The (Lapsed) Presbyterian Piety of Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The (Lapsed) Presbyterian Piety of Anne Morrow Lindbergh October 1, 2019

In March 1938 one of the most famous women in the world attended a Presbyterian funeral in Cleveland. While her aviator husband was negotiating for a house in France, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was in Ohio to help bury her grandmother, Annie Cutter. “The service was very beautiful,” Anne reported to her diary. Featuring a reading from Pilgrim’s Progress and coming across as “calm, assured, reverent, and also triumphant,” the funeral seemed “very like Grandma.” More than that, “It was Biblical: ‘for he flourisheth as a flower of the field… and the place thereof shall know it no more.’”

Four nights later, on a ship bound for Europe, a starlit walk on deck made Anne Lindbergh think of the words of another psalm: “The heavens declare the glory of God…” Back in her cabin, she wondered about the religious education of her five-year old son: “I must teach Jon the Bible—how?”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh posing with her mother, grandmother, and son, Charles, Jr. (just over a year before his kidnapping and murder) – Library of Congress

As I continue to research the spiritual biography of Charles Lindbergh, I’ve found the diaries, letters, and other writings of Anne Lindbergh to be enormously helpful. Not only does she provide considerable insight into the life and thought of her husband, but her own “spiritual, but not religious” story makes for a striking contrast with his.

While both Lindberghs remained somewhat skeptical of organized religion even as they explored spiritual and metaphysical questions, they started from vastly different religious backgrounds. In his autobiographical writings, Charles Lindbergh made much of the fact that he rarely attended church in childhood and was raised to trust scientific inquiry above religious doctrine. Anne would come to describe herself as a “lapsed Presbyterian,” but the implications of the adjective shouldn’t obscure the importance of the noun. Even as she borrowed from other religious, philosophical, and literary sources in adulthood, she continued to draw on her upbringing in the Protestant establishment.

In her first set of published diaries and letters, Anne Lindbergh described both of her parents as “regular Presbyterian churchgoers” with a “superabundance of Puritan energy.” (Perhaps the kindest thing she had to say about her “Puritan heritage,” to which she otherwise attributed everything from pride to emotional reserve to unhealthy responses to suffering.) Unlike Charles Lindbergh’s great-grandfather, a Campbellite preacher in Michigan who disdained any faith that “extends to the intellect only,” Anne’s Amherst- and Smith-educated parents, Dwight Morrow and Elizabeth Cutter Morrow, placed enormous emphasis on their children’s

Elizabeth Cutter Morrow
Elizabeth Cutter Morrow (1873-1955) – Smith College

education, both moral and intellectual. It started early in the home with nightly prayers and evening reading by our mother from the meritorious Heidi, The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, and Little Women, progressing to the Greek myths and the classics. On Sunday evenings there were Bible stories and sometimes sermons on the green sofa in her bedroom. (This hour was in addition to early morning prayers, kneeling down in a row by our parents’ big bed, followed by regular church service.)

As a student at Smith College, Anne Morrow wrote home about sermons and hymns she’d heard in chapel. Returning to her alma mater in 1939 for her mother’s installation as interim president, she listened to the words of the 91st Psalm and remembered “as a child taking that absolutely literally, with perfect faith, and in college, if I didn’t take it absolutely literally, I still believed it with my heart, in a superstitious, egotistical way. But now I don’t any more, except perhaps in the way it was intended (‘He shall preserve thy soul’) and I even have my doubts there.”

Still, King James phrases she had heard over and over in the Morrows’ home and pew would continue to pop up in her letters, diaries, and books in the decades to come. To give one particularly striking example from just after World War II… Finding herself pregnant for a seventh time, the 41-year old Lindbergh decided against an abortion, only to have a miscarriage. To convey her relief to her diary, she drew both on the story of Noah and the childhood of Jesus:

I took it as a pure act of mercy from God. An act of mercy to be accepted without a shred of guilt but with a heart full of humility and gratitude. A sign from heaven, a rainbow, a promise of presence…. The whole incident was perhaps a warning to me—before it is too late—that “I must be about my Father’s business” [Luke 2:49]. This is now the task, to find out what it is—for me—my special task.

