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By age sixteen, a young George Washington had copied out “110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation”. These rules were based on a set of rules composed in the 16th century, and first translated into English in the 17th century.

Today some of these rules sound a little fussy or silly, with perhaps too much attention to trivial details. But they reflect a focus that is increasingly difficult to find these days: a concern for other people’s feelings and sensitivities instead of one’s own narrow self-interest. What can look like outmoded manners in some respects is actually much more than that: it is about making the small sacrifices for the good of others, the smooth functioning of society, and the sake of living together peaceably.

Putting aside some of its anachronisms, the list is a brief course in the application of what we now call “the golden rule”:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt7:12).

Following rules like these is a way of giving respect to others; at the same time, we may be giving ourselves the gift of self-respect.

What the rules did for George Washington

The young man George Washington learned these rules, never forgot them, and — to all appearances — lived by them all his life. He stood out in every company and group of which he was a member, and not just because he was always the tallest. He was not the most intelligent, nor the best educated, nor the most effective speaker; in fact, he often had very little to say. But he listened respectfully to others, and when he finally voiced his opinions, they were careful, measured and dignified. To paraphrase a modern advertising slogan: ‘When George Washington spoke, everybody listened.’ And when he made a promise or a commitment, he was steadfast and faithful in keeping it.

Richard Brookhiser, in his book on Washington, wrote: “All modern manners in the western world were originally aristocratic. Courtesy meant behavior appropriate to a [royal] court; the word ‘chivalry’ comes from the French ‘chevalier’ — a knight. Yet Washington was to dedicate himself to freeing America from a court’s control. Could manners survive the operation? Without realizing it, the [aristocrats] who wrote them, and the young man who copied them, were outlining and absorbing a system of courtesy appropriate to equals and near-equals. When the company for whom the decent behavior was to be performed expanded to the nation, Washington was ready. One of Washington’s biographers got it right when he wrote that it was ‘no wonder everybody honored him, since he honored everybody’. “

Furthermore, the historian Gordon Wood wrote, Washington became a great man because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him apart from other men.”

Perhaps what begins as a scrupulous attention to the “little things”, such as courtesy, civility, thoughtfulness and decency, can grow and flourish until it becomes a very “big thing” — a powerful moral authority that stands head and shoulders above others, even winning the admiration of one’s enemies.

“The code of dignity” in American life

George Washington exemplified what could be called ‘the code of dignity’. The columnist David Brooks wrote that this code was based on principles taught in the Bible, and which the Founding Fathers embedded in the Constitution of the United States:

  1. that human beings are flawed creatures;
  2. that, because of their natural desires, they are in constant peril of falling into disaster; and
  3. that rules, systems, and laws must be established to restrain their natural tendencies.

Thus the new nation put in place an elaborate three-branched government, in which a system of checks and balances was imposed upon the Congress, the executive, and the courts. These checks and balances, written into law, effectively curbed the absolute power of any one branch. Washington, the man who might have been crowned monarch of a new nation, became instead a president with quite limited powers, all in the interests of the whole nation.

The ‘code of dignity’ required:

  • putting the interests and concerns of others above one’s own;
  • restraining personal emotions in public; and
  • controlling the urge to act out of anger, rashness, greed, ambition, or zealotry.

In the United States, remnants of the ‘code of dignity’ lasted for many years. For much of America’s history, politicians did not campaign publicly for higher office. Self-promotion was a sure sign of corruption. Charismatic characters were distrusted. Public servants grew poorer while in office, not richer.

Have we lost our “dignity”?

