Puritan Fathers


IT is no longer the fashion among our intellectuals to use ‘Puritan’ as a general and inclusive term of scorn and abuse. Recent historians have instead given us a much fairer picture of a people with great faults but greater virtues, possessed not only of an integrity but of a culture not to be despised.

But for what is sometimes called the decadent Puritanism, or, more accurately, the more or less evangelical Protestantism, which was so influential in American life until well within the present century, — and is not dead yet, — our critics of life and manners still have nothing good to say. Heaven knows they can find plenty of ground for complaint. This brand of religion, they may say, was dogmatic, æsthetically barren, intellectually obscurantist, given to revivalistic jags, a fertile soil for raising Elmer Gantrys to religious leadership. Ethically it gave religious sanctions to the harsh, unscrupulous,acquisitive code of capitalism, while it placed undue stress upon the morals or immorals of sex, gambling (except on the stock market), and drinking. It must be admitted that these critics can document their case from the records and sometimes from their own memories as well.

I have no wish nor any intention to argue the case as lawyer for the defense or to pass final judgment from the bench. I speak as one outside the fold of my fathers. No longer do I find adequate, as I once did, the halfway house prepared by modernists who still feel the power of the old traditions as well as the compulsions of the new and confusing day in science, philosophy, and social affairs. For good or for evil, the religion which was so much and so intimate a part of the life of my boyhood, the religion in which my father’s home was founded and nourished, lives for me mostly in memory. To return to it would be an impossible and by no means a wholly lovely way of escape from life and its problems.

Yet I think I voice the sentiments of many men and women in like case with myself, who do not want their children to form their opinion of the faith of their grandfathers from Elmer Gantry or from Mr. Mencken’s oftrepeated notes on Methodism or from the current judgment of the more voluble of our intelligentsia concerning that from which some of them, like Harry Elmer Barnes, are in conscious and irritated revolt. I should like them to know that there was another side of the picture; that if this devout, rather literalistic American Protestantism has been weighed in the balance by our generation and found wanting, if palpably it has failed to meet the needs of a world already caught in the toils of revolution, intellectual as well as social, it did at its best nourish men and women worth loving, who faced life and death more bravely for their faith.

I am writing out of experience and memory, but what I want to write is not merely and certainly not fully autobiographical. I suspect — indeed I hope — that my generalizations about what their religion meant to my folks will find answering memories in other middle-aged men and women of similar background.


I am the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers. Their ancestors, mostly country folk, had, I assume, come to America for the usual economic reasons, some of them in early colonial times and some in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. But the family tradition was that some of them had come from France and some from Great Britain to escape actual religious persecution, or at any rate the burden of an established church. The nonconformist Protestant tradition was strong in our home, but I remember being good friends with our Catholic neighbors. My father spoke in cordial terms of the benign but zealous Catholic priest of our town, and was suspicious of the activities of the A.P.A., the militant antiCatholic society of that day. As for anti-Semitism, I did not know what it meant until I came across it in a far less religious atmosphere than that in which I was nurtured. Our town went to church and Sunday School, but it never regarded Jews or their children as ‘Christ killers.’ They were, as I remember it, few in number, though respected not only in the adult community but in that sometimes cruel world that boys set up for themselves and their fellows.

To get back to my grandfathers. One of them died after a life of toil, and some real adventure and hardship as a missionary at home and abroad, when I was too young to do more than barely remember him. The other lived until well into his tenth decade, always in full possession of his faculties. His joy and ours was in frequent family reunions of children and grandchildren, so that I saw much of him. Until his eightieth year he was a minister in country churches in a lovely, hilly farming region. Every Sunday he made his circuit on horseback or in a buggy over roads which had not yet dreamed of what the coming of the automobile would one day mean to them.

In these little villages he had brought up and educated, with the mighty aid of a black-eyed and exceedingly capable wife, five children on a salary that I think seldom reached the dizzy heights of six hundred dollars yearly. For this he, a farmer’s boy, had put himself through college and seminary. His Puritanism was no aid to acquisition!

I do not remember much that he said when he preached, but I do remember the little white church, and its cabinet organ and its cheerful bell, and summers with the smell of the country coming in the windows while whole families from the countryside in uncomfortable Sunday best were led to look at life and its sorrows and joys with that mingling of humility and dignity which belonged of right to those chosen to be the children of God. With the years the benediction of peace and sure confidence settled about my grandfather’s snow-white head. He, a man of few words, of simple devotion to a stern Calvinistic creed, was ‘father’ to a whole countryside. When an accident from which he amazingly recovered threatened him with a slow and agonizing death, he simply thanked God that of His goodness He permitted him to die ‘from the feet up rather than from the head down.’

