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.”1
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 The New England Mind (1939, 1953) and a half-dozen or more brilliant essays, Miller virtually created Puritan studies in America. It is not simply that he displaced the Progressive historians’ kill-joy image of the Puritans; it is not merely that he uncovered a grand and imposing Puritan intellectual world that we had not known existed before; and it is not simply that he gave vitality to the discipline of intellectual history in America by insisting “that the mind of man is the basic factor in human history.” His achievement was far more significant than that. Miller located in the experience of the seventeenth-century Puritans nothing less than what he called “the meaning of America.”
During the past thirty years the immense Puritan world that Miller discovered has been explored by countless scholars, crisscrossed and mapped in a hundred different directions, expanded here, diminished there, and reshaped and modified in a variety of ways. Miller has been shown to have been wrong on numerous points, some major, some minor. His Puritan structure was too intellectual, too rigid, too monolithic, too tied to orthodoxy and denominational categories. He misunderstood the roots of Puritanism in the Reformation, he ignored its radical and millennial impulses, and he minimized its fluidity and its emotional basis. He has even been accused of faculty scholarship and of using only a limited number of sources.
Despite all the modifications, amendments, and criticisms over the past thirty years, however, Miller’s great achievement (like that of Gibbon) remains permanent. It is too much the artful product of a powerful historical imagination to be displaced by a series of scholarly monographs on this or that issue. More important, it lies, and will always lie, at the heart of our interest in Puritanism. Miller’s achievement will endure as long as we Americans continue to regard the Puritans as worthy of study.
After Miller (and his Harvard colleagues Kenneth Murdock and Samuel Eliot Morison—the three Ms they were called) had written, Puritan studies in America would never be the same. In the generation or so following the completion of Miller’s edifice, dozens upon dozens of scholars from a variety of disciplines—literature, history, religion—have created a veritable industry devoted to extending, refining, or replacing the structure that Miller erected. And the industry shows no signs of slowing down; indeed, the books mentioned or reviewed here are only a portion of what has recently been produced on the seventeenth-century Puritans.
Anyone from outside coming upon this Puritan industry for the first time is bound to be surprised and indeed over-whelmed. For the scholarship seems all out of proportion to the significance of the subject being studied. This tiny community of New England Puritans, numbering no more than 30,000 or 40,000 persons by the middle of the seventeenth century, has perhaps generated more scholarly works than any similar small community in the history of the world. There may already exist a book or article for every hundred persons alive in New England in 1650. As early as 1892 one scholar began his study with the chapter heading: “Reasons for writing another book about Puritanism.” By 1968 Edmund S. Morgan thought that we might already know “more about the Puritans than sane men should want to know.”2 But in the past twenty years the number of works on Puritanism has only multiplied beyond counting.
What explains this remarkable scholarly attention? The mere existence of Miller’s work certainly has generated scores of studies. But such studies inspired by Miller only beg the question of why the interest in Puritanism persists. The availability of Puritan writings is surely important to historians and literary scholars alike. Scholars want and need documents to read; and the introspective Puritans certainly left lots of them—journals, sermons, diaries, letters, written materials of every kind, a literature so vast that, as Theodore Dwight Bozeman says, it is “scarcely to be covered in full in a lifetime of even rapid research.”
But it is not just the plethora of literary material that explains the scholarly fascination; it is what Puritanism seems to say about America in the present that matters. There is something in the experience of those seventeenth-century Puritans that apparently still has resonance for late-twentieth-century sensibilities. In some way or another that New England Puritan community forms what Miller and other scholars have called “an ideal laboratory” for the study of American history.