Our modern age has television, mass advertising, instant communication, and the 30-second sound-bite. All around us, tackiness, grossness and silly self-revelations are glorified. Entertainers act abominably not just in private but also in public, and an obsessive media spreads their images ever wider. Athletes dance in the end zone after scoring touchdowns, laugh at their defeated opponents, refuse to congratulate winners, and flout all authority. Preachers commit adultery and steal from the church collections, and ‘repent’ only when caught — and only for a moment; then they move on, to the next marriage, the next church, or the next big promotion scheme. Public officials fall into what used to be called ‘disgrace’; then they use the same media that exposed them in the first place as a platform for a public ‘confession’, followed by a return to public ‘service’. Those who watch, and especially impressionable young people, learn to trumpet their own abilities, belittle others, scoff at rules, discard all repressive feelings, and suppose that they can get away with anything.

As believers, we are certainly not immune to the influences of the society in which we live. Even in the ecclesia, or in interecclesial activities, or areas of service within the brotherhood, we may lose sight of why we should do what we do. We may be promoting ourselves, and our personal agendas, instead of seeking truly to serve others. We may forget that it is not just what we do, but how we do it, that counts.

Fighting for the ‘purity of the Truth’, fighting for a more Scriptural ‘fellowship position’, fighting to change ‘the outmoded rules of the ecclesia’ — or even fighting to resist all such changes — any of these may be, when all is said and done, fighting nonetheless:

“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1).

In anything we do — even in the “Truth”, and even when our motives are all for the best — we may forget a fundamental Bible truth: We are all flawed, sinful creatures whose natural desires are not to be trusted, and that we ought ever to be on our guard, and examine ourselves. Not just, ‘Am I in the Truth?’ but also ‘Is the Truth of God — His moral teachings as well as His “first principles” — in me?’

If so, then we will not be always fighting and quarreling, but rather, as Paul said:

“Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; those who oppose him he must gently instruct” (2Tim2:23-25).

We are all sinners, all prone to self-interest, self-indulgence, hatred, anger, jealousy, pride, and ambition. We would all do well to ask ourselves, not just once but time after time, ‘Am I not only doing what is right, but am I doing it in the right way?’

The ‘rules of civility and decent behavior’ are worth keeping before our eyes at all times. Many of them have a solid Scriptural basis, and even the others are surely applications of Christ’s fundamental rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Bible references might easily be attached to most of these, but perhaps it is better not to list the passages. Instead, read, think, and ask yourself in each case: ‘What verses apply here?’ And, ‘Do I live by these rules?’

The rules themselves

Let us take a look at some of the rules of civility and decent behavior (some of these have been restated in more modern terms):

(#1) Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those who are present.

(#6) Don’t sleep when others speak. Don’t sit when others stand. Don’t speak when you should hold your peace.

(#7) Don’t take off any clothes in the presence of others, and don’t go out of your chamber half-dressed.

(#15) Keep your nails clean and short; keep your hands and teeth clean. But don’t show any concern for them when you are in others’ company.

(#17) Avoid all forms of flattery.

(#18) Read no letters, books or papers in company. When there is a necessity for reading them, you must ask permission. Do not go near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless offered. Do not express any opinion on them unless asked. Also, do not try to read what someone else is writing.

(#19) Let your countenance be pleasant, but in serious matters somewhat grave.

(#21) Reproach none for the infirmities of their flesh, nor delight to remind them of those infirmities.

(#22) Do not show yourself glad at the misfortune of another, even when he is your enemy.

(#23) When you see a crime punished, you may be inwardly pleased; but always show pity to the suffering offender.

(#24) Do not laugh too loud or too much at any public spectacle.

(#25) Superfluous compliments and all affectation of ceremony are to be avoided, but where due they should not be neglected.

(#28) If anyone comes to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up.

(#31) If anyone far surpasses others, either in age, wealth or merit, yet would still give place to another lower than himself, in his own lodging or elsewhere, the lower one should politely decline. And he (the one of higher rank) should not persist in offering it.

(#32) To one who is your equal, or more or less of the same rank, you may give the chief place in your lodging. Then he who is offered it ought at first to refuse it, but at the second offer he may accept it — though not without acknowledging his own unworthiness.

(#33) Those who in dignity or office have the precedence should — when they are young — respect those who older, even though the older ones do not have the same standing.