However far his grandchildren have wandered physically and spiritually, I do not think we shall forget family prayers about his chair, nor shall we think of them as any perfunctory superstition or insincere rite. As we sat quietly around him with his largetype Bible in his lap, one of his few concessions to advancing age, dimly at least we understood from him the sources of a light which gave meaning — yes, and glory — to the humdrum task and all the vicissitudes of the year; a light which bathed in beauty greater than the sun’s the fields, the chining river, the wooded hills, the cottage and the cherished garden in which this Preacher of the Word lived out his days.


My father lived in larger towns a life outwardly somewhat less placid, and he died before the years had crowned his head with the benedictions his father knew. Yet I think his was a happy life, happy in the love of wife and children, and in the respect and confidence of the people to whom he ministered. He was a reserved man who did not wear his heart upon his sleeve. He had friends, but few intimates.

Duty was a great word in his vocabulary, and his code was strict, but we children were not brought up in any atmosphere of gloom. Four times we older children went to church services of various sorts on Sunday, and certain books and games and our school studies were taboo. I cannot say that I remember the day as one of great joy, but neither was it the thing of horror that I have heard some of my contemporaries describe. There were games and family walks and the atmosphere my mother created which made those Sundays more tolerable than some emancipated youngsters of our generation make their own!

My father was an intelligent and studious man and a preacher far above the average. (I still remember thinking later in life how much I preferred him to preachers of greater fame and far greater concern for publicity!) I never could understand why he seemed so unquestioningly to accept the Calvinist theology which he held. In retrospect I find it harder to understand how, having accepted it, he was so tolerant of other people. He believed in a hell to which all his life I do not think he ever would say that anyone was bound. I do not believe in his hell, and yet have been sorely tempted to consign not a few thereto!

His life, unhurried by modern city standards, was yet far removed from the laziness sometimes associated with the clerical profession. He had a conscience about work as he had about living within his small income and giving generously to church and to charity.

My mother was the kind of person who could bring up a large family, help a son with his Latin lesson while getting dinner, — and a good one, too, — and run various church and civic clubs. She wanted her children to have what she thought were the good things of life, — health, integrity, education, and some cultural opportunities, — but for riches as riches she had more of scorn than envy.

I do not mean that there was not some narrowness about the life of the children of the manse; by the compulsions of affection rather than authority we were, most of us, led to eschew dancing, and questions of morals were made to loom perhaps too large in our thinking. The towns in which we lived unquestionably partook of the limitations of Main Street. I was aware that within the Christian church there could be sorry failures in the Christian graces. And yet as I look backward on the years I remember a happy home with daily proof that marriage can be lasting and beautiful, a home in which there was a non-material standard of values and certainly no sanctimonious hypocrisy. There was, moreover, very little of the suffocating effect of the dogmatic creed my father held. I do not, for instance, remember any drastic censorship on the books we should read.

At least my father’s particular brand of orthodoxy did not have room for the antics of Billy Sunday, who had plenty of precursors in my boyhood. I remember that some of my Methodist schoolmates got saved every year at revivals, which were big events in a pre-movie age. My father believed in an evangelical message to save souls, but not in the emotional orgies which have had a baleful effect on the American capacity to think, feel, and act sincerely and intelligently in any province of life.


Now I cannot believe that people like my immediate forbears and experiences like those of my boyhood were unique or altogether in spite of the religion which to them seemed so vital and important. Whatever its limitations, that religion at its best gave some things worth while, some things hard for us to get from other sources in our troubled times. What they are or were I think we can distinguish without great difficulty.

Ethically the religion of our fathers gave them a code and a conscience which delivered them from the uncertain futilities of a sophisticated generation without standards or sense of values. That their code was inadequate I have already admitted. It made them think too much of the goodness or badness of men and far too little of the essential nature of the social system which held even the best men in its toils. It made them ‘Old Testament Christians,’ accepting at once the general desirability of peace and the righteousness of particular wars.

