Issues analysis
From the King James Bible to Samuel Johnson (1600 - 1750)
A brief history of conservatism: Part 3
June 11, 2007
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst

Historically, Europe enjoyed three periods of rapid cultural advance: 1) 1050–1250 A.D.; 2) 1375–1520; and 3) 1600–1750. During this seven-century developmental period, Western culture was vigorously advancing two-thirds of the time, and the culture was consolidating and preparing for the next advance one-third of the time.

This is the third installment of A Brief History of Conservatism, which tracks the third spike of European cultural development (1600–1750), which is commonly called the Baroque era.

In this essay, our story begins with the King James Bible in 1611 and ends in 1750 with the world of Samuel Johnson, Voltaire, and Benjamin Franklin.

The Year 1600 A.D. in England

During the year 1600 A.D., Queen Elizabeth I sat on the British throne, and Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. In 1601, a proposal to translate the Bible was submitted to King James IV of Scotland. James was the son of Mary Queen of Scotts. The elderly Queen Elizabeth, who had led England to greatness during her long reign, was the daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

At the death of the childless Elizabeth, James IV of Scotland became James I of England. The King James Bible ("The Authorized Version") was published in 1611. England was ready for an official English Protestant Bible sponsored by King James, who was raised to be a scholarly Protestant while his Catholic mother, Mary Queen of Scotts, was in jail.

As an interesting historical footnote, the vanquished and imprisoned Anne Boleyn prophesied to King Henry that she would yet triumph through her daughter Elizabeth. The vanquished and imprisoned Mary Queen of Scotts prophesied to Elizabeth that she would yet triumph through her son James.

Most the Protestant spiritual revivals and renewals for three hundred years were centered upon teaching and preaching from the King James Bible. The English language was transformed and improved by the influence of the King James Bible and by the writings of Shakespeare and John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost (1667).

Words of Fire

"Oh for a muse of fire, that would ascend the highest heaven of invention!" (King Henry V, by Shakespeare.)

"Him (Satan) the Almighty Power hurld headlong flaming from th'Etherial Skies with hideous ruine and combustion down to bottomless perdition, there to dwell in Adamantine chains and penal fire." (Paradise Lost, by Milton)

"But his word was in mine heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with refraining and I could not stay [i.e., I could not hold it in]" (Jeremiah 20:18, King James Bible). This was a favorite verse of Puritan preachers, and it explains the extraordinary zeal of the Puritan movement at its zenith. The Puritans used the vigorous and forceful Geneva Bible (1560), which influenced the translators of the King James Bible (1611).

A zeal like that of the Puritans can sometimes be seen in the mission field. When newly literate people of the third world read the Bible in their own language, they often regard the words as having absolute authority. They act upon the words as though they are addressed to them personally by God Himself. Their hearts burn as they read the scriptures. "Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked with us along the way and opened to us the scriptures?" (Luke 24:32)

Spiritual wildfires in Germany

The printing press, invented in Germany during the Renaissance, found new uses during the Reformation. The presses ran day and night to feed the insatiable appetite of the newly literate Germans for affordable reading material. The presses furnished them with Luther's German translation of the Bible along with Luther's sermons and a blizzard of fiery religious tracts and anti-papal polemical pieces.

When the German people read Luther's German translation of the Bible, a wildfire of spiritual zeal was unleashed in Germany. The fire of the early Reformation could not be contained, and the movement flew into extremes and shattered into pieces.

After the early explosive days of the Reformation, Luther's main task as a teacher was to correct the extremists and harmonize and balance the doctrines. The Augsburg Confession (1530) helped to complete the work of confuting the extremists and establishing sound doctrines. Augsburg remains as a bulwark of orthodoxy and a defense against heresy to this day. The Westminster Confession (1646) was to the Reformed Churches what The Augsburg Confession was to the Lutheran churches.

