The Pious Scientist Jeremy Belknap

Jeremy Belknap, who is featured in three of my books: Ebenezer Hazard, Jeremy Belknap, and the American Revolution, Passaconaway’s Realm, and the American Plutarch, was a pious scientist. He believed that piety is the most important response of the scientist to the work of examining natural and human history; indeed, he believed that the sine qua non of scientific research and methodology is piety and faith. Ironically, then, at a time when reason and the Enlightenment worldview of objectivity and empiricism was touted as the means by which truth could be discovered, progress accomplished, and society’s ills reformed, when Deists such as Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson challenged the Scripture and argued that the human mind could via science and reason discover the ways of the Creator, who was a benevolent yet passive force in the universe, when therefore the Enlightenment intellectual was arrogantly assuming that knowledge was within his grasp, there was a leading scientist and objective, rational human and natural historian who claimed that all of the aims and goals and methods of the Enlightenment, which he supported, were subject to the human response to the numinous, to the subjective intuition of the religious mind, to the singularly religious attributes of faith and piety.

Jeremy Belknap joined the geographer Jedidiah Morse on a missionary journey in 1796 to the Iroquois of upstate New York. In his journal, Belknap betrayed his interests as a historian and scientist in the natural and human history of New York. He made copious notes on observations of geography, geology, meteorology, agriculture, and observations about different cultures—Dutch, German, Indian. His journal was a scientific journal kept by a missionary to the Indians. His comments on the Iroquois include a recounting of a tale of blood vengeance committed by the Oneida, “which,” he wrote, “strongly marks the little progress made by civilization or Christianity among that people.” “Murders of this kind are agreeable to the Indian principles, though of late they have been rarely practised among the Oneidas.” Belknap recounted the story of Mohawk leader Joseph Brant killing his own son. Brant, a loyalist and officer in the King’s army, who led his people to Grand River in Ontario during the war, was not charged for the crime. Belknap wrote, “Brandt was one of Dr. Wheelock’s scholars,” meaning that he had been educated by the Christian missionary Eleazar Wheelock, who founded Dartmouth College in 1770 for the purpose of educating the indigenous peoples. Belknap had followed closely the progress of Dartmouth College, and was doubtful of Wheelock’s pretentions of success. “Brant can assume the Indian or English manners,” Belknap wrote, “as best suits his conveniency, and keep up his influence with both.” Brant’s murder and others he heard about among the Iroquois caused Belknap to write: “It is high time that these Indians should be made subject to the laws of the State; this must be done if they are to be considered as citizens; if they will still be savages they must retire deeper into the forest.” His conviction about the latter conclusion was strengthened as he continued the journey, finding the rich lands of the Oneida generally uncultivated, and the people living in a “savage state.” What farming that occurred was done by the “strong” and “laborious” women, who worked while their husbands stayed home to smoke their pipes. Belknap and Morse met the aged Oneida named Silversmith “head of the Pagan interest”; they heard that, as Belknap wrote, “the objects of his devotion were the rocks and mountains, which he believed were animated by some invisible Power, which had a superintendency over human affairs. To this invisible Power he addressed his devotions, and depended on it for success in hunting and in war. This had been his religion from his youth, and he had never failed of receiving answers to his prayers.”

On the return journey, at one point Morse was ill, so Belknap spent some time “reading Wheelock’s narratives” and, he wrote, “observing the warm, enthusiastic manner in which the business of converting Indians has been conducted, and the changes which appeared in the conduct of the persons concerned when the ardor abated.” In the formal report of their missionary journey, Belknap and Morse commented on the many baptisms of the Indians, but little true conversion. “The hard treatment,” they wrote, “which the [Oneida] women receive from their husbands, being obliged to labour when they are idle, does not indicate the prevalence of Christian principles.” The two men condemned the intemperance of the Indians, and wrote, “Idleness is the sin that easily besets them, and is the parent of many other vices.” But “labour and industry are the best antidote to intemperance.” Responding to a query from the Society for Propagating the Gospel that “the arts of civilization and industry, when adopted by the Indians, have such an unhappy effect on them,” the two missionaries responded that “an idle . . . mode of life is more likely to have been the cause of their present undistinguishable situation; not to mention various incidents, in the course of Providence, which are not under the control of human power.”

In their report to the Society for Propagating the Gospel, Belknap and Morse provided an extensive apology to explain why it is so difficult for Indians to be civilized and to convert to Christianity. Even in civilized societies people often refuse to give up natural liberties for the sake of creating a good society. Education and polite manners often disgusted Indians and repelled them. Belknap and Morse related an anecdote about an Indian youth who is taken from his tribe and put among whites to be educated, but he is always faced with their comments and actions reinforcing in his mind his difference and inferiority. Yet at the same time he is now different from his own tribe and in their eyes inferior. He is caught between two worlds and cannot quite become part of the former or return to the latter. So he turns to drink in frustration.