Nor were they even discerning in picking their wars. Intelligent opponents of the war against Spain and its resultant imperialist struggles were not recruited from the ranks of evangelical Protestants. Indeed the missionary fervor of the churches, honest in itself, fell an easy prey to rationalizations about ‘manifest destiny’ and the ‘white man’s burden.’ Kipling’s ‘Recessional’ was its gospel, and the ethics of the ‘Recessional’ were a very poor defense against the machinations of men who gave to the notion of ‘doing the heathen good’ a meaning very different than that which it had in the minds of my forefathers.

Nevertheless the code of the nineteenth-century Protestantism at its best was to believers a guide in the maze of life and a deliverer from doubt which greatly conserved their energies and preserved their peace of mind.

It was not, however, in the realm of ethics, but of religion in the high sense of relationship to God, that the faith of our fathers was a strong tower. We say nowadays, truly, that any strong social conviction — Communism, for instance — is a religion, with many of the faults as well as virtues that we associate with the religious attitude to life. But in its deepest sense religion has always been concerned with the relation of man to the universe. The problem of the existence and nature of God is at the heart of it. Are our noblest aims and ideals and hopes but the illusions of this strange animal, man, cursed with consciousness in a world essentially alien to his dreams?


For our generation the urgency of such questions can be anæsthetized for a longer or shorter time by the compelling problems of economic security and social equality. I often think that the real test of the Communist attempt to rid the world of religion will come when — and if— its own achievements as a secular religion of a wellordered system of production and distribution for the benefit of the workers are fairly secure. What, then, will crowd from the mind of men the old question of the significance of life in a universe made by our science wholly alien to human values, profoundly unconcerned for human destiny ?

Already that question stirs our minds — let the popularity of symposiums on science and religion and ‘living philosophies’ bear witness. (Would any other age, I wonder, show such dissimilarities of philosophy, of hope and of despair, among men who share the same culture and the same civilization?) Many of the answers tentatively given are interesting in themselves and provide some antidote against the complete pessimism of Joseph Wood Krutch’s Modern Temper, but how strange they would seem to the clear assurance of my forefathers!

How they held their theology without its being vitiated by a larger measure of intellectual obscurantism, and a frightened denial of the beginnings of the new science, I do not altogether understand. Neither do I know how they escaped the fear of a static immortality of bliss which to us would mitigate the joy of contemplating life eternal. But to a great extent they did these things. They did them, too, with a far deeper sense of the Presence of God, the Father and Friend, than Mr. Walter Lippmann’s study of the emphasis on God as King (in his Preface to Morals) takes into account.

The result was a sense of meaning, assurance, and comfort in life which can scarcely be exaggerated. Evil there was, and suffering hard to understand. But over all was God, who had His own in His care. His universe was man’s home. The generation which believed this did not have to hope with the Bishop of Birmingham that ‘whatever is at the heart of things is not hostile to our highest aims and ideals.’ Their God was a Father, not a ‘whatever is at the heart of things.’ They would have been far more mystified and puzzled than comforted by Professor Eddington’s dualistic approach to the problem of God and the universe in which many of our own time profess to find consolation. He has written: —

I am convinced that if in physics we pursued to the bitter end an attempt to reach purely objective reality we should simply undo the work of creation and present the world as we might conceive it to have been before the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters. The spiritual element in our experience is the creative element, and if we remove it as we have tried to do in physics on the ground that it also creates illusion, we must ultimately reach the nothingness which was in the beginning.

That is a far cry from the faith in a God who gave man dominion over the world which He had made and in that world occasionally had walked and talked with men. Is not the extraordinary popularity of The Green Pastures in part a testimony to the hunger of our times for ‘de Lawd’ who can be known and whose universe man can regard as home?

Whatever wistful hunger of the heart the simplicities of The Green Pastures may satisfy for a night, our generation, and still more our children’s, must travel harder roads in its search for truth. But that search will be more fruitful if we understand what sense of human dignity and meaning in life our fathers found in creeds that we may not accept and are often invited to ridicule. Humble and obscure their lives might have been; they were heirs of life eternal, children of Him who was King of Kings and Lord of Lords, subjects of His care. I do not think their heaven was as appalling a place as it sometimes seems to our generation. It was, on the contrary, a fulfillment of life and an answer to questions otherwise insoluble.

The least of them might be of the company of John Bunyan’s ‘Mr. Valiant for Truth.’ Without boasting, the best of these men and women could say, as he did: ‘My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my Pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my Rewarder.’ And of them it could be said as of him: ‘When the day that he must go hence was come many accompanied him to the river side, into which as he went, he said: “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper he said: “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’