Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Defining Noah Webster by K. Alan Snyder

Snyder, K. Alan. Defining Noah Webster: A Spiritual Biography. Washington, DC: Allegiance Press, 2002.

Noah Webster was in interesting man in interesting times. A young man during the American Revolution, he became interested in politics and went on to know many of the statesmen of that era, especially amongst his fellow Federalists . He was published the first magazine of original material in America and edited a Federalist newspaper, sometimes drawing fire from his own party for his evenhanded reporting. He is best known for writing educational materials, readers, texts, and especially his dictionary.

K. Alan Snyder covers this biographical fare in Defining Noah Webster. He is more interested in the philosophical and religious arc of Webster’s life and how his views changed, especially after his conversion to Christianity.

Webster was raised in the Congregational church of his family in Connecticut and attended Yale, which was still ostensibly a religious college at the time. (Incidentally, later in life he would help to establish Amerherst because, among other things, he found Harvard, itself originally a seminary, to be too liberal.) As he reached adulthood and had to fend for himself, he turned away from the faith and sought guidance in literature and philosophy. He is hardly the only Enlightenment-era youth to seek to perfect himself through reason .

Snyder sees Webster falling under the influence of Scottish Common Sense philosophy. After reading his book, I can’t tell you much about Common Sense philosophy, though Snyder provides just enough to follow how it appears in Webster’s activities and writings in the early part of his career. The major themes are that reason must be guided by conscience, and that as a person matures and develops reason, reason should take the drivers seat and direct his other faculties. Thus, Webster’s educational views include inculcating moral values. Common Sense also viewed political philosophy as part of moral philosophy. Webster valued character in politicians and thought foolish put public trust in people whose private morals were questionable.

While Webster’s views were not opposed to Christianity, his real faith through much of his career as an educator, author, politician, and public figure was in reason, not in Christ. As he saw his country grow and become factious and reported the horrors that developed during the French Revolution, he became disillusioned with the idea that reason, even if guided by a trained conscience, could cure people of moral shortcomings.

Webster converted to Christianity at the age of about 50, to the delight of his wife and daughters. He did not make a disillusioned retreat to religion. He was born again and the experience changed his perspective on everything. The final chapters are the meat of the book. Snyder writes about how this conversion changed Webster’s views on politics and education and influenced his dictionary.

Webster remained a staunch Federalist. However, the reasoning behind his political views changed. He found the roots of republican government in the Bible-base wisdom of America’s Christian settlers. Solid character, especially Christ-like character, became an even more important requirement for elected officials.

Before his conversion, Webster steered clear of what he saw as the overuse of the Bible in readers. Afterward, he no longer trusted natural conscience and reason. People were too prone to error and selfishness. They needed revelation from God’s Word as a reliable to guide to what is right.

These Christian views are prominent in Webster’s dictionary, though largely removed from its successors. Webster traced etymologies with the notion of finding the true meaning of a word in its origins in an Adamic tongue. His illustrations of meanings frequently reflected his Christian views.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
His Excellency by Joseph J. Ellis
The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization by Anthony Esolen
Triumvirate by Bruce Chadwick