Gary North: A Personal Remembrance
I first came across Gary North when I was working in Paraguay as a forestry extension agent with the Peace Corps (1983–1985). While there I would devour every issue of Christianity Today that I could get my hands on. In that magazine I noticed advertisements for a bookstore called Puritan Reformed Discount Book Center. I responded to the ad and received a copy of their catalog. It proved to be a fascinating source of information on a school of thought I had never heard of, which went by the name of Christian Reconstruction. One of the main authors representing this position was a fellow by the name of Gary North, who, by the sound of the blurbs touting his books, pushed a no-holds-barred position on biblical Christianity as the solution for the ills of modern society. I myself was continually on the lookout for books that applied Christianity to the social order, to the here-and-now, because of my desire to apply such insights to my own discipline, forestry. I ordered some of his books and found them to embody a fascinating, brash, indeed caustic approach to the application of biblical theology to history, philosophy, economics, and other areas of social study. After a while I had built up a small library of his books as well as those of other authors of similar ilk (e.g., R. J. Rushdoony), in a stack on my makeshift desk in my little Paraguayan hut. Visitors would ask what on earth those books were about and I would do my best to explain, not very successfully I’m afraid. But whatever, I was young and full of curiosity and knew no let-up in my pursuit of knowledge.
After my stint in the Peace Corps I came home unsure of how to further my career. One thing I was sure of, forestry would not be the focus of it, as my interests in broader history and the whole range of scholarship and science had been piqued to a degree that could not be satisfied in that pursuit. So I worked odd jobs and continued to build my library and pursue my study. One of the cornerstones of my developing worldview was provided by Gary North. I acquired many of his books and derived great benefit from them, especially from his economic commentaries on the Bible.
One of the advantages of my hometown – Va. Beach – is the proximity of the Christian Broadcasting Network and its adjoining university. I finally decided to matriculate there and pursue a master’s degree in public policy, which I started in 1988. One of the professors who taught in the School of Government was Joseph Kickasola. Prof. Kickasola was a member of my church and had encouraged me to pursue my studies at CBN University (now Regent University). I became Prof. Kickasola’s research assistant.
At the time, Christian Reconstruction was getting a hearing, in particular with regard to the application of biblical law. Most Reconstructionists advocated the direct application thereof, a position which went by the name of theonomy. This was likewise one of the areas in which Prof. Kickasola taught, given his background in ancient languages and his capacity at textual exegesis. His main interest at the time was to develop a hermeneutic for the application of biblical law. We would hash out the issue at length – is it M&M (maintained unless modified) or R&R (repealed unless repeated)? We discussed Greg Bahnsen’s approach – Bahnsen was a leading theonomist. Dr. Kickasola also engaged in lengthy interaction with Vern Poythress, who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary. Poythress was most definitely not a theonomist. I still have the letter-page-sized printout of the preliminary manuscript of the book of his which eventually became The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, which he sent to Dr. K.
The interesting thing is, Dr. K. had himself attended Westminster Seminary back in the 1960s, and one of his classmates there had been – you guessed it – Gary North. The two, I found out, had great respect for each other. Gradually I formed the idea of doing my summer internship with Dr. North at his Institute for Christian Economics (ICE) in Tyler, Texas. Dr. K. graciously offered to write a letter of recommendation, and soon thereafter, we received a fax from Dr. North offering me a summer position. So I was on my way!
I spent that summer getting to know Gary and his work. I lived in Ft. Worth, about 45 minutes from Tyler, where Gary had located his publishing operation. While there I stayed with a Peace Corps buddy of mine, Paul Howden, who likewise – coincidentally – was working for Gary. (Paul is now Rector at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Webster Groves, MO.)
It was quite an experience. I remember my first meeting with him – he went on for quite some time spitting out all manner of ideas about areas of investigation, things to pursue, things to look into, things to avoid, while I diligently took notes. One of them was an investigation of the impending NAFTA treaty. Another, very important, focus was background research for a book he was writing – Political Polytheism. We had many significant discussions about that, as I had developed quite strong views on the subject in line with his own, which I had honed in interaction with the teaching I was receiving at CBN from Profs. Titus and Amos, both of whom harbored an entirely different view about “Christian America.” I came back at the end of the summer with the book manuscript – as it then stood – copied onto a floppy disk.