Miller certainly regarded his work as something “more than an account of intellectual life in colonial New England.” If it had been only that, he said, he “would long since have given it over as not worth the effort.” He believed devoutly that those seventeenth-century Puritans had something important to say to our modern world and strenuously sought to make them accessible to us. Not that Miller’s Puritans are modern people. Quite the contrary. As Joyce Appleby has pointed out, Miller’s Puritans assault our twentieth-century temperament on every page of his work. Unlike previous historians, Miller in his description of the Puritans made no effort to hide the differentness of their values and behavior from those of our present. “He made the Puritan experience accessible by making it believable,” says Appleby, “and he made it believable by portraying it in its own terms with its own palpable integrity.” He pictured the seventeenth-century Puritans in all of their peculiar power, severity, and righteousness. Miller made no excuses for their beliefs: “Men and women are justly damned for eternity; tolerance stinks in God’s nostrils; biblical warrant undergirds the dictatorship of the visible elect.”3
Yet for all the Puritans’ strangeness and their distance from the twentieth century, Miller ultimately made them one with us. His Puritans struggled with the same problems, fears, and anxieties as we do. They like us had a profound sense of man’s insignificance in a grand and mysterious universe. Puritanism, he wrote, was but “one more instance of a recurrent spiritual answer to interrogations eternally posed by human existence.” Its “impetus came from an urgent sense of man’s predicament, from a mood so deep that it could never be completely articulated.” At its heart lay a “sense of overwhelming anguish” that “flows from man’s desire to transcend his imperfect self, to open channels for the influx of an energy which pervades the world, but with which he himself is inadequately supplied.” Miller realized that the seventeenth-century Puritans often had more insight into the plight of humanity than modern psychologists or social scientists and that they had more to tell us about the human predicament in the twentieth century than we had ever thought possible. In fact, so attuned was Miller to the cultural issues and Niebuhrian anxiety of the mid-twentieth century that some scholars like David A. Hollinger have described him as less a historian of the seventeenth century and more a philosopher for our time.
But Miller’s interest in the Puritans went beyond their affinity with the darker side of our twentieth-century consciousness. It is ultimately the meaning of Puritanism for the whole of American history that fascinated him. Miller not only believed that the Puritans’ experience in the seventeenth century offered “a case history of the accommodation to the American landscape of an imported and highly articulated system of ideas” and thus “a sort of working model” for the ways the American mind has continually had to come to terms with what Miller called the New World wilderness, but he also conceived of Puritanism as “one of the continuous factors in American life and American thought.” Among all the elements that have gone into the making of the American mind, said Miller, “Puritanism has been perhaps the most conspicuous, the most sustained, and the most fecund…. Without some understanding of Puritanism, it may safely be said, there is no understanding of America.”
Although Miller, as he said in the foreword to his New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, simply took Puritanism “for granted…in order that a beginning may be made, even though by main force,” scholars ever since have wrangled over the problem of defining Puritanism. Because the Puritan experience was so historically conditioned and so changeable through time, some historians, such as John Morgan in his recent book, Godly Learning, have gone so far as to suggest abandoning the term Puritanism altogether.4
That seems unlikely to happen, but it is important to see Puritanism as a historically developing movement. It began in the late sixteenth century as a protest against the way the Church of England was stabilizing under Queen Elizabeth. Those who came to be called Puritans felt that the English Protestant Reformation was not being carried far enough. They not only aimed to purify the English Church of rituals, sacraments, ecclesiastical hierarchies, and other corrupt remnants of “popery,” but they also sought to bring directness and vitality back into people’s relationship with God. At the heart of Puritanism lay a deep longing for emotional fulfillment, for an end to that anguish and emptiness of the soul they felt. The new birth or conversion experience was for the Puritans not only a way of salvation but also, as Charles Lloyd Cohen in his recent sensitive study, God’s Caress, has pointed out, “an instrument ideally suited to engender in people threatened by social change and by the disfavor of the religious establishment the capability of resisting.”5 The Puritans’ faith generated a stubborn, awesome power.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century the Puritans, “the hotter sort of Protestants,” as they have been called, had become a beleaguered but powerful minority within England, deeply distressed and angry at the wickedness that was corrupting their country and their Church. Their persecution always made them conscious of their difference from other Englishmen, of their being the godly, the saints, the elect, in contrast to the wicked, the godless, the reprobate surrounding them. Their feeling of being “us against them” was a major source of their cohesiveness and discipline in England.
