Enjoying Your Computer? Thank Protestantism.

I was really moved by this article.  It’s from Tom Wolfe writing in Esquire Magazine in 1983, about Silicon Valley and the men, especially one man, Bob Noyce, who were responsible for its rise:

On the face of it, there you had Grinnell, Iowa, in 1948: a piece of mid-nineteenth-century American history frozen solid in the middle of the twentieth. It was one of the last towns in America that people back east would have figured to become the starting point of a bolt into the future that would create the very substructure, the electronic grid, of life in the year 2000 and beyond.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t have surprised Josiah Grinnell in the slightest.

Yet in Grinnell necessity had been the least of the mothers of invention. There had been something else about Grinnell, something people Noyce’s age could feel but couldn’t name. It had to do with the fact that Grinnell had once been a religious community; not merely a town with a church but a town that was inseparable from the church. In Josiah Grinnell’s day most of the townspeople were devout Congregationalists, and the rest were smart enough to act as if they were. Anyone in Grinnell who aspired to the status of feed-store clerk or better joined the First Congregational Church. By the end of the Second World War educated people in Grinnell, and in all the Grinnells of the Middle West, had begun to drop this side of their history into a lake of amnesia. They gave in to the modem urge to be urbane. They themselves began to enjoy sniggering over Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Once the amnesia set in, all they remembered from the old days were the austere moral codes, which in some cases still hung on. Josiah Grinnell’s real estate covenants prohibiting drinking, for example. . . . Just imagine! How absurd it was to see these unburied bones of something that had once been strong and alive.

That something was Dissenting Protestantism itself. Oh, it had once been quite strong and very much alive! The passion—the exhilaration!—of those early days was what no one could any longer recall. To be a believing Protestant in a town such as Grinnell in the middle of the nineteenth century was to experience a spiritual ecstasy greater than any that the readers of Main Street or the viewers of American Gothic were likely to know in their lifetimes. Josiah Grinnell had gone to Iowa in 1854 to create nothing less than a City of Light. He was a New Englander who had given up on the East. He had founded the first Congregational church in Washington, D.C., and then defected from it when the congregation, mostly southerners, objected to his antislavery views. He went to New York and met the famous editor of the New York Herald, Horace Greeley. It was while talking to Josiah Grinnell, who was then thirty-two and wondering what to do with his life, that Greeley uttered the words for which he would be remembered forever after: “Go west, young man, go west.” So Grinnell went to Iowa, and he and three friends bought up five thousand acres of land in order to start up a Congregational community the way he thought it should be done. A City of Light! The first thing he organized was the congregation. The second was the college. Oxford and Cambridge had started banning Dissenting Protestants in the seventeenth century; Dissenters founded their own schools and colleges. Grinnell became a champion of “free schools,” and it was largely thanks to him that Iowa had one of the first and best public-school systems in the west. To this day Iowa has the highest literacy rate of any state. In the 1940s a bright youngster whose parents were not rich—such as Bob Noyce or his brother Donald—was far more likely to receive a superior education in Iowa than in Massachusetts.

It was Christianity, and especially the Christianity of Dissenting Protestantism, that made Silicon Valley possible.  There were of course many factors, but that was a big one.  There’s no getting away from it- religion always lies upstream from everything else.  And when you look at all the triumphs and successes of the modern world, and you trace them back, you’re going to find Christianity back at the roots of those successes.  Christianity gave us the modern world.  With all its ills, I’ll take the modern world over ancient Rome or Assyria any day.

I’m more optimistic than Wolfe, though:

Surely the moral capital of the nineteenth century is by now all but completely spent. Robert Noyce turns fifty-six this month, and his is the last generation to have grown up in families where the light existed in anything approaching a pure state.

That light burns bright in a lot of places, a lot of families, all across this country.  Christ promised His church would never fail and His gospel would never be destroyed.  And it’s not only here in this country, but all across the world, rapidly growing in China, Africa and South America.  We’ll see what wonders it works in those places, just as it worked here in the past.

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