Religious, Legal Intellectual History

Perry Miller
The Life of the Mind in America from the Revolution to the Civil War
1965 (posthumous)

Perry Miller is one of those names I felt obligated to read. I was pretty sure, going in, that it wasn’t going to be the most fun I ever had reading for this list. I wasn’t mistaken, but there
were some interesting things in this, even by my own admittedly “outside the box” standards.

Miller begins his first chapter on “the Grand Era” of evangelism by quoting Charles Grandison Finney, saying “A revival of Religion presupposes a declension.” (3) Miller clearly supposes this declension to be a bad thing, and welcomes the Awakenings as opportunities for America to get itself back on track. While it is true that “several surviving leaders of the Revolution...were rationalistic to the point of overt Deism...[and] that Tom Paines
The Age of Reason (1795) circulated among village dissidents, and especially among the rude settlements of the frontier...and in 1795...Elihu Palmer did gather an out-and-out Deistic Society in New York,” Miller minimizes these challenges to Christian hegemony in early America. (4) He suggests that these evangelists saw the small number of radical freethinkers as less dangerous to their cause than the large number of nominal christians who had no interest in attending or supporting their local congregations. Miller cites works like A Correct View of that Part of the United States which lies West of the Allegheny Mountains with regard to Religion and Morals (1814) as demonstrating a missionary project on the part of eastern religious leaders and their university divinity students. It’s interesting to think of this work as not evangelical, but missionary, with all the elite condescension (even colonialism?) the term implies. “Incredible though it might seem to the evangelicals,” Miller admits, “there was a stubborn opposition to the work of God.” (14) Maybe that’s because their evangelism was not filling a void, as they claimed and Miller seems to have believed, but trying to displace a consciously and conscientiously chosen irreligion that was a firm part of early republicanism.

Throughout the book, Miller repeatedly turns to James Fenimore Cooper and the character he contributed to American mythology, Natty Bumppo. The archetypal early West frontiersman is a character I should definitely return to, for close study, as are Cooper himself and probably his father, William Cooper. My typical mental reservations regarding the use of literary characters as “voices of the people” rather than actual people, was a little less evident while I was reading Miller. Not because Miller is less of an offender -- in fact, he’s probably one of the major offenders. But it fits with his project; he’s not pretending the be a social historian. The element I have more difficulty swallowing was MIller’s reverence for the concept of the “sublime” as the “inner, if not
the central, mainspring of the missionary exertion.” (57) I was amazed, reading the section on the “Event of the Century,” (Miller’s “Third Great Awakening” of 1857) how Miller manages to avoid talking about the Panic of 1857 as a motivator of revivalism. He mentions it in the context of contemporary commentaries, but doesn’t seem to give it much credit himself. (88) The life of the mind apparently has not so much to do with the life of the pocketbook, social displacement, bankruptcy, or the empty stomach.

“The people of this state, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity,” Miller quotes from James Kent’s New York decision in the blasphemy case,
The People v. Ruggles. (66) That this bland statement serves as a preface and justification for a blasphemy conviction, and that Miller sees this as an unproblematic example of the “impression” that “prevails among our statesmen that the Bible is emphatically the foundation of our hopes as a people,” is alarming. (67) Miller adds that “Besotted Ruggles vanished thereupon from history, and nobody then or since tried to make him a martyr, as Abner Kneeland became in Boston of 1838.” (66) Of course, there’s an extensive record of Kneeland’s five-year long legal ordeal. Ruggles is so absent from the historical record that many doubt his actual existence and claim that Kent fabricated him as an excuse to expound on the role of religion in the American State.

The second section of Miller’s book is a 155-page discussion of the eclipse of English-derived common law by a codified legal system dominated by a professionalized attorneys. In spite of popular law books like John McDougal’s
The Farmer’s Assistant (1815) that tried to reduce regular people’s dependence on this new elite, Miller consistently dismisses popular distrust of lawyers as “anti-intellectualism.” (182) And he goes out of his way to establish the “union of Christianity and the law,” which was “asserted most comprehensively by Chief Justice Shaw in 1838 when passing sentence upon Abner Kneeland.” (194) This sentiment found its logical conclusion in the 1859 claim of a Georgia jurist that “no Lawyer properly imbued with the teachings of his Profession, can be an infidel or a skeptic.” (206) If this was the common opinion of the “best” minds of the 1850s (Miller suggests it was, and doesn’t see anything particularly troubling in that), is the Civil War any great surprise?

