Skip to comments.The real Puritan legacy
Posted on 10/21/2008 8:38:10 AM PDT by Alex Murphy
In a recent column ("Brown: the great radical Puritan university," Oct. 7), my friend Graham Anderson '10 makes several assertions about the Puritan worldview, and its influence on our beloved Brown, which I would like to refine and revamp, though not entirely repudiate. An item of disclosure: Graham and I have taken several courses on Anglo-American history together, and we both can trace our religious lineage back to the English-Scottish Reformation.
He begins his column by referring to the lament among many conservatives that, though once a stronghold for Protestant Christian thought and leaders, the Ivy League is now an epicenter of the most illiberal, collectivist, and permissive ideologies known to mankind. This lament is not a new one: new-right conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. - despite being a Roman Catholic - wrote his acerbic "God and Man at Yale" attacking this transformation way back in 1951.
However, this lament is much more reactionary than truly conservative. Yes, Brown and other elite Northeastern universities have problems, but they actually are not that bad. Academic integrity, if not moral integrity, is alive and well. The "extreme conservative miscreants" that Graham excoriates are just that: "extreme" persons whose right-wing obsessions have little traction in truly conservative circles.
On the matter of Puritanism and Brown's association with it, Graham makes a key error in appellation. Rather than being revolutionary or radical in the 20th century populist sense, the Puritans who rebelled against Roman Catholic universalism and the lurking remnants of ignorant popery in the Church of England were more properly individualistic and nonconformist.
Instead of valuing the community over the individual or tacit understandings of salvation over Scripture's explicit commands, the Puritan Protestants were radical individualists (in the 17th century sense), whose epistemological end stop was summarized in two words: "sola scriptura" - by scripture alone. The "people," in their eyes, were naturally the source of no truth.
The differences between the Puritan "people" and the modern "people" are astronomical. With some exceptions, the use of that term today connotes a Marxist demand that every facet of political life (and then some) be run democratically. And as the actual Marxist states have proved time and again, this is always theoretical.
The Puritan use, on the other hand, referred specifically to issues of salvation and how congregants should govern their local parishes.
For at the heart of Puritanism is a desire, grounded in Christ's gloriously limited-government teachings, to maintain liberty for the individual to do God's work on earth without a domineering government or rule by "experts." Each person should be the expert over his own life. Absolutely no populist ideas should be inferred from the Puritan demand for the diffusion of power and empowerment of the individual.
In many ways, the Puritan wing of the Reformation was the most conservative wing of all. As British MP Edmund Burke once advised in "Reflections on the Revolution in France," with the events of the Reformation clearly on his mind: "If the last generations of your country appeared without much luster in your eyes, you might have passed them by and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors."
The Puritans, unlike the proto-Marxist French revolutionaries, did look back. What they found was the Christian liberty of the Apostles and the early Church.
Furthermore, as students who have taken Professor Tim Harris's wonderful course on English history will remember well, the leader of the Puritan republic, Oliver Cromwell, was a social conservative. In other words, he believed in maintaining a class of landed gentry and in ensuring that the aristocratic families kept a structural position in the government.
Prior to the Progressive Era of American history, this socially conservative idea was even preserved in the Constitution itself, in that the members of the Senate were appointed by the state legislatures. Socialists and illiberal progressives led this attack on the necessarily undemocratic Constitution and not on those bred with the spirit of the republican Reformation.
Looking to our present-day Brown, I feel as though Graham made a colossal mistake in arguing that the legacy of the Puritans is the school's reputed progressivism. Rather, our very obvious individualism and nonconformity - so often the punch line of many jokes from our Ivy peers - seems a more accurate place to pin that legacy.
The open curriculum, the entrepreneurial spirit of many alumni, the simplified grading scheme, the lax environment, the resistance to increasing the power of the inherently autocratic police and the disposition to reserve judgment all are legacies of the Puritans.
The Marxist obsession with debasing culture, encouraging deviancy and attacking the Protestant religion are endemic in universities worldwide. That Brown has, in my opinion, avoided many of the worst excesses of illiberal Marxism is a testament to this school's belief in the individual and in a vibrant nonconformity.
Thus, while the Puritanism of our school's founders is certainly still present, you will not find it in the lazy progressive values of populism and ceaseless change.
Stay classy, Sean Quigley.
Catholics are not Universalists. Christ died for all, but not all accept the grace given. As for the Puritans, their great legacy is dead in benighted New England. Nothing but a vast wasteland of leftist liberalism as far as the eye can see.
He's trying to use the bloodthirsty, protototalitarian dictator Oliver Cromwell as a model and an example of free American government.
