The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change

The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change

The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change

The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change

Excerpt

An essay, wrote Dr. Johnson, is "a loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece." Now that is not the sort of definition designed to encourage a modern scholar to refer to his or her work as an essay. Still, what follows is an essay--but I beg for a newer definition. "A rank of spotlights" is what Perry Miller once called a collection of his essays, and that seems good enough for me. Thus, what follows is a tentative, occasionally frankly speculative effort to shine a spotlight that it is hoped will illuminate some portions of a neglected area of study at the same time that it may make more comprehensible certain problems that continue to loom large in the modern consciousness. This is a work designed, then, to open a field of inquiry to questions rather than one claiming to dictate answers. The focus is on the human concern with death. The Puritans of New England are the people chosen to serve as exemplars of this concern.

Almost a century and a half has now passed since Alexis de Tocqueville began his monumental work on the state of American civilization by observing: "If we were able to go back to the elements of states and to examine the oldest monuments of their history, I doubt not that we should discover in them the primal cause of the prejudices, the habits, the ruling passions, and, in short, all . . .

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