Sean Quigley ’10: The real Puritan legacy

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In a recent column (“Brown: the great radical Puritan university,” Oct. 7), my friend Graham Anderson ’10 makes several assertions about the Puritan worldview, and its influence on our beloved Brown, which I would like to refine and revamp, though not entirely repudiate. An item of disclosure: Graham and I have taken several courses on Anglo-American history together, and we both can trace our religious lineage back to the English-Scottish Reformation.

He begins his column by referring to the lament among many conservatives that, though once a stronghold for Protestant Christian thought and leaders, the Ivy League is now an epicenter of the most illiberal, collectivist, and permissive ideologies known to mankind. This lament is not a new one: new-right conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. – despite being a Roman Catholic – wrote his acerbic “God and Man at Yale” attacking this transformation way back in 1951.

However, this lament is much more reactionary than truly conservative. Yes, Brown and other elite Northeastern universities have problems, but they actually are not that bad. Academic integrity, if not moral integrity, is alive and well. The “extreme conservative miscreants” that Graham excoriates are just that: “extreme” persons whose right-wing obsessions have little traction in truly conservative circles.

On the matter of Puritanism and Brown’s association with it, Graham makes a key error in appellation. Rather than being revolutionary or radical in the 20th century populist sense, the Puritans who rebelled against Roman Catholic universalism and the lurking remnants of ignorant popery in the Church of England were more properly individualistic and nonconformist.

Instead of valuing the community over the individual or tacit understandings of salvation over Scripture’s explicit commands, the Puritan Protestants were radical individualists (in the 17th century sense), whose epistemological end stop was summarized in two words: “sola scriptura” – by scripture alone. The “people,” in their eyes, were naturally the source of no truth.

The differences between the Puritan “people” and the modern “people” are astronomical. With some exceptions, the use of that term today connotes a Marxist demand that every facet of political life (and then some) be run democratically. And as the actual Marxist states have proved time and again, this is always theoretical.

The Puritan use, on the other hand, referred specifically to issues of salvation and how congregants should govern their local parishes.

For at the heart of Puritanism is a desire, grounded in Christ’s gloriously limited-government teachings, to maintain liberty for the individual to do God’s work on earth without a domineering government or rule by “experts.” Each person should be the expert over his own life. Absolutely no populist ideas should be inferred from the Puritan demand for the diffusion of power and empowerment of the individual.

In many ways, the Puritan wing of the Reformation was the most conservative wing of all. As British MP Edmund Burke once advised in “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” with the events of the Reformation clearly on his mind: “If the last generations of your country appeared without much luster in your eyes, you might have passed them by and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors.”

The Puritans, unlike the proto-Marxist French revolutionaries, did look back. What they found was the Christian liberty of the Apostles and the early Church.

Furthermore, as students who have taken Professor Tim Harris’s wonderful course on English history will remember well, the leader of the Puritan republic, Oliver Cromwell, was a social conservative. In other words, he believed in maintaining a class of landed gentry and in ensuring that the aristocratic families kept a structural position in the government.

Prior to the Progressive Era of American history, this socially conservative idea was even preserved in the Constitution itself, in that the members of the Senate were appointed by the state legislatures. Socialists and illiberal progressives led this attack on the necessarily undemocratic Constitution and not on those bred with the spirit of the republican Reformation.

Looking to our present-day Brown, I feel as though Graham made a colossal mistake in arguing that the legacy of the Puritans is the school’s reputed progressivism. Rather, our very obvious individualism and nonconformity – so often the punch line of many jokes from our Ivy peers – seems a more accurate place to pin that legacy.

The open curriculum, the entrepreneurial spirit of many alumni, the simplified grading scheme, the lax environment, the resistance to increasing the power of the inherently autocratic police and the disposition to reserve judgment all are legacies of the Puritans.

The Marxist obsession with debasing culture, encouraging deviancy and attacking the Protestant religion are endemic in universities worldwide. That Brown has, in my opinion, avoided many of the worst excesses of illiberal Marxism is a testament to this school’s belief in the individual and in a vibrant nonconformity.

Thus, while the Puritanism of our school’s founders is certainly still present, you will not find it in the lazy progressive values of populism and ceaseless change.

Sean Quigley ’10 admires Sarah Palin for having ties to the Alaskan Independence Party.