Spiritual wildfires in Massachusetts

The worn-out pages of Puritan Bibles and the threadbare knees of Puritan breeches offers us some sense of the intensity of personal spirituality in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Indeed, the fire in their hearts was so great that they could scarcely hold it in and their leaders struggled to contain it.

The greatest danger to the early Massachusetts settlements was not the Indians or starvation. The real danger was that hyper-holiness would break out like wildfire and the community would fly into pieces. The community was strained almost to the breaking point by an inundation of saints with burning hearts. These God-intoxicated men were prone to fiery prophesy, spiritual extremism, and perfectionism.

Small circles of hyper-saints often felt that the community was less than perfect in its holiness or its doctrines. They sometimes withdrew into exclusive circles and refused to share the Lord's table with their less than perfect neighbors. Their zeal for the Lord was accompanied by the desire to "withdraw from the dung-hill of this world," in Roger Williams' salty phrase.

Some of the serious court cases in the early days of the settlement were brought against leaders of hyper-holy factions that were dividing the community. The small Puritan community in the wilderness could not survive if they flew apart into perfectionistic fragments. The leaders had to choose between an imperfect but united community that could survive and dozens of tiny separatist utopias of hyper-holiness that must perish.

The Puritan leaders insisted that they were neither separatists nor nonconformists, but only wanted to purify the Church of England. They disapproved of the Pilgrims eighty miles south at Plymouth because they were radical separatists who had renounced the Church of England. The Puritans had to contend with their own perfectionists who yearned for holy separation.

The siren song of utopia

The temptation to separatist utopianism came early to the American shores and was rejected by wise and seasoned Puritan leaders. The siren song of utopia has sounded many times in this land. A recurring task of the American conservative movement has been to expose and confute utopianism in all its guises.

The witchcraft fiasco

Thanks to the animus of our educators towards America's Christian roots, all that many students know about the Puritans is the witchcraft controversy. However, the witchcraft fiasco was an anomaly.

The Salem witchcraft trials occurred more than sixty years after the founding of Massachusetts. The Puritan movement was no longer spiritually robust and had lapsed into a deadening legalism. Many were haunted by a sense of guilt for falling away from the robust spirituality of their forefathers and by fears of divine judgment for their apostasy. These fears played a part in the brief bout of public hysteria. It is not easy to be the children or grandchildren of God-intoxicated men.

There actually was a little occult activity in Salem. A slave woman who practiced Voodoo passed along a few occult practices to a clique of impressionable teenage girls. There were also reports of poltergeists — mischievous spirits who tease and annoy. Poltergeists are alleged to annoy folks through "things that go bump in the night." This petty vexation in the night did not warrant the public hysteria at Salem, of course. It was the deadly legalism and the strain of disappointed perfectionism that brought forth the fit of collective paranoia.

Very few witches per capita were executed in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Far more witches per capita were executed in all of the European nations during that era. Yet only America punishes itself over its ancestral abuse of witches. Due to a lingering strain of disappointed utopianism, we cannot quite get over that fact that we are not and never have been perfect.

Cultural blossoming after cataclysm

The English Civil War and the Thirty Years War were driven by both politics and religion. Some of the soldiers fought with exceptional ferocity because their hearts were burning with the Word of God. Those wars were particularly destructive. Were the wars a disaster for culture? Not entirely.

In the case of the English civil war, the victory of Oliver Cromwell's army was a major step towards the supremacy of parliament over the Monarchy. The strong parliament of England during the next two centuries attracted some extraordinary men to its ranks who had a positive influence on literature and the sciences.

Of special note was Christopher Wren, a distinguished scientist and architect, who was one of the founders of the Royal Society (1660), a scientific institution. After the great fire of London (1666), Wren was commissioned by Parliament and the crown to lay architectural plans for the rebuilding of London. His beautiful architectural creations are some of the most cherished landmarks of London.

Was the Reformation bad for culture?

