The Puritans in the Popular Mind

How old am I? So old that when I was in grade school, the first English to settle New England were considered role models and people to learn about and emulate. No, not the “massacre the Indians because they are just like the Irish” example, but hard-working, faithful, willing the learn and to share, willing to make amazing sacrifices so they could worship as they chose, and hardy. We talked about Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers, dressed up in paper Pilgrim hats and Indian headbands at Thanksgiving and had a popcorn and candy-corn feast. It wasn’t until I was in High School and studying American literature and Hawthorne that I learned how hypocritical, mean-spirited, insular, corrupt, and unkind the Pilgrims were, and how blinkered by religion. Then I went to grad school and got a far better understanding of the whole mess, including a confirmation of my un-fondness for The Scarlet Letter. His other novel about guilt, justice, and families, The House of Seven Gables, is much better.

What brought this to mind was substituting for the English III class and showing part of an excellent video (from the late 1970s) of Scarlet Letter. The historical accuracy of the scenes caught my eye. Boston looked smelly, crowded, and full of people who felt a duty to know what their neighbors were doing. I suspect it had been filmed at Plymouth Plantation living history center. The furniture also seemed correct, as well as people’s behavior, like the governor’s vicious wife, receiving callers from her bed (as was traditional at the time). It looked like an English village or small port city from the 1650s would look, based on what I’ve read over the years. Granted, you still had to deal with Hawthorne’s characters and the caricature of the Puritan leadership, but the visuals worked very well.

Why caricature? Because Hawthorne had no love for his Congregationalist Separatist ancestors. By not naming her seducer, Hester Prynn denied him the opportunity to acknowledge his sin and seek forgiveness, and prevented the community from encouraging him to seek redemption. The ministers and officials were not “just” concerned about a threat to the patriarchy and social order posed by a couple’s forbidden love (to use current standards), they were sincerely worried about Hester, Pearl, and the unknown man being damned. And as leaders of the community, they had a duty to do all in their power to help those predestined for salvation to achieve salvation by providing a Godly environment. Another consideration was that the Separatists considered themselves to be a Covenant people, in the sense that G-d in His unfathomable grace and mercy had protected and led them and offered to the Elect the promise of salvation. Thus the community of believers had a duty to uphold their end of the bargain by following G-d’s law to the extent that fallen and depraved souls could do so. This included helping each other avoid the occasion and temptation of sin, and guiding the sinner back to G-d, for all had sinned in some way, for all had inherited Adam’s sin. Or as John Donne put it in “A Hymn to G-d the Father,” “Canst Thou forgive the sin where I begun, which is mine own though it were done before?”

No, I don’t expect a novelist with an ax to grind to “get” the Separatists “right.” Most of what I remember from English Lit class was the symbolism, the use of Nature and setting, and that I liked House of Seven Gables better. It didn’t hit me over the head with The POINT, or at least the teacher wasn’t using it to hit me over the head with The POINT. I also read all of Moby Dick for the whaling bits as well as the Deep Symbolism, and liked the technical details of jewelry making and society in Les Mis. You’d do better with the mini-series “Three Sovereigns for Sarah,” which was taken from John Demos’s pioneering work on Salem. Skip the Freudian bits of Demos, though, and focus on who lived where and the economic and social stress engulfing Salem at the time of the witchcraft accusations. I don’t have much patience for hysterical teen-aged girls, so I didn’t care for the TV mini-series, but you may find it interesting. Certainly it is far closer to reality than Arthur Miller’s play.

It has become easy to use “Puritan” and “Puritanical” as short hand for repressed and repressive, cold, hypocritical, stuck-up, prigish, irrationally religious, anti-pleasure, especially anti-sex, patriarchal, and generally all the things no 70-year-old-going-on-16-years-old wants to be accused of being. Or as H. L. Menken put it, “Someone who suffers from the fear that somewhere, someone is having a good time.” Actually, David Hackett Fischer summed them up better in Albion’s Seed when he pointed out that “No Puritan was ever disillusioned.” They had no illusions about the sinful, fallen nature of mankind, including themselves. They also enjoyed life, had a very high birth rate, encouraged companionable marriage, gave women relatively high status, and believed that all things had a time and place, including music and games. Yes, they tended to be fearful of screwing up, and could obsess unhealthily about salvation and damnation. Personally, I think modern western society could do with a little more acknowledgement of the Innate Depravity of Man and less “you’re so special and wonderful and smart and lovely and sweet and perfect just the way you are!” [cue gentle fall of glitter and happy butterflies shimmering around a pastel rainbow]. But there’s a strong Calvinist streak in me, even though I don’t believe in T.U.L.I.P. per se. The Separatists were also litigious to a fare-thee-well, so we have an enormous number of court documents as they sued and countersued each other. It is safe to say that dull moments were a little too rare for social harmony in New England in the 1600s-early 1700s.

The Puritans were fascinating, complicated people. Albion’s Seed is a great place to start reading about who they really were, followed by some of the better general histories and monographs. I wasn’t fond of John Demos, although his work was important in trying to take a new look at the mental world of the Separatists. I wish I could have told the English students a quarter of what I know about the Separatists, but that wasn’t my time or place, and they probably wouldn’t be interested. It wouldn’t be on the test, and contradicts the picture Hawthorne painted.

12 thoughts on “The Puritans in the Popular Mind

  1. (Holds up cover of Scarlet Letter) “This is a story. These are not the real Puritans in the same way that this,” (holds up a picture of Garfield), “is not a real cat.”

    The Puritans were concerned with The Almighty, home, family, community, and hard work. Good ideals, all of them. Yet, they also serve as a warning that good ideals can be taken too far and become destructive. Much like the current fad for pathological altruism and “fairness” beyond all reason.

  2. Thank you. This post is why I stay subscribed. Very nice defense of Puritans and whetting of appetite to learn more.

  3. Minor nit, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation were a different group than the Puritans.

    Note sure how much difference there was in Theology but they were different groups. 😀

    Oh, I’ve read Albion’s Seed concerning the Puritans and it was good.

    By the way, the Puritans (at least in later years) did fall into the trap of thinking “We’re doing well (in material terms) so God must approve of us”.

    Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon was a rebuke of that attitude.

    • You have the broad arch of English Congregationalists, the Puritans, and within that the Separatists, and even a few sub-subdivisions. And yes, there is a strong temptation to see worldly success as a possible sign of Election.

      • And when we see your tulip post I’m sure the bulbs will go off, but hope that nobody’s bubble is burst. What, not that tulip? Sorry, I’ll just be moving along……

      • I’m looking forward to that. My wife is the financial secretary at one of the churches here in town, which isn’t the church we attend. I’ve been attending a noon Bible study this semester they have on Wednesday because it fits my schedule. That’s been the topic the last few weeks. (I don’t buy into everything in T. U. L. I. P., btw).

  4. Albion’s Seed was good, no question. I think there was a lot of ‘infighting’ amongst the various Puritan groups too. Just remember, Vampires only sparkle when they are burning… 🙂

    • They definitely seem to have been subject to schism on this side of the pond. Look at Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson and the origins of settlement in Rhode Island, for example.

      • And the arguments over the Half-Way Covenant. Then the First Great Awakening and the New Light congregations formed . . . When I was around Reformed (Dutch flavor) Churches, I was assured where there are three families, you will have two congregations.

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