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Theocentrism or Egocentrism?

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Style has changed over the years, but a kiss is still a kiss, an idea is still an idea, and it’s thoughts that continue to count, as time goes by. The conservative uprising of the mid-1990s is showing the power of ideas; the patriots of the American Revolution clearly saw their triumph as a victory of ideas, disseminated through newspapers. The editor of the New York Journal noted in a letter to Samuel Adams, "It was by means of News papers that we receiv’d & spread the Notice of the tyrannical Designs formed against America, and kindled a Spirit that has been sufficient to repel them."

British officials such as Ambrose Serles had a different perspective: He complained that, "Among other Engines which have raised the present Commotion, next to the indecent Harranges of the Prechers, none has a more extensive or stronger influence than the Newspapers of the respective Colonies." British leaders were appalled that Samuel Adams’s central idea of corruption in leadership had defeated their official story of faith in King.

Had the British better known their own country’s history, the shock would have been less. Adams was another in the great cloud of witnesses that included John Foxe, Marchamont Nedham, and many who had been executed for Christ. By the time of the American Revolution, 250 years had passed since Martin Luther first showed the power of exposing corruption through the publication of specific detail. During that time, the uses of biblical sensationalism, investigation, and accurate exposure had become apparent, and principles of reforming but nonrevolutionary journalism had been established.

Those concepts formed the baseline for journalism in the new republic. Deism, which denied God’s continuing sovereignty over that which He had created, was on the march during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, yet reports of crime retained their Christian edge. Coverage of a New Hampshire execution emphasized the evil that had been done, but concluded "O may that God / Who gave his only Son, / Give you his grace, in Heaven a place, / For Jesus’ sake–Amen."

Newspapers, rather than embracing deism, often portrayed it as containing the seeds of its own destruction. In 1782, six days after a man had killed his wife and four children and then himself, the Connecticut Courant reported the news and then contextualized that:

The perpetrator had rejected all Revelation as imposition, and (as he expresses himself) renouncing all the popular Religions of the world, intended to die a proper Deist. Having discarded all ideas of moral good and evil, he considered himself, and all the human race, as mere machines; and that he had a right to dispose of his own and the lives of his family.

The Courant related how the man gave opiates to his family and then went around slaughtering the sleepers with knife and ax–but the damage initially occurred when the man "adopted this new theoretic system which he now put in practice." Ideas had consequences.

Columnists of the period argued that the nature of man would lead to attempts at dictatorship, unless careful restraint was maintained. Robert Yates wrote, "It is a truth confirmed by the unerring experience of ages that every man, and every body of men, invested with power, are ever disposed to increase it." John Adams, after noting that the Constitution stipulated the election of key leaders, asked:

How are their characters and conduct to be known to their constituents but by the press? If the press is stopped and the people kept in Ignorance we had much better have the first magistrate and Senators hereditary.

In Alexandria, Virginia, the Gazette also thought the press had an essential role in limiting governmental power, for:

here too public men and measures are scrutinized. Should any man or body of men dare to form a system against our interests, by this means it will be unfolded to the great body of the people, and the alarm instantly spread through every part of the continent. In this way only, can we know how far our public servants perform the duties of their respective stations.

The rise of French revolutionary ideas in the 1790s led to attempts to crack down on press freedom, but newspapers survived. The number of newspapers in the United States shot up from 37 in 1775 to 359 in 1810 to 1,265 in 1834–and, as one contemporary observer noted, "Of all the issues of the press three-fourths are theological, ethical, and devotional." The New York Christian Advocate was the largest circulation weekly in the country, with twenty-five thousand subscribers in 1828 and thirty thousand in 1830. Ninety of these newspapers were dailies.

Hundreds of unsung editors went about their business of reporting both sinfulness and special providences. One typical editor, Nathaniel Willis, born in 1780, was impressed by French revolutionary ideals. Willis from 1802 to 1807 edited a vitriolic radical newspaper and was happy to "spend Sabbaths in roving about the fields and in reading newspapers." One Sunday, however, he went to hear what he thought would be a political speech by a minister, and was surprised to hear instead a discussion of biblical basics. Willis, "much interested," eventually came to believe "that the Bible is the Word of God–that Christ is the only Saviour, and that it is by grace we are saved, through faith."

