Skip to comments.The Heirs of Puritanism: That's Us!
Posted on 12/17/2007 6:58:20 AM PST by Alex Murphy
In 1630, as the Arbella lay at anchor off Southampton, England in preparation for its journey to the New World, John Winthrop proclaimed to his fellow passengers that we shall be as a city upon a hill. By mid- century the notion of an exemplary New England, a light for nations of the world, had seized the imagination of New Englands cultural establishment. And thou New England, wrote Peter Bulkeley, one of its chief ministers, which are exalted in privileges of the Gospel above many other people, know thou the time of thy visitation, and consider the great things the Lord hath done for thee. There was a militant, even chiliastic strain in much of this rhetoric. Increase Mather (father of the famous Cotton Mather) was sure that the big battles with the Antichrist, the Roman Catholic Church, were not far off, and that New England was going to play a major role in vanquishing the enemy. We were sent here not because the Lord hated us, but because he loved us.
The demise of an independent Puritan Commonwealth and the rise of religious tolerance in the eighteenth century did not mean the demise of Puritan millennialism. On the contrary, the spirit of New England expanded. It moved across New York State and the Upper Midwest to Iowa and parts of Missouri, then it took the Oregon Trail to the Northwest. In the East, it moved down the coast in ships loaded with books and sermons written by Puritans and published in Boston. New England sent out preachers and missionaries and schoolmarms; it founded seminaries that became great universities, and it published primers teaching children spelling and Calvinism. It worshipped a sovereign and righteous God who demanded mans best efforts but, more often than not, acted in ways that man could not comprehend. It was a God who was constantly on the move, never resting, always renewing and destroying, trampling down everything that blocked the path of His righteous march.
Southerners hated New England theology, the more so as it began to threaten their peculiar institution. They cursed the Puritans as disturbers of the peace of the world, identifying them with atheism and anarchy, and they sought to build dikes and levees to keep Puritanism out of their region. They pickled their culture, as one Southern journalist later noted, steeped it in myth and legend, inoculated it against change. They, the southern chivalry, stood for tradition and civilized manners against the barbarous Puritanism that had taken over so much of the North.
The other main group conspicuously unenthusiastic about Puritan millennialism were the Catholics. Many served valiantly in the Civil War, but most because they were drafted or because they were taking the place of rich draftees. The Catholics huge presence in America--almost a quarter of the population--was an embarrassment for anyone who adhered strictly to the first edition of the Puritan narrative. In that version Catholics were not even supposed to be here. Catholicism was the Antichrist, the hellbound Whore of Babylon, the thousand-year corrupter and perverter of Christianity.
Collectively, then, Southerners and Catholics were the two stones rejected by the builders of American patriotism. The first was rejected because the Southern narrative--a pastiche of legend, fancied genealogies, and the dreamy tales of Sir Walter Scott--ran counter to fiercely dynamic, progressive story which the sons and daughters of the Puritans had absorbed from childhood. The second stone, Catholicism, was rejected for the more obvious reason that it was the stone that had to be smashed, ground into powder, before the final trumpet could sound. Until then, the Catholic Church remained a constant obstacle; it was not a building-block but a stumbling-block
In the post-Civil War era, however, the heirs of the Puritans became uncomfortable with parts of their own story. The theology that held it together appeared to them to be excessively rigid and harsh. An inscrutable God who chastises those he loves and wreaks terrible changes that nobody can anticipate did not sit well with an activist generation that believed in progress. Biblical literalism began to be questioned by young Protestant clergymen who came back from German universities with all kinds of subversive new learning. Some theological revisions, it seemed, were required--a bit of trimming here, a bit of softening there--to modernize the message. But even in its increasingly secularized form, the Puritan story lived on. What the new reformers retained was its patriotic core, its belief that America had an exceptional role to play in the world. When, in 1909, Herbert Croly wrote that the faith of Americans in their own country is religious, if not in its intensity, at any rate in its almost absolute and universal authority, he could have also been describing his own faith and the faith of the other Progressive reformers.
Something else was going on in twentieth-century America, The American South and American Catholics were becoming Americanized. Despite the concerns of the Vatican at that time, most American Catholic laymen quietly made their own accommodations with other faiths in a country they had come to accept as their own. The South was also back in the Union, and glad to be back. Federal troops had departed in 1877, and by 1900 even the most partisan Republicans had stopped waving the bloody shirt. By 1913 one of the Souths own sons, a Virginian (by way of New Jersey) was in the White House.
And so the century went. In 1933, and still more enthusiastically after December 8, 1941, the outliers, the white Southerners and the Catholics, were invited in as full participants in the American story. And they rushed in with enthusiasm, becoming exemplary patriots during World War II. Afterwards they seemed to outdo everyone in supporting the new war against Communism. But it was just at that time, in the 1950s, that some of the insiders started to get uncomfortable with the Puritan story of national election. They worried that World War II-style patriotism was turning into Manichaeism, which was especially dangerous in an atomic age, and they worried about the threats to civil liberties posed by overzealous anti-Communists. Still, these concerns did not penetrate the core of American self-confidence, and during the brief Kennedy years patriotism enjoyed something of a renascence in high cultural circles. American history was viewed as an inspiring story of a people struggling to realize the ideals of freedom and democracy, and America was a force for good in the world.
