A Man for Our Season

On plundering the (higher-ed) monasteries

The United States has had an exalted view of education for most of its history. The Puritans in New England were celebrated for their high levels of education even in the colonial period, a trait they nurtured into their treasured (eventual Ivy League) colleges. A younger Southern gentry likewise banked their less orthodox religious tradition on learning, as can be seen in Jefferson’s redevelopment of William and Mary College and his founding of West Point and the University of Virginia. Patrick Henry founded one of the three remaining all-male colleges in the country, and George Washington shares the moniker of one of his investments. Starting and reviving colleges is an American tradition older than popular voting, religious liberty, or professional sports. 

Thousands of small colleges still dot the nation, some dating back centuries, many still popping up with new and innovative models of learning to reform the old. It was with this optimistic and religious spirit that My Country, Tis Of Thee included the following verses:

Our glorious Land to-day,

‘Neath Education’s sway,

Soars upward still.

Its hills of learning fair,

Whose bounties all may share,

Behold them everywhere

On vale and hill!

Thy safeguard, Liberty,

The school shall ever be,

Our Nation’s pride!

No tyrant hand shall smite,

While with encircling might

All here are taught the Right

With Truth allied.

For many Americans, it was the school house on every hill and college in every town, not the gun behind every blade of grass, which made the United States such a threat to tyranny. 

As the 19th century approached the 20th, however, the dominance of the small liberal-arts colleges was ending. A new style of research university was on the rise, and with it came new expectations for college graduates. Future president Theodore Roosevelt would write to college graduates in The Atlantic in 1894 that,

A heavy moral obligation rests upon the man of means and upon the man of education to do their full duty by their country. On no class does this obligation rest more heavily than upon the men with a collegiate education, the men who are graduates of our universities…they are bound to act intelligently and effectively in support of the principles which they deem to be right and for the best interests of the country.

Less than two decades later, a former research university president would be elected president of the United States. 

From the rise of the Rose Bowl to the G.I. Bill, the university apparatus massively expanded, ostensibly building character, instilling discipline, teaching practical skill, and credentialing our nation’s upper and middle classes. As of 2021, 42% of Americans aged 25 and up had a college degree, an all time high, and universities were the largest employers in at least 13 states

Yet all is not well in our republic. 

New Monastics for a New Religion

It is increasingly obvious that the universities have not heeded the Bull Moose’s words, and have disregarded the principles and interests of the country. Not only have they disregarded it, they have little incentive to invest in a healthy society in the United States, especially outside the established journalism-academia apparatus aptly dubbed “the cathedral.”

College graduates (the primary product of the University system) in recent years have overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party, leaving the Republican Party with an almost identical makeup to its 1996 composition, while the Democrats have almost doubled their share of college educated voters in that time. College graduates, ceteris paribus, have identified nearly 2:1 in favor of the Democratic Party since 1996, a party which has also doubled its percentage of atheists and nonreligious voters in the same period. The correlations continue to emerge as Generation Z is not only the least religious generation in U.S. History, and the most college educated, but the most overwhelmingly Democratic, a correlation that breaks all historic trends regarding voters growing more conservative as they age. They also incite the most extreme leftward political action in the nation, such as the violent Black Lives Matter movement, with no oversight or investigation from our government or law-enforcement agencies. 

If uneven political distribution was the cathedral’s only fault, it might be excused, even if conservatives should be mocked for their political naivety in staying utterly disinterested in what happened on the campuses across the country. But the destructive intellectual and moral formation of a university education and the sheer power of the universities themselves expands from there: college graduates are getting married later than any time in the history of the United States, and having the fewest children in the history of North American colleges. While not merely attributable to a college diploma, the universities certainly do not meet their earlier functions as spiritual incubators or preparation for healthy democratic life. 

Besides this, the colleges continue to raise tuition to record highs, leaving students with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and then turn their students against their parents and their very own bodies, resulting in the greatest threat to republican self-government in the history of the United States. Standing colleges, like standing armies in an older age, are the most immediate threat to domestic self-government. 

Against this threat, the market has provided no correction, as tuition prices and endowments continue to grow regardless of economic health. What did president Biden have to promise to boost midterm turn-out among his strongest constituency? Student Loan Forgiveness. Who stands to benefit most from that solution? The universities making immense profits on the students they claim to be aiding. 

