The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression
The preoccupation of American historical and literary scholars with the New England Puritans must seem to outsiders like an obsession. For as long as professional scholarship has existed in the United States its practitioners have devoted themselves to analyzing in ever-increasing detail and sophistication the ideas and activities of a set of people whom many Americans would like to forget. Part of the reason may be that the Puritans left behind so full a record of what they thought and did that scholars cannot resist the temptation to make the most of it. But in all fairness there is more to it than that. Quite apart from the intrinsic interest of the complex system of beliefs the Puritans carried with them, their lives give a clue to what it meant at the beginning to be American. And the level of scholarship dealing with them has reached a point where it can address the human condition itself. In recent years the focus has shifted from theology to experience, from doctrine to devotion, and the results have been rewarding.
The two books reviewed here are a case in point. Patricia Caldwell’s study examines Puritan religious experience through the narratives given by candidates for membership in New England churches. Every candidate was required to deliver before the assembled congregation a spiritual autobiography, describing his or her progression toward salvation, for membership in the church was confined to persons who could convince others, through such a narrative, that they were predestined to reach the goal. The narratives were somewhat of a novelty when they were introduced in the first years of settlement, and Professor Caldwell advances a new and convincing analysis of their origins in earlier recitations of creeds and confessions of faith. She also has some perceptive things to say about how they helped to bind together the communities where they were performed. But these are the least of her achievements. In examining the content of the narratives (recorded by ministers at the oral presentations), she gives us a searching account of how the American Puritan experience differed from the English experience from which it sprang.
In England, where Puritans had to contend against a hostile government and established church or else (during their years of triumph) against a host of heresies, believers found a haven of certainty in their personal dealings with God. When they wrote about their religious experiences, they wrote of passing through tribulations of spirit to find rest and contentment in some inner assurance of salvation. They began with doubt and ended in certainty. American Puritans had plenty of tribulations to record, but in their narratives the tribulations never end, the doubts never cease. Among many of the first generation the trip to America seems to have been a kind of false dawn, looked forward to as a release from affliction but experienced as a spiritual disappointment, because entry into the company of New England saints did not bring the expected heavenly joy. “After I came hither I …