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Fallen Away

Innocent sons of innocent fathers . . . and grandfathers. Grandfather Robert Grosvenor Hutchins was preaching the Memorial Day sermon at the Second Congregational Church of Oberlin, and Bobby, age ten, went to the services with his father. (As best he could later remember, Billy, fourteen, and Frank, six, were not along.) Memorial Day was still a stirring occasion in 1909 in Oberlin. It memorialized the Civil War to abolish chattel slavery; and Oberlin people, some still alive, had played a great role in the abolition movement and the war.

At sixty-seven, Grandfather Hutchins was in his fervent prime. He had the voice, orotund, organistic, that the popular evangelist required. His son Will was a less spectacular preacher, a product of the new day of the "higher criticism" of Scripture, equal in faith to his father, superior in education, but decidedly inferior in what was already being referred to as Bible-banging. The differences between the two generations were highly visible, and Bobby at ten was aware of them. But Memorial Day was a stirring occasion, and Grandfather Hutchins was one of the great stirrers of the region round.

He was describing the way Abraham Lincoln, when confronted with a dilemma, would get down on his knees and pray to the Lord for guidance. Carried away with his parishioners—or further than his parishioners—the preacher sank to his knees in the pulpit and prayed for guidance in his dilemmas, just as the Martyred President had in his . Will Hutchins took his son Bobby by the hand and said something like, "Let's get out of here" (as Bobby would later recall it), and they got.[1]

Bobby, when he had long since become Robert Maynard, did not recall how badly he himself had been put off by his grandfather's performance, but he remembered how badly his father had been put off—and that was


enough for him. The incident did not move him to commit himself to the Lord; it moved him to commit himself to public decorum. All his life he would find himself vaguely uncomfortable on the platform. He was to become the lowest-keyed of orators, the barest-boned of debaters, the driest of wits.

If his grandfather's bathos was already an anachronism in a college community at the beginning of the twentieth century, his father, for all his restraint, was nevertheless heir to the limitations that in the earlier generation produced the bathos. There is no doubt that Will Hutchins was a fine preacher. "A great preacher," his son said, and his sermons "very good, beautiful." But his greatness as a preacher did not depend on the goodness of his sermons. "The reason that my father was a great preacher was suggested to me by my step-grandmother. She said the reason Will was a great preacher was that everybody could see when he preached that he was a good man."[2] One day the president of the University of Chicago would put his feet up on his desk and open Aristotle's Rhetoric (which he and Mortimer Adler would be teaching in another twenty minutes), and for the first time read that the most potent of all means of persuasion is "the ethos of the speaker," and lay the book down and recall his step-grandmother's words about his father.

Will Hutchins personified the ethos of the speaker, and so (on his knees in the pulpit) did Grandfather. But there is a fine line between descant and cant. If Bobby Hutchins gagged at his grandfather's exaltation at the Second Congregational Church on Memorial Day in 1909, he would have gagged at his father's incantation a decade later, which won a five-thousand-dollar prize and publication in the American Magazine .[3] It had to have come from the author's heart. But it came from his mind in addition—the mind his son recalled as first rate.

The prize was established by the National Institute of Moral Instruction, whose chairman, one Milton Fairchild, was "trying to place character education on the same plane with 'the three R's in the public schools.'"

The winning Code of Morals consisted (after a preamble) of ten laws. (The preamble read: "Boys and girls who are good Americans try to become strong and useful, that our country may become ever greater and better. Therefore they obey the laws of right living which the best Americans have always obeyed.") Each law had its own preamble, which began, in all ten instances, with the phrase, "The Good American. . . ." The ten laws were the Law of Health, the Law of Self-Control, the Law of Self-Reliance, the Law of Reliability, the Law of Clean Play, the Law of Duty, the Law of Good Workmanship, the Law of Team-Work, the Law of Kindness, and the Law of Loyalty—and the last eighteen words of the


essay (at a dollar and sixty-six cents a word) read, "He who obeys the Law of Loyalty obeys all of the other nine laws of the Good American."

Apart from the chauvinism—true, there was a war on—the Code consisted almost entirely of the unexceptional platitudes of the Boy Scout oath. And apart from a quick curtsy to independence ("I will not be afraid of being laughed at," "I will not be afraid of doing right when the crowd does wrong") and a still quicker curtsy to racial tolerance ("I will not think of myself above any other girl or boy just because I am of a different race or color or condition"), there was no least suggestion of the perpendicular man that Bobby Hutchins had been given to understand was the ideal American.

But he respected his father immensely, would always respect him, and would turn always to his father for counsel, even when the son was elderly and the father very old. The counsel was customarily moral, not intellectual. The only criticism the son was ever heard to have made, and this one off-handedly to a stranger, was that his father was "too sentimental" and "told too many stories."

But the son did not believe that morality could be inculcated by teaching (or, for that matter, by preaching). He never would believe it, and he would all his life inveigh against the claim that it could be, and against the concomitant claim that morality should have a place in the curriculum at any level.[4] That claim belonged to the age when admission to the priesthood was the object of higher education—an age that ended (some time between Grandfather Hutchins' day and his grandson's) when the importation of the university from Germany compelled the American college to accept a broader function than the preparation of ministers. There was now no faith left that morality could be instructed or that the Oberlin of 1832 could ever have achieved its goal of the total abolition of all forms of sin (or even the partial abolition of any of them). The parochial schools, Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, still meant to make men good, but there was no evidence, hard or soft, that they did or could. It went without saying that the alumni of, say, Holy Cross were all very fine fellows. But it was not demonstrable that they were categorically finer than the alumni of, say, City College; as it should have been were there a necessary correlation between fineness and an academic program designed to impart, increase, or secure that commodity.

What Bobby, and later Robert, balked at was bathos—bathos disguised as "character education," bathos overt like his grandfather's Memorial Day sermon, bathos gussied up (had his filial piety not blinded him) as a five-thousand-dollar prize-winning Code of Morals in the American Magazine . There was a story told of his first predecessor at the University


of Chicago who, one night in 1876, at the age of twenty, appeared at a Baptist prayer meeting in Granville, Ohio, and announced his conversion—a conversion which would one day cost Baptist John D. Rockefeller and his Baptist heirs $135 million. The young William Rainey Harper was said to have transported the prayer meeting by rising in his place and saying, "I want to be a Christian. I don't know what it is to be a Christian, but I know I am not a Christian and I want to be one." Certainly by the age of twenty his successor knew what it was to be a Christian—how could Will Hutchins' boy not know?—and knew that he wasn't one and didn't much want to be one. His aversion is not as readily datable as Harper's conversion. Was it at ten, when he heard his grandfather's sermon? At nineteen, when he read his father's Code of Morals (if he read it)? At twenty-one when, a junior at Yale, he was offered the pastorate of the Pilgrim Church of Terre Haute, Indiana, and, upon asking, and heeding, his father's advice, he found his father skeptical of his religious qualifications? In the crypto-autobiographical novel Theophilus North , his boyhood friend Wilder tells of his own determination to be a missionary (and a saint) between his twelfth and fourteenth years, and of his having ceased to believe in the existence of God at seventeen.[5]

There are ways, and still other ways, of looking at these things. Why didn't Will Hutchins' boy, who respected and revered his father, want to be a Christian? Why didn't he warm his father's heart by rising in his place and saying, "I don't know what it is to be a Christian, but I know I want to be one"? Because it would not have been the rational thing to do. The rational thing to do, if a boy respected and revered his father, was to find a rational basis for living the respectful and reverential life. Something had to give; in this case, God.


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