Puritanism Lives

By Gelernter, David | The American Enterprise, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Puritanism Lives


Gelernter, David, The American Enterprise


Americanism is profoundly Christian in its inspiration and worldview. It is profoundly Biblical.' We are the children of Abraham," a seventeenth-century American Puritan reminded his fellow citizens.

Understanding the strongly Puritan and Hebraic character of America is indispensable to a clear picture of the country. You don't have to be a Christian or Jew to believe in America. You can also hum the opening measures of a Bach mass without converting to Christianity--but Christianity inspired the Bach mass. And Christianity inspired America too.

In earlier centuries, the analogy between America and ancient Israel was heard constantly. This was no mere figure of speech. It was a doctrine that made assertions and imposed duties. Puritan leader John Winthrop wrote in his famous prophecy aboard the ship Arbella, while it was underway for Massachusetts: "Wee must consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us."

Hatred of Puritanism happens to be one of the best-established bigotries of modern times. "Puritan" has been an insult for hundreds of years. It suggests rigidity, austerity, and censoriousness--exactly the kind of religion secularists love to hate. Puritans were rigid and censorious, up to a point; but they were much else besides. They were creative thinkers about man's spiritual role in the modern state and world.

Puritanism reflected the unhappiness of English Protestants in the Elizabethan age who saw the Church of England as insufficiently Protestant. They wanted a purified church where each Christian dealt directly with the Bible and the Lord. Queen Elizabeth tolerated the Puritans, but when she died and the Stuarts came to power, James I announced that he would make the Puritans "conform themselves or I will harry them out of the land." In search of religious freedom, the persecuted Puritans set sail in rising numbers for the New World. By the middle of the seventeenth century, many Puritan settlements were solidly established in America.

American Puritans often described their settlements as covenant communities. The community as a whole conceived itself as having a covenant with the Lord. "Thus stands the cause betweene God and us. Wee are entered in a covenant with him for this work," wrote John Winthrop. If the community behaves well, God treats it well. If the community violates the covenant, "The Lord will surely breake out in wrath against us."

In the literature of Puritanism, the analogy to ancient Israel recurs constantly. The experience of the American Puritans naturally suggested the events of ancient Israel. The Puritans had fled a "house of bondage" and made a dangerous journey to a pagan land where they struggled to establish themselves. American Puritans thought of themselves as ancient Israel reborn, and said so often. It was natural for them to believe that they were setting an example for the whole world, leading the way toward the promised land of liberty.

In later generations we hear the consequences of this doctrine of American Zionism from many American thinkers. Thomas Jefferson, for example, referred to his countrymen in his first inaugural address as "possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendents to the thousandth and thousandth generation." And in his second inaugural, even more plainly: "I shall need," he said, "the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life." (An updated version of "flowing with milk and honey:' Jefferson was always up to date.)

Liberty for the Puritans meant, first of all, the kind of religious freedom that Israel had won by escaping Egypt. Eventually the idea of an exodus from slavery to freedom took on a broader meaning. When a committee of the Continental Congress, made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, designed a seal for the brand new United States, the proposed image showed Israel crossing the Red Sea, lit by the divine pillar of fire, with the motto, "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God. …

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