Watts’ early rules to circumscribe pride, promote humility, and encourage inquiry

I’m reading Isaac Watts’ The Improvement of the Mind. His first chapter is titled ‘General Rules for the Improvement of Knowledge.’ He grounds improvement of the mind first in sober self-reflection. He urges his readers to first consider how much misery could have been avoided in their lives had they properly exercised their rationality and made sound judgments. The beginning of understanding is to face the chastening reality that some things could have been better for me had I paid closer attention. This indeed is sobering, but sometimes truth stings. He does not propose to solve the philosophical problem of the reality of evil or why some people suffer unjustly. This rule is only a few lines. He simply calls upon his readers to face facts that some bad things could have been avoided with sharper analytical skills, wider awareness, keener perception, and precise reasoning. In popular parlance, life is hard, but it’s harder when you’re stupid. Like I said, sometime truth stings. He’s not wrong, you know. His next rule is to consider the “weaknesses, frailties, and mistakes of human nature.” In other words, if life is hard, and if it’s harder when you’re stupid, think about much worse it is when everyone else is also stupid. Seriously, ponder this truth and consider how we have collectively made it much worse for ourselves. Watts does not offer a balm for the stupid, as if taking solace in a community of fools is much solace at all. Rather, he grounds any effort at improvement in a theological and ontological frame. We’d best begin at the reality of the fall. Not just you, it’s me, too. And not just me, but you also. Me, and you, and us. I should say that this book follows his Logick, albeit by many years, and that book is really the beginning point for this one. But I digress. Begin with a sober analysis of the fall.

Now that the ground is tilled, we are ready for the third rule, which is to “acquaint yourself with your own ignorance.” And what is coming here in a few lines is the paragraph that struck me. Watt’s begins with what is a familiar refrain: We don’t know what we don’t know. And this is the upshot of Watts’ book: to help us think through how to improve. No small wonder then that he begins by forcefully calling readers to grapple with ignorances, deficiencies, blind spots, prejudices, and errors. If you’re not willing to do that, stop kidding yourself with any attempt to improve and go back to whatever it is you were doing fifteen minutes ago. Now, he presents these rules in brief fashion, but I do not read him as presenting them casually or expecting you to tick them off like filling up the cart at the grocery store.

So then, under this heading he has some sub-points. The first is to urge readers to rehearse the wide, wide range of human inquiry: behold the breadth of the disciplines! How vast and wide! Next, consider the wide variety of questions and problems and intellectual real estate within the one area in which you are most expert. Watts is inching us along toward greater self-awareness. From the big picture of all the disciplines of learning, he moves us to our speciality, our focus, our majors, our own little area of training and expertise. This, of all branches of learning, ought to be where we are most familiar, and out of that familiarity we are perhaps in the best position to take stock of our limitations. His third sub-point presses this a bit further, taking an example from geometry.

“Spend a thoughts sometimes on the puzzling Enquiries concerning Vacuums and Atoms, the Doctrine of Infinites, Indivisibles and Incommensurables in Geometry, wherein there appear some insolvable Diffi-[p. 9] culties: Do this on Purpose to give you a more sensible Impression of the Poverty of your Understanding, and the Imperfection of your Knowledge. This will teach you what a vain Thing it is to fancy that you know all Things, and will instruct you to think modestly of your present Attainments, when every Dust of the Earth, and every Inch of empty Space, surmounts your Understanding, and tramples over your Presumption.”

I. Watts, The Improvement of the Mind… 4th London edition, 1761, pp. 8-9.

A big ego-trip

As a divinity school we cannot be responsible in our work if we lose our roots in the communities of faith and place ourselves above or against the communities of faith in the land. Their plights and shortcomings are not theirs alone, but also and eminently ours as we prepare men and women for ministry. A part of that task is sometimes one of critique or even protest against fads and trivialities and idolatrous clinging to self-serving parochialisms. But it is not a question of us criticizing them. Our critique must be in the mode and mood of the ‘we,’ of identification, in pain and hope, in shame and grace. There is much so-called ‘prophetic’ lambasting which is only a big ego-trip. The true prophet identifies with the community within which he speaks.

–Krister Stendahl, The Divinity School Dean’s Report 1975-1976 [Harvard Divinity School: Cambridge, 1976], p. 5.

