After visiting Oxford, MS three weeks ago, I began reading William Faulkner again, specifically the Snopes trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion). One of Faulkner’s recurrent themes is the legacy that one generation leaves to the next, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by a passage in The Town describing the Snopes, a pretty low-life clan that is gradually inserting itself into the well-bred society of post-Civil War Mississippi:
And then suppose, just suppose; suppose and tremble: one generation more removed from Eck Snopes and his innocence; one generation more until that innocent and outrageous belief that courage and honor are practical has had time to fade and cool so that merely the habit of courage and honor remain. . . .
“ . . . So that merely the habit of courage and honor remain!” Those are really frightening words.
The whole idea reminded me of something I came upon while studying about Puritans a number of years ago. After fleeing from religious tyranny in Europe, the early Puritans in America established theocracies in New England, that is, church membership and civil citizenship were the same. Both communion and voting privileges were denied the unbaptized and/or those not admitted to the church.
For the first generation of Puritans, the system worked well. Their children were baptized as infants and full church membership was granted after their conversion experience, which all prospective church members were required to rehearse in front of the congregation.
Some slippage occurred between the first and second generations, but by the third generation of Puritans in New England, the lack of a personal conversation experience created an embarrassing and difficult situation both politically and religiously. Because large numbers of these third generation Puritans had no personal conversion experience to relate, they could not be accepted into full church membership, so they could not vote as citizens of New England.
In 1662, only forty-two years after the Mayflower and the first pioneer Puritans landed in the New World, the colony leaders felt compelled to shore up both the church and the state. Their solution was what was called The Half-Way Covenant, according to which the less-pious third generation could receive partial church membership if they simply agreed with the creed and accepted the covenant. With this covenant established, the children of the Third Generation could be baptized in the church.
The hope of the Second and First Generation was that granting partial church membership would encourage participation by the Third Generation and keep them and their children from feeling excluded, resulting ultimately in their deciding to go for full church membership with a personal conversion.
Records from the time show the reduced requirements and the lesser call did not dramatically affect the personal piety of the Third Generation, a precedent from which we should learn. In fact, the historical consensus seems to be that over sixty more years were needed for another generation of New Englanders to find personal faith. Specifically, during The Great Awakening of 1730, these halfway measures were rejected out of hand and personal conversion became again a requirement for church membership. The expectation of complete commitment was much more successful than meeting the hardly committed halfway.
Sherrylee and I are enjoying a few days in southern California with our daughter and her husband and three grandchildren—three generations of our family. Can you see why I’m thinking about this third generation stuff?
The figures I hear are that half of our children who grow up in church with us will give up their faith within a few years of high school graduation. If that doesn’t bother you, then you probably are a Third Generation and your children are a Fourth Generation group. It really bothers me!
By the grace of God, our children not only have faith, but have married people of great faith as well. I know they are teaching their children and taking them to church, but Sherrylee and I as First Generation of this family have committed to Second Generation to be an active part of Third Generation’s lives, so that they not only have every chance to choose Faith, but they have seen something in the lives of First and Second that they want as well.
They will not have seen us accumulate much; they will not see us with great fame or power; but they will see faithfulness—sincere faithfulness—that’s the best we Firsts can give to the Thirds that we love so much.
I do not want to appear in some long, future Faulknerian sentence that says,
And then suppose, just suppose; suppose and tremble: one generation more removed from Mark and his innocence; one generation more until that innocent and outrageous belief that faith and personal devotion to Christ are practical has had time to fade and cool so that merely the habit of faith and devotion remain. . . .