Magazine article Salmagundi

The New Puritanism?: A Symposium

Magazine article Salmagundi

The New Puritanism?: A Symposium

Article excerpt

Puritans and Prigs: An Anatomy of Zealotry

Puritanism was a highly elaborated moral, religious, intellectual and political tradition which had its origins in the writing and social experimentation of John Calvin and those he influenced. While it flourished on this continent-it appears to me to have died early in this century-it established great universities and cultural institutions and an enlightened political order. It encouraged simplicity in dress and manner and an esthetic interest in the functional which became bone and marrow of what we consider modem. Certainly the idea that a distaste for the mannered and elaborated should be taken to indicate joylessness or an indifference to beauty is an artifact of an old polemic. No acquaintance with New England portrait or decorative art encourages the idea that Puritan tastes were somber. Even their famous headstones display a marked equanimity beside headstones in Church of England graveyards in Britain, with their naturalistic skulls with bones in their teeth and so on. Puritan civilization in North America quickly achieved unprecedented levels of literacy, longevity and mass prosperity, or happiness, as it was called in those days. To isolate its special character we need only compare colonial New England and Pennsylvania-Quakers as well as Congregationalists and Presbyterians were Puritans-with the colonial South.

Or let us compare them with ourselves. When crops failed in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1743, Jonathan Edwards of course told his congregation that they had their own wickedness to blame for it. They had failed to do justice (his word) to the poor. He said, "Christian people are to give to others not only so as to lift him above extremity but liberally to furnish him." No one bothers us now with the notion that our own failures in this line might be called sinful, though we fall far short of the standard that in Edwards' view invited divine wrath. Nor does anyone suggest that punishment might follow such failures, though the case could easily be made that our whole community is punished for them every day. In one respect at least we have rid ourselves entirely of Puritanism.

My reading of Puritan texts is neither inconsiderable nor exhaustive, so while I cannot say they yield no evidence of Puritanism as we understand the word, I can say they are by no means characterized by, for example, fear or hatred of the body, anxiety about sex, or denigration of women. This is not true of Christian tradition in general, yet for some reason Puritanism is uniquely synonymous with these preoccupations. Puritans are thought to have taken a lurid pleasure in the notion of Hell, and certainly Hell seems to have been much in their thoughts, though not more than it was in the thoughts of Dante, for example. We speak as though John Calvin invented the Fall of Man, when that was an article of faith universal in Christian culture.

For Europeans, our Puritans showed remarkably little tendency to hunt witches, yet one lapse, repented of by those who had a part in it, has stigmatized them as uniquely inclined to this practice. They are condemned for their dealings with the Indians, quite justly, and yet it is important to point out that contact between native people anywhere and Europeans of whatever sort was disastrous, through the whole colonial period and after. It is pointless to speak as if Puritanism were the factor that caused the disasters in New England, when Anglicans and Catholics elsewhere made no better account of themselves. Cortez was no Puritan, but William Penn was one. By the standards of the period in which they flourished, American Puritans were not harsh or intolerant in the ordering of their own societies. Look a little way into contemporary British law-Dr. Johnson would never have seen a woman flayed in New England, yet it is Old England we think of as having avoided repressive extremes. As for religious intolerance, one must again consider the standards of the period. …

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