With Quiet Diligence: How Claude Elbert Spencer Formed an Archival Tradition in the ­Stone-Campbell Movement

I published a chapter in The Faithful Librarian: Essays on Christianity in the Profession. (McFarland and Company, 2019) in which I provide for the first time a critical, source based account of Claude Spencer’s career and contribution to archival sensitivity in the Stone-Campbell Movement.  Below are the opening and closing paragraphs of the chapter:

As the pioneering archivist of the Restoration Movement or Stone-Campbell Movement, comprising the Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Claude Elbert Spencer (1898-1979) came onto the scene during the emergence and professionalization of library study and the concomitant higher expectation of library work in the academy; he possessed a native impulse and a unique vocational imperative to collect history; and finally he owned a theological subjunctive to embrace the breadth of Stone-Campbell material in a single archive.  This essay narrates the contours of his life’s story and work as it relates to the formation of the archive he conceived.  Further, it attends to the values and virtues that compelled his collecting and guided his service.  Spencer’s bibliographic work was exemplary and his archival work was peerless in his denomination. The story behind this work and the values that undergird it invite contemplation by those who would serve as archivists in denominational settings.


It is remarkable that a boy who learned to read at age nine would five years later become de facto librarian of his high school, and five years after that lead the library at his college in exchange for tuition, room and board.  It is remarkable that librarian who wouldn’t have known a Disciple book if it hit him in the head would compile a bibliography so authoritative it remains unsurpassed after seventy years.  It is remarkable that he formed a collegial society to serve the academy and the congregation, the graduate seminar and the Sunday school roundtable.  It is remarkable that he maintained an unrelenting commitment to charity and equal representation in collecting scope in the face of bitter intramural disputes over bureaucracy the very existence of which fractured the ecclesial fellowship he loved and served the entirety of his career.  It is remarkable that he recognized the need for, and advocated for needed research topics that were years ahead of their time.  It is remarkable that though he held no degree beyond the ars baccalaureus in education, no less than 84 master’s theses and doctoral dissertations credit his advice, counsel, and assistance.*  It is remarkable that he attained expertise with minimal formal coursework and professional training, but so mastered ‘library economy’ and was so productive in keeping up a demanding schedule, that the upon his retirement he was replaced by two and one-half full-time equivalents with graduate degrees in history, library science, and theology.

Spencer’s legacy survives in the several bibliographic works he authored, in the catalog records he generated, in the finding aids he assembled, and in the indexes he compiled.  His legacy survives among the holdings of Disciples of Christ Historical Society, of which he was visionary and architect.  His legacy endures in the community of librarians, archivists, historians, students and independent scholars he formed.  His legacy endures in the scholarship he facilitated by virtue of his quiet diligence in collecting, organizing, describing, preserving, and advocacy for print and archival materials of the Stone-Campbell heritage, consisting of the Christian Churches, the Churches of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and related groups.

The chapter was a sheer pleasure to research and write.  Stone-Campbell historical scholarship came into its own because of Claude Spencer.  First he raised awareness of its need, articulated that vision in plain terms, and then set about sourcing everything a scholar would need to write.  Look at the footnotes of the historical works published by or about anything Stone-Campbell since World War 2.  Look hard enough, and follow the references long enough, and you will find precious few that do not cite materials he gathered, inspired others to gather, or quote those who deal with those primary sources.  I think he surpasses all historians as the most significant single figure who has contributed to ‘Restoration history.’

*– I have since located two additional theses, for a total of 86.

“To be a historian”: Quote without comment

This from Doris Kearns Goodwin via Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” (with thanks to Don Haymes for passing it on to me): 

To be a historian is to discover the facts in context, to discover what things mean, to lay before the reader your reconstruction of time, place, mood, to empathize even when you disagree. You read all the relevant material, you synthesize all the books, you speak to all the people you can, and then you write down what you know about the period. You feel you own it.

The Bible and the Education of Children: Lessons from Alexander Campbell, RQ article by Samjung Kang-Hamilton

…most of the prior literature has ignored his [AC] understanding of the education of children in the Bible.  This essay will begin to close that gap and suggest ways in which an understanding of Campbell would help strengthen children’s ministry in Churches of Christ today.  The following sections will examine Campbell’s views on (1) the Bible and children, (2) childhood, (3) the nature of education, (4) its purposes; (5) and its methods and  contexts.  his work helps us get past the current practice of treating the Bible as a set of morality tales.

So ends her opening section. Kang-Hamilton lays out a thesis that Campbell’s notions on the education of children offers to the contemporary church a resource for (re)thinking children’s ministry and the teaching of the Bible to and for children.  I’m already favorably impressed, as a researcher who sees many such gaps, as a teacher and a ministry leader in a congregational education ministry, and, not least of all, as a parent.  I will over the next few days post short summaries and excerpt’s from each section of her article. Come back to see what she discovers from AC and what she makes of it for our situation.

