Today the term Puritan is often applied to various manifestations of American life. Sometimes the allusion is merely metaphoric, suggesting similarities between some aspect of current behavior and the ways of the New England colonists. But those who see "Puritan" traits in the lineaments of later America often go further to maintain that an actual connection exists between later American development and its Puritan heritage. In a recent study of the genesis of the American mind, Max Savelle finds Puritanism ". . . firmly rooted in the American experience and in the emerging American mind of the eighteenth century, and from New England as a center it has radiated its influence in American civilization, for good or ill, from that day to this; and the end is not yet." Ralph Barton Perry concludes that "The puritans imprinted on English and American institutions a quality of manly courage, self-reliance, and sobriety. We are still drawing upon the reserves of spiritual vigor which they accumulated." In fact, the postulate that Puritanism has been one of the principal influences in the development of American civilization is an assumption rarely questioned by writers of our history.
But there are many who differ over which aspects of Puritanism have been the influential ones, and many more who disagree violently over the question of whether the influence has been for good or ill. At any rate, these disputes, too great for consideration except by indirection in the limited scope of this book, have kept alive an endless curiosity about the original settlers, about the nature of Puritanism at its heyday in America in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
What is the truth about the Puritan commonwealth, Massachusetts-Bay's experiment in making religion the controlling force in civil life? Was it a perverse attempt to regulate life? One that stifled all tendency to free use of the intellect? One that willfully rejected ideas of civil liberty and the possibilities of free development? One that warped the lives of its people? Or was it a healthy product of its time, a preserver of free institutions in a new land? A cooperative effort of intelligent, vigorous leaders of thought to safeguard the heritage of European values and extend civilization despite the rigors of New World conditions?
The selections in this book represent the pros and cons. Varying with the times, the interests, and the preconceptions of individuals, opinions about the Puritans, their ideals, their aims, and their actual accomplishments have usually been highly favorable or unfavorable. Writers have seldom been lukewarm, although some have been at pains . . .