The Intellectual Battle over the Puritan Legacy

November 1989By James J. Thompson Jr

James J. Thompson Jr. is a Nashville-area writer, and Book Review Editor of the NOR. His latest book is The South, the Church, and the Future.

The Puritan Ordeal.  By Andrew Delbanco. Harvard University Press. 306 pages. $30.

To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism.  By Theodore Dwight Bozeman. University of North Carolina Press. 413 pages. $34.95.

The Poems of Edward Taylor.  Edited by Donald E. Stanford. University of North Carolina Press. 369 pages. $14.95.



Fresh from a tour with the merchant marine, Perry Miller entered graduate school at Harvard in the late 1920s to study New England Puritanism. With imperious aplomb, a professor informed the young man that he would have to select another research topic, as that one was exhausted. “All the wheat had long since been winnowed,” Miller later recalled that professor assur­ing him; “there were nothing but chaff remaining.” The smug professor exposed a staggering opacity, for already, at Harvard itself, under the aegis of Samuel Eliot Morison and Kenneth Murdoch, Puritan studies had entered upon a spirited revival. Even now, over 50 years later, that flowering of scholarship betrays no signs of wilting.

Of the achievement of Morison, Miller, and their successors, Andrew Delbanco (perhaps the most promising of those in the line of de­scent) observes: “The historiography that has brought us to this point has been, with the possible exception of recent work on slavery in the nineteenth-century South, the most impressive collective achievement yet made by American scholarship.” Delbanco’s own superb book, The Puritan Ordeal, in company with Theodore Bozeman’s equally outstand­ing To Live Ancient Lives, attests to the unwavering vigor of Puritan studies. The University of North Carolina Press’s reissue of Donald Stanford’s edition of The Poems of Edward Taylor, a collection originally pub­lished 25 years ago, indicates that even Puritan poetry (not, by and large, a felici­tous literary achievement) still commands an audience. The wheat has yet to be thoroughly winnowed.

The layman naturally wonders what could be left unsaid about the Puritans after a half-century of indefatigable research and writing. How many books does it take to establish the pertinent facts about New England’s first settlers? The crucial word is “facts,” a term that, to the uninitiated, signifies the goal of the historian’s quest, but to the historian himself, more often designates his point of departure. Among intellectu­al historians and literary scholars, most of the “facts” of the Puritan mind have long since been substantiated and agreed upon; how to interpret these particulars remains problematic.

Take, for example, John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” the sermon he preached in June 1630 to the voyagers on the Arbella as they prepared to debark upon the shores of their new homeland. The event, the circumstances, the individuals involved, and, most important, the text are common knowledge. But what does it all mean? Perry Miller discerned in Winthrop’s admonitions the proclamation of a holy mis­sion, an “errand into the wilderness” undertaken by the Puritan flock at the behest of Jehovah. But for Delbanco, “the Arbella sermon is, in fact, considera­bly more focused on what was being fled than on what was being pursued.” Boze-man grumbles that Miller’s formulation was only “a minimally developed propos­al,” its acceptance as gospel truth dependent upon histo­rians too lazy to analyze the sermon for themselves.

Such disagreements have, since Miller’s day, been freighted with extraor­dinary importance, for what is at stake to these historians is no mere explanation of Puritanism alone, but noth­ing less than a claim to descry the ruling design of the entire American experi­ence. By understanding the Puritans, the argument runs, one grasps the meaning of America, and perceives what has propelled this nation through time and molded it into its present configuration. Modesty of ambition has never been abundant among historians of Puritanism.

Perry Miller projected an image of himself as the scholar as hero, a dauntless explorer engaged in the search for the meaning of America. In the preface to Errand into the Wilderness, a collection of essays published in 1956, he recounted the “epiphany” that had seized him one day in the 1920s as he supervised the unloading of fuel drums on the banks of the Congo River. The notion gripped him that he must undertake a “mission” to elucidate “what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States.” He felt, too, “the pressing necessity for expounding my America to the twentieth century.” On to Harvard, then, to begin at the begin­ning — with the Puritans, who had set in motion that “innermost propulsion” — to attempt to fathom what had “caught my imagination among the fuel drums”: “the uniqueness of the American experience.”

