My oldest son and I used to have arguments about whether one is a night or morning person by choice, by nurture, or by nature. He insisted it was NOT by nature, and who was I to say. My habit of getting up early was initiated by a job in seminary (I had to be at work at 5AM, sometimes at 4), and was nurtured through years of children (I had to get up early to have ANY alone time). I always assumed that I had learned to rise early and just could not break the habit. An argument for nature is made by the fact that my older brothers, both retired, are in bed by 830 and up by 500 every day, even though they don’t have to do so.

Some like to make a moral case for early rising. Jesus rose early, it is pointed out, and went to the hills to pray, so clearly, it is more spiritual to be an early riser. Some make that case, but not James Henly Thornwell.

Thornwell was a leading Southern Presbyterian scholar of the 19th century. He was at one time president of the University of South Carolina, and later of Columbia Theological Seminary. He was an avid churchman and a devoted husband and father. And like the recently retired Alex Rodriquez, his bio includes asterisks. A product of his time and culture, he could not see the blindspot that was his support of and defense of slavery.

That said, I’ve often been taken by Thornwell’s repudiation of the idea that the early riser is a morally superior being. His biographer tells of a few nights that Thornwell spent with a friend who struggled to adapt to Thornwell’s night-owlish habits. In a letter, JHT commented on this, giving a wonderful tongue-in-cheek defense of the moral superiority of HIS habits:

“He left the city in self-defense, protesting that a few more nights with me would kill him; and pitying my wife, who, from year to year, had to endure the plague of a man who neither slept nor waked, according to the laws which govern civilized human beings…. I think a brief campaign with me would completely cure him of the infirmity of feeling sleepy at night. I endeavoured to impress upon him that the noblest beasts, such as the lion, take the nights for their feats of activity and valour. To work in the day, when every one can see you, savors too much of ostentation for a generous and modest spirit; and to be eating by eight o’clock in the morning, indicates a ravenous propensity for the things of earth.”

There you have it. Case closed.

By the way, my son now often is up before me. On his days off. He has not been able to fight nature.