1. The Colony of Virginia preceded the Puritan Pilgrims. America is not the product solely of New England.
2. The Puritans may have been many things but champions of "liberty for the individual" they certainly were not. If an individual in the Puritan theocracy acted strange in the opinion of the Puritan ayatollahs, that individual was a dead man or a dead woman walking.
Your right. Sodomy parades in all the major cities shows the progress we have made from the bad ol’ days. /s
Your right. Sodomy parades in all the major cities shows the progress we have made from the bad ol days. /s
In the "bad ol' days" of the Puritans, you and your wife would have been executed if my daughter decided to be a Drama Queen, roll around on the ground and then accuse you and your wife of being a warlock and a witch.
Given the choice between the two societies, I'll take weirdos marching in the streets over the local the Religious Police having life or death power over me. If you admire such a theocratic society, you can live in one today by moving to Iran.
“In the “bad ol’ days” of the Puritans, you and your wife would have been executed if my daughter decided to be a Drama Queen, roll around on the ground and then accuse you and your wife of being a warlock and a witch. “
People are wrongly convicted of crimes in all eras. BTW, witches were thought of having real powers (evil eye, hexes, etc) and could kill/poison. They were a threat to society.
“Given the choice between the two societies, I’ll take weirdos marching in the streets over the local the Religious Police having life or death power over me.”
In the latter choice, America was a better place to be. Your description is overly dramatic. Maybe your the drama queen in th family. LOL.
“If you admire such a theocratic society, you can live in one today by moving to Iran”
Why? I am not a muslim.
>> People are wrongly convicted of crimes in all eras. BTW, witches were thought of having real powers (evil eye, hexes, etc) and could kill/poison. They were a threat to society. <<
Still, there’s something special about being convicted of doing things which are fanciful in the first place.
There was a movie about Cromwell years ago where the end depicted his victory in 1648 and the sheer idiocy of one of the characters uttering “We now begin the Interregnum.”
What's next? A biopic of Frederick The Great in which the king announces: "I hereby declare the Seven Years' War"?
Snort. Brown University was never “Puritan.” It was founded in the mid-1700s by religious liberals as a quasi-secular college.
Straw men galore.
What is your logical or historical basis for conflating Christian magistrates with Muslim ayatollahs?
Are you really trying to caricature about one hundred years of Puritan history as if the whole of it were a period of hysteria that lasted about one year in three counties in Massachusetts, in which around 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, of which 29 were convicted the capital felony of witchcraft? That cartoon portrayal of the Puritans by necessity ignores (among many other omissions) the contemporaneous and subsequent Puritan criticism of the trials
Contemporary commentary on the trials
Various accounts and opinions about the proceedings began to appear in print in 1692.
Deodat Lawson, a former minister in Salem Village, visited Salem Village in March and April, 1692, and published an account in Boston in 1692 of what he witnessed and heard, called "A Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village: Which happened from the Nineteenth of March, to the Fifth of April, 1692"..
Rev. William Milbourne, a Baptist minister in Boston, publicly petitioned the General Assembly in early June, 1692, challenging the use of spectral evidence by the Court. Milbourne had to post £200 bond or be arrested for "contriving, writing and publishing the said scandalous Papers".
On June 15, 1692, twelve local ministers -- including Increase Mather, Samuel Willard, Cotton Mather -- submitted The Return of several Ministers to the Governor and Council in Boston, cautioning the authorities not to rely entirely on the use of spectral evidence, stating, "Presumptions whereupon persons may be Committed, and much more, Convictions whereupon persons may be Condemned as Guilty of Witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more considerable, than barely the Accused Persons being Represented by a Spectre unto the Afflicted".
Sometime in 1692, minister of the First Church in Boston, Samuel Willard anonymously published a short tract in Philadelphia entitled, "Some Miscellany Observations On our present Debates respecting Witchcrafts, in a Dialogue Between S. & B." The authors were listed as "P.E. and J. A." (Philip English and John Alden), but is generally attributed to Willard. In it, two characters, S (Salem) and B (Boston), discuss the way the proceedings were being conducted, with "B" urging caution about the use of testimony from the afflicted and the confessors, stating, "whatever comes from them is to be suspected; and it is dangerous using or crediting them too far".
Sometime in September 1692, at the request of Governor Phips, Cotton Mather wrote "Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches, Lately Executed in New-England," as a defense of the trials, to "help very much flatten that fury which we now so much turn upon one another". It was published in Boston and London in 1692, although dated 1693, with an introductory letter of endorsement by William Stoughton, the Chief Magistrate. The book included accounts of five trials, with much of the material copied directly from the court records supplied to Mather by Stephen Sewall, his friend and Clerk of the Court.