What lowly graduate student — dreading that he will degenerate into one of Yeats’s “Scholars,” shuffling fecklessly across a threadbare carpet and “coughing in ink” — what such young man or woman has not thrilled to Miller’s promethean chal­lenge: to seize the noble calling of the historian as adventurer, the man on a mission to explain America to itself and to the world? Among graduate students to this day there circulate tales of Miller’s venture, accounts that improve with the telling and are far down the road toward metamorphosis into legend. Even those who snarl their disdain for Miller’s books cannot resist paying him at least a backhanded tribute. I once listened to a half-drunk specialist in Puritanism explode in a tirade over Miller’s malign influence upon scholarship. According to the learned professor, Miller had been a slapdash scholar who had, to cite only one of the many atrocities he had perpetrated, scarcely read John Calvin, even though his books are studded with references to the founder of the Reformed tradition. Mustering all the ingenuousness I could dig up, I asked: “But how could Miller get away with such an outrageous thing?” The man paused a moment, and then, with more than a tincture of admiration (and envy) in his voice, shot back: “Insou­ciance!”

Whatever Miller’s flaws as a scholar, he inspired legions of young men and women to devote their careers to grappling with Puritanism, not just to apprehend a segment of the past, but also (and perhaps most important) to penetrate to the marrow of the American character. Every scholar of Puritanism, even those who would fume at the suggestion, labors in the shadow of Perry Miller.

Miller chose an inauspi­cious time to launch his exuberant adventure. During the postwar decade H.L. Mencken and other debunkers had singled out “puritanical” as a handy label for all that blighted American society. Whether political obscurantism, cul­tural philistinism, religious bigotry, or Babbittry and boosterism — behind them all, Mencken fussed, lurked the prune-faced visage of joyless Puritanism. A Puri­tan, Mencken chortled, was a person who fears that someone might be having fun. Or, as an earlier wag japed: “The Puritan’s idea of Hell is a place where everybody has to mind his own business.”

More propitious for Miller’s undertaking, the year 1930 marked the 300th anniversary of the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Commemoration of such events usually excites more fustian and bombast — “patriotic obscurantism,” as Miller pegged it — than serious historical inquiry, but in this case the tercentennial helped to spark a renaissance in Puritan studies. Miller was not the sole figure (some would even argue that Morison, Miller’s one-time teacher and then colleague at Harvard, was the superior historian), but from his perch in Harvard’s Department of English, Miller reigned as the presiding genius of the revival. He published his first book, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, in 1933, and followed it over the next two decades with the articles and books — most notably the magisterial two-volume The New England Mind — that confirmed his dominance in the field.

From this illustrious body of work, a single essay won Miller the most enduring fame: the title piece of the volume published as Errand into the Wilderness. Borrowing Winthrop’s meta­phor of a “city upon a hill,” Miller adumbrated the Puritans’ errand as a God-in­spired mission investing their exodus from England with cosmic significance. In the expansive reaches of the New World they would construct an exemplary city of God that would flash a beacon of righteousness and hope back toward the gloomy wasteland of Eng­land and the Continent. The founders of Massachusetts believed, Miller commented, “that ultimately all the world would imitate New England.”

Miller’s elegant formula­tion provided the interpretive framework upon which a generation or more of historians would hang their portrayal of Puritanism. It would serve too to explain the origins of the urgent sense of uniqueness that has distinguished the American experiment as it has unfold­ed across the centuries. The “rapid acceptance” of Miller’s thesis “marks a watershed in the scholarship,” Theodore Bozeman contends. “By the 1960s the founding Errand had made its way into the textbooks, and there it reigns today.”

The decade of the 60s found the United States engaged in a mission of another sort: to refashion Southeast Asia into a land that would conform to American conceptions of what was right and proper. Bozeman remarks: “As in so many areas of historical scholarship, so in Puritan studies the interpretive venture often has been influenced, and occasionally dominated, by a wish to explain selected features of recent civilization.” The “wish” in this case arose from an angry question shouted loudly and repeatedly in the late 1960s and early 1970s: “Why are we in Vietnam?”