The change in this situation for the Puritan migrants of the 1630s explains a great deal about their subsequent behavior in New England. By the Puritans’ transplantation to the New World, the once persecuted radical minority was suddenly transformed into a dominant religious establishment in control of a godly commonwealth. With their enemies, and thus their former source of cohesiveness, far away, the New England Puritans soon found they had to impose order and orthodoxy on themselves with an unanticipated ruthlessness. This meant, as Patricia Caldwell has so elegantly shown, having to work out original conversion narratives and tests of faith in order to determine who was properly a church member and who was not, and, the worst of ironies, having to root out deviants from their own midst.6
Becoming a Puritan did not occur randomly, and historians have spent a good deal of energy trying to find correlations between Puritanism and economic and social developments. Since the works of Max Weber and R.H. Tawney historians have generally concluded that there is a relationship between Puritanism and the emergence of capitalism, but they are not sure what precisely that relationship is. Although the Puritans in both old and New England were far from being unabashed enthusiasts for profit making and indeed were often thoroughly medieval in their economic prescriptions, they came disproportionately from the ranks of those most involved in or most affected by changing commercial activities—activities that to one degree or another had aggravated the sense of chaos, corruption, and anxiety in their lives. Puritanism was a religious response to acute disorder. Contrary to what some historians used to think, Puritanism did not so much increase people’s anxiety as provide solace and assurance for that anxiety.
Partly because of their connection with the birth of capitalism, the Puritans have often been labeled the first modern people, in Michael Walzer’s words, “the first of those self-disciplined agents of social and political reconstruction who have appeared so frequently in modern history.”7 As events of the seventeenth century showed, these self-disciplined Puritans were willing to turn their corrupt English world upside down and to execute their king in order to reconstruct their society. Before the English Rebellion erupted, however, a few of the Puritans had already fled the country for the wilds of America, choosing, as Edmund S. Morgan has put it, emigration as a substitute for revolution.
It is that migration of 1630—the Puritan experience of coming to America—that has become the center of recent scholarly contention. In a famous essay of 1952 entitled “Errand into the Wilderness,” Miller suggested that the Puritans crossed the Atlantic on a historic mission. Their migration was “an essential maneuver in the drama of Christendom.” They left England not as suffering refugees but as “an organized task force of Christians” bent on creating a model of a reformed society that their fellow Englishmen at home could emulate. More was at stake than establishing a simple outpost in the wilderness. Upon the shoulders of that tiny colony of Massachusetts rested nothing less than the fate of the Reformation. The Puritans’ community, as their leader John Winthrop put it, would be “as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
Winthrop’s words have become, as Richard Schlatter pointed out in 1962, “the most-quoted phrases of Puritan literature” and perhaps the most influential. “The sense that it is America’s mission to set an example to other nations is part of America’s Puritan inheritance,” wrote Schlatter in a summary of common historical opinion. “It echoes through the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the Gettysburg Address, and the crusade to make the world safe for democracy.”8 Ronald Reagan’s numerous references to “a shining city upon the hill” tell us, if nothing else does, that Winthrop’s words have become deeply embedded in our culture.
The scholar who has done the most over the past two decades to expand Miller’s notion of a Puritan mission and lend sardonic substance to Reagan’s references has been Sacvan Bercovitch. Bercovitch is now, as Miller was, a professor of American literature at Harvard. Although he did not study with Miller and is much less historical and more literary in his approach to the Puritans than Miller was (more interested, for example, in the language, symbolism, and aesthetic character of Puritanism than Miller), Bercovitch nonetheless more than matches Miller in enthusiasm for finding the meaning of America in Puritanism.