Samjung Kang-Hamilton, “The Bible and the Education of Children: Lessons from Alexander Campbell” Restoration Quarterly 52:3 third Quarter 2010, 130-143.  For more about RQ, click here.

Dictionaries and Lexicons


None understand the value of dictionaries and lexicons so well as those who use them most. Every individual who reads any should, when reading, always keep by him an English Dictionary, such as Walker’s or Webster’s. An English word, the defination [sic] or meaning of which we are ignorant of, might as well, until understood, be Latin or Greek to those who do not understand these languages.  We sometimes hear people complaining of an author for using “hard words,” when the fault is in themselves, for not seeking the meaning in a Dictionary.  They are so cheap, that any one who can afford to read, can afford to get one.


–John R. Howard, The Christian Reformer, January 1836, page 32.


John R. Howard, of Paris, Tennessee, is Editor and publisher of The Christian Reformer; he includes this short note on the last page of the first issue–January 1836–of his paper.  It is the first periodical of the Stone-Campbell reformation published in Tennessee and only lasts a year.

Flaunting your vocabulary is one thing; utilizing language precisely and clearly is another.  One is arrogance, the other is a component of good teaching.  Unfortunately some prize simplistic teaching, writing or preaching when sensitive teaching is the preferable option.  Under no circumstance should a teacher or preacher speak circles around or over an audience.  Such is a manifestation of pride.  However, what self-respecting auditor would prefer to be spoon-fed rather than genuinely and sincerely taught, even challenged?  I suspect one root of the complaint against what Howard calls “hard words” is pride of another sort.  Rather than pride manifesting itself in a haughty display of vocabulary, it is pride in the lack of any vocabulary…anti-intellectual pride.   Howard is unimpressed by it.  I marvel at the depth of learning of his generation; they sought the very best available for themselves, their churches and communities.  I also marvel when those who claim to be truth-seekers, who ought to be mature meat-eaters, so to speak, prefer instead a bland diet of skim milk (I’m thinking of Hebrews 5.12).  When we settle for less in the pulpit, the classroom and the printed page are we truly heirs of these great reformers?

Two Disciples websites, and a reflection on archiving

DisciplesWorld‘s website will change and evolve over the next few months.  Keep up with it all at Verity Jones’ blog here and get connected at the Intersection, a social networking site for Disciples and friends, here.  Change and evolution is the order of the day it seems.

It remains to be seen what an archive will look like and how it will function in a few years as print media continues to disappear.  Certainly the day of printed journals as media of information, opinion and discussion like we have known it for the last two hundred years, is over.  I don’t know what the new day will be like, but I don’t think it will look like yesterday.  Maybe we will see a resurgence of journals?  Maybe the few survivors will emerge stronger?  Maybe not?  Maybe something else will emerge that none of us as yet can image.  Who knows?

One hundred years ago a preacher (like C.E.W. Dorris when he published The Bible Student) would purchase a printing press, a couple trays of type, set about to build a readership and promulgate his views and the teaching of those he respected.  Frequently these small operations were expensive, time-consuming and soon abandoned.  For example, Dorris and his wife often worked twelve or fourteen hour days setting type, printing, labeling and mailing his journal.  Subscriptions barely enabled them to break even (partly because it was a small readership, and partly because he operated it cheaply for a theological reason: to preach to the poor).  So, the Dorrises used the press for job printing to pay the bills.  Eventually he abandoned the paper because he felt it a better use of his time to preach in person rather than teach through a printed page.  We are fortunate, very fortunate, to have a full run of his paper.  We could repeat a similar story several times over.

Now preachers, pastors and especially average pew-ers sign up for wordpress or facebook or blogger or intersection or whatever…for free and build a readership through near-instant networking.  The dynamic has changed altogether.  One aspect of archiving will certainly need to be addressed in this new day: in the past we have collected papers and journals which have almost exclusively been printed and published by preachers or (un)denominational publishing houses.  What little we have in the way of the average person in the pew is in the form of diaries or letters, and they are scarce…scarce.  Not so with wordpress, facebook, blogger… everyone can be ubiquitous in this new day.  So, the archivist’s choice is this: whose voice do we preserve?  We can’t keep everything, and choices must be made…so who gets saved to the server and who gets deleted? And furthermore, not only does everyone have a voice now, most of what they say doesn’t look like it is worth keeping.  Much of what I see on blogs and social networking sites is the minutiae of daily life.  But I also see some wonderful historical, theological and ministerial reflection taking place…stuff that needs to be kept.