Historical quotations about republics requiring a virtuous citizenry are superfluous; America always relied on colleges to promote order and virtue. But the very institutions which are supposed to do that invest their energy in morally blackmailing their students, brainwashing them to support destructive anti-Christian lifestyles, such as sexual hedonism. Not only that, but the universities financially bind their alumni after four years of mis-formation, leaving everyone wondering who wins besides the university’s pocketbook. This is not to mention the massive security risk posed by the dangerous influence Chinese Communist Party associates are buying through academic conferences, well-funded student organizations, and open subversion

Add to this the near slavish exploitation of immigrants brought to the universities on false promises of professorships and research opportunities that rarely exist, and you have an entangled web of domestic corruption, financial enslavement, and national security risks on a scale hardly seen since the monasteries of late medieval England. And a threat of that magnitude requires a hero of equal measure. 

Once Noble Institutions

Medieval monasteries were founded as cells of spiritual and national renewal, ways of concentrating discipline, prayer, labor, and civilization inside a small enclosed area. They were to be paragons of order and holiness across Christendom, binding all the nations together. In some instances like Ireland, they built political dynasties rivaling Rome, and in the case of the late Roman Benedictines, they were invested with the hope of future civilization. Later on, they were installed at the behest of a new ruler looking to gain the backing of the church in a realm, such as with the vast lands taken by the church after the invasion of William “the Bastard.” For a time they naturally replenished–when one monastic community was corrupted or posed a political threat through apocalypticism, the instigators would be replaced with new leadership through the bishops, as John of Parma was replaced with Bonaventure. When corruption was more rampant, monastic traditions were faced with intense reformist orders which would compete with the older, wealthier traditions, often forcing reform from older orders to avoid irrelevancy. From such were the Carmelites, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and in time, the Augustinians. 

But by the early 16th century, this naturally reforming cycle was broken and had been for a long time. The temptation of financial gain and political power outweighed the advantages of holiness and academic rigor. While pockets of piety held out, monastic orders were widely seen as rapacious, predatory, and untrustworthy. The monasteries and academic colleges were butting heads with reformers since at least Wycliffe’s day in the 1360s, and his Lollard followers continued as underground dissidents in the church for a century and a half, comforted by their seditious, hand-written English bibles. 

Sleeping Sentries

Many saw the deep, abiding problems of monastic corruption, not least among them the humanists, such as the English statesman Thomas More. More confessed the need for theological and academic reform, even conceding that the Scriptures needed to be translated into English (which would have been a serious reform of the ecclesiastical status quo) before the Reformation, but decades of his influence gave the English people no English Word of God, and little political and monastic reform. Instead, under growing influence, his bright mind was co-opted by the ecclesiastical establishment, directing his resources instead towards silencing the reformers like John Frith and William Tyndale, defending the very order More so wanted to reform. 

Thomas More, for all his reforming notions, did precious little to empower the English people against the blatant corruption of the Roman Church in England. Instead, he continually defended the autonomous and untouchable authority of the Roman Papacy, and argued for the historic limitations of the English monarchy–after all, Tyndale’s (and later Archbishop Cranmer and King Henry’s) notion of monarchical supremacy was at odds with the English tradition, going back to the Magna Carta. Whenever the system that More believed needed reform came under outside criticism, he always defended the status quo, persecuting those who he believed were the wrong actors.

There is far more to the character of Thomas More, and much of it quite admirable, but the parallel between More and many American leaders in the ruling and academic ranks of society is startling. They see the rot in our public colleges and yet perpetuate the corruption by inaction, downplaying the problem, and attempting to run safe reelection campaigns in heavy Republican districts, never taking any steps toward cutting the tumor out of American public life, even despite the many avenues to do just that. More seems to have had good intentions, but not unlike Cicero, he extolled the virtues of the countryside and retreated from the challenges of his day. One of the greatest political figures of early 16th century England, he had the almost unique opportunity to revive English life by confronting its bloated, Rome-centric bureaucratic system. He never tried. 

So the opportunity to save Christian England fell from the principled and highly educated More to a troubled and decidedly less pious or educated king.  

The Wrong Man in the Right Place

It was only a matter of time until the monasteries would be significantly reformed. They were underpopulated, and few were keeping the daily office, which was their primary function. Whatever role they were created to play in England, they were not playing it. Not only that, but when the King was denied an annulment in order to secure an heir for the English throne and to avoid throwing the English monarchy back into the throes of a civil war, Rome refused, because it would upset their alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and their crusade against that pesky friar, Martin Luther. Even if Henry were to act on his kingly right to govern the church within his realm, he would be forced to reckon with thousands of monks who still swore loyalty to Rome. 

