What The World Needs Now: History's Surprising Parallels

New diseases. Strange weather. Abroad, shifting alliances, dwindling possessions, and terrifying new enemies. At home, a dangerously fragmented population, some embracing new ideas spread via cutting-edge technology, others suspicious and alienated. The economy is destabilized by government intrusions. Support for primary as well as higher education falls precipitously. Previously straightforward markets are newly monetized, widening the gap between rich and poor. A constitutional transition of power devolves into a tug-of-war: while the elite fight to protect their power, a populist demagogue cultivates his influence by signaling to the angry and dispossessed that their grievances will finally be heard. And true believers are certain that an ancient book offers simple answers to entrenched societal problems.

The 21st century? The current presidential election cycle? No, late 1540s and early 1550s—the years after Henry VIII of England died, leaving his 9-year-old son Edward on the throne.

As an associate professor of English at Penn State Lehigh Valley, I read old books and teach writing to first-year college students. I’m not a social commentator. Nevertheless, it’s been a vertiginous experience, spending the early months of 2016 reading sermons preached during the reign of King Edward VI. The preachers’ complaints seem so familiar, the recommended solution so alien.

International cooperation may yet address climate change and contain the spread of Zika, but it’s hard to see how 16th century Europeans could have avoided bad harvests and sweating sickness. Alarmed as some may say they are at the prospect of a President Trump, few are nostalgic for a political system in which a constitutionally-designated office-holder like the arrogant and overbearing populist Edward Seymour, the king’s uncle, might be executed as a felon by his fellow-councilors.

But some self-inflicted wounds to the mid-Tudor body politic seem eerily relevant. Late in Henry’s reign, king and council seized church wealth in the form of monastic holdings. Edward’s council completed the job of abolishing chantries (private endowments funding masses for souls in purgatory). Nuns and monks were pensioned off, while priests were assigned work in the parishes. The King’s Supreme Headship of the English church provided a legal justification for the massive redistribution of resources; the denial of purgatory offered an ideological one. Designated by law for education and other social goods, some of the revenue had funded Henry’s failed effort to reestablish Plantagenet dominance in France. In both Henry’s and Edward’s reigns, much church wealth flowed into private purses: agricultural lands—and their tenants’ rents—enriched new landlords (imagine a fictional Tudor ancestor for the fictional Robert Crawley). Monastery buildings (like the fictional Downton’s original abbey) were available for purchase by groups or individuals, who often dismantled or even burned the largest structures to recover lead roofs and building stone.

When England’s long-established religious institutions changed hands in the 16th century, the powerful became richer while social services in rural areas dried up. Preachers held land-hungry local gentry responsible:

[Where] fifty tun-bellied Monks (a tun is a large barrel for ale or wine) given to gluttony filled their paunches, kept up their house and relieved [the poor] round about them, there one of your greedy-guts, devouring the whole house and making great pillage throughout the country, cannot be satisfied.1

Universities suffered as well: most students and professors had been supported by monastic endowments. Large numbers went home; the remaining few reportedly subsisted on salt beef and oatmeal porridge, and “being without fire … run up and down half an hour to get a heat on their feet when they go to bed.”2 The now-dissolved monasteries and chantries had also provided primary education to rural children. Without replacement arrangements being made, warned another preacher, such schools’ disappearance “will bring the Realm into a very barbarousness.”3

In the absence of tun-bellied monks, different beasts are starved in 21st century America. Contractors assure small municipalities that certain government functions can be made to pay for themselves. Health-care chains buy up small hospitals and nursing homes. For-profit educational chains recruit public school children as well as adults seeking academic degrees and vocational training. Fines for traffic and parking violations; Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurance payments; local property tax revenue and federally guaranteed student loan dollars now flow to private corporations. Now as then, we need not defend the gluttony, laziness, or ideology of tun-bellied bureaucrats to recognize that at least some of the citizens, patients, and students formerly served by “inefficient” systems of law enforcement, medical care, or public education are worse off when corporations profit from the work of the teachers, nurses and doctors, and security and clerical personnel employed to interact with them.

