Observations on a Winter Course

At Central the modular courses I had usually allowed three months to complete the assignments. If there was reading before hand, we were warned. Here one is not warned and we only get a month to complete the work. I wonder if it is the best way, but the point of a program is you just do it. I assume most people know how it works before they sign up for the class, and since I don’t have to work otherwise, I can’t complain.

That month is up. Now I have a better handle on the Reformation in England, the history of the Puritans, and some of the issues. Here’s one I still don’t get: what exactly is the difference between a Dissenter and a Separatist? Separatists arise in Elizabethan times when they are Puritans who give up on the nation, Dissenters becomes a specific term in the Restoration–though Coffey (and Coffey is a big name) calls them a historical connundrum. Dissenters are nonconformists after it becomes illegal not to conform. In other words, the difference may be in whether one is voluntarily or involuntarily disconnected. I also wonder if it is that Separatist is associated with all the sectarian Gangrenae and Dissenter is more respectable, but I have no proof. I ought to have done the paper on it, but I only got to that after a month and after the actual paper I wrote.

Respectability plays a good part, I think, in many persons’ religious associations, and the 17th Century, specially after the Puritan Revolution, was no less characteristic in this way. I think Owen hewed to the most respectable tolerant view available.

John Owen was an English (not New-English, and probably because of toleration, since after all he was invited to be a pastor in Boston but turned it down) Congregationalist, which means he was for a certain diversity in the English Church. He was open to tolerating a variety of polities within the doctrinal bounds of Reformed Orthodoxy, but he was not for permitting Catholics or heretics; more than that I do not think he said, and it would have been interesting to see, though I think he would not have approved, whether Arminian congregations of some sort would have been, for him, allowed. He was not for Roger Williams or Baptist style liberty of religion, but he was for two things: serious church discipline and voluntary association, and these were the consequences of his reformed and puritan orthodoxy.

He was a laborious writer, relentless about examining everything. But he developed, on the whole, a rather marvelous consistency since he was learned, serious and unquestionably thorough. Which, I am afraid, cannot always (ever, I admit) be said of me.

The Forest for the Trees

There were a lot of events in the 17th Century. Of course, every century has a lot of events, but perhaps some things made the 17th worse. It was, for one, the age of the book getting into full swing. The printing press had been around, but how many of them, and how habitually? In the 17th Century it was cranking. All those records now, all those events we can now remember.

I wonder as well whether the chronometer clock and the perception of time as regular and regularly escaping had to do with the 11th Puritan commandment – Thou shalt not waste time. Thomas Sowell points out that valuing time is the key to efficiency. When people start being more efficient, they start doing more things, and you get more things to record and remember in that time. I wonder if that’s not part of it too.

There are some historians that go through all the details of a story, with a kind of maniacal thoroughness that is reminiscent of John Owen’s relentlessly thorough consideration of every possible point. I have the idea it is an English failing. It struck me as I was reading the excellent Cragg (Canadian chap) who took a longer and more interesting view, while not neglecting the important details. The historian that bangs in all the details possible certainly accomplishes what needs to, but at a certain cost. On the other hand, it won’t do to glide too smoothly along without trees for the forest.

One thing to put away for consideration is how many of the chaps in the 17th Century were convinced they were living at the end of the world. There were all kinds of evil things going on, after all; social chaos, regicides, storms, Jesuits proliferating, Bernie Sanders running for president. We know they weren’t at the end of the world, they were just living at the end of an age and the beginning of another, the way perhaps we are. Unless we really are living at the end of the world. (I’m saying Go Hillary, Go because Sanders fills me with dread. He is the demonically possessed decapitated Head of N.I.C.E. haunting my nightmares.)

I’ve got three days to go on this Owen marathon, and that is what my mind turns too, as it shies away from actual work. I am thankful for the Perry Millers and the Gerald Craggs of historiography.

Without All Quantity

“Hee speaks more fully and more safely, that saith, God is being itselfe, or perfection itselfe. . . . So all plurality be excluded, . . .”

Traherne’s platonic theology, ladies and gentlemen. Divine simplicity is of course a corollary of the rule of prior simplicity, or rather its goal. All plurality excluded. The One. “We express his being and perfection best, by leaving them, as they turly are, without all quantity.”

Quality trumps quantity. Drives it quite out. Absolutely no quantity. That’s why Plato invented philosophy, and why his philosophy was Christianized, so that in turn theology might be platonized and reach perfection.

I’m hoping a dissertation might still be possible in this world on this. The title: something about Traherne’s Platonic Theology. Maybe, Divine Simplicity in, if not more grand.