So, Thomas Cromwell, the revolutionary legal mind and rising royal star (and Henry VIII’s de facto defensor fidei) used Henry’s new-found executive powers in the Acts of Supremacy to pass further legislation to review and, if necessary, dissolve many smaller religious houses. A second act followed four years later in 1539, dislodging the power of the remaining, more entrenched monasteries and taking back the near quarter of English land under their control.

Henry VIII and Cromwell (a man of contested genuinity of faith) broke the power of the greatest spiritual and political threat to the commonwealth’s interest by first acknowledging the deep power the religious orders had over the daily life of the people. After realizing the direct interest they had in matters of Christian truth (something Henry had long understood) and how it would shape the political lives of the people, Henry targeted the monopoly the monasteries had on education, Scripture, the printing press, and the formation of virtue, not to mention the political clout they wielded at the expense of the national security. When Henry initially reformed the monasteries by shutting down and merging smaller and more ineffective monastic houses, an armed cenobo-philic rebellion broke out, threatening the realm’s tranquility in a way not seen since the miserable War of the Roses. This confirmed that the monasteries were the clear and present danger to Henry’s lawful Christian government. The monasteries were officially nonviolent safehouses operating with little civil oversight. They were also evidently kindling for a national civil war. Cromwell and Henry knew that executive authority was always about enforcement. If legal enforcement was obstructed by sedition, even sentimental sedition, the seditious obstructers must be disciplined as an act of justice.

Unable to reform dysfunctional bodies without triggering a violent response, Henry played the proper role as the executive, executing the law to respond to imminent threats to the nation, harvesting their resources and ending the extraction of wealth from the poor. While this has been derided as oppressive by Roman Catholics (and a few sad-sack Protestants), this maneuver did have precedent and was entirely the king’s prerogative, but it required an active executive creatively using the power he accumulated. In the preceding century, several monasteries were suppressed and some closed due to close relationship with the French monarchy. Alfred the Great suppressed all the monasteries in his jurisdiction and turned them into forts to defend the nation, with the monasteries only reappearing en masse centuries later. The difference is that Henry successfully executed the process on a scale never seen, and against a domestic, not foreign, threat.

The Choice Before Us

There have been promising proposals and creative solutions to the deep and sustained corruption of our universities, such as the New College of Florida’s new board appointments, but this cannot be the end for conservatives and Christians who have any concern for the public welfare (note all successful examples are the result of executive action). Many more substantial reforms are not only prudential for the health and security of the nation, but necessary for the upright character of the republic. Lest this be considered unfair play, secularists have already been hunting down dissenting colleges within their jurisdiction that have not naturally submitted to their doctrine of education. 

We Christians can take these blows on the chin, defend the status quo of “independent” education even as these colleges bleed the United States dry, leak secrets to our communist enemies and systematically dismantle all that is yet good in our civilization. Or we can demand, like Tyndale, that the executive has not only an interest but a duty to protect his people from domestic threats, especially institutionalized ones. Christians can play Thomas More, gloriously taking on one more lost cause, martyred while standing athwart history defending the status quo (which he didn’t even like), or we can actually use the power legally conferred to us in the Departments of Education and Justice, as well as state governments, to turn the tide of this academic siege. 

It is a political imperative that conservative and Christian magistrates obstruct the cathedral’s dangerous “priests of democracy,” or we may lose what is left of our heritage, and our republican independence. 

The dissolution of monasteries did not solve all the problems of Tudor England and analogous action will not solve all the problems in the United States today. But it was a necessary prerequisite for the formation of the most well-respected and well-educated Anglican and dissenting clergy in the world. It presaged the transition of the Oxford and Cambridge curricula to the colonies, and made the establishment of colleges the American tradition it is today. Henry’s action breathed life and independence into English-speaking education previously unimagined, giving the yet-unsettled American shores the fertilizer of their own revolution.

*Photo Credit: Artist Unknown, “Allegory of the Tudor Succession: The Family of Henry VIII.” c. 1590. Yale Center for British Art. Retrieved from https://www.luminarium.org/renlit/henry8face4.htm. Accessed 3/15/23.

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Jackson Waters

Jackson Waters is a Virginian living north of the Potomac with his wife, Emma Leigh, and daughter, Elizabeth Anne. He graduated from Union University and is the former Managing Editor of Providence Magazine. He studies at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is a former Cotton Mather Fellow with American Reformer.