Bercovitch in fact says that Miller in his “Errand into the Wilderness” (which, he suggests, “may be the single most influential essay in early American studies”) did not go far enough. The Puritans’ migration had not only historical but eschatological significance, and their rhetoric was much more exultant and optimistic than Miller admitted. Where Miller saw the Puritan vision declining in the course of the seventeenth century under the impact of the New World environment, Bercovitch sees “the tremendous imaginative energy imparted by the Great Migration” not only flourishing in eighteenth-century New England but eventually providing the nation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries its social cohesion and self-justification. In several books and essays, particularly in his The American Jeremiad (1978), Bercovitch argues that the Puritans’ language and symbolism succeeded in fashioning and transmitting a “myth” of America’s mission that has dominated its middle-class culture. The American Puritan jeremiad, with its warnings of sin and promises of reform, became the ritual of a people who believed they were chosen to reach the millennial New Jerusalem. “The New England Puritans fixed their gaze on the future” and forged a faith in progress that “gave America the status of visible sainthood.”
The “importance” of the Puritans’ imaginative vision “to subsequent American thought can hardly be overestimated,” writes Bercovitch. It, and not Locke, created the stifling “liberal” middle-class consensus that Louis Hartz once wrote about. The Puritan vision
contributes to the differences in cultural development between the various regions of the New World, to the usurpation of American identity by the United States [no small matter for the transplanted Canadian Bercovitch], to the ideal of the True American,…and to the anthropomorphic concept of national selfhood—not the secular anthropomorphism of parenthood (Mother Russia, German Fatherland, British Homeland), but the eschatological anthropomorphism of allegory-become-symbol: American dream, manifest destiny, national mission, the promise of a redemptive future.
In short, all the reasons why Americans stampeded across a continent, wiped out the Native Americans and anyone else who was in their way, and eventually got themselves into Vietnam derive in some sense from the Puritan vision. The Puritans, Bercovitch says, “used the Biblical myth of exodus and conquest to justify imperialism before the fact.” Never in modern times have so few seemed to have done so much to affect the destiny of a whole nation. This belief in an American mission, says Philip F. Gura, “may well have been the New England Puritans’ most enduring accomplishment.”
But what if all this supposed influence of the Puritans on the myth of America, which Bercovitch detects in the imagery of the many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts he considers, is only a figment of the “tremendous imaginative energy” of the scholars themselves? What if the historical facts do not support the scholarly conclusions? What if the Puritans came to the New World in the 1630s without any clear mission in mind? What if, instead of departing from England with a high sense of purpose, the Puritan migrants were confused and ambivalent, torn between staying or going and uncertain about their aims? What if New England looked backward instead of toward a future America? And what if in fact some place in the West Indies, and not New England, was supposed to be the principal refuge for the early seventeenth-century English Puritans? What then happens to the meaning of America?
These are precisely the questions being raised by recent Puritan scholarship. From a variety of directions historians and literary scholars alike have complicated our understanding of Puritanism and have undermined the identification of the Puritan migration of the 1630s with America’s sense of mission. First of all, historians such as David Grayson Allen, David Cressy, and Virginia Dejohn Anderson are showing that those who came to New England were a diverse people, differing not only in their places of origin but in their customs, occupations, and agricultural practices. Such different people could not easily transplant intact a shared homogeneous Old World culture. Whereas Perry Miller in his New England Mind “took the liberty of treating the whole literature as though it were the product of a single intelligence,” no historian would dare do that today. Instead, recent historians exult in breaking New England Puritanism into bits and pieces and in emphasizing that, far from being a uniform orthodoxy, it comprised a wide and shifting range of beliefs and attitudes involving, among other things, the conversion experience, the organization of the church, and the role of the clergy. All the separatists, Anabaptists, Socinians, Quakers, Gortonists, Seekers, Ranters, and other radicals that Philip Gura describes in his recent book, A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory, were just as Puritan as the members of John Winthrop’s so-called orthodox establishment.9
At the same time the Puritans who migrated in the 1630s were by no means sure of their purposes. Both Theodore Dwight Bozeman and Andrew Delbanco argue that the significance of Miller’s suggestion of a Puritan mission in 1630 has been expanded to an extent that the documentary evidence simply will not bear. Winthrop’s “City upon the Hill” may be the most quoted words in all Puritan literature, says Bozeman, but they are also “the least understood.” Rather than projecting New England as the vanguard of a world-historical movement, Winthrop’s words, which were conventional in English Puritan rhetoric and only incidental to his entire lay-sermon, actually presuppose the failure of the Puritan venture and have none of the meaning that later scholars have given to them. The Puritan migrants, writes Bozeman, never cast their thinking into the “formula of an Errand to save the world or inaugurate the millennium.” Delbanco even more emphatically denies that any grand errand could be said to characterize the Puritan migration. “The Puritans’ emigration from England was undertaken not as a confident journey toward the millennium but as a flight from chaos in their once-hospitable world, and in themselves.” When the Civil War broke out in England in the 1640s, not only did the Puritan migration stop, but many of the earlier migrants went back home—“a story of defection that remains to be told,” Delbanco says, “(having largely disappeared as a tale unfit for our national mythology).”