All that changed with Vietnam, Watergate, and long national Lenten period that followed. The Northeast, the birthplace of the Puritan narrative of an American mission, was now the region most hospitable to doubters. It was all just a facade, they claimed, for American capitalisms global ambitions. New England, the birthplace of American providentialism, was abandoning the whole idea of Providence in American life, while Southerners, the outsiders in the Puritan-told story of America, and the Roman Catholics, once considered un-American because of their allegiance to a foreign prince, were now the most fervent believers in the Puritans patriotic account of Americas glorious mission. The wild olives, the church-going Catholics and Southerners, were now grafted to the main stem of American patriotism.
In the preface to his biography of Increase Mather, historian Michael G. Hall remarks on the similarity between the beliefs of Mather and Pope John Paul II on the subject of angels. Hall considers this ironic, given the hostility of Mather and other Puritans toward the Catholic Church. But perhaps, by the 1980s, Increase Mathers attitude toward Catholics might have softened. Not only on the subject of angels but on an extensive range of creedal questions, from the divinity of Jesus to the hope for life after death, the beliefs of the Puritans, evangelicals, and faithful Catholics are almost identical, and stand in sharp contrast to the allegorized, secularized approach of liberal Protestantism. Even more striking was the similarity of their positions on moral issues like gay marriage and abortion (which the Puritans would not have even considered debatable)--once again in contrast to the liberal position. To crown it all, the three of them -- the Catholics, the Southerners, and the Puritans of Mathers day-- shared the view that America was divinely summoned to the task of Christianizing wilderness, a view now scornfully rejected in the cultural centers of Greater New England. If he were alive now, Increase Mather, one of the greatest champions of the New England Way, might find himself allied with Catholics and Southerners--and alienated from his own region.
Indeed. What have we done with my church?
Unfortunately, my fellow heirs of Puritanism here in New England all vote for same sex marriages, abortions, environmental straitjackets and all the rest of the modern left-wing politically correct line...
The Catholic view is that the puritan perspective is unstable, that in the strictness of it’s demands and social pressures, to live fully, the congregant steps onto a slippery slope and loses perspective, so that in throwing away the man made restrictions (say dancing, or drinking, and the like, that are allowed biblically) the Puritanical congregant can’t differentiate between these and the core values of the faith (marriage, abortion and similar social areas). I’m a Presbyterian and am extending an argument made by Belloc and Chesterton (both Catholics) but I hope you see my point. The key is “balance” or a “big tent” with defined boundaries. So some Christians may drink and others not, yet if we make man-made restrictions a test of faith or worthiness to be in a congregation, we undermine our purpose if we condemn the other for making a choice that they are allowed.
Ignores the historical reality of the strength of Calvinism in the southern Piedmont both before and after the war.
Not very rigorous in its scholarship. Deserves a ‘gentleman’s C’.
Most early American Puritans weren’t against drinking alcohol.
The Puritans loaded more beer than water onto the Mayflower before they cast off for the New World.
Royce, James E. Alcohol Problems: A Comprehensive Survey. New York: Free Press, 1981, 38.
I stand corrected . . .
Sounds about right. A lot of court records of Colonial America had more to do with serving too much or serving on the Sabbath. They also had laws against giving or selling to the "Indians".
One of my ancestors was cited for charging too much for the beer she brewed, but she was found not guilty after providing her recipe. She put more hops or something into her brew, so the higher price was justified.
Never saw anyone charged for dancing, so I'm not sure that was something the Puritans were against either. Most of them weren't nearly as straight laced as the reputation they have. You should see some of the portraits of some Puritan women from the early Colonial era, dressed up in colorful fancy dresses.
Wait, weren’t Congregationalists distinct from Puritans?
Puritans were Congregationalists, but not the only Congregationalists.
The South of today is no longer the neo-European high church bourbon culture of yore but truly the Bible Belt, the true heir of Puritanism. I suppose this saddens "palaeos" like it did their hero H.L. Mencken (rot his bones!!!), but too diddley-dog-gone bad. "Palaeos" and high churches never took religion seriously anyway, as shown by the liberalism of the Cavaliers during the English Civil War. After all, religion is only a product of a culture (via zillions of years of trial-and-error) and not some "rationalist blueprint" from A-mighty G-d, now, is it? [/sarcasm]
Some of our Southern Puritan-haters should be locked in a room with Rev. Ian Paisley.
One mistake in the article, though, is the assumption that contemporary Catholicism is as conservative as the old Puritanism or the current Evangelicalism. Contemporary Catholicism is in fact the world's largest and most successful liberal Protestant denomination (or, to use their favorite word, "sect"). Also ethno-culturally American Catholicism is an urban immigrant religion largely hostile to the culture of the rural American Heartland, or at the very least extremely unsympathetic to it.
You know, there was an argument on a Catholic forum a while back between an advocate of "limited inerrancy" who called it that and an advocate of "limited inerrancy" who was not honest enough to call it that. Honest--they were saying the exact same thing about Biblical inerrancy but the dishonest guy was having a conniption because the honest guy admitted that this should be called "limited inerrancy" while the dishonest guy wanted to call it "total inerrancy, but the Bible isn't a science book." Blah.