(#35) When discussing business, let your discourse be short and comprehensive.

(#36) Persons of low degree ought not use many ceremonies toward their masters, but simply show them respect and honor. Persons of high degree ought to treat their servants with affability and courtesy, but without arrogance.

(#38) In visiting the sick, do not act like the doctor if you don’t know what you are talking about.

(#39) In writing or speaking, give to each person his due title according to the custom of the place.

(#40) Do not strive with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.

(#41) Do not undertake to teach your equal in his particular area of expertise; it savors of arrogance.

(#44) When a man does all he can though he does not succeed, do not blame him for trying.

(#45) When advising or reprimanding anyone, consider: (a) whether it ought to be in public or private; (b) whether it should be done immediately, or at some later time; and (c) in what terms to do it. In reproving, show no sign of bad temper, but do it with all sweetness and mildness. If you yourself are corrected, take it without argument. If you were wrongly judged, you may correct it later.

(#46) Receive all admonitions thankfully, in whatever time or place given.

(#47) Do not make fun of anything that is of importance to others.

(#48) If you criticize someone else for something, make sure you are not guilty of it yourself. Example speaks louder than precepts.

(#49) Do not use reproachful language against anyone; do not curse or revile.

(#50) Do not be quick to believe bad reports about others.

(#52) In your apparel be modest and endeavor to accommodate nature, rather than to procure admiration. Keep to the fashion of your equals.

(#54) Play not the peacock, looking everywhere about you, to see if you are well-clothed, and if your shoes and stockings fit well.

(#56) Associate with men of good quality. Esteem your own reputation, for it is better to be alone than in bad company.

(#58) Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for that is a sign of a well-controlled and commendable nature. In all causes of passion, be governed by reason.

(#61) Do not discuss base and frivolous things among learned men, nor very difficult subjects among the unlearned.

(#63) A man ought not to speak highly of his achievements, or his cleverness, much less of his riches, virtue or kindred.

(#65) Speak no injurious words, neither in jest nor earnest, toward anyone, even though they give occasion.

(#68) Do not go where you are not wanted. Do not give unasked-for advice.

(#69) If two people disagree, do not take one side or the other. Be flexible in your own opinions and, when it is not really important, take the majority opinion.

(#70) Do not reprimand the imperfections of others, for that duty belongs to parents, masters and superiors.

(#71) Do not gaze on the marks or blemishes of others, nor ask how they came to have them.

(#74) When another speaks, be attentive yourself and do not interrupt him, even if he hesitates. Do not answer him until he has finished speaking.

(#79) Do not be quick to relate news if you are not sure of its truth.

(#81) Do not be curious about the affairs of others.

(#82) Do not start what you cannot finish. Keep your promises.

(#86) In a dispute, do not be so eager to win that you keep someone from offering his opinion. Submit to the judgment of the majority.

(#87) Let your conduct be such as becomes a man who is calm, and attentive to what is said. Do not contradict at every turn what others say.

(#89) Do not speak evil of the absent; it is unjust.

(#97) Do not take so big a bite that you must chew with your mouth open.

(#98) Do not drink or talk with your mouth full.

(#106) Do not seat yourself at the upper end of the table. But if it is your due, or if the master of the house will have it so, then do not argue with him.

(#108) When you speak of God or His attributes, let it be seriously and with reverence. Honor and obey your natural parents, even if they be poor.

(#110) Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Small acts and a larger life

Would our interactions with our brothers and sisters be more pleasant if we gave close attention to such rules? Would our Bible classes and discussions be more edifying? Would our ecclesial business meetings, or other committee meetings, fulfill their purpose more effectively? What other rules might we add to these?

The life of every individual and the collective life of a community are composed alike of many small, seemingly inconsequential acts, performed day after day. Taken all together, however, all the little acts make up a whole life, or the life of the whole community. What do our lives show?

George Booker

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