Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Edmund S. Morgan 1916-2013

The obituary for Edmund S. Morgan, Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale, pulled me up short. I had no idea that he was 97, since he was continuing to write as powerfully as ever until very recently. I don’t really have very many intellectual heroes, but Morgan was certainly one of them together with his towering Doktorvater, Perry Miller of Harvard. When I read Miller extensively as a seminary student, I was bowled over not only by the extraordinary power of his writing but also by his understanding of the Puritans, who had always seemed to me to be misunderstood. Miller almost-but-not-quite grasped the heart of the Calvinist project, more so than many in the Reformed tradition today.
I knew Miller was an atheist, but it surprised me that Morgan was, also. How curious that these two men at the very top of their profession should spend their lives digging into, and sympathetically interpreting, the most religious people in American history! Morgan’s obituary helps to explain it: 
Like his mentor and fellow atheist, the Harvard historian Perry Miller, Professor Morgan found his richest material in the religious thought of Puritan New England and endless fascination in the theological debates and spiritual struggles of men like John Winthrop, Roger Williams and Ezra Stiles. 
“I think that any group of people who have a system of belief that covers practically everything, and who act upon it, are bound to be interesting to any scholar,” he said in a 1987 interview with The William and Mary Quarterly
That’s a rather chilly description of a Christian community, but at the same time one could wish that more Christians “acted upon” their comprehensive beliefs. Morgan’s own writings about the Puritans are anything but chilly. A recent collection of his essays,  American Heroes, has a lovely chapter on the Puritans’ ideas about sex, which almost entirely contradicts the popular impression. (There is also a splendid tribute to Perry Miller, who was famously alcoholic. Morgan writes perceptively that his jealous colleagues seemed to relish the idea of his drinking himself to death.)
I loved Edmund Morgan for his rich humanity, his dazzling skill with historical writing, and his interpretations so entirely free from current “politically correct” ideological trends. I always thought I would write him a letter, and perhaps I did, but in rummaging through my e-files I don’t find one. I discover, however, that I did write a fan letter to Gordon Wood, whom I now learn is a Perry Miller “grandson,” having studied under Miller’s other famous student, Bernard Bailyn of Harvard.  Thus the reach of great teachers extends into generations yet to come.
Being from Virginia, I look forward to a time when I can investigate Edmund Morgan’s second field of expertise,  slavery in the upper South. My letter to Gordon Wood, I now realize, shows how Miller’s students and their progeny absorbed the master’s ability to understand from the inside. Here’s a paragraph from my letter to Gordon Wood:
I am a Virginian of the old school and your analysis of the “natural aristocrat” helped me to understand myself and my family. The breed is dead as the dodo now, I’m afraid, but I still think of myself in exactly that way, and it was amazing to read your account of the phenomenon. It helped me to realize that I was not as bourgeois by today’s standards as I had feared! 
Here is the link to the Morgan obituary: