Is context always helpful?

When apologetics debases historical memory

Leonardo Cruz
31 min readJul 24, 2023

This text was supposed to be a Twitter thread with appointments on Nancy Pearcey’s new book, The Toxic War on Masculinity, and its problems regarding historical research. However, I rapidly realized it would become too long because the topics discussed here need space for appropriate explanations.

Pearcey’s book was released in late June, and now the first criticism began to appear. One argument she makes about the thought of anti-suffragist women has raised a lot of issues concerning her views on women’s rights and the consequences of the reception of her claims.

That, for instance, led to a discussion concerning the importance of reading a work thoroughly and analyzing the ideas espoused within context. Some, like Jake Meador, pointed out that within context, it is perceivable

[Pearcey] is trying to have intellectual empathy for anti-suffragist women of the past, trying to understand them on their own terms so as to represent them fairly as well as better understand how people of the past actually thought about sex and gender. In other words, she is being a responsible author.

The debate surrounding her intentions and the necessity of contextual reading persisted, yet the concerns regarding her historical research approach went unnoticed until Sheila Gregoire’s comment:

I believe that’s a follow-up of one of the big questions yet to be answered: how to build a healthy apologetic approach to history? Even in context, Pearcey’s statement on women’s suffrage and Puritan households is still bad historiography, despite her best intentions in writing the way she did. The erratic way she deals with historical research is a recurrent problem in her work, and I understand it’s deeply related to her views about history — which, I need to clarify, aren’t her own exclusivity. Even though I personally agree with her that the problems concerning men’s cultural references, fatherhood, family, and community life are real, the way she indicates these problems are insufficient and misleading.

In order to be as brief as I can, and because The Toxic War on Masculinity is in discussion right now, I’ll deal mainly with what I read in her book, staying within my field of expertise in early modern history and intellectual history. Paying attention to the concepts Pearcey herself uses, I’ll demonstrate the problems indicated here aren’t just a matter of content, but, crucially, methodology.

Ideas out of context

The thinking of the things past

In the passage quoted in full by Meador, Pearcey states that “when the issue of women’s suffrage was first raised, most women actually opposed it — a fact that puzzles modern historians.” However, there isn’t a sentence or a note pointing to the research of “modern historians” and how they approached the issue. She goes straight ahead and quotes how Susan B. Anthony and Ida Harper were troubled by anti-suffragist women. It seems that, for her, the concern of the “early feminist leaders” was strong and steady enough to affect works on the history of women’s rights clouding the understanding of the arguments from anti-suffragist women up to today.

In the following paragraph, she indicates opposition of psychological and social factors in sources. Suffragists claimed adversaries were indifferent and apathetic to women’s problems, and anti-suffragists were concerned with individualism damaging households:

Why did most women oppose women’s suffrage? It was not out of ‘indifference’ or ‘apathy.’ Instead, it was because they understood clearly that universal suffrage implied a shift from the household to the individual as the basic unit of society. As one anti-suffrage group wrote in 1894, ‘the household, not the individual, is the unit of the State, and the vast majority of women are represented by household suffrage.’ Another anti-suffragist said the vote would ‘strike at the family as the self-governing unit upon which the state is built.’ Still another said it would, ‘shift the basis of our government from the family as a unit to the individual.’

Then, Pearcey says it was logical women were concerned about the loss of men’s responsibility and accountability in promoting and stewarding the common good. The first problem here is related to insufficient mapping of the conceptual vocabulary. How do the sources show an understanding of these psychological and social factors? Were “apathy/indifference” and “concern for the household” the only conceptual options to explain that debate at that time? How are these concepts used in relation to other intellectual and cultural references? There’s no answer because it’s a logical conclusion for those women the debate was established that way — that is, the way Pearcey is representing. A second problem appears: if that was the logical conclusion to them, which sources claim this? She quotes none. It is implied anti-suffragist understanding of household dynamics is analogous to the one Pearcey is defending in the book, therefore it doesn’t need explanation.

Anti-suffragist pamphlet in Texas (1917), which mobilizes the idea of Petticoat Rule: a negative way of depicting a “women's government” because it was believed the bad influence of women in French courts led to the downfall of the French monarchy.

So, through Pearcey’s book, we see a pattern: in generalizing claims, or primary sources are missing, due to the obviousness of these claims; or if a source appears, it’s an ideal representative of the whole scenario. I’ll take two other generalizing claims as an example: Pearcey’s argument about the publishing market and her description of the Puritan household as representative of biblical standards of masculinity and femininity.

In the introduction of her book, we see a statement recalling the issue of insufficient mapping of the conceptual vocabulary of the day. Pearcey affirms the rareness of a bibliography on the “history of manhood” since feminist books critiquing the concept of womanhood and its creation dominate the market (I understand her feelings about the market, but some indication of data would help, once Pearcey claims the American context is representative of a worldwide trend). Also, she emphasizes she is looking for a history of manhood, while actually searching for a definition for meanings of masculinity, which she doesn’t find in the end. What she doesn’t notices, though, is that until very recently manhood was used as a category encompassing adulthood, humanity, and “the essence of being a man”. Men, therefore, didn’t necessarily require a specific orientation towards the purpose of their sex since the expectations of men’s behavior and identity regarding their sex are conflated with those generally expected of a human adult.

Women nevertheless had household and domesticity rules that put them in an ambivalent set of possibilities between the obligations of deference to men’s authority at home and in public besides the tasks of submission and care for the private space of the household and the public of modeling charity and piety, as shown by Mary Kelley in Private Women, Public Stage (1984). In The Making of Biblical Womanhood (2021), Beth Barr summarizes how the category of manhood was used in early modern English conceptual vocabulary:

Words for men were used interchangeably in reference to kings, politicians, preachers, household heads, philosophers, and even to represent all “mankind,” while specific words for women were used exclusively for women and mostly regarding the domestic sphere. “Man” in early modern English could represent humanity, but the humans it described were political citizens, decision-makers, leaders, household heads, theologians, preachers, factory owners, members of Parliament, and so on. In other words, “man” could include both men and women, but it mostly didn’t. It mostly just included men. (p. 176)

Consequently, it’s proper to raise the question of why Pearcey doesn’t show an assessment of her conceptual choices. Why does she see manhood and masculinity as evident synonyms? And why masculinity, a concept coined in the 1950s, seems reliable enough to be related to biblical referential for men?

The way Pearcey describes the meaning of the concept of authority is revealing as well. In the first three chapters of her book, she shows the “biblical blueprint” for masculinity, which is the male authority over the household. Intending to avoid the common association between authority and authoritarianism or its ancient relative tyranny, she appeals to the etymology of the word:

The word authority is derived from author, so the etymology suggests the person responsible for instigating or originating an action, the person who takes the initiative, who goes first. Reformed author and blogger Tim Challies [in Why Am I Not Egalitarian?] writes, “A husband’s leadership is not first a matter of breaking ties or solving impasses but a matter of being the first to love, the first to serve, the first to repent, the first to forgive.”

However, considering the Latin, medieval, and early modern usage of authority [auctoritas], it’s noticeable Pearcey’s affirmation would be improved by broader context and bring another meaning to authority as a concept and its reception regarding biblical interpretation.

The Latin word auctoritas was within the semantic field of power in ancient Rome, and its usage was related to the words potestas and imperium. In Imperium, Potestas, and the Pomerium in the Roman Republic (2007), Fred Dougula explains Imperium held a central role in Roman warfare and governance, denoting the commanding authority possessed by Rome’s military leaders. It represented the power to issue orders and enforce compliance, distinguishing Roman commanders. Imperium was bestowed officially upon those in command of an army, signifying their legitimate possession of military authority. For example, the title of imperator, granted to victorious generals through the acclamation of their soldiers, inherently embodied a military honor (p. 419, 431). Additionally, imperium was displayed in opposition to potestas, which was the power inherent in public office that enabled magistrates to fulfill their responsibilities, and all regular (and extraordinary) magistrates possessed potestas. The specialized office assignments were to be performed by the specific magistrate only who possessed jurisdiction and by none other of an equal or inferior category or rank — potestas was the sole power of those magistrates without imperium (p. 423–424).

When it comes to auctoritas, Mikahil Schelkunov explains in Theological Foundations of the Political Power Ontology (2021) that the institutional categories of “faces of power” — potestas and auctoritas, excluding the military imperium — were opposed against each other, but complementary. Potestas, as was shown, refers to the institutionalized, single source of power, while auctoritas refers to the specific carriers of this power, where the personality of the ruler plays an important role in itself (p. 489–490). By the Middle Ages, potestas became associated with the God-given order of creation (general providence), while auctoritas was related to God-established people in institutionalized power (special providence). In the medieval Christian tradition, auctoritas was considered the sacred power of bishops that legitimized the actions of the ruler who possessed potestas or the possibility of action. As a result, auctoritas and potestas are two sides of the same coin, two faces of power, and one is impossible without the other. Similarly, a ruler who possesses potestas but lacks auctoritas turns into a tyrant and despot whose actions are contrary to the divine plan. Similarly, a ruler who possesses potestas but lacks auctoritas turns into a tyrant and despot whose actions are contrary to the divine plan. Therefore, the population needs the legitimizing power of auctoritas to accept the ruler’s actions as legitimate. (p. 489–492). When auctoritas is considered as “legitimacy”, José Morales Fabero says in The Concepts of “Auctoritas” and “Potestas” in the Modern Epoch (2020) that Christian theologians innovated because they added to the character expected of a ruler the theological virtues as a crucial feature to have political recognition (p. 344–352), a feature Quentin Skinner demonstrates, in The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978), to be present as late as in humanism in Italy as well (p. 136–150).

Taking those considerations to the topic of the male authority over the household alongside the conception of the unfitness of the female sex to rule (as will be explained in further detail later), it’s fair to infer men were regarded as the heads of the household because a husband’s authority was part of God’s design for the cosmos (potestas) and because men were, by God’s special providence, created with the propensity for the virtues and temper required to rule (auctoritas).

As we have seen in the case of manhood, concepts are related to a multiplicity of meanings and appeal to etymology as an established and perennial meaning doesn’t explain the usage of a concept in its original context nor its reception.

It needs to be in mind that The Toxic War on Masculinity is an effort to reconstruct a “history of masculinity” and the attempts to overcome the biblical standards on the sexes that once were the paradigm in America. Pearcey opposes “two scripts”: the “Good” Man, which is the gentleman, pious and virtuous father, and the “‘Real’ ” Man, which is the competitive, brute, and predator. For her, “Ideally, the ‘Good’ Man should also be the ‘Real’ Man. But in today’s secular culture, the two have become decoupled”, and Christianity is the remedy to the situation because it transcends this dichotomy. Trying to explain this process, she unveils the story of these two scripts and how the “secular” script led to the rise of the “Real” Man, the masculinity that rejects Christianity. Pearcey, in the introduction, sets forth her methodology in a brief sentence:

In this book, I take a “show, don’t tell” approach, blending historical and sociological facts with personal stories and anecdotes.

In chapters one to three, she extensively shows what the biblical blueprint for masculinity is, how data show it works, and the story of its decline so the secular “Real” Man could rise and dominate the modern conceptions of masculinity. What is seen in The Toxic War on Masculinity is a great call to return to the biblical blueprint demonstrated by Pearcey and proved by history to be the right way of God. For Pearcey, then, these facts are self-evident in History, because facts are consequences of the blueprint God imprinted in the cosmos and are revealed in the Bible. Therefore, she doesn’t need to explain the contexts of the ideas mentioned; how they were used and modified, not even her methodology.

Pearcey doesn’t deal properly with what French historian Marc Bloch called attention to in his work The Historian’s Craft (1949): how historical reasoning is in itself conditioned by past influences. The reconstruction of the past is an extremely difficult task, and its complete achievement is unfeasible due to the historian’s limitations. Thus, knowledge of the past is always progressive, advancing gradually. Historians are subjected to the tyranny of the past, and there are moments when it is best for them to retreat into their own ignorance. Additionally, historians have to contend with the prejudices of their time, whether they are from the past or contemporary. These challenges compel historians to approach their work with care and discernment, seeking to understand the past with the utmost accuracy, even though it is a laborious task with continuous development (p. 74–78).

Bloch states the practice of history involves operationalizing the vocabulary used by historical sources, which can be challenging when identifying the limitations of both past and present conceptual repertoires. Language, as a tool for describing habits and objects, doesn’t change as quickly as the habits it describes. Sometimes, words may disappear while the objects or habits they refer to persist. Moreover, institutions with similar operations may receive different names, and the opposite can happen too. Historians, in virtue of this, rely on words that are already in common use in everyday life as their primary tool. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that the vocabulary found in historical documents is influenced by the perspectives of their creators. These considerations highlight the intricacies and complexities of using language as a historical tool, as historians navigate the evolution of language over time and its implications for historical interpretation. Bloch, then, concludes: “A word is worth less for its etymology than for the use made of it” (p. 136-143).

Pearcey is attempting to reconstruct the changes in ideas of masculinity but doesn’t seem to realize concepts don’t have stable meanings. In Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas (1969), Quentin Skinner shows that when a group or society consciously possesses a concept, a corresponding vocabulary is developed and utilized to discuss the concept consistently. In this way, the possession of a concept is generally signaled by the use of a corresponding term. Conceptual change occurs through an initiative by past actors to address what is perceived as a problem while attempting to comprehend the world around them (p. 5–12). James Farr, in Understanding Conceptual Change Politically (1989), asserts that concepts always form part of a “constellation”, that is, belief systems that are, in turn, theories. As theories are rational and intentional efforts to understand the world, they undergo alterations as the theorist seeks to “explain or reconstruct” the world (p. 35).

Therefore, as Reinhart Koselleck explained in Futures Past (1979), dealing with ideas in the past begins with questioning “Why is it that only at certain times certain phenomena are brought together under a common concept?” (p. 117). To answer this question, there must be a differentiation between words and concepts. For him, words are descriptive, while concepts encapsulate dimensions of meaning originating from past experiences and efforts to describe the present and point to future action within a single word (p. 101–103). Concepts, according to Koselleck, bring together a variety of historical experiences, as well as “the sum of objective theoretical and practical characteristics in a single circumstance.” In this way, historical experience, when conceptually articulated, is not only described by concepts but also experienced through them. Thus, concepts cannot have their semantic function extracted as deterministically derived from political, economic, and social contexts, since concepts simultaneously enable and limit historical experience; nor be interpreted as meaningful in themselves, hence their meaning is established within a set of relations between human experience searching for meaning and the complexity of historical context (p. 101–110).

That’s why John Fea in Why Study History (2013) explains the past never changes, but history as a discipline does. This occurs because in history, different theories compete to explain the same facts — and different people give different meanings even though they all experienced the same event in the past. Then, the historian’s role is not to provide new answers to old questions but to ask new questions. As our understanding of the past evolves and new evidence emerges, historians constantly reassess and reevaluate events, leading to a dynamic and ever-changing field of study. In light of this, the attempt to just “show facts” is insufficient, because the competing or complementary theories and perspectives in history contribute to its continuous development and ensure a robust examination of the past (p. 22–25). As Fea summarizes: “There is a major difference between a work of history and a book of quotations” (p. 13).

Pilgrimage in a foreign country

Anonymous depiction of a Puritan family (England, 16th century)

Pearcey also discusses the Puritans’ beliefs regarding the sexes and marriage. She says:

An advantage to starting with early America is that social norms at the time were largely influenced by Christianity. This period thus gives us a benchmark to measure the decline of manhood ideals as Western culture became secular.

I acknowledge her views align in general with the most recent historiography, although her analysis lacks a comprehensive exploration of the broader context. Her depiction of Puritans’ theology of marriage seems too positive and altruistic, even though she constantly denies trying to “whitewash the colonial age” by enthusiastically presenting positive characteristics of Puritan household dynamics.

It is indeed documented that Reformers and Puritans believed in the equality of the sexes before God and the goodness of marriage, and that consequently they condemned a “tyrannical rule” from husbands, considering it a cause for divorce. In Evangelical literature, Beth Barr affirms it in The Making of the Biblical Womanhood and in an earlier paper, What did the Reformation mean to women? (2016), Kenneth Stewart does the same while discussing the role of women in Reformed Theology in Ten Myths About Calvinism (2010); and historians Steven Ozment’s When Fathers Ruled (1893) and Mary P. Ryan’s Womanhood in America (1975), quoted by Nancy in her text, have extensive explanations on the topic.

Pearcey’s inaccuracy comes from merely presenting a few examples without offering a sufficient explanation of their intellectual and social context, which doesn’t substantiate the claim that all Puritans or even Christians universally held the views she indicated. Both Ozment’s and Ryan’s works explore the difference between and within Protestants and Catholics, which Pearcey circumvents. Barr and Stewart, on the other hand, explain the ambivalence of the legacy Reformation gave to women in early modern days: while affirming the goodness of marriage and the household in a world in which cloister was in crisis, it ended up prescribing women’s sphere of agency as restrict within the household — even though both Barr and Stewart indicate ways women could act outside the household because of structures of plausibility of the time and despite social prescriptions.

What all the four authors do but Pearcey doesn’t do is, firstly, distinguish between the ontological statement “male and female are made equal before God” and the functional statement “male and female are equal in essence, but have different roles”, being the roles assigned to women generally considered unworthy to men. For example, while Pearcey alludes to Ozment’s work and emphasizes husband and wife were both called housefathers, Ozment says, though, “Above all, the husband was supposed to rule. He alone was master of his house, the one on whom all domestic discipline and order finally depended” (emphasis of the author, p. 50). Ozment also explains the difference of value attributed to roles prescribed based on the increasing thought men were inclined towards reason and women to affection, establishing men’s roles as superior in worth compared to women’s roles. Patricia Bonomi also describes it in Under the Cope of Heaven (1986, p. 97–111). It appears, too, in another work misquoted by Pearcey, American Manhood (1994) by E. Anthony Rotundo. Pearcey quotes Rotundo demonstrating the importance of men’s duties toward the community, which implied, on their part, to reject their own self-interest, resulting in the interdependence of men and women and in the creation of a “communal manhood” resulting in the protection and attention to women’s needs (p. 2). However, right on the next page, Rotundo says:

The fundamental belief about men and women before 1800 was that men were superior. In particular, men were seen as the more virtuous sex. They were credited with greater reason, which enabled them to moderate passions like ambition, defiance, and envy more effectively than women could. This belief in male superiority provided the foundation for other forms of inequality before the law and in the household. (p. 3)

Ozment also demonstrates that since adulthood meant submitting affection to the guidance of reason (p. 141–144), wives’ submission to their husbands is illustrated as the relationship between the heart to the head (p. 54–55).

Secondly, Barr, Bonomi, Stewart, Ozment, Rotundo, and Ryan acknowledge there are no assurances these social prescriptions are exact portrayals of the household dynamics of all Christians. The sources they mention should, in their view, only be taken comparatively with other documentation on the lives of theologians and ministers. Pearcey, instead, will affirm the Puritan conceptions of the household are normative because they’re representative of Christianity’s conceptions of the roles of the household. To support her argument, Pearcey would need to provide a more in-depth and detailed explanation.

There’s another topic concerning the idea of housefathers. In colonial times, says Pearcey, children were highly valued for they were “economic assets because they were laborers of the family enterprise”, and so, worked as the “social security” of the day. Her thought is based on what Adam Smith said in An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776): “The value of children is the greatest of all encouragements to marriage”.

Once again, the lack of a broader context misrepresents childhood and its moral, social, and production valuation in colonial America. Pearcey quotes a sentence from Smith when he discusses how demand for workers influences the prices of salaries in The Wealth of Nations (I, 8). Regarding childbearing, he says “Poverty, though it does not prevent the generation, is extremely unfavorable to the rearing of children.” Smith also states that “one-half the children born, it is computed, die before the age of manhood” (pay attention to the meaning of “manhood” here). Child fertility rates were as high as child mortality in poorer families due to misery, and what Smith is indicating is also confirmed in more recent scholarship, such as in Mary Vinovski’s Angels Heads and Weeping Willows: Death in Early America (1977), and in James Marten's Children in Colonial America (2007). What Smith says about childbearing in poorer families is that since work was done within the household, marrying and childbearing are valued because, even though a risky business in virtue of brutal child mortality rates, it offered a chance of positive production input in the family enterprise. To Pearcey, “values” is only a moral appreciation of children and marriage with altruistic overtones that fosters productivity. While certainly there were altruistic parents, to Smith “value” encompasses moral, social, and production estimation of childbearing in light of harsh living circumstances that made children a valuable asset. America’s difference, then, was demonstrated by Smith as the possibility of higher income for laborers because of the higher demand for them. For him, everywhere childbearing was a high-risk, high-reward endeavor for poorer families; but in America, the reward was bigger than in other places.

I’d like to refer to another issue with her description of Puritan households, specially Pearcey’s explanation of the idea of men being the “priests of the household”. Here, she acknowledges men were the target audience of manuals of householding, which was considered “the highest human art”. She starts by mentioning Martin Luther’s Large Catechism (1529) describing the father’s obligation to examine the knowledge children and servants have from the catechism. To confirm men were considered “priests of the household”, the work The Christian Home in Victorian America (1994) by Colleen McDannell is quoted: fathers were considered priests by leading family worship in confessions, singing, and prayers.

The problem lies, again, in her explanation of the meaning of being “a priest of the household” in colonial America. The argument jumps from the Reformation to Victorian America, intending to show a continuity of what Puritans thought of the religious obligations of men at home. Pearcey doesn’t indicate if and how Puritans appropriated Luther’s ideas, nor if and how Victorian Protestants followed Puritans’ footsteps.

McDannell seems to be misquoted by Pearcey as well. In The Christian Home in Victorian America, she affirms Victorian depictions of Puritan households were nostalgically idealized with the intent to build an ideology of rural life to confront the ideals of the growing industrial society, and men’s role as a family priest was a tactic adopted trying to bring men closer to religion, protecting Christian families from a rationalist worldview and, maybe, foster a nationwide Christian revival from home (p. 5–19). About the intellectual framework mobilized to define men as household priests, McDannell says:

The father’s roles as domestic priest and prophet were outgrowths of his position as king in the family. Ministers drew from their understanding of early societies where “the father became the patriarch, the chief or sheik.” The familiar Pauline dictum “for the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is head of the church,” (Eph. 5:22) became their motto. Even if the wife was a more capable ruler, Thomas Moore insisted that for her “to refuse obedience for this reason . . . would be an absurdity.” The father’s authority in the family reflected the authority of God over humanity. In 1871 The Ladies’ Repository explained that authority over the family “is an unquestionable prerogative of the husband. It is given to him by the appointment of God.” The father in the family mirrored God in the world. “Every body must have a head, and every society must have subordination,” wrote the Repository,“domestic misrule and anarchy, if universal, would be social chaos.” (emphasis of the author, p. 112)

McDannell’s conclusions could be articulated to examine theological problems originating from the thought that men’s role of authority in the household is analogous to God’s role as the Almighty sovereign of the cosmos and where women fit in it. It could be argued Pearcey says later how women, as helpers, are described with the language used to demonstrate God as Israel’s rescuer. However, although I believe this counterpoint is valid, in the passages I intend to analyze here Pearcey is making theological and exegetical arguments based on or referencing historical research as support, and the misquoting of McDannell’s work suggests Pearcey’s unwillingness to deal carefully with contradictions within the Christian past, ending up in misrepresentation.

Just to mention a counterexample of Evangelical literature dealing with Puritans and their views about men, women, affections, sexual relationships, and family, I’ll refer to Worldly Saints (1986). In this work, Leland Ryken tries to present “Puritans as they really were”, and for the most part, it’s a very positive depiction of Puritanism as a whole. But, by the end of the book, he describes the negative features of Puritan theology. Regarding what concerns the goals of my analysis of Pearcey’s new book, Ryken briefly references excessive Puritan excessive and excentric rules restricting modes and intentions of displaying affection and sexual intercourse and the “pious moralizing” way in which affection was expressed — like John Winthrop’s addressing his fianceé as “the happy and hopeful supply (next Christ Jesus) of my greatest losses”. There’s also what Ryken calls “male chauvinism”, with the examples of Benjamin Wadsworth saying a husband “strive more to be loved than feared, though neither is to be excluded” (in a rather machiavellian fashion I should say), William Gouge defending that “a wife must be mild, meek, gentle, obedient, though she be matched with a crooked, perverse, profane, wicked husband”, and John Winthrop affirming that the wife of the governor of Connecticut was mentally ill because she wasn’t dedicated to household affairs and things that belonged exclusively to women. Her suffering began by reason of meddling with men’s duties, which are tasks for “stronger minds” (p. 191–196). Pearcey quotes Gouge, Wadsworth, and Winthrop, without mentioning the broader context to include their objectionable arguments about women.

When talking about the intellectual framework of the Puritans, Pearcey says they were influenced by “classical republicanism”, which put the fathers of the household obligated to look for the common good of the family. Quoting Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), she states men were called to be virtuous and “disinterested”, that is, they should look for the interest of the people under the male authority. Here, too, Wood seems to be misquoted. First of all, political reflection about the common good wasn’t an exclusivity of republicanism. Wood demonstrates it was part of monarchic and democratic traditions too. It can also be seen in The Machiavellian Moment (1974) by J. G. A. Pocock and The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978) by Quentin Skinner. Furthermore, Wood states republicanism changed established definitions of the father’s authority in the household. The father’s rule at home was generally understood as analogous to the king’s rule over the kingdom (p. 49), which resonates with McDannell’s conclusions about the intellectual framework of the father as a household priest. Pearcey also says “The household was a miniature of society”, but Wood states otherwise: because society was an expansion of the household dynamics, male authority in public spaces resembled the father’s authority at home, which implied social and legal constraints to women, children, servants, and slaves. (p. 51). Wood describes the father’s authority thus:

The traditional patriarchal view held that children and other family members were absolutely dependent on the head of the household. In the seventeenth century, Sir Robert Filmer had declared that “the Father of a family governs by no other law than by his own will,” and some of that attitude lingered on. The head of the household remained a kind of miniature king, a governor or protector to whom respect and subjection were due. In the eighteenth century English law in the colonies still distinguished ordinary murder from the murder of masters by servants or husbands by wives by providing for harsher punishments for these petit treasons, similar to those for high treason. Parents were told that they “should carefully subdue the wills of their children and accustom them to obedience and submission”. (p. 49)

Ruth Bloch’s chapter The Gendered Meanings of Virtue in Revolutionary America (1995) is likewise quoted by Pearcey in order to reinforce the meaning of “virtue” as men’s obligation “sacrifice individual interests for the common good.” When Bloch is read within context, her argument goes in a different direction than Pearcey’s reasoning. While Pearcey understands “virtue” as an individual moral disposition to be displayed by man towards their community and household, Bloch argues “virtue” is the right of political participation in civic life, where men with citizenship rights ought to make decisions concerning the common good of the political institutions of the community and despite of each man’s household interests:

Among historians identified with the recent interpretation of the American Revolution known as the “Republican synthesis,’’ the word “virtue’’ has, however, been invested with an older political meaning. Resurrected in its classical and early modern republican forms, the term refers not to female private morality but to male public spirit, that is, to the willingness of citizens to engage actively in civic life and to sacrifice individual interests for the common good. Is virtue, then, to be understood as a word with two different meanings — one personal and female, the other political and male? Or is there a deeper historical and symbolic connection between the two definitions?

An appreciation of the eighteenth-century political use of the term is essential to an understanding of the American Revolution, but it is becoming increasingly clear that such an appreciation must also take into account the history of masculine and feminine symbolism. (p. 12)

Bloch, later, discloses how “virtue” appears related to men and women in the conceptual world of colonial America:

The orthodox Protestant and classical republican traditions also fundamentally agreed that public virtue was an inherently masculine trait. Patriarchal analogies pervaded seventeenth-century English and American Protestant political thought, which drew heavily on Old Testament models: a good leader, like a good father, was wise, caring, and firm. In 1637, the New England Puritan governor John Winthrop defended the power of the Massachusetts magistrates against Henry Vane, a supporter of Anne Hutchinson, by insisting on the superior judgment of the “fathers of the commonwealth.” The Aristotelian notion of virtue as always “united with a rational principle” — a notion that continued to dominate American Puritan ethical theory until the late seventeenth century — by definition favored men since men were deemed more rational than women.

Not that women were ever regarded as incapable of all kinds of virtue. Women were thought to be as rational as men in exercising the private, Christian virtues — temperance, prudence, faith, and charity. It was specifically public virtue — active, self-sacrificial service to the state on behalf of the common good — that was an essentially male attribute. While there were a few exceptional early American women who won recognition for their heroic defense of the wider community, these were the kind of exceptions that proved the rule. Public virtue was indeed possible for exceptional women, but it was never an inherently feminine characteristic. (p. 14–15)

Returning to Gordon Wood, he explains that by the 18th century the republicanizing of household rules led to a “revolution against patriarchy” (p. 149). Since society was an extension of the household, reshaping the spheres of agency of women and servants in the household implied reshaping their spheres of agency in the whole society, allowing for later discussions about abolition and women’s rights (p. 7–8). The values Pearcey says were shaping the script of the “Good Man” in Puritan thought are presented by Wood as one of the significant causes of the radical reshaping of society in colonial and independent America, lead by the individualization of political activity and (p. 145–168). The exact scenario Pearcey is criticizing was brought forth, though, in virtue of ideas she believes are essential to her depiction of the missing “Good Man”.

This turns even more puzzling the fact Pearcey uses the Puritan household as a normative standard without referencing Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory (1673), published in four volumes. Even though Pearcey mentions The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism (1904), by Max Weber, whose work is based on the reading of Baxter’s book, Baxter himself isn’t mentioned. His book was one of the most influential of the manuals of householding at that time, and so, an important feature of Puritans’ intellectual framework. Baxter seems to be the first to present a definition of the term “priest of the household” in Protestant literature. Besides, his work is entitled “a sum of practical theology”, and I emphasize “practical” due to Baxter’s differentiation between the equality of husband and wife before God and their affective obligations toward one another as a couple and their practical differentiation regarding the ordering and governing of a house. This would be of high value to Pearcey’s case but seems missing.

Earlier I mentioned Pearcey’s approach to history may suggest an unwillingness to deal carefully with contradictions within the Christian past. It could be argued she shows Abigail Adams calling her husband, John Quincy Adams, to “remember the ladies” in the Continental Congress of 1776 besides the “contradictory views” of Jonathan Edwards about slavery. Yet, these arguments from Pearcey are read through other lenses given the appropriate context. In The Toxic War on Masculinity, Puritans are shown as holding the biblical standard view of the sexes during colonial times. Considering they’re portrayed as normative to the definition of masculinity Pearcey spouses, the contradictions of the colonial period should be found elsewhere but in the Puritan household — although counterpoints to his can be found in already mentioned Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints.

Pearcey, thus, points toward political rights and slavery as problems outside the realm of the household:

Women's economic indispensability served to raise their status. On one hand, a colonial woman had few political or legal rights. She did not have a separate legal existence from her husband; she could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings. On the other hand, her essential role on the farm or in the family industry gave her considerably more power in practice than in theory. Households depended just as much on women canning fruits and vegetables as on men raising livestock and working the fields. Historian Barbara Leslie Epstein writes, “A rough equality between the sexes was fostered by common participation in a household economy,” which “tended to elevate the position of women”. Because colonial men and women worked together to provide the necessities of life, notes another historian, “women found themselves on a far more equal footing with their spouses.”

However, it has been demonstrated that colonial society was an extension of the household, with politics and slavery being addressed within the framework of the household and expressed using household language. In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood affirms:

These paternalistic dependencies involved not only those linked by blood or marriage. Paternal authority reached beyond the household to bind large numbers of Americans in various degrees of legal dependency. Indeed, at any one moment as much as one-half of colonial society was legally unfree. (p. 51)

Now, it’s helpful to return to the influential Christian Directory by Richard Baxter. When disserting on the organization of the household in the second volume, called Christian Economics, Baxter isn’t talking about the Christian interpretation of commercial activities: economy is a borrowed word from the Greek, present in philosopher Xenophon’s work The Oeconomicus. There, Xenophon describes the rules pertaining to the oíkos, that is, the possessions of a family within the realm of the household. In the oíkos, men acted as heads of the home and were concerned with the particular interests of maintaining the property and participating in civic duties, while women, under men's rule, administered this property over children and servants or slaves. The word oíkos was in opposition to polis, where the common good was expected to be pursued by the citizens, which were the men who were heads of the home. This conceptualization appears later in Aristotle’s Politics (chapters 8–10) and Nicomachean Ethics (chapter 5), and both Xenophon and Aristotle were recurring features of household tracts in Europe due to a lasting appreciation of Greek and Latin literature along the Hebrew Bible, the “long classicism” explained in Renaissance and Classicism (2013) by Amedeo Quondam, and in Republic of Letters (2018) by Marc Fumaroli.

Baxter says the government of one’s house is part of God’s government of the whole world, and to reject the established order is to be under the devil’s government. Echoing the aforementioned distinction between head and heart, he says a wife must “in a special manner subdue [her] passions” because the “weakness of [her] sex do usually subdue [her] more to passions than men.” Thus, wives need to be “careful in the government of [their] tongues” since it was “the most common miscarriage of [their] sex: a laxative, running tongue”, which has more potential of leading men to sin than poverty. Therefore, for Baxter, it’s part of God’s will that “The husband must undertake the principal part of the government of the whole family, even of the wife herself”, “to excel the wife in knowledge”, “be the principal teacher of the family”, “to be the mouth of the family”, and to “be as it were the priest of the household” leading and taking prayers in the place of others — and “If this be cast on the wife, it will be his dishonour.” It’s worth mentioning that Baxter’s ideas on women seem gentler in comparison to other Puritan writings as already shown in the examples from Worldly Saints.

Furthermore, Germano Maifreda, in From Oikonomia to Political Economy (2012), demonstrates that since society was an expansion of the household, statecraft should be somehow analogous to household rules by approximating the meaning of the word oíkos and polis. That was the intent, Maifreda reminds (p. 172–182), of French Huguenot Antoine de Montchrestien in his Treaty on Political Economy (1615). The book’s title itself is an innovative approximation of the words and meanings of oíkos and polis. Montchrestien argues the king should have a “paternal political economy” [l’économie politique patronal] and rationally rule the kingdom as the father rationally rules the household, so those under his authority may live orderly within a good order. In the kingdom, this meant bringing order to “the low ones”, “the third state”: in other words, “the people” excluding nobles and clergy. In the household, it meant bringing order to servants, children, and women. A husband’s rule mirrored the king, and, by analogy, the wife’s governance was like a magistrate under the king. If this order is not firmly protected, commercial success would make “Men […] become effeminate because of too many pleasures, and women, preoccupied with appearance, will lose, along with chastity, the care of their homes.” (p. 17–18, 59–61, 134–135). This brief reconstruction of the long road of reappropriations of the Greek word economy is necessary to clarify how broad and established the understanding that household rules should be extended to society was, especially in early modern Europe and their dominions in the New World.

That lasting appreciation of Greek and Latin literature and its reappropriations of classic ideals of the household don’t resound exactly with the dynamics of the household through the Hebrew Bible and the context of the Ancient Near East, as is shown by Roland de Vaux in Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (1967), by Margreet L. Steiner and Ann E. Killebrew in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Levant (2018), and by Celina Durgin and Dru Johnson in The Biblical World of Gender (2021), just to name a few I’m aware of.

The final questions we can ask about Pearcey’s portrayal of Puritan households are, then:

  1. Since household rules presumed the act of governing over slaves, why it was omitted from the book?
  2. Considering there are works by scholars from different fields of research demonstrating the analogy between men’s rule over the household with the monarchic ideal of a king’s rule over the kingdom, why did she relate men’s obligations to republicanism?
  3. How does Pearcey assure that Puritans correctly interpreted the Bible and lived according to the exact standards of household found in both the Old and New Testaments, considering the influence of Greek philosophy on the conceptualization of men’s authority over the household?

Once Pearcey seems to presume her description of standard masculinity is obviously true, we can’t find detailed explanations, only hints.

There are other minor issues, but I’d extend myself only to reinforce points already established. Pearcey said she wasn’t trying to “whitewash colonial age” or “romanticize” those days long gone. She doesn’t do that, since the colonial age can’t be resumed in the colonial household itself and its rules, which shared importance in political thinking and many other intellectual references and cultural practices. However, by the lacking of appropriate context detailing the colonial intellectual and social framework, she falls into what Quentin Skinner called in the paper Meaning and Understanding the Mythology of Prolepsis, that is reading texts from the past based on their reception in the present, and the Mythology of Parochialism, that is thinking that because ideas are similar they’re necessarily the same or have the same source (p. 23–30).

Pearcey turns out, then, to be romanticizing the Puritan household — what is pointed as the family mythology very characteristic of the Victorian Age in The Christian Home in Victorian America and in another work quoted in Pearcey’s text, A World of Their Own Making (1997) by John Gillis. This search for the biblical blueprint translated in the idea of a pure understanding of biblical standards by the Puritans results in a misrepresentation of the past because, as David Lowenthal explained in The Past is a Foreign Country (2015), the more we praise an idealistic view of tradition, the more we bring contemporary innovations to historical memory. Therefore, it is advisable to approach the past as a pilgrim in a foreign country trying to learn its language and customs. (p. 1–30, 147–205).

The issues I brought here only address part of Pearcey’s new book, and I tried to restrain myself to my field of expertise, which is history. Seeing that Pearcey badly approaches historical research to bring support for her theological and exegetical arguments, I can’t help but have reasonable doubts about her theological and exegetical arguments and the approach to other fields of expertise. Thus, I partially disagree with Jake Meador: reading authors in full context always helps, but we ought to consider sometimes it helps to see certain arguments are, indeed, bad.

I believe Pearcey’s arguments in The Toxic War on Masculinity are problematic but not because I think she wrote in bad faith. From what I saw in other works by her, it seems plausible to question the views on history and the use of the concept of “worldview” she and other Christian writers uphold so that Christianity could be affirmed in public spaces through historical examples. However, this issue deserves an appropriate evaluation in another text.

The texts I quoted are referred to in the hyperlinks. The dates mentioned in parenthesis are the years of the first edition of the works, independently of the publishing of Portuguese translations. When there aren’t pages mentioned it is because I only had access to the works in E-Pub file format.



Leonardo Cruz

Cristão, Presbiteriano, mestrando em História - UFF; voluntário na Associação Brasileira de Cristãos na Ciência (ABC²).