This two-world phenomenon reveals that in the transfer from one civilization, one set of fundamental assumptions, morals, and customs, to another, from pagan to Christian and vice-versa, those caught in between often struggle. Any person experiences something of this struggle when they try to do something that challenges their heritage and upbringing. Anxiety and uncertainty are often the consequence, which can be responded to by drink; but as an alternative, Belknap and Morse wrote, the response can also be to Christ. For the Indian the struggle was a transition from a life of fewer restrictions to a life of more restrictions. The former, savage life is free insofar as there is no surrender to higher authority, whether that authority be society, government, morality, or God. So one is free to engage in unrestrained passion and profligacy. However, sin becomes its own master. One can become so ruled by vice, lust, and drink, that this apparent natural freedom is completely lost. So in the psychology of the transition from one culture to another, any culture will offer attributes where peace and contentment can be found, but to be in abeyance from one to another, neither accepting either, resisting both, is to create uncertainty and anxiety. This anxiety was precisely what the Iroquois Indians of New York were experiencing. For some Indians, the transition and resulting anxiety was too great, so rejected. Belknap and Morse used as an example the Natick tribe of Massachusetts, which refused to abandon their old ways in the face of greater white presence and agriculture taking over the forest, and they eventually became almost extinct.

What is more, Belknap and Morse argued that although humans might try to build their society upon the order of nature, sin will always circumvent the attempt, and failure results. A completely natural human society is savage because no self-control is exercised, and disorder reigns as humans pursue the immediate goals of pleasure and power. Complete freedom is inadequate. Individual, private interest circumvents the good of the whole. Humans must exert will over their own nature. Order in society can come from nature, but it must come from human will as well. The Indian refuses to order himself, and the natural life is insufficient. Civilized humans feel the same yearnings as the Indian, but control them through the will based on education and religion. The civilized state restrains passion by self-imposed order. Sin and passion are natural to fallen man; imposition of order and control is learned, artificial.

Belknap and Morse’s concept of civilization and savagery was informed by their scientific understanding of humankind as well as their piety toward God. The civilized state of being is comprised by a society wherein there are standards of decency and decorum and moral behavior informed by Christianity; a society of hard work and devotion to duty; a society of rational thought informed by Christianity and science; a society of piety and humility in the face of divine providence in nature, history, and time. In the History of New-Hampshire, Belknap referred to such a society as one of “social happiness.” In a 1785 Election Sermon he was more to the point. The only way, he wrote, that humans can acquire anything approaching happiness in this life is when they piously seek out and discover God’s hints in natural and human affairs, hints that if implemented in society promise social happiness. Practical science yielding a society based on common sense is a pious response to God’s hints. Further, before Indians can be Christianized they must first be civilized, which means teaching them to discover and implement God’s hints, which requires hard work, cultivation of the soil, building settled communities, and responding to God’s bounty with thanks and worship. The true savages are those of what ever race and creed who do not embrace God’s hints. That whites came to America and, following God’s hints, are continuing to take over the lands and peoples of America, is God’s plan, and one can do nothing else but accept it. Indeed one must accept all of God’s providential work in human history, embrace it, and help civilize and Christianize the Indians as an act of benevolence and humanity.

No wonder it was so difficult to convert and to civilize the Indians, for conversion to Christianity as well as embracing the pastoral, agricultural way of life are long, difficult processes. Time, coming to know God experientially and through books, was required. The response of the missionary must be patience. To convert and civilize native peoples was such a long term process that it would take many years. But, Belknap and Morse believed, Christians had the responsibility to civilize and convert Indians, and not just because the Great Commission required it, but because providential history showed that the Indians were not unlike ancient Europeans who over time moved from savagery to civilization. Belknap and Morse piously understood the movement of human history over time, the movement toward progress and civilization for all peoples. Progress and civilization required thoughtfulness and reflection, which the process of Christian conversion best engendered in people. But more, Elder Scripture is written on the hearts of all people, including the Indians, and it is a form of scripture not requiring literacy. The Indians experienced it daily. Their veneration of nature was wrongheaded but on the right track. Natural theology is insufficient by itself, but when placed next to the written scripture it provides an additional way to understand God.

In short, to the eighteenth-century mind, scientific and religious thought were complementary not contradictory. All avenues of thought based on reason, experience, and observation, even theology, were considered science. Research into nature sheds light on the divine. The most valid response to God the Creator is a pious attempt to understand His Creation, which means natural as well as human history. Piety is engendered by the amazing story of human redemption, which includes, in time, the civilization and conversion of American Indians. Science involves research into the causes and consequences of natural phenomena as well as the causes and consequences of human events. In both of these objects of inquiry, natural and human history, the hand of God is prevalent, and the scientist, as he uncovers the workings of nature and the workings of humankind, cannot help but stand back in awe and reverence. Human understanding is limited of course, by time and by sin. The scientist who examines God’s works can never completely understand them. Lack of knowledge and ignorance are part of man’s sinful nature that requires penitence, acceptance of God’s will, the search for forgiveness of error and sin, and surrender to Christ who is the Word, from whom all things came to be.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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