Cotton Mather's father, Increase Mather, published "Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits," dated October 3, 1692, after the last trials by the Court of Oyer & Terminer, although the title page lists the year of publication as "1693." In it, Mather repeated his caution about the reliance on spectral evidence, stating "It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned". Second and third editions of this book were published in Boston and London in 1693, the third of which also included Lawson's Narrative and the anonymous "A Further Account of the Tryals of the New-England Witches, sent in a Letter from thence, to a Gentleman in London."
A wealthy businessman in Boston and fellow Harvard graduate, Thomas Brattle circulated a letter in manuscript form in October 1692, in which he criticized the methods used by the Court to determine guilt, including the use of the touch test and the testimony of confessors, stating, "they are deluded, imposed upon, and under the influence of some evill spirit; and therefore unfit to be evidences either against themselves, or any one else"
 Aftermath and closure
Although the last trial was held in May 1693, public response to the events has continued. In the decades following the trials, the issues primarily had to do with establishing the innocence of the individuals who were convicted and compensating the survivors and families, and in the following centuries, the descendants of those unjustly accused and condemned have sought to honor their memories.
 Reversals of Attainder & Compensation to the Survivors and their Families
The first hint that public response for justice was not over came in 1695, when Thomas Maule, a noted Quaker, publicly criticized the handling of the trials by the Puritan leaders in Chapter 29 of his book Truth Held Forth and Maintained, expanding on Increase Mather by stating, "it were better than one hundred Witches should live, than that one person be put to death for a witch, which is not a Witch". For publishing this book, Maule was imprisoned twelve months before he was tried and found not guilty.
On December 17, 1696, the General Court ruled that there would be a Fast Day on January 14, 1697, "referring to the late Tragedy, raised among us by Satan and his Instruments". On that day, Samuel Sewall asked Rev. Samuel Willard to read aloud his apology to the congregation of Boston's South Church, "to take the Blame & Shame" of the "late Commission of Oyer & Terminer at Salem". Thomas Fiske and eleven other trial jurors also asked forgiveness.
Robert Calef, a merchant in Boston and long-time public adversary of Cotton Mather, republished Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World in 1700 with additional material added to it, broadly criticizing the proceedings, under the title "More Wonders of the Invisible World", bringing the issue back into public debate. John Hale, minister in Beverly and present at many of the proceedings, had completed his book, "A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft" in 1697, but it wasn't published until 1702, after his death, and perhaps in response to Calef's book. Expressing regret over the actions taken, Hale admitted, "Such was the darkness of that day, the tortures and lamentations of the afflicted, and the power of former presidents, that we walked in the clouds, and could not see our way".
Various petitions were filed between 1700 and 1703 with the Massachusetts government, demanding that the convictions be formally reversed. Those tried and found guilty were considered dead in the eyes of the law, and with convictions still on the books, those not executed were vulnerable to further accusations. The General Court initially reversed the attainder only for those who had filed petitions, only three people who had been convicted but not executed: Abigail Faulkner Sr., Elizabeth Proctor, and Sarah Wardwell. In 1703, another petition was filed, requesting a more equitable settlement for those wrongly accused, but it wasn't until 1709, when the General Court received a further request, that it took action on this proposal. In May 1709, 22 people who had been convicted of witchcraft, or whose relatives had been convicted of witchcraft, presented the government with a petition in which they demanded both a reversal of attainder and compensation for financial losses.
Repentance was evident within the Salem Village church. Rev. Joseph Green and the members of the church voted on February 14, 1703, after nearly two months of consideration, to reverse the excommunication of Martha Corey. On August 25, 1706, when Ann Putnam Jr., one of the most active accusers, joined the Salem Village church, she publicly asked forgiveness. She claimed that she had not acted out of malice, but was being deluded by Satan into denouncing innocent people, and mentioned Rebecca Nurse in particular, and was accepted for full membership.
On October 17, 1711, the General Court passed a bill reversing the judgment against the 22 people listed in the 1709 petition (there were seven additional people who had been convicted but had not signed the petition, but there was no reversal of attainder for them). Two months later, on December 17, 1711, Governor Joseph Dudley also authorized monetary compensation to the 22 people in the 1709 petition. The amount of 578 pounds 12 shillings was authorized to be divided among the survivors and relatives of those accused, and most of the accounts were settled within a year, but Phillip English's extensive claims weren't settled until 1718.
Finally, on March 6, 1712, Rev. Nicholas Noyes, and members of the Salem church reversed Noyes' earlier excommunications of their former members, Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey.
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