An example of the seemingly trivial sort of thing about which one might compose an essay and still find his time suitably used without the slightest trace of idleness

In my post on 9/17/09 I suggested that you need not fall into the pit of anxiety when seeking out a suitable question to set your students for their essay. Let me illustrate that with an example from American history.

When our great and devout ancestors the Puritans were settling the Massachusetts Bay colony, their environment prohibited the veriest trace of idleness, threatening them with doom, invasion, or starvation if they so much as slept in beyond the needs of restoration.

So great was this fear of idleness that many a time the legislatures and the courts enacted and enforced laws “in detestation of idleness.”

When it came to time management, the Puritans believed in two things: on the one hand, the practical benefits of industry, and on the other, the spiritual evil of frivolity.

In 1639, however, the utilitarian and the spiritual drives fell into a surprising conflict. The midweek church meeting had become so popular that they knew not what to do about it.

John Winthrop wrote, “There were so many lectures now in the country and many oor persons would usually resort to two or three in the week, to the great neglect of their affairs, and the damage of the public.”

What were they to do? Here the poor had become so spiritually hungry that they simply wanted to attend church services without interruption. They were going to church so much that they were neglecting their affairs and damaging the public!

The rulers of the colony passed through a series of legal maneuvers to resolve this crisis. First they ruled that lectures were not to begin before one o’clock. When the crisis persisted, they urged ministers to hold fewer midweek meetings. In the end, they legislated that meetings were to end early enough that people who lived a mile or more away could return home before sunset.

All very interesting, but what has that to do with selecting topics for an essay.

I am going to presume that you would agree with me that these laws are not generally regarded as vital elements of the history we need to know about the Puritan years in Massachusetts. One might even consider these laws historically trivial or marginal.

Yet, I would boldly propose that from these episodes a whole series of issues could be raised that would readily bring a student closer into the heart of Puritan Massachusetts than any text book history could ever take them and will at least allow for the possibility of pleasure in so arriving. Let me propose two. Then you see if you can come up with some more. Add one to the comments.

Here are my two:

  • Should the rulers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony have been so strict about what the residents were allowed to play?
  • Should the poor people of 17th century New England have gone to so many midweek church meetings?

Let’s see what you can come up with (and please don’t waste your time worrying about whether your question is smart enough!).

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4 Responses

  1. Great questions.

    Idler, how old are your students?

    I like to keep the questions very simple and direct so they don’t feel like they have to be philosophers to answer them. The philosophical insight arises from the canon of invention.

    Nice job!

    ajk

  2. Should the ministers keep the people in church until dark?

    Should rulers of the colony be allowed to legislate things of the church?

    (Not a should question) Can a person go to church too many times?

    Should the church listen to the rulers of the colony?

  3. Should going to church be considered by the leaders as “idle” time?

    Should the leaders decide what “idle time” is or isn’t? Is “industry” based on public usefulness, as suggested here, or can it pertain to personal (and spiritual) enrichment?

  4. If the goal is to have them understand Puritanism, I think I would want them to contemplate Puritanism against the thought of the Fathers. Or even to have them find out what Chesterton and Belloc thought. And so I would ask:

    Is Puritanism a form of gnosticism?

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