The old Trinity Hymnal (whose days are numbered) has some unusual matchings of tune and word. Some are not good, but it has a lot of interesting ones. I speak with no expertise whatever, but what seems to me the case is that they dismiss a lot of American tunes. There are good American tunes, but there are also some very crude ones I could do without, not to mention that which falls below the category of hymn, the gospel song. I was glad, when in Ireland ten years ago, to see they dropped what we use for Amazing Grace. It is, whatever its merits, by now a cliché.

A tune that I’m glad to see gone by the way is the rollicking tune associated with My Hope is Built on Nothing Less. We use St. Petersburg, which appears to be a modification of Rockingham, neither of which can be accused of rollicking.


St. Petersburg, as the Trinity Hymnal conceives it. That is so good I have half a mind to memorize the words.

St. Petersburg – Thou Hidden Source of Calm Repose, which appears to bear little relation but is most pleasing (perhaps the mystery would be clear if I read music, but as I am reminded daily with my accordion, that is something that has not been given to me).

And Redhead for Rock of Ages is certainly an improvement.

Readhead for almost any hymn strikes me as a superior choice.

Spirits Reconsidered

Well, the trouble is not a spirit of devouring. It is the fact that my assiduous running up and down the stairs many times has made my pants less snug around the waist thereof, and hence the spirit of devouring upon me while I study away at Johnny O. Just stairs, folks. Up and down. With energy. And you don’t need to quit reading or pay good money to join the scam they call a gym.

* * *

I’ve also finished Claire Tomalin’s Pepys. She’s a brisk writer and full informative, knew how to recount history and be interesting, her, which many historians do not. So now what do I do about the Owen? I worked a few hours of him today that I was dreading but managed, and found I’m full fed up with Johnny O. I must have overbinged once I got onto his own works. As a result, I’m lagging entirely. Fortunately the reading of him is for the most part over. Done! though I have a week’s worth of filling out the details on that paper with various and sundry investigations–and hoping to arrive at 25 pages—but that’s among the secondary stuff, so at least there will be variety and maybe even some enjoyment.

Speaking of enjoyment, what I’ve given myself is at long last Perry Miller’s Roger Williams. YEAH! Perry, my Perry, enjoyed himself with what he did and wrote. A lot. I thoroughly appreciate him, his malevolent glee, his turn of phrase, his prose. His tome on Williams is going fast; no disappointment, nor his fun at Roger’s poetry, typology, etc. The for me bonus is that the subject had to do with the intolerant, as opposed to the tolerant Independents. Very interesting view on things; very interesting combination, Miller & Williams.


There is a way in which Owen’s excellent, nay best, arguments after a while turn into the same arguments. After all, if you’re arguing about toleration and already made a good one, why make a bad one instead? He had not the gift, as one of his biographers put it, of writing about something without being laborious. After some thousand pages of Owen, I feel it, though I read him more keenly for understanding his times and getting a sense of what he was like. He was a man of principle, thorough and careful in consideration, eminently and vastly learned and of dignified, admirable seriousness. But to say those things in our day is almost to damn him with the praise of a stiffer age.

By way of relief I turn to his much younger contemporary, Samuel Pepys, who was by no means a godly Puritan. He made his fortune in the restoration, and seems to have been almost entirely free of scruples. He was an inveterate philanderer (nulla, he remarks afterward, puella negat), quite vain, hardworking in the cause of the British Navy, and wrote about himself and life in general often in the most interesting ways, quite unlike Owen. There are others to recur to, but the biography of Pepys’ pickled-herring life (I just spontaneously assigned him that epithet) keeps me going. It would be a great curiosity to own the whole diary.

The English Accent

What is it about the English accent that has the effect it does on us in general? My theory is that it is like the whole burnt offering in the Old Testament: it is emphatic and it functions as an intensifier.

When I was in Colombia teaching English, I was exposed daily to the English accent in circumstances which cast its speakers in a light not so glowing as perhaps the Anglophile feels. And then I had an unusual momentary experience that showed me something. I heard two people speaking in what seemed to me an easy and soft way, almost kind. What was that music? American accents. It was a strange moment when what was familiar became unusual and I viewed it from without, struggling for a few seconds to identify what it was and because of that observing what I never had before.

The English accent is not as easy. I think the effect on us is of something more laborious, as if they’re going to some extra effort to say things. That is why I think it functions as an intensifier. If the English person speaking has, quite apart from the accent, a strong melodious voice, the effect on us is of someone going to a little extra trouble to please us, and if it is a harsher voice, the effect is of someone going to a little extra trouble to displease us. And that, I think, accounts for the phenomenon.