Applying that understanding to his occupation, Willis decided that good journalism required biblical analysis of issues; he began putting out a newspaper, the Boston Recorder, that emphasized individual responsibility rather than grand societal solutions. Recorder columns argued that civil government has strictly limited jurisdiction, and should be turned to only for defense or punishment of crime. Family, church, and charity groups were to take leadership in dealing with social problems.

Other newspapers also emphasized the moral questions involved in both personal and governmental actions. The Lexington Western Monitor, a Kentucky newspaper, was typical in its summary of one major role of the press: "To strengthen the hands of virtue and to rebuke vice." The New York American viewed "the Press as the great instrument of Liberty," as long as there was a "FREE and INDEPENDENT PRESS, FREE from all controls but that of religion and morality, INDEPENDENT of any influence but the good of our country and mankind."

These newspapers also covered international news in line with their theological concerns. For example, many publications complained that the British East India Company–agent for the British government in India–was restricting the activities of missionaries for fear that Christian development would "prove fatal to the British government in India." The Columbian Phoenix complained that British leaders thought "the Religion of the Most High God must not be suffered to interfere with the arrangements of the British government." Sensational stories about India’s "Juggernaut festival"–in which people prepared for sacrifice to local gods were "crushed to death by the wheels" of a moving tower while onlookers shouted with joy–led into reports that British agents were collecting a "Juggernaut tax."

Great Britain’s peaceful coexistence with human sacrifice, wife burning, and infanticide was attacked by Niles’ Weekly Register, which reported that two American missionaries were evicted from India because "the revenues of Juggernaut must not be unhinged." A Rhode Island newspaper argued that the British government would "sponsor the worship of Beelzebub if the state could make money off of it." The New Hampshire Patriot complained that "British leaders take a premium from the poor ignorant Asiatic idolater to indulge him in falling down and worshipping the moulten image, Juggernaut. By this piece of religious fraud, they raise a handsome revenue to the British government."

Many publications were hindered, though, by a tendency to emphasize essays rather than hard-hitting reporting and exposure of corruption. George Wisner, editor of the New York Sun during the 1830s, was a Christian who understood that it is neither accurate nor stimulating to pretend that all is well in the world. You can learn much from his emphasis on what we might call the ACES of journalism: Accuracy, Clarity, Specificity, and Exposure. Like Increase Mather, he wrote of how news stories:

must generally tell of wars and fighting, of deeds of death, and blood of wounds and heresies, of broken heads, broken hearts, and broken bones, of accidents by fire or flood, a field of possessions ravaged, property purloined, wrongs inflicted. . . . The abundance of news is generally an evidence of astounding misery, and even the disinterested deeds of benevolence and philanthropy which we occasionally hear of owe their existence to the wants or sorrows or sufferings of some of our fellow beings.

Wisner’s practice followed his principles: He ran moral tales concerning the consequences of seduction, adultery, and abandonment. Believing that specificity was important both to win readers and to make his product morally useful, he listed names of all criminal offenders and defended:

such posting as an inhibitor of others inclined to vice: Much complaint has been made from a certain quarter, and emanating from a particular class of individuals, against the publication of the names of persons who have been arrested by the watch, [but . . . ] such publications have a tendency to deter from disorders and crimes, and to diminish the number of criminals.

A typical story shows Wisner not afraid to shame offenders.

Patrick Ludwick was sent up by his wife, who testified that she had supported him for several years in idleness and drunkenness. Abandoning all hopes of reformation in her husband, she brought him a suit of clothes a fortnight since and told him to go about his business, for she would not live with him any longer. Last night he came home in a state of intoxication, broke into his wife’s bedroom, pulled her out of bed, and pulled her hair, and stamped on her. She called a watchman and sent him up. Pat exerted all his powers of eloquence in endeavoring to excite his wife’s sympathy, but to no purpose. As any sensible woman ought to do who is cursed with a drunken husband, she refused to have anything to do with him hereafter.

