Interpretations of American History, Vol. 1

The Puritans: The basic claim seems to be that Puritanism is one of the main sources of American Exceptionalism, and possibly of the American character in the colonial and early national periods. Perry Miller and Thomas Johnson talk about “traits which have persisted long after the vanishing of the original creed.” But then, in distinguishing between “authentic Puritanism” and what its descendents (evangelism and universalism) retained of its elements, they immediately call into question whether the traits which persisted were peculiarly Puritan, or part of the underlying culture.

“Puritanism,” they say, “has not been sustained by any denomination stemming from it.” It is a distinct and different thing, which would repudiate the new lights as enthusiasts and the universalists as materialists. So what were they, and more importantly, why do they matter?

Miller and Johnson make the insightful (and widely applicable) point that “notwithstanding the depth of this divergence [between the Puritans and the English Church], the fact still remains that only certain specific questions were raised.” It’s possible to be bitter opponents, and be very much alike. In fact, “the vast majority [of] ideas held by New England Puritans…were precisely those of their opponents…about 90 percent of the intellectual life, scientific knowledge, morality, manners and customs, notions and prejudices” that made up Puritan culture, were those “of all Englishmen.”

Certainly, it was on the other ten percent that the Puritans defined themselves, when they set out to remove themselves from England and set up their own society in the New World. But just because they did this, are we obligated to agree with them? In fact, when they were NOT addressing the rationale behind their emigration, were these differences with their old neighbors and relatives in England really the guiding principles of life for the New England Puritans?

Miller and Johnson point out that when historians try to “trace developments and influences on subsequent American history and thought, we shall find that the starting point…is as apt to be found among the 90 percent as among the 10. So again, if this is the case, how do we justify our acceptance of the 10% as the guiding lights in the daily lives of all the people who lived in Massachusetts Bay?

The situation is complicated if you’re not a Christian, and as a result don’t appreciate the subtleties of the theological differences that made up this putatively critical 10%. Yes, you can appreciate that
they may have felt very strongly about issues you consider trivial. But the question remains, why are these differences historically significant? The answer, for the unbeliever, would have to be found in the different actions these rival theologies inspired.

Miller and Johnson admit that, to a large extent, the “conflict between the Puritans and the Churchmen was…a debate among pundits.” The question remains, how much was this debate relevant to the non-pundits? In what ways did the people of Massachusetts Bay participate in the debate? How did it affect their lives?

Puritan doctrines held the seeds of their own undoing – or at least of challenges like the Antinomianism of Anne Hutchinson. Miller and Johnson describe the Puritan leaders’ attempts to control these excesses, which seem like nothing more than the logical conclusions of their differences with the English Churchmen. In this sense, the Puritans appear hypocritical; unwilling to consistently and completely apply the ideals they profess.

“New England theocracy,” Miller and Johnson say, “was thoroughly medieval in character.” But again, was this due to the 10% that was different, or the 90% that was the same as English religion? Or do the needs of both sects, to propagate and maintain themselves by controlling the beliefs and behavior of their followers, require just such a feudal social order?

“In America,” they continue,” “the frontier conspired with the popular disposition to lessen the prestige of the cultured classes” and the church hierarchy. Isn’t this another way of saying that the urban elites and Puritan divines had little to offer that could lessen the struggles or enhance the wellbeing of pioneers struggling to survive on the frontiers? “Sermon after sermon reveals that in their eyes the cause of learning and the cause of hierarchical, differentiated social order were one and the same.” That centralized, “higher” learning supported ministerial claims to social dominance. Doesn’t this suggest, by extension, that “New England theocracy” was designed to play the same role?

Seems to me that, far from rehabilitating Puritanism as the leading source of American exceptionalism, Miller and Johnson have called out a number of ways in which the small set of beliefs that set the Puritans apart from their theological adversaries are shown to be insignificant, self-contradictory, and possibly irrelevant in the creation of American culture. In the end, isn’t the Puritans’ real contribution, not their eccentric theology (abandoned and misrepresented even by their direct descendants, the new lights and the universalists), but rather their
dogged insistence that they were, in fact, exceptional? Isn’t that the basis of the American myth? That we’re special, even when we’re exactly the same?

Philip Gura’s 1984 contribution to the Puritan story suggested more attention should be paid to the radicals like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams who challenged the Puritan authorities. Gura says “in many cases, theirs were the same Protestant principles Winthrop and the others earlier had defended in England yet, under pressure to settle the wilderness and codify their ecclesiology, soon enough condemned as seditious or heretical.” That’s a polite way of saying that when they’d become the establishment, Winthrop and his allies denied the ideas that had formed the basis of their rebellion.

Gura criticizes Miller for “treating the whole literature as though it were the product of a single intelligence,” and thus missing any subtle differences or development over time that might be seen in Puritan documents. He says “Miller viewed New England dissent as a sideshow to the events on the main stage of…intellectual and social history.”

Looking at town and church records, Gura claims, supports his argument that “
Heterogeneity, not unanimity, actually characterized the colony’s religious life.” However, unlike others who questioned the reach of Puritan ideas across the wider working-class New England population, Gura continues to view New England as an area “settled in the belief that it was to become nothing less than a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.”

Gura’s exclusively theological focus allows him to conclude “what is apparent in the colonists’ elaborate definitions and justifications…and evident in their polemics against dissenters is that the New Englander’s ideological self-image was shaped…by an unyielding effort to neutralize the influence of those who argued for a much more radical reorganization of the society.” Again, this seems like a polite way of saying that, once they had gained power, the Puritans wanted to reinstate centralized authority and eliminate any further dissent or theological elaboration. This rigidity toward those outside the power-group, who may not have realized the reform game was officially over, is what prompted Roger Williams the “monstrous Paradox [that] God’s children should persecute God’s children.” The fact that New England congregationalism “produced supporters as harsh and intolerant as the English prelates” suggests that there really wasn’t that much difference between the Puritans and their adversaries back in England. Theology was an excuse for a power struggle; and was jettisoned as soon as the Puritans obtained the power they sought.

Of the two excerpts presented in the text, it seems Miller and Johnson had a more ironic sense of the narrowness of Puritan thought, and the likelihood that although the Puritans contributed to the myth of American uniqueness, it may not have been through their theology; but rather through their arrogance. Their declaration that they were exceptional, not the theological details of their position, seems to be the key to their contribution. That, and the subsequent consolidation of social and political power that allowed them to dominate New England for more than a century.