In Edward’s reign, the dissolution of monasteries and chantries was not the only economic change. A lucrative market in wool exports motivated landowners to diversify into sheep farming, fencing off portions of their holdings previously shared among their tenants as common pastureland. “Enclosure” forced tenant farmers to repurpose cropland or feed grain to livestock that had previously grazed for free. New “leasemongers” intruded between the lord of the manor and his tenants, raising rents, while speculators and wholesalers, “regrators … of corn, victuals, and of all manner of wares” inserted themselves into the supply chain between the farmer and the merchant, reducing payments to growers while raising market prices, making “dearth and scarcity” for working people.4

One preacher, the 62-year-old Hugh Latimer, outlined the real-life consequences of agricultural depression to a congregation that included the 11-year-old king and wealthy aristocrats on his council (imagine a public cabinet meeting doubling as a revival service): “My father was a yeoman, and had no lands of his own, only he had a farm of three or four pounds by year at the utmost,” the preacher recalled. As a boy, Latimer had helped his father buckle on his armor before the elder Latimer rode his own horse (and provided his own military equipment) to the muster as a volunteer against rebels in 1497. “He kept me to school,” first at the local grammar school and then at Cambridge University where Latimer won a fellowship, “or else I had not been able to have preached before the king’s majesty now.” The elder Latimer helped his six daughters get their adult start in life by providing marriage portions of “five pounds, or twenty nobles apiece, so that he brought them up in … fear of God. He kept hospitality for his poor neighbors. And some alms he gave to the poor, and all this did he of the said farm.” In the good old days, around the turn of the 16th century, a tenant farmer could make a decent living, provide for his family and contribute to the good of his community and the nation.

By contrast, says Latimer, the same farm’s current tenant “pays sixteen pound by year or more, and is not able to do anything for his prince, for himself, nor for his children, or give a cup of drink to the poor. Thus all the enhancing & rearing [raising of agricultural rents] goeth to your private commodity & wealth”5--that is, into the pockets of powerful aristocrats.

Today’s observers would speak of wages stagnating or even falling (as wages must, if profits for corporate shareholders are to show a healthy return on investment) while living expenses rise. Many of today’s unskilled wage-earners work two or three low-paying jobs to stave off eviction or foreclosure, leaving them with too little time or energy to bond with and guide their children. We hear warnings that daughters of the poor will become single mothers; sons will run afoul of the law rather than going to college. Latimer made the same dark prophecy to his country’s leaders 467 years ago: “For if ye bring it to pass, that the yeomanry be not able to put their sons to school … and that they be not able to marry their daughters to the avoiding of whoredom, I say ye … utterly destroy the realm.”6

Disruption of long-established systems to educate the young and deliver social services. New ways to monetize other people’s work. High prices, low wages, shuttered schools, families turned out of homes, and beggars accosting solid citizens on the streets. Court preachers like Thomas Lever, Hugh Latimer, and Bernard Gilpin assigned the blame to covetousness, the sin of desiring for oneself what belongs to someone else and God has seen fit to withhold. Covetousness was forbidden by the Tenth Commandment and identified as the “root of all evil” in the New Testament. This sin explained everyone’s bad behavior, from the “carnal gospellers” who embraced the new religion and enriched themselves through confiscated monastic property, to the leasemongers and regrators, to the small farmers who violated public order by tearing down the fences enclosing pastures where their cattle used to graze.

And what, according to the preachers, was the opposite of covetousness, the cure for the social damage it wreaked? “[C]ovetousness hath banished from amongst us Christian charity,” lamented Bernard Gilpin early in 1553. (King Edward, perhaps already sick with his final illness, missed this sermon preached at Whitehall Palace.) “Charity” is familiar to us, especially as we itemize deductions before filing our tax returns, but Gilpin meant more than giving to organizations that help the poor: “we have forgotten Christ’s last [words], when he so often before his passion did inculcate love: love, love, love one another.”7

Covetousness. Love. An old-fashioned diagnosis and an old-fashioned cure for strangely familiar social ills. Might these ideas usefully inform attitudes today?

Though I very seldom miss church, I cannot recall ever hearing a sermon denouncing covetousness, and only a few exalting love—love for the people I interact with, live among in the Lehigh Valley, or hear about on the news—as a motive for socially productive activity. In 2016, professors of marketing and of communication design teach future advertisers how consumer desire can be created. Cities like Allentown and universities like mine collaborate on “business incubators” for entrepreneurs who develop new services or new objects of desire for consumers. Covetousness, or something closely resembling it, is an important engine of our mostly-capitalist consumer-driven economy. How might love, or something closely resembling it, extend that economy’s benefits to more of our fellow citizens while shielding the vulnerable from some of its cruelest excesses?