Following the Reformed view that the heavens display the glory of God and the streets show the sinfulness of man, Wisner told stories to make his points, and also displayed a sense of humor. For example, Wisner opposed dueling but once accepted a challenge from a seller of quack medicines whom he had criticized. Given his choice of weapons, Wisner said that they would have to be syringes filled with the doctor’s own medicine, at five paces. The duel was called off.

The most articulate journalistic writer on politics and morality during the 1830s was William Leggett of the New York Evening Post. Leggett’s major political principle was support for "equal rights," by which he meant that law should not discriminate among citizens, benefiting some at the expense of others. (With this position Leggett was following the emphasis of chapter 23 of Exodus, which commands us to show partiality neither to rich nor to poor in their disputes.)

Leggett believed it unfair for government to be "offering encouragements and granting privileges" to those with political clout. He set about to expose any governmental redistribution of income, whether through taxes, tariffs, or government aid to individuals, businesses, or labor groups. He foresaw problems whenever "government assumes the functions which belong alone to an overruling Providence, and affects to become the universal dispenser of good and evil."

Leggett especially did not want government to become: "the greater regulator of the profits of every species of industry," and in that way to "reduce men from a dependence on their own exertions, to a dependence on the caprices of their Government." He complained that some already were beginning to insist:

that because our government has been instituted for the benefit of the people, it must therefore have the power to do whatever may seem to conduce to the public good. Under the sanction of such a principle, a government can do any thing on pretense of acting for the public good.

Leggett in his columns reported the attempts of "designing politicians, interested speculators, or crack-brained enthusiasts" to use government for their own public-interest purposes. Leggett thought his work of exposure vital because if Washington’s expansive tendencies were not stopped early, Americans would "become the victims of a new species of despotism." Once a system of governmental favoritism was established, Leggett pointed out, changing it would be difficult.

One of the greatest supports of an erroneous system of legislation, is the very evil it produces. When it is proposed to remedy the mischief by adopting a new system, every abuse which has been the result of the old one becomes an obstacle to reformations. Every political change, however salutary, must be injurious to the interests of some, and it will be found that those who profit by abuses are always more clamourous for their continuance than those who are only opposing them from motives of justice or patriotism, are for their abandonment.

Yet, if change did not occur, citizens would be left enslaved.

A government administered on such a system of policy may be called a Government of Equal Rights, but it is in its nature and essence a disguised despotism. It is the capricious dispenser of good and evil, without any restraint, except its own sovereign will. It holds in its hand the distribution of the goods of this world, and is consequently the uncontrolled master of the people.

In God’s mysterious providence, both Wisner and Leggett died young during the 1830s. By 1840 new voices were arising, in response to theological trends. Increasingly, liberal ministers began to proclaim that man was not inherently sinful, and that if man’s environment were changed, man himself could become perfect. A host of panaceas, ranging from diet change (meat was out, graham flour was in) to the abolition of private property, became popular as ways of changing mankind.

Many of the proposals for change involved an opposition to property rights, which journalists–aware of the importance of privately owned printing presses to editorial independence–had strongly favored over the years. Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing clearly named one of the assumed villains: "Avarice was the chief obstacle to human progress. . . . The only way to eliminate it was to establish a community of property." Channing later moderated his communistic ideas concerning property, but he typified the liberal New Englander’s approach to the problem of evil. Evil was created by the way society was organized, not by anything innately evil in man. Change society and evil could be eliminated.

Such ideas were part of Unitarianism’s reaction against the Reformed worldview’s emphasis on man’s fallenness and God’s holy sovereignty. Harvard College, which early in the nineteenth century became the Unitarian Vatican, published the influential Monthly Anthology and Boston Review and gained supporters such as William Emerson, minister at the First Unitarian Church and father of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Some Christian newspapers fought back, but others contented themselves with singing, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," all the while forgetting that a fortress was an offensive as well as a defensive weapon: From it soldiers could make sorties.

