01 November 2011

What I'm Reading--Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order

As I prepare to write my historiography on Puritans this semester, I've had to write four book reviews.  I've already posted a preliminary review of Perry Miller's influential work Errand into the Wilderness.  Here is a review of my reading of Margo Todd's Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order (1987).  I must say that I found the book quite interesting, and the thesis quite intriguing.  While I had a couple of small questions, I think the author did a good job of proving a tie between thinkers like Erasmus and the Puritans.  Here is the review:

Todd, Margo. Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order. Cambridge and New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1987. x and 293 pages. Bibliography and Index.

            Margo Todd, currently Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order in 1987 while at Vanderbilt University.  One of Todd’s specialties is the culture of Reformed Protestantism in Britain and early America.  In addition to this book, she has also authored Reformation to Revolution: Politics and Religion in Early Modern England and The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland.  She is a previous winner of the Longman History-Today Prize and the Scottish History Book of the Year award, in addition to holding fellowships with the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the NEH, and the Royal Historical Society, among others.[1]
            When Todd wrote Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order, the historiographical debate centered on what impact the puritans had on the English Revolution, if they existed at all, as Michael Finlayson argued. (1)  Todd did not question the existence of Puritans, but questioned the assertion by Max Weber, R. H. Tawney, Christopher Hill, and Michael Walzer that “attributed to protestant religious zealots a degree of originality of thought rarely assigned to and almost never deserved by any intellectual movement.” (4) She believed that a move to place Puritans in the religious mainstream was a “step forward” in the historiography. (2)  In looking at the origins of Puritan thought, Todd looked back to the writings of Christian humanists, such as Desiderius Erasmus and Juan Luis Vives.
            Todd did not assert a conservative nature to Christian humanism.  She rightly pointed out that Erasmian ideas were largely a reaction against Thomist theology and philosophy.  The humanists, of whom Erasmus was the leading example, believed that much could be learned from the classical civilizations of the Greeks and Romans and emphasized such writings on civic virtue.  They encouraged the learning of classical languages and a critical approach to learning. 
This humanist social ethic which puritans would find so attractive was biblical in its apologetic, eclectic in its sources, mundane in its concerns but religious in its goals, practical in its methodology, and activist in its approach…The moral reconstruction of the social order was its ultimate objective—and its supreme attraction for protestant reformers. (22)
These Christian humanists, while Catholic themselves, questioned much of the medieval Catholic social order.
            Todd utilized many of the writings of Christian humanists and Protestant reformers.  She also relied on commonplace books from students at leading English universities to understand both the ideas being taught and the reactions of the students toward these ideas.  Christian humanist ideas passed to English Puritans largely through the universities, as these commonplace books and other notebooks show through their frequent citations of writers such as Erasmus and Vives and their use of Scholastic thinkers largely as punching bags. 
            After discussing a definition of Christian humanism and then pointing out how humanist ideas were transferred, Todd moved to the major areas of life that these new ideas impacted.  Contrary to medieval teaching on gender relations that viewed sex as a sort of necessary evil only meant to propagate the race, humanists and puritans both idealized the home as a miniature of the perfect society.  The ideal of celibacy came into question as a perfectly ordered home with children became the new goal. 
In addition to this questioning of domestic arrangements, humanists and Puritans started to question medieval ideas about economic issues.  Indiscriminate almsgiving came under scrutiny in this new environment.  Humanists encouraged state contributions and public employment (they believed most men willing to work) to alleviate the suffering of the poor so that alms would go to those who needed them, rather than to those who asked the loudest.  For a time, England actually attempted this system with some degree of success.  Many humanists also came to question the monastic system.  Those who were supposed to be poor through begging actually had access to great wealth through church property.  This did not sit well with Christian humanists.
One final major area of dispute that the humanists had with medieval thought related to the hierarchical “Great Chain of Being,” which held to a pyramidal view of power with God at the top, followed by the monarch (or pope), then nobility, then the masses.  This order was closely tied to heredity.  The Christian humanists decried heredity as a requirement for leadership.  They argued, to a degree, for a meritocracy as a better system, as the offspring of nobles were often lazy and at times incompetent. 
Todd’s final chapter, “The Conservative Reaction,” is not terribly surprising.  When those with power have their authority questioned, they often behave in a very reactionary manner.  The author argued that the Council of Trent and the Lambeth Conference embodied this reaction.  One result of Trent was the creation of the Index of Prohibited Books.  At first, only those books of Erasmus that questioned the established order found their way to the Index.  After giving the concept a second thought, however, all writings from such a subversive author received this treatment.  The new ideas for ameliorating the plight of the poor lost ground, and Trent argued that discriminate almsgiving threatened the souls of those who had lost the opportunity to give through indiscriminate charity, although this did not specifically affect Anglicans as much as it did continental Catholics. 
Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order did a good job of tying ideas about society from the Christian humanists to the English Puritans.  The use of commonplace books in the English universities provided an excellent opportunity to see exactly what ideas impacted the leading students of the age.  While this tie between humanists and Puritans was largely ignored prior to Todd’s work, there were some items that did not get as much weight as they possibly deserved.  Humanism in many ways had a much more tolerant view of the world, which does not agree with the actions of many of the stronger Puritans, especially the ones who migrated to North America in the 1630s.  Also, there was a major divergence between an Erasmian view of the world with an emphasis on the freedom of the will against a Calvinist understanding of affairs that was even more emphatic than Martin Luther’s view in On the Bondage of the Will, itself a critique of Erasmus.  Todd argued that “the Calvinist view of the elect as God’s instruments to implement his will in the world necessitates an activist stance on the part of the believer.” (17)  However, this still does not reconcile the generally positive view of man’s ability among humanists with the very negative belief held by Calvinists.  In spite of these questions, there is little doubt that the Christian humanists informed the ideas of the early Puritans.  In this, Todd succeeded in her efforts.

[1] “Margo Todd,” http://www.history.upenn.edu/faculty/todd.shtml (accessed November 1, 2011).

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