History and Sympathy: How Hitler Helped One Man Understand the Puritans

Last Monday, Edmund Morgan, one of the greatest American historians of all time, died at the age of 97 (you can read a very kind and thoughtful obituary here).  In an interview, Morgan once said: “I was still an atheist, as I am now, but that day in Breissbach I became a Calvinist atheist.”

What leads an avowed atheist to study the Puritans and eventually become a “Calvinist atheist?”

Morgan developed a great admiration for the depth and elegance of Puritan thought in his early studies.  Still, he could never come to grips with some Puritan doctrines, like total depravity – the belief that all humans are depraved deep down and sinful throughout their being.  How could these people believe these things?

After these early studies, in the Summer of 1938, Morgan was touring through Europe with a friend.  On August 29, they had stopped in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, not far from the French border.  The morning paper had announced that Hitler had sent an ultimatum to Czechoslovakia demanding the return of the Sudetenland.  German SS soldiers were scrambling around everywhere, preventing people from crossing into France, and blocking foot traffic.

Suddenly, a big open-topped Mercedes car pulled up in front of them.  SS soldiers arranged and watched people nearby, and stood guard along the street, hands on their pistols.  Then, he passed by: Hitler in his own car, saluting the soldiers and people on the streets.  He was there personally to inspect Rhine fortifications in preparation for war.

Morgan recalls:

We sat quietly, not ten feet from him as he passed slowly by.  I could not help but thinking that if I had been armed I could have shot him…No one had searched me or any other patron of the beer garden…
The point of this story, for me, however, is that I knew I was looking evil in the face…The part those fresh-faced…young men in black [SS] were playing was no secret, either.  But they all looked so human and so everyday.  Even the Gestapo agent could have been a stodgy change-met tourist…Human beings are capable of great good, but I know that the capacity for fathomless evil is equally human, and it wears a smiling face.”
 
It was then that “Puritan theology began to make sense” and “human depravity suddenly acquired a face.”  It was then that an atheist and budding historian became a “Calvinist atheist” – someone who understood and sympathized with the beliefs of a people who came long before him.
Morgan sets an excellent example for all historians, and all Christians, in this story.  For him, the Puritans were in some ways unknowable, unsympathetic, and just wrong.  It was only when he experienced something personally – in this case, seeing Hitler in person – that he learned to sympathize with the beliefs of the Puritans, even if he still personally rejected the foundation of their entire system of belief: God.
As Christians, we will encounter people, past and present, who seem to us unknowable, unsympathetic, and just flat-out wrong.  If we want to love them well, and want to understand where they are coming from, we must be willing to enter into their worlds, experience their lives, and sympathize with their views.  We should, like Morgan, come out the other side with our biblical beliefs as strong as ever.  But if we do it right, those beliefs will be characterized not by arrogance or disgust, but by sympathy and love.Further Reading
You can read the full text of Morgan’s story here.
American Slavery, American Freedom – one of the best books in American history, period.

Benjamin Franklin – one of the best  biographies of Franklin, who shared a birthday with Morgan
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)

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