One of the ironies of Miller’s book is that he doesn’t really challenge the self-justifications of these early republic elites. Miller quotes “an amazingly frank” 1843 article in the first issue of
The American Law Magazine, which contends that “the real concern of society is the protection of property” and that the threats are real and immanent. “Democracy, says this writer, is incurably hostile to the possessions of the few,” and therefore the law must protect those possessions and that few. (227) “That government can scarcely be deemed free,” claimed lawyers in 1830, “where the rights of property are left solely dependent upon the will of a legislative body.” (228) I don’t necessarily disagree with that statement, but it’s telling that it should be the agenda of the legal profession that “the policy of the law preserves equality and political rights among the citizens; but equality of wealth and condition cannot exist among men, so long as they are divided into the provident and the improvident, the idle and the diligent.” (quoting Judge Thacher in the 1834 Ursuline Convent decision, 229) Seems like they’re well on their way to a social Darwinism in which, as HCR would say, some people must be poor, and it’s their own fault.

American Thinking Class

The Making of an American Thinking Class by Darren Staloff (1998)

This was a challenging text, which assumed a prior knowledge of the events of the Puritan period, and applied the formulas of what Staloff calls a post-revisionist approach that was heavily influenced by Marx and Weber.

Texts he refers to a lot: Perry Miller, Alvin Goldner (
The Dark Side of the Dialectic), George Conrad and Ivan Szelenyi (Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power), Larzer Ziff,

“Marxist outlaws have not surrendered the dialectic, but continue to probe and wander its dark side. Only those who can move without joining packaged tours of the world can afford such a journey.” (quoting Alvin Gouldner, 2) This is a great image. Of course, Marxists aren’t the only types of outlaws running off the beaten paths…

Staloff’s thesis is that Puritan Massachusetts was run by an alliance of intellectuals (ministers, the producers of culture) and intelligentsia (magistrates, who administered culture through politics). The basis of their shared power he names cultural dominance, which he says is built on four principles:
1. public recognition or ritual acceptance of leaders
2. leaders always agree publicly (avoid schisms)
3. public expressions of the dominant culture are “socially privileged” and single source
4. dissent is suppressed, as are unauthorized expressions of culture

Staloff’s history of the Bay Puritans is a series of challenges to, defenses of, and ultimately violations of these principles, resulting in the gradual undermining of the ruling party’s cultural dominance. Staloff doesn’t disparage the notion that the Puritan rulers, dissidents, and the laity had sincere theological differences; but he’s clearly not interested in them. He suggests at several points that he’s examining the true underlying causes of individual and group actions, even when the people involved were unaware of them.

The way the Bay Colony was established certainly lends itself to the type of self-conscious, premeditated construction of the state Staloff claims. The colony was, as he says, “Designed and staffed by a class-conscious and dissident educated elite.” (12) Staloff mentions events in England only briefly (although his historiographical appendix is mostly about English Puritanism), but reminds the reader that the Bay Puritans are (or at least may consider themselves) the radicals in an intercontinental movement (actually, Staloff lets his theory get away from him for a moment and calls them the “vanguard of the militant Protestant internationale”).

Staloff argues that the colony’s toleration of high-ranking dissenters like Roger Williams (who was treated with kid gloves at a time when lesser men were being “whipped, have his ears cutt of, Fyned £40, and banished…for uttering mallitious and scandalous speeches against the government and the church of Salem.” 21) was due to his status as a member of the intellectual ruling elite. Every attempt was made to reconcile Williams’ differences with the ruling consensus, to avoid the appearance that the fundamental truths on which Puritan society was based were open to a variety of interpretations. Anne Hutchinson was more easily dealt with, because she was a woman; the magistrates took much greater care bringing John Cotton (her mentor and the teacher of the Boston church) back into the fold.

John Cotton presented his fellow leaders with an ongoing dilemma. He argued for a more charismatic faith, where evidence of grace was somewhat disassociated from works (not as much as Anne Hutchinson believed, as it turned out). In a sense, Cotton was “seeing” the Puritans’ miraculous-biblical social basis, and “raising” them with claims of contemporary miracles (experiences of saving grace as a qualification for “saint” status). How could they deny him, and sustain their own claims? This would later prove their undoing, when Increase Mather took it too far and prophesied against the British authorities.

It’s interesting that these Puritan issues foreshadow later Massachusetts religious issues. The Edwards controversy in Northampton revolved around a charismatic minister, a revivalist message, and election by a claimed experience that was beyond the control of the regular hierarchy. The communion of saints was at the same time more exclusive and more democratic (or at least anarchistic, because it wasn’t based on the accepted tests of worth). In addition, Roger Williams’ call for disestablishment challenged the legitimacy of the state’s role in allying with a particular group of religious leaders. This issue reappears in the Ashfield Baptists’ fight to relieve themselves from taxes to support the Congregational church. And Cotton’s preference for at will offerings (in the richest parish in New England) over forced tithes reappears in Chileab Smith’s schism with his son Ebenezer over ministerial salary at the end of the 18th century.

