A distinguished historian speaks a good word for the Puritans and reminds us of the abiding role of the Christian ethic

High on the list of things for which Americans ought to thank God is their national heritage. Though short when measured by time’s “ever-rolling stream,” it has unique elements. In our democracy there came into being under Providence a new and dynamic concept of government, the full implications of which challenge us in this age of breathless change. Therefore when a scholar writes our history so as to bring it excitingly alive, he has done us a valuable service.

Such a scholar is Samuel Eliot Morison, one of our foremost historians. A member of the Harvard faculty from 1915 to 1955, he has recently completed The Oxford History of the American PeopleCopyright © 1965 by Samuel Eliot Morison. Excerpts used by permission. (New York, Oxford University Press, 1,150 pp. with index). Dr. Morison begins the preface to his wonderfully readable volume by saying, “This book, in a sense, is a legacy to my countrymen after studying, teaching, and writing the history of the United States for over half a century.”

A more useful and enjoyable legacy there could hardly be. The author has lived long enough to attain the wisdom of perspective. His comments are often salted with humor, his language uncomplicated, his judgments balanced. Best of all, he has a sturdy sense of moral and spiritual values and stands unashamedly for the Christian ethic.

But let him speak for himself. Here is a comment on the much maligned Puritans: “Puritanism was essentially and primarily a religious movement; attempts to prove it to have been a mask for politics or money-making are false as well as unhistorical. In the broadest sense Puritanism was a passion for righteousness; the desire to know and do God’s will.… In response to the light of conscience and the written Word, the Puritan yearned to know God and to approach Him directly without intermediary. If the Puritan rejected the ancient pageantry of Catholic worship, it was not because of any dislike for beauty. He loved beauty in women and children and, as his works proved, achieved beauty in silverware, household furniture and architecture.… As soon as the Puritan acquired the means to beautify the exterior of his meetinghouse (as he called his church building), he did so with classic columns, Palladian windows, and spires; but the interior he preferred to leave cold and bare so as not to distract the attention of the congregation.”

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After a penetrating treatment of the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, Morison gives us this estimate of Jonathan Edwards: “Edwards’s brand of revived Calvinist theology … ran its course.… But the works of Jonathan Edwards, after long neglect, are now reprinted; and today, whatever one’s belief, one owes a respectful glance to that faith which made God everything and man nothing, which plunged some men into despair but to many gave fortitude to face life bravely; and to a chosen few, the supreme joy that comes from union with the Eternal Spirit, and the supreme beauty that is the beauty of holiness.” It is in such observations that Morison reveals his insight into moral and spiritual trends.

Consider also this on the state of religion in America in the late nineteenth century: “But there is no doubt that it [the Darwinian controversy] weakened the hold of religion on the average American. He stopped reading the Bible when it no longer could be considered divine truth; and in so doing his character suffered. For, as Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe says, ‘The Bible is the marrow of lions. Strong hearts have they who feed on it.… The Bible is the backbone for people who have the will to live.’ Darwin may have killed Adam as an historical figure, but the old Adam in man survives; and if his intellect fails to control the fell forces he has wrested from nature, the few, if any, who survive the holocaust will tardily bear witness to the realism of the Biblical portrait of mankind.”

One of the delightful aspects of this work is its author’s wit. Speaking of the growing employment of women after 1880, he says, “Salesladies then began to replace salesmen behind the counter, and the lady stenographer with her typewriter, which came into general use around 1895, replaced the Dickensian male clerk with his high stool, calf-bound ledger, steel pen, and tobacco quid; a great gain for the cleanliness and neatness of business offices.”

Regarding education in New England Morison writes: “Free popular education has been the most lasting contribution of early New England to the United States, and possibly the most beneficial. As Gertrude Stein once put it when writing on education: ‘In New England they have done it they do do it they will do it and they do it in every way in which education can be thought about.’ Compact villages made it possible to have and do, as well as talk about education. It is no accident that almost every educational leader and reformer in American history, from Benjamin Franklin through Horace Mann and John Dewey to James B. Conant, has been a New Englander of the Puritan stock.”

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For further evidence of the scope of this picture of our people, look at the thumbnail sketch of the great “Babe” Ruth: “In professional baseball, ‘Ty’ Cobb, the hero of the early part of the century, gave way to George Herman (‘Babe’) Ruth, who began belting out home runs in 1914 and so continued for twenty-two years.… There never was another baseball player like ‘The Babe.’ A natural ham actor, his stream of Homeric insults to his opponents was alone worth the price of admission, and he could even dramatize striking out.”

An impressive feature of this history is its balance. A case in point is the treatment of General MacArthur:

“ ‘Could I have but a line a century hence,’ wrote General MacArthur, ‘crediting a contribution to the advance of peace, I would yield every honor which has been accorded by war.’

“Here’s your line, General; this historian salutes you. Your efforts for peace and good will entitle you to a place among the immortals. No proconsul, no conqueror in ancient or modern times succeeded to the degree that you did in winning the hearts of a proud and warlike people who had suffered defeat. Your victory was a dual one—military, and in the highest sense, spiritual.”

And then, after this magnificent tribute so ungrudgingly given, Morison writes: “One may debate endlessly whether MacArthur’s plan to crush China would or would not have brought in Russia and started a third world war. But there can be no doubt that Truman was right in relieving a general whose attitude to his civilian commander-in-chief had become insufferable. The only valid criticism of the President is that he did not sack the General months earlier.…” (Regardless of how one feels about MacArthur’s dismissal, he can savor this salty comment.)

When he turns to the revolution in morality begun in the twenties and continuing in present-day sexual license, Morison concludes like this: “Advocates of the new morals claim that the lifting of nineteenth-century repressions, inhibitions, etc., ‘freed’ the rising generation, made them more natural, wholesome, and the like. Probably some oversexed persons were injured by their efforts to be faithful to the Christian ethic. But, how many of the ‘pure in heart’ have been ruined by the present stimuli striking at them every day and from every direction, urging them to surrender to the cruder demands of the flesh? A recent glorifier of the Viennese doctor claims that Freud ‘demolished the ideals of the hypocritical Victorian age and turned a glaring light on the underworld by revealing the “filth” that had been repressed into the unconscious.’

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“Possibly that would have been the best place to have left it.”

Christians who love their country—and every Christian should—have an obligation to exercise their citizenship thoughtfully and responsibly. To be informed is an essential of good citizenship. Behind the use of the ballot and participation in public affairs there ought to be an enlightened understanding of the history of one’s nation as well as of current issues. While most of us have studied United States history in our school days, the story of America needs to be read and reread. Dr. Morison’s book is not perfect; the only perfect historian is the living God who is sovereign over all men and nations. But The Oxford History of the American People reflects the mature wisdom of a scholar who has standards and holds to the eternal verities. Christians who read it will gain a deeper appreciation of the American heritage.

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