My next stop, oddly enough, was not a second and concluding year at CBN, but a trip to the Netherlands. This came about because while all of these other things had been going on, I had gotten to know a Dutch lady through mutual friends, and we had decided that I would come for a visit to the Netherlands and see if we could make something of our relationship. The visit ended up lasting six months (during time I either lodged or house-sat in various more or less agreeable settings, while also learning first-hand the language and customs of this soon-to-be-adopted country) thus putting an end to my degree work. But in line with my previous “career,” I decided to continue personal study, this time in the Netherlands, because me and this Dutch lady, Corine, in the meantime had decided to get married (we did at the end of the year, 1990). During this first stint, as a kind of down payment on my study, I worked on a manuscript embodying the history of the Dutch revolt (of which more below).
As it happened, Gary offered me an extended position working for him until such time as I would relocate to the Netherlands. This time around I was invited to stay with his family, and they put me up in one of the rooms in their house. It was Darcy’s room, in fact, for Darcy, their eldest daughter, happened to be away. It was quite a luxurious experience, and I also got to know the other members of the family, in particular Sharon, Gary’s wife and the daughter of Rousas Rushdoony. Toward the end of the summer I ended up house-sitting for another member of the entourage, James Jordan. In the end I got to know Jordan, Ray Sutton, Walter Banek, Charlie Erlandson, and others there fairly well.
Besides researching, I learned a great deal about word processing while working for Gary. At the time WordPerfect was the go-to program and we were using the latest, version 5.1. I learned to write macros for that program and put together a monster macro that on its own could prepare a manuscript for publication. Gary used that macro to typeset a number of books. In this manner I also learned the requirements for creating a print-ready book manuscript, knowledge which would help me greatly in my future publishing endeavors.
When it was time to return to the Netherlands, Gary helped out by offering to fund a European extension of the ICE. My efforts to put that institute on solid ground provided me an open door to meet many people in Europe and also to begin publishing a journal, which I called Symbiotica. I got that name from Johannes Althusius, a late-16th-early-17th century political theorist who used the phrase “symbiosis” to describe social life. In it I published articles written mainly by myself, North, and Jordan.
Things did not go as smoothly in Europe as they did in the USA, and eventually the decision was made to pull the plug on ICE-Europe. But this was not an unmitigated disaster, as it motivated me to pursue work in the Dutch sphere of employment. I was hired as a translator by a financial news agency in Amsterdam and from there learned all about the world of Dutch-English translation. I soon picked up German as well, and eventually I began working on my own translation projects, which can be seen at WordBridge Publishing’s website (www.wordbridge.net).
In the meantime I kept in touch with Gary, intermittently discussing various issues and projects, keeping him apprised of what I was up to. And I started to chart my own course in economics as well, moving beyond the Austrian economics and commodity money that Gary championed, towards what I came to call common-law economics. This entailed a severe criticism of classical economics and its emphasis on the natural as opposed to the legal. In other words, I had discovered the critical importance of the legal system to economics, and how the two disciplines could not rightly be divorced in the way classical economics endeavored to do so, as is particularly evident in the work of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (a critique of Böhm-Bawerk’s approach can be found in my booklet Goods, Rights, and Austrian Capital Theory). This approach found a more comprehensive, detailed expression in my book Common-Law Conservatism, which, while congenial with Gary’s approach in religion and politics, was at odds with that approach in economics. And he let me know as much in no uncertain terms.
This led to a temporary cessation of correspondence between us. But after awhile – in 2017, to be precise – our correspondence resumed and we discussed various topics from the Trump presidency to my book Calvin and the Whigs to a projected history of political thought to the importance of Roman law. He would write me short admonitions such as “If you want to leave ‘The Alvarado Thesis,’ start with this project: a history of political philosophy. You came up with the outline in 1989. Fill it in.” Or this one, with regard to a manuscript I sent him: “The book should be titled: The Debate That Changed the West: Grotius vs. Althusius.” I took his advice on that! We also discussed typesetting and the advances that had been made in that area since we first started collaborating. Discussing my switch from WordPerfect to Word: “I am amazed that you did this in Word. Usually, I can spot a Word book. It’s decent, but clearly amateurish. I thought you must use InDesign. You have become a master Typesetter using Word.” He also asked about the family, what my wife was up to, how the children were doing.