Another of the radical attacks on private property was led by Albert Brisbane, who had journeyed to Europe in 1828, at age eighteen, and had eventually become a disciple of Charles Fourier. Fourier, famous in Marxist history as a "utopian socialist," argued that man’s natural goodness could be restored if society was reorganized into small units called phalanxes, each with 1,620 members. Each phalanx member would be paid from the common product and would live in a common dwelling called a phalanstery, with a common dining hall featuring seven meals a day. Bodies would also be in common, since "free love" would be encouraged. The communes would emphasize agriculture, but each member would be free to work when and where he wanted.

For Fourier and Brisbane, this economic vision came from pantheistic theology and was designed, in Brisbane’s words, to create "a humanity worthy of that Cosmic Soul of which I instinctively felt it to be a part." But Brisbane, desiring success and believing that material change would lead to spiritual transformation, learned to downplay his theology before the public. Searching for journalists who could popularize his ideas, he latched onto a talented but somewhat loony editor named Horace Greeley.

The collaboration of Brisbane and Greeley changed American journalism. Greeley in 1841 was a thirty-year-old New York Unitarian and frustrated office seeker just starting up a new penny newspaper, the New York Tribune. Greeley was enthralled by the "ennobling tendencies" of Transcendentalism and enamored with the movement’s leaders: "Its apostles are mainly among the noblest spirits living." He called himself a mere popularizer of Emerson’s transcendentalist teachings, and at the same time a Universalist who believed in salvation for every man and salvation of society by man’s efforts. Greeley also wanted people to revere him as a great thinker; as fellow editor E. L. Godkin noted, Greeley castigated office seekers, but he was "as time-serving and ambitious and scheming an old fellow as any of them."

Naturally, Greeley was attracted to Brisbane’s proposal of salvation through commune. With a new convert’s enthusiasm Greeley published a magazine edited by Brisbane and entitled The Future, Devoted to the Cause of Association and a Reorganization of Society. He then gave Brisbane a front-page column on the Tribune that provided an opportunity to "spread ideas broadcast over the whole country, gaining a great number of adherents." As one Greeley biographer noted, "The Tribune threw itself wholeheartedly behind Brisbane, and soon found itself building up news interest, discussion, and circulation at an extraordinary rate as it helped him popularize his cause."

Greeley was the first American editor to become a national celebrity. He threw himself personally into the commune movement, as he attended Fourierist conventions and became president of the American Union of Associationists–association becoming the American term for commune. Greeley received ample stroking; in 1844, for example, when he went to a New York City banquet honoring Fourier’s birthday, Greeley was toasted by Brisbane as the man who had "done for us what we never could have done. He has created the cause on this continent. He has done the work of a century. Well, then, I will give a toast: One Continent, One Man!"

Greeley’s political activities helped him attract many young, idealistic writers, some of whom–Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, and Charles Dana particularly–had great literary skill. The Tribune became the place to work; as editor E. L. Godkin would note, "To get admission to the columns of the Tribune almost gave the young writer a patent of literary nobility." One Tribune reporter recalled that the furnishings were poor, but:

ill-furnished and ill-kept as the Tribune office was in those days, it harbored a moral and intellectual spirit that I met nowhere else during my thirty-five years of journalistic experience. Every member of the force, from reporter to editor, regarded it as a great privilege to be on the Tribune and to write for its columns. . . ."

Greeley himself had great journalistic instincts. He demanded from his reporters "vigor, terseness, clearness, and simplicity." He emphasized comprehensive news coverage, and described how an editor should make sure that nothing "of interest to a dozen families occurs, without having the fact daily, though briefly, chronicled." He noted that if an editor can "secure a wide-awake, judicious correspondent in each village and township" and have him send "whatever of moment occurs in his vicinity," the subscription list would be fruitful and multiply.

Greeley also insisted on good typography. One anecdote shows how even Greeley’s fiercest competitors respected the Tribune’s superiority in this regard. It seems that Greeley once fired a printer who misread Greeley’s notoriously messy handwriting and thought the editor was calling not for an early morning milk train to bring the fruits of farm labors to New York City, but a "swill train." When the editorial was published and an angry delegation of Westchester County farmers assaulted Greeley, he in rage scribbled a note to the composing-room foreman ordering that the printer be fired. The foreman knew Greeley’s writing and could read the message, but to the average reader only the signature was clear. The fired compositor asked to hold onto Greeley’s note as a souvenir. He then took it to other newspapers and answered questions about previous employment and reliability by flashing the note. The name of Greeley on it–all else being illegible–was accepted as all the recommendation needed.

