Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood


The Moral of “Colonial House”: Academics Like Me Are Entirely Useless

posted by Jana Riess

As part of our family’s homeschooling in American history, I’ve been revisiting the old PBS series Colonial House, in which about two dozen contemporary people recreate New England of 1628 by living for several months in a replica colony that is supposed to abide by the customs and laws of the English colonies of the period. PBS and the BBC do the best historical reality shows ever—Colonial House, Frontier House, 1900 House, etc.—and so this series has led to terrific educational conversations about daily life in colonial America, the ethics of colonists’ treatment of Native Americans, and how people in the seventeenth century went to the bathroom. Good times.

What we haven’t discussed is how the best and most valuable workers and leaders in the project are fundamentalist Christians, and the most useless and vain colonists are people who look a lot like me.

The assistant governor of the colony is a religion professor who really, really, really enjoys preaching to the community for three hours each Sunday. His pre-colonial life involves teaching university students and deciding whether to enhance dinner with truffle-scented olive oil or some other flavor.

His foil, the governor, is in real life a Baptist preacher in Waco, Texas. I couldn’t have less in common with him: he sees the world in a fairly black-and-white way, harbors naïve historical views about the Puritans, and—most heartrendingly—responds in a deeply judgmental manner when one of the colony’s servants reveals halfway through the project that he is gay. Aiming to re-create the religious world of the seventeenth century, the governor also puts people in the stocks for minor offenses, such as saying “crap.” (“Which is crap,” sighs one offender as she hangs there.)

The lieutenant governor and his wife react with deep compassion at the revelation that their servant is gay, but that’s where my admiration for them stops. At one point, the governor leaves for a time and the lieutenant gets a taste of leadership. Everything unravels almost overnight as the colonists stop planting corn and begin rebelling in quiet ways. The freemen take off to go swimming, but the lieutenant governor hesitates to assert authority. He wants to be popular, not to be a leader.

By episode five, because of a series of family tragedies, the original governor (who has returned and assumed command) and his family have to leave the project for good. The academic-turned-assistant-governor and his wife, another academic, revel in their new roles. They turn their servant out of the house to live with other servants, making them the only people in the colony with only two people in a home. (At one point, the first governor’s home had been crowded with fourteen.)

The new governor’s wife (a feminist scholar who, ironically enough, had lobbied the former governor insistently for greater equality between the sexes) throws a dinner party for a visiting business partner in which all of the rules of colonial station are strictly enforced: she and her husband sit at the center of the table with the guest of honor, while the servants occupy the extreme ends and eat from child-sized bowls.

Worst of all, the new governor shirks the work responsibilities that the other colonists share so he can retreat to the ivory tower he feels entitled to. He commissions one of the young men to sketch his portrait; while everyone else has “all hands on deck,” he sits regally in a chair to be portrayed as a benefactor of the arts. Ugh! And in the last week of the experiment he sets up a Greek school so that two male colonists can read the New Testament in its original language while everyone else cuts wood and harvests corn. The new governor justifies this by fretting aloud that Harvard would never have been founded if some of the more educated Puritans had not abandoned manual labor to pursue education and the arts. Puh-leeze.

There is a time and a place for study. Having an education has blessed my life. Knowing how to read the New Testament in Greek is a very cool thing. But here’s a request to my friends: if I ever start acting like this fellow, vain and entitled and essentially useless for all practical service, just put me in the stocks. I will deserve it.

 

 

 



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