In his recent sweeping survey of early American social history, Pursuits of Happiness, Jack P. Greene has in part sought to prove that “New England’s influence in shaping American culture during the colonial era has been exaggerated.” Far from being the progenitors of the nation and its future beliefs, says Greene, the New England colonies were the most exceptional and backward-looking part of Britain’s North American empire. Not only does Greene doubt that the concept of America as an elect nation can be traced to the influence of New England Puritanism, but he argues that if any regions of early America are to be made responsible for the shaping of the culture they are the mid- and South Atlantic colonies where the pursuit of individual happiness and material achievement—“the single most important element in the emerging American mind”—was most fully articulated and realized.10
And if all this were not enough to cut the Puritan migration to New England down to historical size, Karen Kupperman has recently demonstrated that all the great English Puritan leaders, including all the Puritan aristocrats such as the Earl of Warwick and Lord Saye and Sele, actually conceived of tiny Providence Island off the coast of Nicaragua in the heart of the Spanish empire as the significant center of seventeenth-century Puritan colonization in the New World, compared to which the New England settlement was presumed to be only a temporary way station.11
In just these ways are scholars challenging what Andrew Delbanco calls the “new orthodoxy concerning the place of Puritanism in the development of American culture,…the idea that Puritanism injected a millennarian strain into the American bloodstream.” The new orthodoxy is mainly Bercovitch’s, and there is no doubt that Delbanco is his principal challenger. Nothing less than the meaning of America is the issue at stake.
The meaning of America that Delbanco, who is a professor of American literature at Columbia, finds in the Puritan experience is very different from that of Bercovitch—lacking the exuberance, arrogance, and self-delusive certainty that Bercovitch finds. Delbanco sees Puritans as immigrants, the first immigrants in an immigrant culture. Their experience is an ordeal and “a powerful paradigm for understanding all subsequent immigrations”; and that is its meaning for America. That is why he never hesitates in the middle of a page to leave his seventeenth-century Puritans and jump into the writings of a twentieth-century Jewish or Italian American immigrant to illuminate his theme.
For Delbanco the Puritan migration was not a journey toward a New Jerusalem; it, like the experience of all later American immigrants, was marked by confusion, bewilderment, and a deep sense of loss. From his own reading of their sermons, diaries, and other documents, Delbanco believes the Puritans were a lonely, nervous people, wondering constantly about why they had left England, whether their sufferings were worthwhile, whether America was in reality to become, as their brethren in England predicted, “one of the dole-fullest spots of Ground on the face of the Whole Earth.” They had little confidence that they had a sacred destiny in the world. “In the whole literature of what we call Puritanism, stretching between the reigns of Elizabeth and Charles II, the distinctively American note,” writes Delbanco, “is not the theme of chosenness, but of collective loneliness—the feeling of having been abandoned by both enemies and friends, of being consigned as a group to the world’s indifference.”
