J. W. Worthy to A. Augustinus Bishop of Hippo
All honor and reverence, in Jesus Christ our Lord.
I cast about in the corners of my mind, whether the words of any other mortal have compelled such sympathetic respect, or have benefited me in so many ways as have yours--from enabling me to examine my own soul, to helping me understand the power and playfulness in language. Yet now, with your letter on comfort, I receive another unexpected benefit. You help me to understand more clearly what is my role in this very correspondence with foreign dignitaries such as yourself.
The theme of all my letters must be America, to whatever age or region a letter is sent--and does not the sphere of letters transcend and touch every recorded age in history? Before God of course there is no past or future, in his eyes all is present. But your letter reminds me that during most of human history there was no America, and my own lifetime witnessed the passing away of America. How can I expect you to heed this transitory, albeit to me expansive and complex experience? America was an idea forged in the crossing and settling of a continent, by the perpetration of all crimes inherent in that task, hence by agonizing self-examination at every step on the way. Scarcely had the European chrysalis produced the larva, to consume flora, fauna and the ancient culture of the new land, at last to display itself as fully matured, before the perfect imago herself fluttered toward death. I must hasten to articulate this idea America to you who come before.
It is one thing to know what we must do, and quite another to know how to go about it, or even whether it can be accomplished at all. In some instances it may not be so difficult to single out the difference among the stages which I might call proto-American, American, and post-American. An example close at hand might be John Wesley's uncritical acceptance of the Bible as something more--or less--than a document requiring all our God-given acumen (I am looking forward to a comprehensive exchange with the great man himself). One thing Europeans had to learn, as Americans, was diffidence toward received opinion and tradition. But alas, your dismissal of matrimony as merely a worldly institution strikes me as alarmingly post-American. Yes, my countrymen came to agree with you at last, in your most cynical epoch.
You draw your bright Manichaean line between our City of Man and your quite transcendent City of God. Americans were compelled to be more down to earth, but I think not less religious--or is not the carnal joining of man and woman one of your seven sacraments?). We generally accepted the view held by an Augustinian monk, your own knowledgeable student, Dr. Martin Luther. His "Evangelical," or as we Americans called it, the "Protestant" faith hallows all things in everyday life, including (as Luther likes to put it) those pigtails on the pillow beside him.
But that is only one element. America's pioneer experience transpired in close collaboration between man and woman in ways not so familiar from African or European experience. The backwoods couple from earliest America availed themselves of the opportunity to leave parents and kin behind, strike out into their wilderness, and cultivate newground. Their children ran healthy, free of the pox and all the other contagions which so filled English churchyards with tiny graves and church houses with bigotry. American soil in its first few years of cultivation was unbelievably productive, the woods teemed with quail, venison, and squirrel, the streams with fish, the ponds with ducks and geese. As the second or third generation consumed even this bounty, a new trait became ingrained in American character: moving on. Pioneer life gave stature and strength to our American woman, whom for example de Tocqueville perceives as our greatest strength. She was hardy partner, tender mother, healing nurse. Of a morning she might step out onto the porch with her long rifle to kill the panther stalking her livestock (as did my own mother not far from Sipe Springs, Texas), of an evening it was she who required her man to read the Scripture, with the result that her untutored family retained a better English than that spoken in England and an easier familiarity with the Bible than the high churchmen, who never ventured beyond the tidewater.
Two hundred years of attempted colonization by the great nations of Europe--Portugal, Spain, France--with all their riches and prowess at seafaring--failed. They sent their great galleys with soldiers for the New World, they sent priests, their Jesuits bestowed a City of God upon the aborigines, so compassionate were they and so holy. But all these pious pilgrims left their wives at home. It was the marriage bond, tested by unimaginable challenges of the wilderness, won America for the English speaking peoples. Marriage had never succeeded so brilliantly before. For America "holy matrimony" was not an empty phrase.
Certainly, my beloved and revered Bishop, your own unfortunate experience in marriage was repeated many times in the New World. As America began to decay like all else here below, the failure of marriage naturally became more frequent, more prominent, the purposelessness of marriage more apparent. But for the brief space in which America did for a time sustain herself, those notions which your letter expresses about marriage remained repugnant to us in our fair land.
In profound respect,
J. W. Worthy
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or see the correspondence with Augustine.