Silence in Colonial Culture / by AB Mann

As an introvert, I implicitly understand the utility of and need for silence. Silence is how introverts recharge in a brash world. But trying to understand how exactly Silence became a virtuous thing is curious.

The phrase “children should be seen and not heard originated in a 15th century from a book of homilies written by an Augustinian clergymen named John Mirk.

Hyt ys old Englysch sawe: A mayde schuld be seen, but not herd. - John Mirk, Mirk’s Festial, pg 230

It is one of few books that survived the time period with so many copies suggesting it was popular enough to be republished numerous times.

Really basic overview of Reformation

The point being that this is the sort of sentiment that informed the reformation process itself. In the 16th century, Protestant scripture spread like wild fire with the invention of the printing press. Luther’s translation of the Bible allowed Christian ideals to take hold in Germany and fueled the already ill-tempered relations with Rome over corruption - thing like papal bulls were at their height as was simony, which is essentially the ability to buy your way into church office.

Rebellious ideals spread to England where super-friendly, lover of all his wives (while they had heads) Henry VIII used the anti-Roman fervor as a veil to separate English Christianity from the supremacy of the Pope in Rome. Forming the Church of England was pretty much about Henry VIII divorcing his wife but I suspect the people were more OK with it than they would have been otherwise because of anti-Rome sentient.

From moderate reform, came the radicalized groups calling for further change. Removing the supremacy of Rome, papal bulls, simony, and much of the corruption was a great start, but radicalized groups wanted a return to “purer” forms of the religions. Ones based on strict adherence to the Bible. But, being satisfied with his own supremacy, Henry VIII stopped short, preferring a relatively moderate path between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

The Puritans were all about strict interpretation of scripture. Deeming it as the only true law of God, Puritans believed that each individual, as well as each congregation, was directly responsible to God, rather than answering through a mediator such as priests, King Henry VIII, the Pope, or similar. They were against ornamentation both in churches as well as those who served as clergy and the rituals they preferred. Hard-liners.

It was this vigorous opposition to standard practice that caused such agitation in the country and what ed to their eventual expulsion from England to Holland and, eventually, America. Which leads me to…

You can’t outrun culture

To their credit, Puritans were open and considerate of other beliefs. They founded American on (some) religious tolerance and encouraged people of all religions to join them in the new world. Other ostracized groups went to America including Lutherans, Anglicans, and Quakers. This what informed the culture. Quakers, in particular, we the founders of Pennsylvania where Franklin spent his adult life. And Franklin’s parents were devout Puritans and attempted to raise him as a devout Puritan. It didn’t really take.

My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way. But I was scarce fifteen, when, after doubting by turns of several points, as I found them disputed in the different books I read, I began to doubt of Revelation itself. - Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Chapter VII

However, the conception of silent as a virtue and tool in one’s arsenal to obtain (moral) perfection makes sense. Puritans, and protestants in general, were of few Christian sects to believe people could interact directly with God - it was the biggest thing they chucked in refromation. Before, only priests had that ability.

Prayer, an act done in some amount of solitude - again, Puritans were’t big on large, church rituals, requires silence. It’s how you connect. I don’t think this was lost on Franklin but better considered in ways that could apply to both personal advantage and societal advancement.

Quakers, too, believed that one could receive divine inspiration through silent devotion to god. Silence in worship consists of participants sitting in a circle at a private home or similar; they were similar, if not more rigorous, in the striping on ostentetation of ritual from worship than the Puritans. “Services” were set for about an hour, anyone may speak if so moved, but the was that any vocalization should be intentional and “inspired.” It is similar to meditation but without a mantra. But that’s likely a different discussion.

It is, however, easy to believe that tis is the sort of context that generated Franklin’s desire for a more valuable version of Silence with which he was raised. Consider it an act of personal, fiscal, and societal devotion that he would not seek to engage in frivolous talk and save his time for worthwhile conversation.