Our educators and cultural historians have taught us that the Reformation was bad for culture. They point to how the German Protestants stormed into Catholic churches and smashed the statues. They fail to mention that Luther rebuked the statue-smashers. We are often reminded that Oliver Cromwell closed the theaters. However, the critics fail to reminded us how profane, lewd, and perverse the theaters had become.

After the fires of the Reformation had died down, an enduring moral fiber was left behind among the common people. The people of the West regained a consensus about right and wrong and good and evil that they had not had since the Middle Ages. The common morality of the West emphasized sexual fidelity in marriage and the moral upbringing of children. It is impossible to underestimate what these strong moral families contributed to Western culture.

The vitality of families and communities fostered a healthy balance between freedom and order in Great Britain and the American colonies. Catholic Europe moved the opposite direction towards the supreme power of great monarchies. However, the salutary effects of the Catholic Counter-reformation set the stage for an extraordinary flourishing of high culture in Catholic Europe. Whereas, freedom is essential to the full flourishing of human nature, a brilliant culture is equally vital to human flourishing.

The Anglo-Saxon Awakening

The fires of the Reformation opened the hearts and minds of millions of ordinary people who had not been participating in the high culture of the day. The Renaissance only reached a tiny elite segment of the population. The Reformation reached the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. The butcher now could read, thanks to Protestant schools, and had a Bible tucked away in his back room.

The effects of the Reformation lasted the longest in Anglo-Saxon lands because of recurring spiritual revivals. The Great Awakening (1730's and 40's) had its greatest impact in New England, but had widespread influence in other colonies and in many parts of Great Britain.

Many who were awakened from their quotidian slumbers by the Reformation, and later revivals became interested in community and cultural affairs and in reading newspapers and arguing politics. Puritans and their Yankee descendants are famous for their debates in their town halls and their incessant agitation for public improvements.

Little red schoolhouses

The Yankees replaced their Puritan forefathers' zeal for God with a zeal for education. Young men educated in New England traveled to every region of America to fill the positions of schoolmaster and to educate a nation. Noah Webster — author of a speller, a grammar, and a dictionary — insisted that every schoolmaster should require grammatically correct speech in his class. Every child who feared the hickory stick was obliged to clearly pronounce every syllable, every consonant, and every vowel as he or she read aloud to the class. Americans in log cabins and Western towns often spoke a clearer, more articulate English than was heard on the streets of London.

Every child in the little red school houses learned Shakespeare, Milton, and the King James Bible. The New England primer began, "In Adam's fall, we sinned all." McGuffey Readers for older children included "The Fall of Cardinal Wolsey" by Shakespeare. This vigorous education, centered upon articulate speech, helped to secure the success of democratic politics and constitutional government.

Now let us turn from the little red school houses in America to opera houses in Italy.

1600 A.D. in Italy

Giovnanni Bernini, the West's greatest sculptor and the supreme architect of the Baroque era, was born in 1599. Baroque art, architecture, and stage craft followed Bernini's lead for a century.

Claudio Monteverdi, who was 33, in 1600 was an extraordinarily influential composer. He developed dramatic opera into an enduring art form. He also transformed Renaissance music into early Baroque music. Monteverdi set the direction of Western music that composers followed for one hundred and fifty years.

Melodrama and technical perfection

When one stands in Saint Andrea al Quirinale (Saint Andrew of the Quirinal hill), a Baroque church in Rome, one thinks of grandeur, dramatic impressions, and technical virtuosity. Giovanni Bernini (1598–1680), the architect, called it his "only perfect work."

The spectacular interior painted dome of Saint Andrea, the lighting effects, the heroic scale, the design of the enclosed space, the use of lighting, and the virtuosity of the sculpture and decoration would impress our Hollywood special effects wizards. The combination of theatrical melodrama and technical virtuosity is the defining mark of Baroque culture.

