The Puritan Ordeal
Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England
Though it is today hard to imagine, there was a moment when historians regarded the seventeenth-century Puritans as having virtually no significance for the development of America. During the first quarter of the twentieth century the Progressive scholars and historians who then dominated American colonial studies, such as Vernon Parrington and James T. Adams, denied the Puritans any part in the making of what was rightly American. The liberal democratic future of America, these historians contended, actually belonged to all those religious dissidents and victims of Puritan persecution—from Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, who were banished from Massachusetts Bay to Rhode Island, to those stubborn Quakers hanged on Boston Common.
By rigidly suppressing free inquiry and toleration, Parrington wrote in 1927, the “reactionary theology” of Puritanism stood in the way of the emergence of American democracy. Puritanism was full of “aristocratic contempt for the sodden mass of the people,” regarding them “as stupid, sensual, veritable children of Adam, born to sin and heirs of damnation.” It had nothing to contribute to a new enlightened world of individual worth and happiness; and thus it “long lingered out a harsh existence, grotesque and illiberal to the last.”
It was in these most inauspicious circumstances of the late 1920s that Perry Miller began his great project on New England Puritanism. He commenced his work, he later recalled, “within an emotional universe dominated by H.L. Mencken,” who had defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.” Miller and his contemporaries had come of age, Miller said,
in a time when the word “Puritan” served as a comprehensive sneer against every tendency in American civilization which we held reprehensible—sexual diffidence, censorship, prohibition, theological fundamentalism, political hypocrisy, and all the social antics which Sinclair Lewis, among others, was stridently ridiculing.
Moreover, one of Miller’s “most revered instructors” warned him that New England Puritanism was a delusive subject, thoroughly exhausted with nothing left for a new scholar to exploit. He was told that writing on such a subject would wreck his scholarly career before it began.
But Perry Miller had had a vision of his destiny several years earlier, and he was not to be dissuaded. In the mid-1920s while unloading oil drums “flowing out of the inexhaustible wilderness of America” at Matadi on the banks of the Congo in central Africa, he had a Gibbon-like epiphany about the history he wanted to write. It was thrust upon him, he later said, “the mission of expounding what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States.” He had to begin at the beginning, and that meant the Puritan migration of 1630, which had a coherence that the prior 1607 settlement of Jamestown in Virginia did not.
And so was commenced one of the most remarkable adventures in twentieth-century American scholarship. Beginning with his Orthodoxy in Massachusetts (1933) and his and Thomas Johnson’s edition of Puritan writings (1938) and capped by his two magnificent volumes of …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.