Like Perry Miller Delbanco sees the Puritans’ faith suffering “declension” in the course of the seventeenth century, but for Delbanco that “declension” was far darker and more dispiriting than Miller’s. The Puritan sons ached to know their father’s faith, desperately sought to retrieve what New England was losing, but “never really grasped what it was that they were missing in their fathers’ experience.” What the sons had lost, writes Delbanco, was the idea that evil was a privation, an alienation from God. Instead, evil had become something external, palpable, outside of themselves. They lost their ability to conceive of their complicity in what was happening to them; Satan was everywhere except in their own deficiencies. And thus they became Americans. The Puritans first expressed that quintessentially American “desire for divine abrogation of the limits that time and culture impose on human lives” and started Americans on that trek “toward the catastrophe of self-reliant solitude.”
The Puritan Ordeal is a powerfully imaginative and personal book—perhaps as all great American books on the Puritans must be. Whether it is true or not remains to be seen. Lonely the Puritan immigrants may have been, but much recent scholarship, for example the work of Timothy Breen and Stephen Foster, also suggests that they built, for a moment at least, the most cohesive and stable society existing anywhere in the seventeenth-century English-speaking world.
Like Miller’s and Bercovitch’s work, Delbanco’s may also be the product of his time, as he himself admits in an earlier essay. Coming of age at the close of the Sixties, Delbanco found that decade’s sound of millennarian fervor less audible than the note of elegy that marked its end. Consequently, he says, his Puritans seem to
represent less the birth of American jingoism than of our isolationist insecurity. They may have less to do with our imperialist enthusiasms than with our self-inflicted torments over the legitimacy of our power. And their experience may be seen not as a source for the idea of American exceptionalism, but as a paradigm for the fragility of the American ego—for the long fall which Americans so often endure when aspiration must be lowered to the level of the actual.12
Delbanco, like Miller and Bercovitch, is a literary scholar, and he is as committed as they to the belief that a grasp of Puritanism is fundamental to an understanding of the meaning of America. Historians, however, are usually not much interested in finding the full meaning of America in a single past event and indeed are often appalled by the casual manner in which literary scholars blend past and present. They have different purposes from literary analysts and often prefer to stress the discontinuities between the past and present rather than the continuities. Certainly, the two books by historians reviewed here emphasize the differentness of the Puritans from modern Americans, treating them in fact as a remote and alien people.
Bozeman’s To Live Ancient Lives is one such strictly historical study, one, like a Puritan sermon itself, “unaccommodated to modern preconceptions.” Bozeman’s book is something of a tour de force in Puritan scholarship, and it is likely to stir up controversy. He confronts directly the common assumption that much of the modern world can be found in Puritanism, and relentlessly he goes about undermining that assumption. The Puritans, he says, can best be understood as biblical primitivists, people who tried to undercut both the Catholic and Anglican appeals to tradition by restoring the first or primordial order of things narrated in the Protestant Scriptures. Although other scholars have previously noted the biblical primitivism of the Puritans, no one has spelled out its significance in the detail that Bozeman has.
Bozeman has some welcome new insights and new slants on the reactionary character of Puritanism, but his repeated and literal-minded efforts to demonstrate how his findings limit “the conception of Puritanism as a new force straining toward modernity” eventually become tiresome and labored. Over and over he tells us that “the breeding of modern modes was no part of the conscious intent” of the Puritans and that one after another of the Puritans’ ideas was “yet another demonstration of the premodern bent of their conscious theory.” Yet surely if Perry Miller taught us anything, it was the crablike way the Puritans backed into modernity. To underline the regressive nature of the Puritans, as Bozeman does, scarcely destroys the connections between the Puritans and modernity. Bozeman occasionally admits that “the Puritan reformers unwittingly may have hastened the coming of modern times”; but nevertheless, he says, students need continually to “be reminded how little [the Puritans’] outlook conforms to later esteemed notions of mankind’s ever new march into the future.”
Bozeman’s effort to recapture the backward-looking and unprogressive intentions of the Puritans may be blatant and tendentious. But there are other more subtle recent attempts by historians to recover the past of the seventeenth-century Puritans on its own terms—in all of its peculiarity and differentness from our present.