All of these factors allowed Greeley the freedom to make his newspaper a proponent of social revolution without unduly alienating otherwise delighted subscribers. Since the 1840s was a decade of utopian hopes that in some ways paralleled the 1960s, some readers also were excited by commune coverage. In 1846, however, Greeley was challenged to a series of newspaper debates by his former assistant editor on the Tribune, Henry Raymond, who five years later would found the New York Times as a Christian newspaper. Greeley later wrote that he had never seen "a cleverer, readier, more generally efficient journalist" than Raymond. The philosophical differences between the two were sharp: In 1854, journalist James Parton would muse, "Horace Greeley and Henry J. Raymond, the one naturally liberal, the other naturally conservative–the one a Universalist, the other a Presbyterian."

Two newspapers–The New York Courier and Enquirer, where Raymond was assistant editor, and the Tribune–agreed to publish twenty-four articles of the debate, twelve from each side. The first six statements from each side emphasized economic points. Raymond then stated his fundamental position: Only the "personal reform of individual men," through Christianity, can lead to social progress. Raymond argued that reformers should seek "personal, moral transformation. When that is accomplished, all needed Social Reform will either have been effected or rendered inevitable."

Greeley, in his seventh statement, had two replies to Raymond. First, Greeley argued that personal change among the best and the brightest would lead to societal transformation that in turn would lead to change among the masses.

Give but one hundred of the right men and women as the nucleus of a true Social Organism, and hundreds of inferior or indifferent qualities might be rapidly molded into conformity with them.

Greeley could write this because he saw man as a product of his environment: "I believe there are few of the young and plastic who might not be rendered agreeable and useful members of an Association under the genial influences of Affection, Opportunity, Instruction, and Hope." Greeley’s emphasis on plasticity–the doctrine that there is no human nature, and that man can be molded into almost anything–prefigured twentieth-century Marxism’s attempts at human engineering.

Second, Greeley’s arguments pointed toward future ideologies by putting forward what a half-century later became known as the "Social Gospel": He tried to show that Raymond’s demand for Christ first was absurd, because "Association is the palpable dictate of Christianity–the body whereof True Religion is the soul." In arguing that Associationism was Christianity-in-practice, a material emphasis that necessarily went along with the spiritual, Greeley described slum living conditions and asked:

Can any one doubt what Christianity must dictate with regard to such hovels as these? Can any fail to see that to fill them with Bibles and Tracts, while Bread is scanty, wholesome Air a rarity, and Decency impossible, must be unavailing? ‘Christianity,’ say you! Alas! many a poor Christian mother within a mile of us is now covering her little ones with rags in the absence of fuel. . . .

Greeley’s statement jarred Raymond to lay out his full position on January 20, 1847. He first noted partial agreement with Greeley as to the need for action: "The existence of misery, and the necessity of relieving it, are not in controversy, for we have never doubted either. It is only upon the remedy to be applied, that the Tribune and ourselves are at variance." But Raymond argued that Greeley was unnecessarily revolutionary when he insisted that:

to benefit a part, the whole must be changed; that to furnish some with good dwellings, all must abandon their houses and dwell together under a common roof; that the whole fabric of existing institutions, with all its habits of action and of thought, must be swept away. . . .

Raymond, rather than linking philanthropy with upheaval, praised "individuals in each ward, poor, pious, humble men and women, who never dreamed of setting themselves up as professional philanthropists," but daily visited the sick and helped the poor. He also argued that:

Members of any one of our City Churches do more every year for the practical relief of poverty and suffering, than any Phalanx [the Associationist name for communes] that ever existed. There are in our midst hundreds of female ‘sewing societies,’ each of which clothes more nakedness, and feeds more hunger, than any ‘Association’ that was ever formed.

