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William Ames
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Restoring the Marrow of the United States Republic:
William Ames & Peter Ramus: Their influence on thinking in the colonial era

Ultimately, the goal of Principle Approach education is to restore America to the study of God (theology), the study of thinking (epistemology), and the study of education (pedagogy). This restoration means recovering America’s own unique tradition of theology, epistemology, and pedagogy, which has almost been forgotten now. This intellectual heritage can be traced through the Pilgrims to the Puritan theologian the Learned Doctor William Ames.

Although Ames never came to America, because of the importance of his influence, he deserves to be considered a Founding Father. Ames’ story tells the providential history of an intellectual revolution and a theological reformation that predated America’s War for Independence that resulted in the American Golden Age, an age when America’s goodness made her great, an age when America’s Biblical reasoning undergirded education and preaching, and an age when America’s civil government elevated the individual above the state, declared the equality of all men, and acknowledged man’s God given rights.

Ames (1576–1633) was educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where his teacher was William Perkins, known as the “architect of Elizabethan Puritanism.” Ames was forced to leave Cambridge due to persecution for his his Puritan convictions, and he immigrated to Holland in 1610, where he pastored other English non-conformists in exile. In 1622, Ames accepted a position as professor of theology at the University of Franeker, where he worked until 1632. He considered another immigration to American New England, but instead returned to Rotterdam to serve as a minister of a congregation there, where he died the following year of a severe cold after his house was flooded by the River Maas. Ames had been exposed to extreme conditions and his health, already weak, failed completely. He was 57 years old when he died. Although Ames never moved to the New World, his two sons and one daughter all moved to New England. His sons returned to England, but his daughter married into the Puritan community there.

John Dykstra Eusden, Ames’ biographer, writes “he who was to be of perhaps greatest influence in the intellectual history of early New England was never to arrive. If he had made the journey to America, he might well have become Harvard’s first president” (Eusden, 10.) Ames’ writings had a deep, profound, and lasting effect on the early Puritan settlers of New England. Cotton Mather called him “That profound, that sublime, the irrefragable—yea, that angelical doctor.”

Ames major work is The Marrow of Theology, which he wrote between 1620 and 1622 as a series of lectures for his students while living in Leyden. Its purpose was to provide a “useful compendium for laymen and students.” One of the great achievements of the Marrow is that it provided a practical theology for use by everyone. This practical aim reflects the influence of the philosopher Peter Ramus, a Reformed French philosopher who developed an alternative understanding of pedagogy and epistemology to the Medieval Scholastic system which was based on Aristotle and which had been developed by Thomas Aquinas. While Aquinas had understood the end of theology to be the knowledge of God, for Ames, developing the ideas of Ramus, theology is defined as the “doctrine of living to God,” where the emphasis is placed not on pure contemplation, but on practical action. Theology is not a “theory” of God, but its performance.

The Marrow was so successful in achieving its end of developing a practical handbook of theology, that as Eusden writes, “For a century and a half [the] Marrow of Theology held sway as a clear, persuasive expression of Puritan belief and practice. In England, Holland, and [American] New England nearly all those who aspired to the Puritan way read the book” (Eusden, 1-2). William Ames’ practical theology was so influential on the Puritan way of life that it is hard to imagine that the vision of an independent, self-governing nation, under God, could have developed without him. Wiliam Ames may not have been a signer of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but he deserves to be considered no less of a Founding Father of the United States.

Resources for further study:

  • William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, translated from the third Latin edition 1629 and edited by John D. Eusden (The Labyrinth Press, 1983)
  • ________, Technometry, translated by W.G Lee (University of Pennsylvanian Press, 1979)
  • Frank Pierrepont Graves, Peter Ramus and the Educational Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, (Forgotten Books, 2012)
  • Keith L. Sprunger, The Learned Doctor William Ames, Dutch Backgrounds of English and American Puritanism, (University of Illinois Press, 1973)
  • J. van Vliet, "The Moral Theology of William Ames: From Thomas to Westminister," A Puritans Mind Website
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