When the Covid panic hit, I sent him a link to an article I had written about it. His response: “I’ll post this as my lead article tomorrow. I will open it to the public. OK?” Which he went ahead and did. You can find the article, complete with a most interesting introduction, here.
Towards the end, he encouraged me to complete some serious projects. For one: “A week before Bahnsen died, he agreed to write a history of natural law theory for the ICE. We still need that book. Another book we need is this: the effect of Roman law on Christian civilization: Vol 1: West; Vol. 2: East. You are the person to write it.”
I would say that the history of natural law has already been written in a superior manner, by Friedrich Julius Stahl in his History of Legal Philosophy.
My treatment of Roman law would differ from what Gary wanted. He saw Roman law as a net negative, while I saw it as a net positive. “If the church had adopted biblical law rather than Roman law, how would civilization be different?”, he asked me. I explained my vision to him, that it wasn’t a question of either/or but of both/and – that the church had indeed used biblical law along with Roman law, and the fruit of that symbiosis could be seen in the work of e.g. Johannes Althusius and Herman Dooyeweerd.
This interchange also exposes Gary’s, and Christian Reconstruction’s, greatest weakness. The emphasis on the Bible and biblical law led to an overly exclusive emphasis together with a denigration of the other elements of Western civilization. I developed an alternative approach, exemplified in my book A Common Law: The Law of Nations and Western Civilization, in which I recovered the traditional understanding of Israel, Greece, and Rome as the three pillars of Western civilization, in fulfillment of the prophecy that Japheth (Greece and Rome) would dwell in the tents of Shem (Israel).
This became painfully evident when I was virtually drummed out of the movement by James Jordan in the mid-1990s for espousing this position. This occurred within the environment of a listserv email exchange group. Jordan and his buddies simply froze me out of the group. At around that time, Jordan published a pamphlet, The Case against Western Civilization, which he later worked out into a newsletter series. I have subsequently described Jordan’s method as Klaas Schilder on steroids, whereby all Christian culture springs directly from the church, without any admixture from anything outside. Taken to its logical conclusion it results in absurdities such as: what would be an appropriate biblical numerical system, if not the Arabic (actually Indian)? Are all legal systems that are not directly derived from Mosaic law illegitimate? Etc. etc.
Gary never quite went this far. He never disowned me for my “deviations” and in fact evinced a deep respect for my approach. Which is why he encouraged me to pick up and develop these projects. And this brings me to the last exchange I had with him. He asked about a manuscript of mine that he had found. In fact, it was the one I had written while I was doing my first stint in the Netherlands. I had tentatively entitled it Covenant and Capital: The Dutch Republic and the Rise of the Modern World. Back in 1990 when I submitted it to him for possible publication, he refused it. But by this time he had changed his mind. “I came across a manuscript of yours. It has no title. Chapter 1: The Makeup of Modern Society. Chapter 2: The Three Social Orders. Chapter 3: The Revolt of the Clerics. Did you finish this? If so, is it in print?” No, this is the one I wrote back in 1989–1990, remember? I explained to him that he had been right, it was not yet ready for publication, but that it could be updated and rounded off, explaining the connection between finance and Enlightenment, and how the church was pushed out of the public square by the capitalists, which then opened the door wide for the entry of the anti-church, otherwise known as the socialists. His response: “You have a moral obligation to write it. You can’t fight something with nothing.”
But then came a most depressing admission. He had talked of his intention to keep going with his own work, “if the cancer does not get me.” That caught me by surprise: “have you been diagnosed?” “Yes.” And he referred me to his web site, where he first made it public. “Thanks for the info. We’ll be keeping you in our prayers.” These words, written on February 2nd, 2021, were the last we exchanged.
Gary North was far more than the caricature delineated in the obituary in Christianity Today. (Which reminds me of the hatchet job done on him by the Wall Street Journal back in either 1989 or 1990, I forget which.) He was an intellectual colossus with vast learning and a breadth of reading matched by few. Not only that, but he was a pop culture aficionado. He told me about how he had worked in a record store as a teenager, from which he derived his extensive knowledge of the pop music of that period. He also introduced me to great music, such as the Seldom Scene, a country-bluegrass band.
I could go on and on about the conversations we had on so many topics, but I will leave it here. Suffice it to say that Gary North was a great man, a generous man, a righteous man who has now gone on to his reward. He too can say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but to all who crave His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7–8). And I am sure he has heard or will hear these words: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
Aalten, Friday, March 4, 2022