In a summary commentary on the recent collection of nine historical essays on seventeenth-century New England published by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Bernard Bailyn commended the participating historians for their fresh points of view and for their contributions to our ever broadening and deepening understanding of New England’s origins. What particularly impressed Bailyn about these essays, which represent some of the best new historical work on the period, was what he calls their contextualism, their “efforts to comprehend segments of the past within their own sockets of time and place.” The essays, he says, “are nostalgic, backward looking—and correctly so,” for they adopt the perspective of the people of the time. And that perspective is “regressive, not progressive.”13
David D. Hall was a coeditor of that volume and one of the participants in it. In his book Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment, he has an opportunity to elaborate further this new “contextualist,” one might almost say antiquarian, history. Although Hall is much interested in the same New England religious mind that Perry Miller dealt with, and has written extensively on it, in this new book he spends little time analyzing the covenant, preparation, typology, or any other of the recondite aspects of Puritan theology. Indeed, here he deliberately lays “aside the term ‘Puritan,’ and with it the assumption that the people of New England exemplified a total or a perfect faith.” Instead, he has sought to recover the religion of the Puritan people in the seventeenth century in all of its pastness and fullness, including not just what went on in church but all of those “symbols and motifs that gave significance to rites of passage and life crises, that infused everyday events with the presence of the supernatural.” Unlike Keith Thomas and other historians who have drawn distinctions between religion and magic in the early modern era that most people at the time would not have drawn, Hall has tried to remain true to the reality of New England’s past—to that “mental world very different from our own”—and has described the ways the occult, magic, and superstitions of various sorts mingled easily in people’s thinking with what we today call religion.
The result is the recovery of a remote popular world of ancient lore, fantastical wonders, and remarkable providences, a world without much modern science in which monstrous births, witches, unexpected storms, abnormalities, and strange happenings of every sort all had moral significance. There has been nothing quite like historical reconstruction of popular thought in seventeenth-century America since Edward Eggleston’s Transit of Civilization written nearly a century ago.
Hall’s book is a collection of previously published essays, and it shows. He begins his book with all the fundamental changes in the culture having already taken place—in England in the Protestant and Puritan revulsion against older pagan and Catholic customs, including religious icons, saints’ days, fairy tales, carnivals, and maypoles. Therefore, writes Hall, “occurring when it did, the process of emigration conveyed to America the substance of a transformed culture.” And since that already transformed culture remains pretty much the same throughout Hall’s account of the seventeenth century, his book is static, with no progression, no narrative, no change through time.
No doubt, in his emphasis on continuity rather than change, Hall wants to counter the usual and often anachronistic historical picture of early modern times progressing toward a rational and modern future. But sometimes the new contextualist and antiquarian-minded history writing can be carried too far, and Hall in the backwardness of his perspective leaves some interesting questions unanswered. Although he insists that there was no sharp separation during the century between the thinking of the learned clergy and the religion of the common people—popular literacy being very high—he nonetheless cannot help indicating that some clergy continued the reformation that had begun in England by stressing differences between religion and magic and labeling some matters as superstition and others as not. Yet Hall never makes any sustained effort to explain how and why these efforts to reform popular superstition continued and increased to the point where, as he says, “much of this magic was in disfavor by the close of the seventeenth century.” All he does is express the confusions and tensions of the culture in his own prose: “The many levels of these texts forbid any simple separation of elite belief from popular. True, the lore of wonders was falling out of favor within learned culture. Yet tradition remained strong.”
The ancient tradition remained strong enough and persisted long enough, writes Hall, so that we would be wise “to look upon the colonists as Elizabethans and not think of them as protomodern.” But if that seventeenth-century Puritan world is indeed as strange and remote to us as Hall and other historians are saying, can the later meaning of America be found in it? Could these peculiarly and intensely religious people, who were, as Jack P. Greene has pointed out, “in so many respects militantly antimodern,” pass on a legacy that has made itself felt throughout the history of our culture?
