My first book, Hands Employed Aright, was a monograph about an eccentric New England minister/furniture maker named Jonathan Fisher. Harvard-trained, Fisher was, as one biographer put it, “a rural Jeffersonian polymath” who used the early morning fireplace light to study ancient Hebrew texts before setting out on a day filled with manual work or pastoral visitation. Fisher was an intellectual. He was obsessed with mathematics, he journaled extensively, he wrote sermons and self-published his own book (and even made his own woodcuts for it). But he also was a craftsman to his core. He built chairs and painted signs. He raised sheep and cattle. Fisher seemed to be endlessly fascinated with every aspect of the world. Reading his journals, one gets the impression the man never turned down the opportunity to try his hand at something new.
And through all of his manual and intellectual labor, Fisher’s piety reverberated loud and clear. He saw his work on earth as God’s work. His painting, his woodworking, his farming, his preaching, his language studies – they all served as a form of spiritual worship. In the years I pored over his journals, I was captivated by the way the work of his hands seemed to be deliberately intertwined with the work of his heart and his head. This was no compartmentalized man.
The title of the book, Hands Employed Aright, comes from one of Fisher’s journal entries that shows how these activities were seen as interdependent. Out working in the field one day, he reflected on the value of manual work: “Spent most of the day burning brush by the side of new field. While my hands were occupied in needful labor, I was led to exclaim in heart, hands, what a blessing they are when employed aright.”
By his example, Fisher showed me what a holistic “head, heart, and hand” life might look like. I’ve never forgotten those lessons and have ever since sought to implement them into my own life and to encourage the same to others.
The undergirding premise of Mortise & Tenon is that a life well-lived is one that is fully integrated. The modern era, in contrast, is characterized by all kinds of separation: work/leisure, manual/intellectual, family/co-workers, academia/trades, faith/reason, etc. This impoverished series of bifurcations fits naturally with a compartmentalized and mechanistic way of thinking about the world. The machine is our culture’s dominant metaphor. We’ve bought into the idea that the universe is essentially a vast mechanical system, and it is therefore a short leap into believing that we ourselves are nothing more than squishy machines. We’ve already begun to talk about the human being as “wired” to “work like a machine” when sufficiently “fueled up” with calories or “recharged” after a good night’s rest. We become “triggered” when we are offended, and we need to “let off some steam” so as not to “explode.”
But what if the richness of embodied human life was not reducible to wiring and electrons or nuts and bolts? What if life was actually full of meaning and genuine beauty? How would one then go about reintegrating the disjunctions in their life? What would it look like for the work of one’s hands to be inextricable from the work of the head and heart? M&T has always sought to promote that holistic way of being-in-the-world. We exist to “cultivate reverence for the dignity of humanity and the natural world through handcraft.”
To further this “head, heart, and hand” reintegration, we have partnered with Greystone Theological Institute based in Coraopolis, PA to create a “Mechanical Arts Program” for their students. Greystone was founded in 2015 by Dr. Mark A. Garcia to be a fellowship of theologians who offer training in “scholarship and ministerial formation.” Their commitment to a confessional Reformed catholicity enables them to appreciate and draw upon diverse sources of wisdom.
Greystone’s explicitly premodern vision for personal formation has inspired them to develop a “hands-on” aspect of their brand-new curriculum so that their students will remain grounded in the way the world really is. We can hypothesize all the abstract theories we want, but picking up a tool to do some real work has a way of getting us in line with reality. Greystone wants their students to cultivate within themselves this grounded, craftsman-like approach to life.
To help direct this program, I have begun to serve as Greystone’s Associate Fellow in Mechanical Arts. Students will study reflections on craftsmanship before being sent out to learn a hand craft under a professional within that field. The students may choose from pottery, husbandry, plumbing, woodworking, or several other options. Each year, Mike Updegraff and I will be teaching woodworking to Greystone students in our Maine woodshop as a part of their course requirements.
If you’d like to learn more about this program, you can read all about it here or listen to five Greystone podcast episodes unpacking the vision:
- Forming In and For Wisdom: Introducing the Greystone MAP
- Workmanship of Risk vs. Workmanship of Certainty
- Durability, Diversity, and Value of Work: The End(s) in View
- Situated Creatures: The Ethics of Skill, Perception, and Habit
- Eloquence Wed to Wisdom
We’ve already been asked if there are ways folks who are not enrolled at Greystone could sign up for a course along these lines, and while there is nothing in the works right now, rest assured, I am praying about what such a thing might look like.
If there is anything I think Jonathan Fisher can teach us in the 21st century, it is one way we might pick up the pieces of our fragmented modern lives.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Joshua Klein, editor