Raymond then portrayed Greeley’s ideas as abstract and ineffective.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been expended by the Associationists, in propagating their theories of benevolence, and in making benevolent experiments, yet where is the practical good they have accomplished? . . . The Tribune sneers at practical Christianity. . . . Does the taunt come with good grace from a system which theorizes over starvation, but does not feed it; which scorns to give bread and clothing to the hungry and naked, except it can first have the privilege of reconstructing Society?

Finally, the two debaters were focusing on the basics. Raymond had called Greeley superficial for not getting the root, spiritual causes of material poverty, and now Greeley struck back with his assessment that capitalism, not spiritual decay, was the culprit: "Association proposes a way . . . of reaching the causes of the calamities, and absolutely abolishing Pauperism, Ignorance, and the resulting Vices."

Journalists, Greeley went on, should not merely praise those who mitigated "woes and degradations," but should fight for revolutionary change: " ‘Relieving Social Evils’ is very well; we think eradicating and preventing them still better, and equally feasible if those who have power will adopt the right means, and give them a fair trial."

Increasingly the debates hinged on the view of man that divided the two editors. When Greeley argued that all man’s problems "have their root in that isolation of efforts and antagonism of interests on which our present Social Order is based," Raymond replied by emphasizing individual corruption rather than social oppression as the root of most social ills. Greeley believed that "the Passions, feelings, free impulses of Man point out to him the path in which he should walk"; Raymond argued that evil feeds on man’s natural inclination, and that sinful tendencies needed channeling into paths of work and family.

The last three debates showed even more clearly the conflict of two faiths. Greeley’s Associationist belief was that human desires are:

good in themselves. Evil flows only from their repression or subversion. Give them full scope, free play, a perfect and complete development, and universal happiness must be the result . . . create a new form of Society in which this shall be possible . . . then you will have a perfect Society; then will you have the Kingdom of Heaven . . .

Raymond in response argued that:

this principle is in the most direct and unmistakable hostility to the uniform inculcations of the Gospel. No injunction of the New Testament is more express, or more constant, than that of self-denial; of subjecting the passions, the impulses of the heart to the law of conscience.

Greeley would not assent to Raymond’s assertion that Association-ism was anti-Christian; rather, he made social universalism a Christian necessity.

The duty of every Christian, every Philanthropist, every one who admits the essential Brotherhood of the Human Family, to labor earnestly and devotedly for a Social Order, which shall secure to every human being within its sphere the full and true development of the nature wherewith God has endowed him, Physical, Intellectual, and Moral.

Raymond, however, refused to concede that the "social order" was the focus of evil: He pointed to the sinfulness of the heart and insisted that the remedy "must reach that cause, or it must prove inefficient. The heart must be changed."

Thus, the line was clearly drawn. Greeley believed that "the heart of man is not depraved, and that social distinctions of master and servant, rich and poor, landlord and landless," cause social problems. Raymond concluded by arguing that

the principles of all true REFORM come down from Heaven. . . . The CHRISTIAN RELIGION, in its spiritual, life-giving, heart-redeeming principles is the only power that can reform Society: and it can accomplish this work only by first reforming the individuals of whom Society is composed. Without GOD, and the plan of redemption which he has revealed, the World is also without HOPE.

As the debates ended, interest in them was so high that Harpers quickly published all twenty-four of the articles in a pamphlet of eighty-three closely printed, double-columned pages, which sold out. What Raymond and Greeley were really arguing about was what the "central idea" for Americans, and American journalists, should be.

The battle was not one of change vs. the status quo. Raymond agreed with Greeley that social problems were great–"Far from denying their existence, we insist that they are deeper and more fundamental in their origin." But Raymond saw himself as arguing for "a more thorough and radical remedy than the Tribune supposes"–namely, the change of heart that acceptance of Christianity brings.

Biblical direction was common in the Christian journalism that dominated the early nineteenth-century press. Directed reporters showed the universality of sin and the need for repentance. But the Bible did not remain dominant in American journalism. Instead of seeing sinful man and a society reflecting that sinfulness, Horace Greeley and his followers believed that man, naturally good, was enslaved by oppressive social systems. Greeley, in the debates, developed the rationale for journalists to become advocates of secular liberalism.


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