“In spite of our modern attitude to religion,” she had decided years before, “there are lessons in the Bible better taught there than anywhere, truths that are not found anywhere else but in that symbolism, and now—for me—Faith.”

Dwight Morrow
As a five-year old, Dwight Morrow (1873-1931) earned five cents from his father for memorizing all 107 articles of the Westminster Shorter Catechism – Wikimedia

But the King James Bible was not the only Christian text that shaped the imagination of a woman whose father insisted that Christianity should be intellectually sound, not dogmatic. The same week that Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, Anne Morrow was writing a senior paper at Smith College about the Christian humanist Erasmus, whose biography she had borrowed from her father. She continued to read deeply in the Christian intellectual tradition long after her graduation and sudden marriage to Lindbergh. In the weeks before her grandmother’s funeral, for example, Anne was reading Gerard Manley Hopkins and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, both of whom made her think about the meaning of conversion. She later became a devotee of C. S. Lewis (both The Screwtape Letters and at least part of his space trilogy) and T. S. Eliot, whose Four Quartets she continued to revisit and quote in her later years. And two of the most important influences on her life were French Catholic writers: the ill-fated pilot-poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the Jesuit paleontologist-philosopher Pierre Teilhard du Chardin. The latter’s “letters are wonderful,” she told a teenaged granddaughter in 1973, “because many of them are written to so-called ‘non-believers.’ He excluded no one…”

In the same letter, Anne recommended the work of Alfred North Whitehead, who was “quite modern in his views—but a very spiritual man.” That philosopher’s maxim that “God is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us” appealed strongly to a woman who found God more easily outside than inside the church. On a 1936 visit to Berlin, she struggled to imagine her favorite composer in the “rather ugly” interior of the Garrison Church: “I can’t place [J.S.] Bach in all this. That clear, perfect, pure, spiritual world.” Listening to a friend play Bach on the piano during World War II, she felt herself enter “some world of eternal values… This, I realize, is what church should do for one but doesn’t for me.”

Though she attended church from time to time in her later years, Anne Lindbergh’s preferred site of worship was out of doors. In her most popular book, Gift from the Sea, she described the beauty of a beach by paraphrasing Psalm 148: “I was in harmony with it, melted into the universe, lost in it, as one is lost in a canticle of praise, swelling from an unknown crowd in a cathedral. ‘Praise ye the Lord, all ye fishes of the sea—all ye birds of the air—all ye children of men—Praise ye the Lord!’” Explaining her version of meditation to her brother Dwight, Anne wrote that she would “sit outside where the beauty of trees, seagulls, and the sounds of the birds all seem to flow through me” as she breathed in and out to the rhythm of a doxology: “Gloria, in excelsis deo.”

Lindbergh, Gift from the SeaBut even as she sought to rebuild her own post-Christian spirituality, Anne Lindbergh occasionally lamented how secular modernity had dismantled Christendom.

For example, a 1938 tour of the Soviet Union deepened her disdain of Stalinism, including the ways that Russia’s religious heritage was being hollowed out. “How far away from a world of Christian grace and holiness was” Moscow, where Italian Madonnas still hung in a museum, but “meant nothing to these people.” (She hastened to add, “it is not in Germany either. The Nuremberg Madonnas… look down on a lot of un-Christian things.”) In Kiev, she was taken to an Orthodox monastery that had been converted into an “antireligious museum.” She longed “to escape into” a mosaic of the Last Supper and get away from her Soviet tour guide, a “cheap, flamboyant person with no sense of reverence, or beauty, or restraint.”

Attending a “simply enchanting” ballet performance in Moscow left her wondering how Russians “can see this perfection, this beauty, and still put up with the squalor and ugliness of life around them (of course they have to—there is nothing else). Perhaps it serves as religion once did—an escape, a dream, another life.”

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