To be sure, each successive generation of Americans has written about the Puritans, and thus kept them and their ideas alive for us. But that is not quite the same thing as positing an actual Puritan inheritance that has been passed on in the culture through the centuries. Positing in any literal sense that sort of direct transmission of Puritan values to later generations of Americans is not something modern historians find easy to do. Literary scholars are used to tracing influences—of writers such as Milton or Pope, for example—across several centuries of a culture. But most historians believe that the historical process is too complicated, composed of too many accretions and twists and turns, for any such easy extraction of direct lines of influence.
Indeed, most Puritan literary scholars have not worried about such matters: they have usually presumed an influence and have found evidence for it retrospectively—by locating something in the culture that seems Puritan and attributing it to the Puritan legacy. Historically, however, most such Puritan influences cannot be proved. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams are often called Puritan heirs because they seem to exhibit Puritan traits and came from New England. But if so, what are we going to do with the Virginian Thomas Jefferson, who was actually more “puritanical” in his seriousness, self-discipline, and prudishness than either Franklin or Adams? The notion that seventeenth-century Puritanism all by itself accounts for America’s sense of mission, the American dream, the work ethic, the Gettysburg Address, or Victorian morality is historically preposterous. If any single event in the past created much of what we Americans came to believe, it was not the settlement of Puritan New England but the American Revolution, in which all Americans, not just New Englanders, were involved.
Nevertheless, we can be sure that the Puritan industry will not die and that interpretations of Americanism will continue to be found in seventeenth-century New England Puritanism. For antiquarian-minded historians obsessed with the remoteness and the differentness of the past are scarcely capable of defining the contours of American culture: most Americans do not want to learn about a past that seems foreign and irrelevant to the present. Besides, we could not forget the Puritans even if we wished to. They are too much part of our history. As Delbanco has nicely put it, “not merely because they were first, but because they determinedly wrote themselves onto it. In their obsessive self-chronicling, which grew in intensity with their sense of dissolution as a community, they guaranteed for themselves a unique afterlife in American culture.” No other community in American history, particularly one so purposefully organized, has ever expressed in writing so self-consciously and so richly its innermost fears and hopes. There is enough experience there in that remarkable body of Puritan literature to satisfy every conceivable meaning of America that subsequent generations will want to imagine.
November 9, 1989
Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1927, 1930), pp. 13–15. ↩
Edmund S. Morgan, “The Historians of Early New England,” in The Reinterpretation of Early American History, Ray Allen Billington, ed. (The Huntington Library, 1966), p.41. ↩
Joyee Appleby, “History as Art: Another View,” American Quarterly, Vol. 34 (1982), pp. 25–30. ↩
John Morgan, Godly Learning: Puritan Attitudes towards Reason, Learning and Education, 1560–1640 (Cambridge University Press, 1986). ↩
Charles Lloyd Cohen, God’s Caress: The Psychology of Puritan Religious Experience (Oxford University Press, 1986), p.272. ↩
Patricia Caldwell, The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression (Cambridge University Press, 1983). ↩
Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study of the Origins of Radical Politics (Harvard University Press, 1965), p.vii. ↩
Richard Schlatter, “The Puritan Strain,” in The Reconstruction of American History, John Higham, ed. (Harper and Row, 1962), p.42. ↩
Philip F. Gura, A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620–1660 (Wesleyan University Press, 1984). ↩
Jack P. Greene, Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp. xiii and 207. ↩
Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “Errand to the Indies: Puritan Colonization From Providence Island Through the Western Design,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 45 (1988), pp. 70–99. ↩
Andrew Delbanco, “The Puritan Errand Re-Viewed,” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 18 (1984), pp. 359–360. ↩
Bernard Bailyn, “New England and a Wider World: Notes on Some Central Themes of Modern Historiography,” in Seventeenth-Century New England, David D. Hall and David Grayson Allen, eds. (University Press of Virginia, 1984), p. 328. ↩