Bernini was not only a great Baroque architect, he was arguably the most skillful sculptor who ever lived. His sculpture was very close to perfection in its form, detail, and texture. He could so wonderfully imitate human flesh with cold marble that it seemed warm and soft. He could depict a beautiful woman, a biblical hero, or a haggard old man with such virtuosity that they seemed ready to step off their pedestals. The statues had melodramatic expressions and postures as though they were actors upon the stage.

A theatrical culture

Art historians often criticize Bernini for the theatrical quality of his art. Indeed, Bernini was the greatest set designer for theater and opera in Europe. In lavish set design, he was the Franco Zeffirelli of his day, and then some. Bernini, who loved staged dramatic set pieces and practical jokes, sculpted a figure on the fountain at Piazza Navona who raised his arm in alarm as though he was trying to block out a sight that filled him with horror and disgust. The figure was revolted by the sight of a building designed by one of Bernini's rivals.

Bernini carved his patrons, the Coronado family, sitting in a theater box, gazing at his masterpiece, The Ecstacy of Saint Theresa. It is a wondrous work of art, but is also a theatrical fantasy. The real Saint Theresa was homely and sensible, quite unlike the angelic beauty that Bernini sculpted. Theresa did indeed have spiritual ecstasies, but stoically resisted exhibitionism — unlike Bernini's vacuous young beauty who was swooning in agony and bliss like an opera prima donna on stage. Theresa was a no-nonsense Mother Superior who rebuked her silly novices when they fell into majestic swoons as though they were having the beatific vision. The stern Spanish saint would have been outraged at the theatrical Italian manner in which Bernini portrayed her.

Is Baroque melodrama true art?

Was the melodramatic art and architecture of the Baroque era a diminishment from the gravitas and depth of the Renaissance? I argue that the sheer intelligence, virtuosity, and humane sensitivity of Baroque art, architecture, and music redeemed the melodramatic and histrionic elements from banality, bathos, and bombast. Therefore, the Baroque arts are authentic fine arts and represent a real advance in culture.

Bernini's sculpture lacked the power, intensity, gravitas, and heroism of Michelangelo. However, Bernini humanized sculpture, added drama and human feeling, used sweeter and more perfect forms, and put a brilliantly textured finish on the marble. Place the sculptures side by side and Michelangelo's figures seem almost crude and inhuman in comparison to Bernini's living marble people.

Bernini's melodramatic effects seems more forgivable than Michelangelo's platonic inflation and his blatant distortion of the sculpted human form. Michelangelo's glorious mutants are arresting, but some of them are a little frightening. They are the work of a half-mad genius whose terribilitas frightened popes, cardinals, and courtiers.

In contrast, Bernini comforts us with the sweet humanity of his figures. He gently awakens and instructs our aesthetic sensibilities as he teaches us what it means to be human — while he entertains us with melodrama and makes us marvel at his technique.

Shakespeare's melodrama and virtuosity

In spite of Shakespeare's weakness for the sublime-grotesque, a trait he shared with Michelangelo, many of his plays have a proto-Baroque balance. For example, Shakespeare's most histrionic lines are typically framed by intelligent soliloquy or balanced by moments of levity.

The plays of Shakespeare were as melodramatic and histrionic as an Italian opera. The emotions expressed were deeply felt, elegantly expressed, and lavish. The haunting and reverberating words explored new territory of the human psyche.

But did Shakespeare share the virtuosity of Bernini and Monteverdi? Yes and no. His published plays look like corrected rough drafts and at times seem chaotic, as though he was making it up as he went along instead of following a plan.

Shakespeare made no money from the publication of his plays and he opposed all suggestions to publish his plays lest a rival theater use them. Shakespeare made a modest fortune as a successful actor and a larger fortune as a partner in a theater company and as an investor in new theaters.

Shakespeare regarded his true virtuosity as an actor, a director and an impresario. Considering his wise advice to a troop of actors in Hamlet, he must have been a superlative director, and mentor to actors. He wrote plays to show off his acting talents on the stage and to showcase the proteges he trained and directed. He wanted the public to know that his actors were better than the actors of rival theater companies. He wanted to sell a lot of tickets with his spellbinding stage creations, of course, but also cared deeply for the art and craftsmanship of acting.

