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Sabbath Day – Cultivating Conscience

July 25, 2013

Today I finished a fine book called Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family – A Test of Will and Faith in World War I. It is the story of four Thomas brothers, Norman, Evan, Ralph and Arthur at the birth of our modern nation. The boys were the grandchildren of Stephen Mattoon and Mary Lourie, Presbyterian missionaries in Bangkok/Siam (as in The King and I), and the children of a Welling Thomas (a Presbyterian pastor in Pennsylvania) and Emma Mattoon. Norman and Evan both became pastors as well, though both would eventually leave the ministry. Both were committed pacifists, Norman politically and Evan as a conscientious objector. Ralph and Arthur both entered the military, Ralph being seriously wounded almost immediately upon his arrival in France, and Arthur as a pilot whose training was completed just as the war ended. The book is written by Norman’s great granddaughter, Louisa Thomas.


I have been part of a conversation lately about why Presbyterians have not generated social or communal movements such as our Catholic siblings have, both within and without the church. For example, why don’t we have a Presbyterian Dorothy Day and hundreds of Presbyterian Worker Houses? Why aren’t there dozens of alternative communities shaped by particular understandings of the gospel? Why not modern “Calvinists,” like the modern Franciscans, committed to communal lives of simplicity, study and peace?

I think part of the answer lies with our understanding of CONSCIENCE: both the freedom of, and the moral responsibility for. The responsibility of exercising one’s own and respecting other’s conscience has been written into our church constitution for over 200 years, and is an inheritance of our much misunderstood Calvinist and Puritan past.  The following, for example,  was adopted in 1788 by the first Presbyterian General Assembly in this country.

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of [men] which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable.

The Roman Catholic Church appropriates difference and dissent by making room within its structure for alternative, bodies with particular understandings of the gospel: monks and mendicants in the middle ages, Catholic Workers today. The responsibilities and contours of conscience are, if you will, lodged with these bodies. But Reformed Christians have always located conscience (for good and for ill) with the individual. We believe the spirit moves and is discerned in the church through the democratic participation of our people, which is often contentious and noisy and never as clear as we would like it to be. As a result, we have focused less on the way the church fosters our faith than on the demands the church makes of our faith. We would do well to review how our predecessors strengthened their faith and trust in God. But we must also consider how carefully and intentionally they nurtured a fragile democratic culture using the more identifiable Christian practices of hospitality, forgiveness, prayer, humility. It is one of our Reformed traditions greatest gifts.

Louisa’s story of how the four Thomas brothers cultivated their convictions, struggled to prove themselves, and honored the decisions of others in the first decades of the twentieth century is a very Presbyterian story!

But if individual conscience and democracy suggest why we have not fostered alternative movements within the church, our understanding of public  CITIZENSHIP may suggest why we have not historically been identified with communal movements. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that  Reformed Christians both nurtured and promoted the modern idea of citizenship. One cannot read John Calvin or the early puritan revolutionaries without seeing that they had no interest in creating alternative societies because they were dead set on transforming whole nations through the agency of a mobilized citizenry. They simply brought their scripture shaped consciences into public life and set out to change everything. Back in the 60s, Michael Walzer traced the origin of radical politics to the conscience of the Calvinist citizen, and Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson has recently updated this story in her particularly fine essay on Margaret of Navarre. Reformed Christians have long reveled in King George’s labeling the American Revolution the “Presbyterian Rebellion” (a quarter of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were Presbyterians!) and cherished the idea that our church polity gave shape to the U.S. Constitution.

Consider the congregation I serve in White Plains. While it took us fifty years to rebuild the sanctuary after it was burned down during the War of Independence, the congregation being content to worship alongside the local Methodists, in that same period we produced a member of congress, a governor of New York and a Vice President of the United States, as well as many of the local judges and and officers for the county seat. During the nineteenth century, while the newer “denominations” like the Baptists and Methodists adapted to the changed political context of the US, organizing citizens into temperance, suffrage and abolitionist movements, Presbyterians were still identified with public service. Reformed folk dominated elected offices and positions of power.

Again, Louisa’s story of four men wrestling with the demands of conscience  and the common good, their faith struggles intimately tied up with their citizenship, is a very Presbyterian story. Norman Thomas, for example, served as President of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, and eventually ran six times for the U.S. Presidency as the Socialist Party candidate. During the 1963 March on Washington, when a young man asked Martin Luther King Jr. who the “eloquent orator” was, Martin said, “That is Norman Thomas. He was for us before any other white folks were.”

Norman Thomas has long been a hero of mine. I keep a photo of him in my office, along with his signature and a campaign pin that reads “I’m for Norman Thomas.” I greatly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it for those who wish to reflect on faith, family, conviction, and politics. I particularly appreciated Louisa exploration of Norman’s commitment to and struggle with his faith and his church, drawing on an unpublished memoir I first heard about  years ago while swimming with Harry Fleischman, Norman’s campaign manager. While Norman never could reconcile the God he longed to believe in, the God of his grandparents, with the human horrors of the twentieth century, the gospel’s vision of the reign of God as a cooperative commonwealth of fellowship and mutual love animated his entire life.

One Comment leave one →
  1. padremambo permalink
    August 5, 2013 1:28 pm

    Great essay. My grandmother was a Norman Thomas Christian as well (and it might explain why my father had a Presbyterian baptismal certificate, although he left the church for Universalist pastures). I do think that there was once a strong utopian movement in the US, however, that reflected protestant, “perfectionist” traditions.

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