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Heaven Can’t Wait

The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression

by Patricia Caldwell
Cambridge University Press, 210 pp., $19.95

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 saw my condition more miserable than ever” became the common refrain. As Professor Caldwell observes, “A certain emotion begins to be connected with the migration: a kind of grim, gray disappointment that emerges in conversion stories as an almost obligatory structural element.”

But this disappointment in America required sublimation into disappointment in oneself. And American Puritans became expert at disappointing themselves. Without the surrounding wickedness of the Old World to combat, they contended with their own continuing sins and corrupt nature. Lifelong anxiety and self-deprecation became the hallmarks of the American Puritan. He made a virtue of uncertainty until he came to identify feelings of assurance about salvation as signs of its absence. The only way to be sure was to be unsure. The only distinction it was safe to claim was that of being the chief of sinners, and one of the primary sins to be bewailed and repented was disappointment in America. Nor was it necessary to have made the trip from England to be guilty of it: those who were born in New England could also be taught to mourn their failure to appreciate it. There thus developed a curious love-hate attitude toward the land, combined with self-abasement for failing to live up to the opportunities it offered.

There is much more to Professor Caldwell’s work than I can suggest, and it offers striking insights into the nature of Puritan piety, insights that are borne out in Kenneth Silverman’s study of Cotton Mather. Mather, a third-generation Puritan, came of age at a time when Puritans were already on the defensive; and, given his ancestry, he had to be more defensive than most. His grandfathers, John Cotton and Richard Mather, were principal architects of the New England way of worship, and his father, Increase Mather, was its leading champion until Cotton assumed the task. Professor Silverman, though he gives his book the good oldfashioned title of “Life and Times,” has little to say about the times (the last quarter of the seventeenth and first quarter of the eighteenth centuries) that has not already been said in greater detail by other scholars. But his treatment of his subject’s life is something else, a shrewd and penetrating examination of a complex man.

Cotton Mather may be miscast in the popular mind as the typical Puritan, but he is nevertheless a man to be reckoned with. As with Puritans generally he earns inevitable attention simply because he left so large a record of himself, 388 titles published in his own lifetime and numerous unpublished manuscripts, including one of the most detailed diaries of a diary-keeping age. But again there is more to it than that. It is possible to write books and letters by the gross without revealing much about oneself. Mather has gained notoriety as the arch Puritan and continues to present a challenge to scholars because he does reveal himself and in doing so exhibits the virtues and vices of Puritanism itself.

It is only fair to say that he had endearing qualities, of which Professor Silverman makes as much as anyone can. He was apparently a brilliant conversationalist; people enjoyed his visits. He often displayed a genuine concern for the misfortunes of others. He seems to have had an appreciation, not to say passion, for beautiful women. And of his fifteen children, his favorite was a winning ne’er-do-well son, whom he loved dearly despite the company he kept (which seems to have included Boston’s whores and dancing masters).

But it is not these human qualities that have made Mather so challenging to scholars. Nor is it, I think, his very considerable intellectual achievement, to which Robert Middlekauff has given full credit and appreciation in his brilliant study of the family.* Although Mather must be the central figure in any study of the intellectual life of New England in his time (as he was even in the work of Perry Miller, who labeled him an impervious intellect and a nauseous human being), his influence on the subsequent intellectual development of New England is open to question. What makes him fascinating, what makes us keep coming back to him, is his palpable display of the tensions and inner conflicts that are evident but more subdued in other Puritans.

The uncertainty about salvation exhibited in the Puritan conversion narratives of Professor Caldwell becomes in Cotton Mather a false modesty about everything he does. His estimate of his own worth, by comparison at least with all those other chief sinners, was enormous, but he felt obliged to rejoice in the world’s failure to share it. “His impulse,” Silverman observes, “when he felt unappreciated, [was] to snarl.” But he reduced this to what was often a more offensive unctuousness. When the Harvard Corporation passed him by for the presidency, he felt obliged to write a letter to one of its members, thanking him profusely for what he actually considered a calculated insult; and he confided in his diary, “I rejoice, I rejoice, I feel a secret Joy in it, that I am thus conformed unto Him who was despised and rejected of Men.” Mather was, in fact, an obvious candidate for the position. He was the most eminent minister in New England. But Jesus Christ he was not, and failure to become president of Harvard was not crucifixion.