Margaret Christian is Associate Professor of English at Penn State Lehigh Valley. ______________________


  1. Thomas Lever, A sermon preached at Pauls Crosse the xiiii day of December (London, 1550), sig. D7v. STC (2nd ed.) 15546.3.
  2. Ibid, sig. E2v.
  3. Latimer, The seconde [-seventh] sermon[s] of Maister Hughe Latimer (London, 1549), sig. P7v. STC (2nd ed.) 15274.7
  4. Ibid, sig. G2.
  5. Latimer, The fyrste sermon of Mayster Hughe Latimer (London, 1549), sigs. D5-D6. STC (2nd ed.) 15272.5.
  6. Ibid, D6v.
  7. Bernard Gilpin, A godly sermon preached in the court (London, 1581), p. 66. STC (2nd ed.) 11897.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7581

Should we thank the writer for reminding us again that we “live in the best of times, and the worst of times”? Isn’t this how the writer prior to the flood of Noah described that the world was evil continuously? If one chooses to look either backward or forward with a jaundiced eye, it’s all horrible.

For the last few weeks I’ve been reading Scottish history: murders and killings were common every-day occurrences; justice was meted out by the victim’s tribe. It was often fatal to be a ruler as there were many potential heirs to the throne and the quickest way to dispose one was through murder.

What a dire scene painted by the writer; all true, but people living in such times continued to dance, drink, have fun, have children and accommodate to the life that was normal then.

We today can see the worst in events and institutions or make the conscious choice to see the good in most people who are doing their best with what they have. Greed, covetousness, crime and deception will always be here, but it is our choice of how we choose to live which makes all the difference. Even those in extreme poverty can sing and dance and laugh. What is our problem that prevents us from doing the same?


And if there were a most opportune time where our organized church would have set an example and made an impact, it would have been at the GC2015. Instead our male leaders with their blinkers (horse tacks) deliberately opted for the opposite, claiming divine fiat to their continued covetousness on the privilege of ordained ministry by limiting it to “male only” and ruling out the other 57% of female members.

Very appropriate article, Margaret. I enjoyed digesting it.


What is our problem that prevents us from doing the same? -the answer: nuclear proliferation.

The worst that could have happened back in Bill Shakespeare’s day was that the musket might have misfired or the cannonball hit the wrong wagon. Today, nuclear weapons in the hands of people who would rather die and go to heaven, than anything else, makes one yearn for the good old days of the “cold war”.


Elaine, pardon me.
It is ONLY the Jewish Folk who are allowed to sing and dance and laugh.
We have to be careful what Songs we sing, we can Laugh, but DANCING???
If seen, one’s place in Heaven would be called into question.

The ONLY THING God [The Trinity] promise is this — I will be WITH YOU until the end of the world.
Some Bibles say AGE. This could be end of the world. Or, This could mean till the end of YOUR Age.
Until as long as you live.
The Holy Spirit was sent to surround us like the Breeze surrounds us. Envelops us. Where ever we are.
What ever is going on in our life. In a 4 bedroom, 4 bath house, OR, sleeping down by the river with the
bugs, homeless.
Or, like a few people I write and send stuff to — In Jail.
The “I AM” is with you always!!


I believe that the threat of nuclear destruction is primarily a concern for the wealthy, for whom the ending of the world is an unimaginable catastrophe. For the poor, the end of the world is not unimaginable; only a bad harvest, a short sickness, or a local conflict away. It is always impending.

One of my favorite quotes is from Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in the last conversation between Lee and Samuel Hamilton, Lee notes the following:

“Maybe everyone is too rich. I have noticed that there is no dissatisfaction like that of the rich. Feed a man, clothe him, put him in a good house, and he will die of despair.”

Interesting that this book was published during the early “atomic age” (1952), though the setting of that portion of the book is much earlier.




Professor Christian,
Thank you for a beautiful, perceptive and thought provoking journey into historical England.
DOWNTON ABBEY, the most popular TV miniseries of all time, which you refer to, gave a vivid account of the huge societal chasm between the landed gentry and the working poor. The plight of the peasants in Henry VIII’s reign and after, was pathetically pitiful, but seemingly unchanged even in the early twentieth century – and continuing today!

As a Francophile, I point out similar disparities between the French aristocracy and the peasants. One of my favorite regions of France is the Loire valley, littered with dozens of magnificent castles built by the French nobility.

On one visit, I overheard a tour guide explaining that the forty foot ceilings made heating difficult. The castles were cold and draughty-- the magnificent tapestries were wall hung to keep out the damp. Infestations of rodents and vermin were prolific— fleas and bed bugs even in the King’s bed! And no running water or flush toilets,meant that even the super rich were odiferous and dirty – hence the French perfume industry!

If the aristocracy lived worse than our middle class citizens with our flush toilets and hot showers, what was the fate of the peasants??

