people chose the calm Unitarian approach, or the emotional Evangelical approach. Stiles was “the gentle Puritan,” and perhaps he was also the last Puritan.

2. College Admissions

If you’re in the insurance business, and you have poor social skills, you’re probably in the wrong business. On the other hand, if you’re in philosophy and you don’t have poor social skills, you’re probably in the wrong field. Philosophy might require a touch of Asperger, a place on the autism spectrum; philosophy might require poor social skills.

And the same is probably true of science. Einstein had such poor social skills that he annoyed his professors, couldn’t get a job, and almost starved. Jung also annoyed his professors, so he had to abandon his academic aspirations. When Newton taught at Cambridge, only one student came to his class.

In recent years, colleges have begun considering “personality” when evaluating an applicant. They’re probably looking for students who are confident, outgoing, lively, students who have good social skills. The result will be to exclude the Einsteins and the Jungs. This is a problem for colleges and for Einsteins/Jungs. Should colleges drop “personality” from the admissions process?

3. A Dialogue

“What’s the meaning of life?”

“There isn’t one meaning of life, there are different meanings for different people. For some people, the meaning of life is family; for others, work; for others, philanthropy. You can’t say there’s one meaning for everybody.”

“I disagree, I think there’s one meaning for everybody, everybody should seek wholeness, balance. This means realizing where we exaggerate, where we go too far, and adjusting.”

“I think the meaning of life is to overcome suffering. We do this, not by eliminating suffering, but by accepting it, by admitting that it’s part of life, admitting that it’s inevitable. To live is to suffer. If we accept suffering, we overcome it.”

“I would say life doesn’t have meaning, life is meaning. Everything we do is meaningful. It’s we who assign meaning, there’s no external entity who assigns meaning. We’re free to assign meaning to everything we do. There’s no reason to turn against life, to say it’s meaningless. Why not say that everything is meaningful? Life is like a glass of water, it has no flavor of its own, we give it a flavor by our attitude.”

4. Jacques Bainville on the Versailles Treaty

François Valentin writes on Twitter,

“In 1920, an obscure British economist [John Maynard Keynes] published The Economic Consequences of the Peace. He predicted that this harsh ‘Carthaginian peace’ would ultimately collapse Europe’s economic model. He argued that the allies need to help, not punish, Germany.... His book is often hailed as one of the most prescient forecasts of the economics and politics of interwar Europe.

In comes... Jacques Bainville, a respected French historian who thinks Keynes is totally missing the bigger picture. Politics trump economics, especially with Versailles. To make that very clear, he calls his pamphlet The Political Consequences of the Peace.

“For Bainville, Versailles is ‘a peace that is too soft for its hardness, and too hard for its softness.’ It does humiliate Germany, but crucially it doesn’t seriously weaken it. Germany remains Europe’s demographic giant. Worse still, Germany remains united.... in contrast to a fragmented Europe. That’s the mother of all troubles.... With the dismantling of Austria-Hungary, Germany had no one to check its ambitions in Central Europe....

For centuries France had kept Germany divided into a myriad of micro entities. As François Mauriac would write during the Cold War, ‘I love Germany so much I’m glad there are two of them.’

“Post 1918 Germany became a massively violent political battleground with communist and fascist militias battling it out in the streets.... On the demobilized war veterans in a chaotic political context [Bainville] says:

‘Perhaps new forms of militarism are being born [in the debris of the imperial army]. The only thing missing is the opportunity and the man who will set this militarism in motion.’

“Germany is surrounded by weak new entities — Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria — many of whom have inherited chunks of Imperial Germany. Easy prey for German revanchism. Reading these new maps, Bainville predicts everything: Anschluss, Sudetenland, Ribbentrop pact.”13

5. Vonnegut Letter

In 2006, students from Xavier High School in New York wrote to Kurt Vonnegut, asking him to visit their class. He responded,

6. Miscellaneous

A. A simple sentence can attain perfection. Kafka thought he had attained perfection with, “He looked out of the window.”14

B. Still Walking (2008) is a tasteful, intelligent Japanese film, very popular with critics and with the public. It depicts a family gathering, a gathering of three generations. The director/writer is Hirokazu Kore-eda. I discussed two of his films in an earlier issue, and said they were good but somewhat dreary. Still Walking is probably better than those other two films, but some people might feel that Still Walking is too quiet/restrained.

C. The Triumph of the West: A View of History by John Roberts (1985) is a good documentary, about ten hours long, available on Youtube.15 It deals with world history, while emphasizing European history. Roberts (often called J. M. Roberts) is a first-rate historian, the author of books on world history and modern European history. When the documentary was released, Roberts published a companion volume, also called The Triumph of the West. The video quality is rather poor; the film should be re-digitized. More info here.

© L. James Hammond 2023
visit Phlit home page
become a patron via Patreon
make a donation via PayPal

1. Ch. 27, p. 452 back
2. Ch. 26, pp. 442, 443 back
3. Ch. 26, p. 436 back
4. Ch. 9, p. 134 back
5. Ch. 24, pp. 396, 397 back
6. It should be noted that there was an undertone of optimism in the Puritan jeremiad. Despite all the backsliding, and all the chastisement, Americans felt that the Promised Land would eventually be reached: “The distinguishing characteristic of the jeremiad [was] not its condemnation of backsliding... but its prophetic assurance of a bright future, not God’s anger but his special love for his chosen people, not pessimism but optimism.” back
7. Ch. 27, p. 455 back
8. Ch. 27, p. 456, 457 back
9. Ch. 27, p. 459 back
10. Wikipedia
Sometimes it wasn’t the minister who was itinerant, it was the congregation; the congregation would travel to a revival meeting, a “camp meeting,” and hear new preachers. Camp meetings were especially common on the frontier, during the Second Great Awakening. back
11. Leaders, Dreamers, and Rebels, by René Fulop-Miller, Part I, Ch. 4 back
12. Sam Watkins, Company Aytch, Ch. 11; see also Ch. 11, footnote 7 back
13. Wikipedia: “Bainville is best known for his prophetic criticisms of the Treaty of Versailles in Les Conséquences Politiques de la Paix (The Political Consequences of the Peace, 1920). Raymond Aron retrospectively endorsed Bainville’s judgment that the ‘Versailles Treaty was too harsh in its mild features, too mild in its harsh aspects,’ provoking Germany to seek vengeance without restraining it from doing so. Bainville argued that the treaty’s debts bound German states closer to Prussia and [the treaty] weakened neighbors to the South and East (principally Austria-Hungary) that might be willing and able to contain it. By consolidating Germany, he warned that the treaty established an untenable situation whereby ‘40 million Frenchmen have as debtors 60 million Germans, whose debt cannot be liquidated for 30 years.’” back
14. See Kafka’s diary for February 19, 1911, or see The Basic Kafka, “Selections from Diaries,” p. 255 back
15. Alas, the Youtube version is missing one episode, episode 12, “The Decline of the West: Two World Wars and the Great Depression.” back