Mather provoked his contemporaries as much as he provokes readers of his diary today. There was in everything he did an “ambidexter” quality, a word that Silverman aptly borrows from Mather’s enemy Robert Calef, who charged Mather with inciting the Salem witch hunt of 1692. The charge was unfair, but Calef was correct in using the word to describe Mather’s attitude toward the trials. On the one hand he condemned the way they were conducted; on the other hand he praised the judges. And the attitude extended into all his dealings with the world; he exhibited, in Silverman’s words, “belligerent courtesy, self-flattering modesty, fretful calm, denigrating compliments, unacceptable offers.” What Mather gave with one hand he took back with the other; and “his goodwill and good cheer were often deliberately reversed expressions of hurt pride, anger, and discouragement.”

This ambidexter quality is never so obvious or so extreme in other Puritans as it is in Mather, but the sources of it surely lie in the conflicting demands that Puritanism made on all its adherents. Puritanism required a believer to find certainty in uncertainty, required him to rely for salvation on unmerited, predestined saving grace while spending a lifetime doing unrewarded good works, required him to search his soul for the Holy Spirit but denied him access to direct revelation, required him to be pure but told him he could not be. The strain produced by trying to contain these contradictions was never small, and it was easy to fall into heresy by pursuing one requirement at the expense of its opposite. The strain was doubly hard for anyone with Mather’s intellectual energy and enlarged ego; and in his secret flirtations with heresy we can see the temptations that led many other Puritans astray.

It was perhaps the failure of the American world to appreciate him adequately that pushed Mather not simply to a characteristically ambivalent attitude toward America, but to a dangerously (for a Puritan) close communication with his Maker. In his discursive historical masterpiece, Magnalia Christi Americana, and in various other writings Mather celebrated America in general and New England in particular. Even while deprecating the country’s and his own provinciality, he hailed the founders of New England as holy heroes, of whom their descendants, himself included, were unworthy. But at the same time he clearly thought his contemporaries as unworthy of him as of his ancestors; he saw himself as one of the blessings of life in New England which an ungrateful, backsliding people neglected.

In compensation he sought and obtained recognition abroad, including membership in the Royal Society (which he solicited by proclaiming his unworthiness of it) and an honorary degree from Glasgow. But he hankered after higher recognition. It was given him by angels, who joined him in his study as he lay prostrate on the floor and who communicated to him various future events in which God would favour him. When some of the events failed to materialize, he became more cautious and the angels ceased their visitations. And a good thing too, for he had come pretty close to claiming the direct revelation that all good Puritans knew had ceased with the writing of the Bible. Mather with his theological skill could doubtless have drawn a fine line between angelic and divine revelation, but he was on dangerous ground and he knew it. He drew back, smothered his anguish, and remained a good Puritan. But the price was more snarling smiles, more proud groveling, more indignant rejoicing over insults.

Mather was capable of genuine courage, as he demonstrated in the smallpox controversy. He had been convinced by reading accounts of inoculation performed in Africa that people who took the disease that way were in far less danger than those who became naturally infected, and he was right. In the face of public hostility and the ridicule of professional physicians, he not only advocated the practice but subjected his family to it—and had a bomb thrown through his window for his pains. But this was no more than he expected. He was always doing good and being requited with evil. In a book recommending good works he warned the reader that “a man of good merit, is a kind of public enemy.” In another book he explained how to bear insults the way he did: “Be always really, heartily, inwardly loathing your self.” And he proudly collected the abusive letters he received, tying them in a bundle labeled “Libels: Father, forgive them!”

Silverman’s portrait of Mather is sympathetic but unapologetic. By focusing on the way he experienced the world and on his ambivalent reactions to it, he gives us an inside view, albeit an enlarged one, of what it meant to be an American Puritan. If the view is unsettling, it may be because we have not yet seen the last Puritan.

  1. *

    The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596–1728 (Oxford University Press, 1976).

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