The Antinomian dissent was apparently supported by many of the Boston merchants, but Staloff doesn’t make it clear how or why the “urban bourgeoisie” transformed their dissatisfaction with the “arcane economic policy” (40) of the inner party into Anne Hutchinson’s theological break with Puritan orthodoxy. Staloff seems unclear about who’s using whom in this passage. On the one hand, he agrees with Ziff that “so long as the doctrine itself was under attack, he stood by them, but when it became clear to him…that they aimed at a social revolution and were willing even to pervert doctrine to achieve it, he abandoned them.” But in the next paragraph, “Cotton attempted to use the Antinomians in the same fashion that Mao Tse-tung used the Red Guards in his struggle for absolute preeminence against the other members of the inner party elite.” (42) So which is it? Was Cotton a theological idealist, or a cynical political infighter?

By 1637, the Quakers had identified another danger to the Puritan regime. If the orthodox leaders allowed the existence of an “inner light,” then anyone could claim a personal revelation that was superior (or at least equivalent) to the Word as preached by the ministers. The Synod of 1637 identified and condemned it as Error #53: “No Minister can teach one that is anointed by the Spirit of Christ, more than hee knows already unlesse it be in some circumstances.” (45) This is obviously true as well of Cotton’s saints, but they weren’t pressing the point and Cotton was still one of the foremost ministers in the colony. Going after him and his flock would violate the second rule. And Cotton avoided violating “the ritual code of deference that surrounded the clergy and supported their system of cultural domination.” (first rule)(50)

Eighteenth century clerics might have justified their intrusions into politics based on Puritan traditions. “At the beginning of each annual Court of Elections, a duly appointed member of the ministry would preach a decidedly political and often factionally partisan election sermon to the assembled freemen.” (74) But as the civil and religious organizations began to drift apart, crossovers of magistrates (like Winthrop) into religious theorizing began to be resisted by the ministers. It seems to have taken much longer for the ministers to be judged as incompetent to hold political opinions (if it ever happened at all).

“Harvard College (named after Rev. John Harvard of Charlestown, who died Sept. 14 1638 leaving £1600 and a library of 400 books) played an indispensable role in supplying cultural cohesion and hierarchical control. The college collected a common cultural core which, through the ministers, would be exported to every settlement in the land. By 1660, there were 135 college-trained leaders among the second generation, of whom 116 were Harvard graduates.” (q Harry Stout, 94-5) (cf New England’s First Fruits) In addition, the college graduated magistrates for the General Court and teachers for the Latin schools, to prepare the next generation of Harvard men. The college’s 2nd president, Henry Dunster, was sacked for becoming a Baptist, but he was neither banished nor excommunicated, even though standard treatment of Baptists included floggings and heavy fines. Staloff attributes this to the fact that Dunster humbly complied with his admonitors. “Here lay the key to Puritan toleration and repression: orthodox unanimity was sought not as an end in itself but as a means to cultural domination,” Staloff concludes. (100)

In 1638, the church took its first steps toward establishment. The court ordered that “every inhabitant in any towne is lyable to contribute to all charges, both in church and commonwealth, whereof hee doth or may receive benefit.” (106) This is an interesting construction, clearly showing the author’s belief that church and commonwealth are two elements of a single society that everyone is responsible to keep up. The difficulty is that the strict covenant (and Cotton’s even stricter requirement for signs of “saving grace”) disqualified most of the population from church membership. The colony’s original inclusive churches had evolved into very exclusive communities of saints. So the involuntary assessment for their support amounted to taxation without participation. This foreshadows the next century’s difficulties with establishment, and helps explain the tradition that formed the clergy’s expectation of support from their flocks.

Samuel Gorton was thrown out of Boston, and then out of Portsmouth (RI) for his heretical ideas. He went to Providence, but annoyed even the liberals there; so he went to Pawtuxit (Pawtucket). Massachusetts annexed Pawtuxit in 1642 to drive him out and secure the hinterlands from heresy, and Gorton bought land in Shawomet. “Gorton and his followers had purchased their land from Miantonomo, the sachem of the Narragansetts. Unfortunately, two of his subsachems who resided in the locality, Punham and Sacononoco, objected to the sale. In the spring of 1643, the two traveled to Boston to place themselves and their followers under the Massachusetts jurisdiction and thus regain control of the land…” (109-110) This is an interesting example, 32 years before King Philip’s War, of the natives interacting with colonial government as if they consider it legitimate.