So, here I am wishing we had more leather-and-paper diaries from the 19th century and bemoaning the banality of much of what I see in the blogosphere.  What is disturbing is that in 100 years we may wish we had a hard drive or three worth of blogs and facebook accounts…all keyword searchable and ready for PhD (or whatever they’ll call it then) dissertation research.  In short, I don’t have an answer I’m comfortable with…I’m only just now beginning to wrestle with the problem.  What is at once frustrating and (on my good days) exhilarating, is that by the time we think we have the problem somewhat under control, it will change again.

Enough for now, I think I’ll check out who is on intersection…:)

Save the Paper

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my research interests is Nashville’s Stone-Campbell heritage.  Judging from the folks who find my blog by searching for old Nashville churches like Foster Street Christian Church or Vine Street Christian Church or South College Street Church of Christ, I see I am not alone in my interest.  Here’s my appeal:

I am assembling information from, by and about these churches, ministers and related organizations.  Do you have paper (like directories or bulletins), photographs, sermons, postcards, old issues of periodicals like Gospel Advocate or Apostolic Times or ephemera from Nashville events like the Hardeman Tabernacle meetings or the Collins-Craig Auditorium Meeting, or the Nashville Jubilee?  Do you have photographs or postcards of church buildings?  For that matter, do you have an old map of Nashville that shows what the city was like in the 1940’s?  or earlier? Do you have clippings from the newspapers about people or events or congregations in the Nashville or Davidson County area?   Do you have memories of growing up at Vine Street Christian Church when it was still downtown?  Or Reid Avenue Church of Christ, Russell Street Church of Christ or Charlotte Avenue Church of Christ (all three are now closed)?  Would you be willing to talk with me–in person or by email or even by postal mail–to share your memories?  Would you allow me to borrow your old paper, copy it and learn from it?

Old paper is the stuff from which history is written.  And if it isn’t preserved then not only will vital data be lost but a story will be silenced.  I believe the Nashville story is a rich story, and a story worth keeping and worth telling and worth preserving.   With every funeral we lose some memory or story.  The time has come for us to assemble what remains while we can, and ensure that through its preservation the story will not be forgotten.

Check the steamer trunks in your attics, the boxes in your basements and the files in the closets.  Before you throw it away, email me.  Let’s preserve it.

icekm (at) aol (dot) com

Quote Without Comment: The Intellectual or the Devoted?

The Intellectual or the Devoted?

Perhaps the major reason why the intellectual life is viewed with suspicion and distrust is because it is regarded by many as being an alternative to devotion.  The prevalence of this view that devotedness and the intellectual life are mutually exclusive shows that we do not really understand the nature of this life, and that we have certainly not thought the matter through.  is it not more reasonable that the more devoted one is to Christ, and the more one conforms his own life to Him, the more Christ challenges the whole man, his mind included, and demands as well as stimulates growth and development?

It is peculiarly unfortunate that this attitude which regards the devoted life and the intellectual life as alternatives is sometimes expressed in connection with Christian education.  We sometimes hear someone saying that he would rather see our Christian colleges be second-rate, academically, than lose their devotion to the Lord.  Let us be very sure of one thing, that we can never be very devoted to the Lord and His cause if we are satisfied with anything less than the best.  Let us be devoted enough to want to excel.  If we do not want to excel, we place ourselves in the rather odd position that affirms that mediocrity makes us feel safer.  Surely the cause to which we have dedicated our lives deserves better.

Our Christian colleges exist for the purpose of developing young people intellectually, spiritually, and socially to live the Christian life.  Too frequently it seems as though we think our purpose is to protect or guard them from life.  We cannot isolate them forever, and we cannot do justice to them if we do not acquaint them with the challenges of life.  If we do not do justice to those challenges, we are not doing justice to our students.  And if we are mediocre in our treatment of the problems of life, we are deceiving ourselves if we think that we are successful in performing our task.

What I am appealing for is not a sterile, dry, irrelevant, academic braintrust that paralyzes all involved.  What I do appeal for is a devotion to the Lord so deep, and a love for His Word so powerful, and an awareness of man’s need of God so moving that Christian education will become an enterprise so creative, so dynamic and therefore so demanding that it will call for the very best that is within us.  Only when we have reached that level of devotion shall we fulfill our real purpose, and shall we overcome some of the problems we now face.  Only then shall we move from our defensive posture and assume one that will enable us to serve the Lord more successfully.  Only then shall we attract Christian faculty and students of superior ability who do not now think of a Christian college as a live choice.  And only then shall we come to understand ourselves better.

–excerpted from Abraham J. Malherbe, “To Today’s Intellectual Challenges” in Lift Up Your Eyes, Being the Abilene Christian College Annual Bible Lectures 1965. Abilene Christian College Students Exchange: Abilene, 1965, pages 183-184.