He typically wrote two plays a year while running a business, promoting plays, directing actors and appearing on the stage. He was still finishing some plays the day that the play opened. The plays we read are quickly scribbled rough drafts that have gone through a few cursory edits. Yes, he was making it up as he went along. Why then were the plays so great?

Shakespeare often improvised to improved the lines while acting on the stage and later changed the script. He had perfect pitch for the music of words that is the gift of a great performer. Engrossed in emotional intimacy with the audience, he could sculpt words and make a pithy phrase echo in the mind long after the play.

The bard went too far

However, in King Lear, the bard went too far. Perpetually experimenting with the storms of human feeling on stage, he could not resist pushing the envelope of human passions to the limit — and then step beyond the limit into the inhuman grotesque. The king became a madman and in his titanic fury was transformed a demigod or a cosmic demon. This was the faustian element in Shakespeare that also haunted Michelangelo. However, the temptation to break free from human limits did not always open doors of the grotesque. Art can also soar upwards towards the heavens as it did with the domed ceilings of Baroque churches, palaces, and opera houses. On those ceilings we see images of heavenly harmony.

Heavenly harmony

"From harmony, from heavenly harmony/ This universal frame began./ When Nature underneath a heap/ Of jarring atoms lay/ A tuneful voice was heard from high:/ "Arise ye more than dead."/ Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,/ In order to their stations leap,/ And Music's power obey./ From harmony, from heavenly harmony/ The universal frame began:/ From harmony to harmony/ Through all the compass of the notes it ran,/ The diapason closing full on man."

This is the first stanza of A song for St. Cecelia's Day (1687) by English poet John Dryden (1631–1700), who lived in the middle of the era of Baroque music (1600–1750). Dryden described a primal state of nature in chaos, followed by a tuneful voice from the heavenly harmony that commanded the atoms to leap to their appointed stations. According to Dryden, God used the power of music to frame the primal elements into the ordered harmony of creation. Therefore, nature is infused with the strains of the heavenly harmony.

What did Dryden mean by "the diapason closing full on man?" A "diapason" is an octave, or other harmonious musical interval, or the harmonious resolution of a musical passage. Dryden uses this expression to say that the harmony of the creation found its complete resolution in the creation of man. If God's acts of creation can be likened to a symphony, the final chords of the grand finale represent man, the conclusion and fulfillment of the symphony of creation.

Dryden's concept of music as the ordering and harmonizing power of the cosmos perfectly describes the inspirational ideal of the Baroque composers and musicians. They believed that their musical compositions and performances participated in the harmonies of heaven and nature. Therefore, music was the most cosmologically important of the arts to the people of the Baroque era.

"The idea that the universe is bound together by harmony or concord is fundamental in Elizabethan cosmology. The music of the spheres orders the heavens, and music alike orders human passions and social forces" (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1, p. 1049).

Locke and Bach

The era of Baroque music (1600–1750) is also the era of philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). When I read John Locke, I like to hear Bach in the background.

Just as Baroque composers sought to recover heavenly harmonies, Locke sought the laws of God woven through the strands of His creation.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) and Locke were quite similar in their world view. For Bach, the heavenly harmonies were expressions of order and a reflection of law and science. In his Well-Tempered Clavier series he revised and improved the tonal scale so that compositions could be written in a greater number of keys and so that the harmonies would be more perfect according mathematical intervals of tone. Locke thought the design of natural law was beautiful and harmonious.

Natural Law and the wisdom of God

Locke agreed with St. Thomas Aquinas that God ordained natural law and wove it into the fabric of creation. One of God's purposes for creating human reason was so that man could participate in the divine wisdom in the design of the universe. A rational composer might seek the heavenly harmonies woven through the creation. A rational philosopher might look for the natural laws that govern human nature and society.

Is man a political animal?