After the Cambridge Platform, the “one-party regime” reached its peak. “The word was widely preached to forced attendance, the number of orthodox gathered churches grew, three intercolonial synods were held, remonstrants were imprisoned and heavily fined, Baptists were banished, and Quakers were flogged and executed. How much more Puritan could the Bay Colony be?” Staloff asks. The ministers were growing more distant from their people, evidenced by their correspondence. “Shall I tell you what I think to be the ground of all this insolence, which discovers itself in the speech of men?” Peter Bulkeley asked John Cotton. “Truly I cannot ascribe it to any outward thing, as to the putting of too much liberty into the hands of the multitude, which they are too weak to manage…” (115) Staloff says the laity’s loss of power in the church was partly balanced by a gain of some control over politics, as the deputies began disagreeing more frequently with the magistrates. The Halfway Covenant was the ministers’ attempt to regain control over the population, by bringing them back into the church that “saving grace” had disqualified them from.

The “saints” in the congregations resisted this change, because it devalued the position of the laity overall. A larger and generally less educated congregation increased the power of the minister, by widening the distance between him and his flock in terms of biblical knowledge and theological authority. But the distance between the people and their leaders continued to grow. The synod of 1646 authorized the General Court to pass laws regulating religious behavior. In addition to a number of finable offences, they decided “the death penalty was prescribed for blasphemy and, more pointedly, for any person who dared ‘reproach the holy religion of God, as if it were but a polliticke devise to keep ignorant men in awe.’…Failure to attend the ministers’ public exercises—‘the ordinary meanes to subdue the harts of hearers not onely to the faith, & obedience to the Lord Jesus, but also to civill obedience, and allegiance unto magistracy;--would draw a fine of 5 shillings for each such occurrence.” (125) Clearly, these measures were not adopted for no reason.

In 1657 the Quakers came and threw themselves into martyrdom, apparently interesting a lot of common people in the process. Staloff claims “the ultimate significance of the Quaker movement for the orthodox Bay regime was that it thus forced the magistrates and ministers to neutralize the danger of an unchurched majority that might easily be induced to support heterodox dissent.” The solution was to bring the people back into the church using the halfway qualifications. “Discipline was our great Interest,” claimed Increase Mather. (136) “The most important way in which the half-way covenant centralized church power was by devaluing lay consent,” (137) as well as the learning and emotional commitment required to qualify for membership. Of course, only full members could vote.

By the mid 1670s, the magistrates were using friendly clergy regularly to support their political agendas. The 1676 pre-election speaker, Harvard graduate William Hubbard, told his audience that those who called for “a parity in any Society, will in the issue reduce things into a heap of confusion.” (174) In other words, shut up and do what we tell you. The problem the people faced was, the messages from the pulpit were becoming more fragmented, as the clergy’s unanimity started to fray. Sometimes, the message was downright incredible, even for Puritans.

“Do not say that the Ministers of God cannot tell you why this Judgment has come,” Increase Mather told his listeners. Mather tried to reclaim the clergy’s authority over day-to-day secular events, by claiming to have prophesied King Philip’s War. He predicted further troubles for the colony, unless the people obeyed his directions for making peace with an angry God. A reforming synod was called in 1679, that adopted most of Mather’s proposals. Interestingly, it was Solomon Stoddard who turned the synod from requiring testimony of saving grace, to “a personal and publicke profession of their Faith and Repentance,” (181) which paved the way for the half-way covenant. Staloff’s chronology seems confused here (or more likely his narrative is just too convoluted), but I should look into the debates between Stoddard and the Mathers (Cotton and Increase), and follow the thread down to Stoddard’s grandson, Jonathan Edwards. (cf Mather, A Discourse Concerning the Danger of Apostacy, 1677)

Mather’s perpetual insistence on an immanent crisis wore his supporters out. By 1682, Mather was complaining that Satan attacked the people in his church, and “he causeth them to sleep at Sermons.” (182) Mather warned his listeners that “God himself is speaking to you…though by mortal men like unto your selves,” (183) and that not only the minister but the almighty was offended when they dozed off. But his sermons had strayed so far from any relevance with their lives that they were unable to stay awake for them.

The colony’s relationship with the British Crown also suffered from Increase Mather’s stubborn insistence on his own infallibility. When it became clear that the king wanted changes in the Bay charter, reflecting increased religious liberty and toleration of other sects, Mather declared that there could be no compromise. At the 1684 elections, Mather purged the “accommodationist” members of the Court, and prayed for deliverance. On Feb. 6 1685 after fasting and meditation, Mather claimed that “God will deliver New England!” Coincidentally (when did Mather claim his vision?), King Charles II died the same day.

Unfortunately for Massachusetts Bay, James II suspended the colony’s charter and disbanded their government. The Dominion of Edmund Andros ended with the Glorious Revolution, but unlike Rhode Island and Connecticut, Massachusetts was not allowed to reinstate its previous government. Increase Mather negotiated a new charter, which was far less generous than the deal the other colonies got. Staloff concludes his account by observing that the “calumnies heaped on Mather perfectly symbolized the breakdown of cultural domination for which he had been largely responsible.” (188)