What your account underscores is the ABJECT MISERY of the majority of mankind, and it’s duration for six millenia and counting.

Meanwhile God’s entourage of extra terrestrials-- EGW’s “universe” – exhibits a woeful, appalling lack,of empathy, compassion, concern and commiseration
for our anguish and agony.

Just as the landed gentry/aristocracy/nobility of England/France exhibited a complete lack of intuition/insight, and total indifference to the lives of the common man, so God’s
entourage seems incapable of understanding mankind’s misery.

Otherwise, why are they not CLAMORING to God to end the carnage?

Why are they still "fence sitting " unwilling, unable to render a verdict in EGW’s
Great Controversy??

After six millennia of untold human horror their lack of an adequate arbitration to end the Great Controversy brings EGWs signature work into question.

EGW’s Great Controversy hypothesis does not “hold water” , unless the “universe” is populated by primitive primates as in the movie PLANET OF THE APES!
How valid is her explanation, or was this idea plagiarized or penned for her by her entourage of "literary assistants??


Margaret, thank you for your painstaking probing on an important and current topic. Love is, as always, the only motive that matters, the only legacy that lasts.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear a series of insightful and courageous sermons on covetousness?


Steinbeck was so good at saying what we all see, but aren’t so good at noticing. Perhaps because we tend to be caught up in our quest for whatever it is we seek. Ecclesiastes 1and 2 is a lament on the futility of pleasure, work, wisdom and riches. Solomon in this passage exclaims “there is nothing new under the sun”. Professor Christian reminds us eloquently that indeed there is nothing new under the sun and that political intrigue, greed and covetousness have been with us basically forever if we care to look back. Social upheaval has occurred often in the past and the idea that there was some ideal time is just a myth trotted out by those who are trying to convince the uninformed.

The value of remembering the past can hardly be argued. Each person will take their own lesson from it, but it waits as a cautionary tale for the future.

The life of the average person for most of earth’s history has been misery. As Elaine points out we have persevered in the face of misery with little hope, which makes me wonder about the real nature of humans. We as Adventists place our metric of the great controversy over both the past and the present. Sometimes it fits. Sometimes it doesn’t. I wonder about our viewpoint as I am exposed not just to the view of God and the Bible held by other very old Christian traditions, but also to the sad and complex history of man on earth.

Jesus told a parable to a man who came to complain that his brother was not giving him his share of their inheritance. He could see that the man was in fact being covetous. He told the parable of the fool who was so proud of his riches which, although fairly obtained he could not conceive of sharing.

If we were more clear about what greed is we could probably see that it lies at the heart of many “rules” in traditional Christianity. In this parable Jesus was not rebuking wealth. He was rebuking greed. He was suggesting that the man was allowing himself to be controlled by it. The same is true in the story of the rich young ruler. Generosity and greed are two sides of a coin. Good and evil as it were.

The story in this article about the yeoman who could not be generous is timely. A world where people are stretched financially to a point where they feel unable to be generous is sad. The loss of the middle class which we have seen in the US and Europe has placed many in this position, which is spiritually damaging. Generosity is one of God’s attributes, therefore something we should emulate and which should be encouraged in a civil society. Greed is not and unfortunately it takes many seemingly innocuous forms in our consumeristic society.


This is the typical attitude of the finite mind, especially if it doesn’t understand the character of God. Scripture is clear that God is love. I Cor. 13 describes what love is like. So, either we have a couple of liars (John and Paul), or we must admit that there are aspects of God’s method which we do not understand. As He told Isaiah, my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isa. 55:8, 9.

So, we can take God at His word, and, like Job, admit that we have “uttered what we understood not,” and, like Job, “abhor ourselves and repent in dust and ashes”( Job 42: 3, 6), or grumble and complain because God isn’t doing things the way we think He should.

God is under no obligation to us. We are the rebels, not He. He did not have to give us the chance to repent and be saved. So, rather than question His ways, we should be overwhelmed with gratitude that He would even consider accepting us.

Thank you for the fascinating history lesson. What I saw, as I read, was how easily we forget how bad things were in the not-so-distant past. (And probably much worse even farther back.) While I don’t believe our world will ever reach perfection on its own, I do see hopeful signs that SOME people are gradually becoming more like God in their outlook. What we have now is understanding and respect (among SOME) for women, different races, children, and LGBTs. Maybe we ARE even on the verge of recognizing our class system in America and doing something about that. Is it possible that God is waiting for SOME people on this earth to see the world through His eyes before His return?

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