Aquinas followed Aristotle in saying that man is a political animal and that human government is natural and necessary to full human flourishing. Government helps man to care for the common good. Locke argued that man is not a political animal, that government is not natural and is not a source of human flourishing. Furthermore, man does not need government to teach him to care about the common good. Without Locke, there could never have been a President Reagan who said, "government is the problem."

Locke wrote that government is an artificial contrivance, brought into being by a "social contract," for the purpose of defending certain unalienable rights based upon the laws of nature. Governmental authorities can do a better job of protecting the life, liberty, and property of citizens using the laws, police, and courts than an lone individual can do in protecting himself. The defense of life, liberty, and property is the justification for the existence of government — for these three things are essential to human flourishing.

Locke and Conservatism

Since Locke's social contract is formed to protect human rights based on natural law, the role of government is limited. If government is not "natural," but is a mere artifact of human device, government cannot be the agency of bringing about a utopia and should not be used for social engineering projects.

Since property rights are laws of nature, it is unjust for government to redistribute income or seize property for arbitrary reasons. A government can justly prohibit abortion because natural law grants to the child in the womb the right to life. Tax supported compulsory education should not teach children values-neutral sex education, because it conflicts with parental rights to teach their children the universal moral law. Sexual promiscuity and homosexuality are against nature. Criminal punishment is necessary to uphold and vindicate the universal moral law.

Locke, Classical Liberalism, and Libertarianism

"Classical liberalism" is based upon the political theories of John Locke and the economic theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. In the nineteenth century, classical liberals in government focused upon property rights, free enterprise, and the personal freedom of the citizens under a limited government.

Twentieth century libertarians endorse all these ideas and fancy that they are classical liberals — but many of them are not.

Locke said that when a citizen surrenders his personal defense of his rights to the police and courts through the social contract, he is not thereby relieved of moral responsibility. His rights and freedoms are accompanied by moral and social obligations. The universal moral law compels him to not only respects his neighbors' rights, but to treat them in a certain way. Government must intervene if he violates their rights, but has no jurisdiction over how he uses his freedom to do good to his neighbor according to his conscience and the universal moral law. The citizen also has duties of conscience towards his community beyond what the law requires, such as joining volunteer organizations or Christian ministries. Some men run for political office purely out the sense of duty.

Some modern libertarians believe that their moral obligations are limited to not violating their neighbors rights. Beyond that, they fancy themselves to possess absolute moral freedom and deny that the universal moral law applies to them. Anyone who believes this embraces a metaphysically incoherent philosophy. If there is no universal moral law, there can be no rights based on natural law. Without such rights, the libertarian claim to freedom is arbitrary. Furthermore, no orderly cosmos can exist that contains beings who have rights, but no obligations. Such a world would be chaos.

The meridian splendor of a great civilization

The triumph of Christianity, natural law, and conservative principles produced a brilliantly ordered civilization by 1750.

The greatest of the Baroque composers lived between 1700–1750. The great compositions by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Telemann were written during that period.

In commerce, industry, science, technology, and the military arts, Europe outdistanced its most dangerous rival, the Ottoman Turks, who were the leaders of the Muslim world. By 1750, Europe was the premiere civilization of the world.

At the peak of great cultures, great sages appear. In 1750, Voltaire was the invincible wit of the Paris salons where brilliant discussions were held. The intellectuals of London flocked to Samuel Johnson's coffee house to see if anyone could defeat the great man in debate. The polymath Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia was demonstrating how a man could make original contributions in many fields.

What went wrong?

In the midst of all this glory, something had begun to go wrong. By the end of the eighteenth century, France had suffered a ruinous revolution and the great powers of Europe were fighting a war of unprecedented violence. Two long centuries of fitful cultural decline lay ahead. Stay tuned for the next essay to find out what went wrong during the two colorful centuries of 1600–1800 A.D.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison

RenewAmerica analyst Fred Hutchison also writes a column for RenewAmerica.


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31