To some the answer lay in a rottenness that festered at the core of the American nation. To dig out the origins of this rot led unavoidably, they argued, to Miller’s mission-bent Puritans. In the mind and will of the Puritan, such engage scholars as Sacvan Bercovitch spied the heart of the American darkness. Andrew Delbanco, Bercovitch’s forceful antagonist, describes the radicals’ indictment of the first New Englanders: “This reading…was a deconstruction of what appeared to the mind of the 1960s to be a fearfully compelling national myth. It disclosed in the colonial imagination a preposterous symbolism that combined the seed not only of Manifest Destiny but of Doctor Strangelove as well.”

“The Puritans,” Bercovitch charged in one of his more extravagant utterances, “used the Biblical myth of exodus and conquest to justify imperialism before the fact.”

If the Puritans’ rumina­tions on the Book of Exodus aroused their hopes, their expectations winged off into truly weird realms when they lucubrated upon the mystic symbols in the Book of Revelation. Here, the new interpreters of Puritanism pointed out, lay the makings of the bewitching millennial visions that danced in the Puritan brain. Even more electrifying than the identifi­cation of America as New Canaan was the exigent conviction that the continent provided the site of the New Jerusalem, the holy city to which Christ would descend in an effulgence of glory that would stamp finis upon the twisted chronicle of human history. As a God-chosen people, the Puritans saw themselves as harbingers of the apocalypse, the cataclys­mic upheaval that would establish the millennial reign of Christ’s kingdom. Nothing could be allowed to impede the enactment of this cosmic drama.

“Why are we in Vietnam?” Because, replied radical historians, the Puritans’ millennial fervor planted in the American mind a God-drenched will-to-power that spelled doom for any nation or people that stood in the way. The American past emerged in the radicals’ delineation as a dolorous tale of malignancy that, com­mencing with the butchering of innocent Indians, marched inexorably across the years to reach the current slaughter of equally blameless Vietna­mese peasants.

“Historiography is one index to the culture that produces it,” Delbanco remarks in The Puritan Ordeal. Both within the academy and without, the nerves rubbed raw by the crisis of Vietnam have largely healed. Following Delbanco’s suggestion, one would expect to find shadowings (or more) of the new mood in current history writing. Delbanco’s book and Bozeman’s To Live Ancient Lives indicate that the New England fathers are undergoing a reappraisal commensurate with broader shifts in opinion. Rejecting Miller’s concept of an errand, as well as the more recent preoccupation with rhapsodic millenarianism, these historians portray a group of people at once more complicated and less boldly single-minded than the image conveyed through the writings of Miller, Bercovitch, and dozens of other scholars. If not the last word, Delbanco and Bozeman surely voice the latest one.

Bozeman presents a finely tuned and persuasive book, a work more successful strictly as scholarship than Delbanco’s, mainly because less ambitious and risky in its aims than The Puritan Ordeal. “The distinctive concerns of Puritan dissent tended to emerge from three interlinked agendas,” Bozeman writes. “In brief form, these may be termed ‘moralism,’ ‘pietism,’ and biblicist ‘primitivism.’” The last of these, the “least familiar” by Bozeman’s reckoning, provides the focus of To Live Ancient Lives. The author maintains that the Puritans conducted a fierce campaign to restore the purity and simplicity of the first Christians, To this urge to emulate New Testament lives, they coupled a scrupulous regard for the Old Testament, especially the Mosaic law.

Bozeman depicts Puritanism as simultaneously reactionary and radical — the one, because the primitivist venerated the old as the best; the other, because, in the author’s words, “to prize first things above all was to subvert loyalty to authorized structures and repudiate the traditionalist concepts upon which they in part were built.” If this demolition of tradition placed the Puritans in the camp of the “modernizers,” it was by accident, for Bozeman disagrees with recent historians who insist upon transforming the Puri­tans into witting promoters of modernity. Bozeman catches the rhythms of Puri­tan life and thought, patient­ly delves into the inner workings of the Puritan mind, and deals with the Puritans on their own terms — as men of a certain time, place, and set of circum­stances — and not as a mere prelude to our own times. He resists the temptation either to praise or damn them for his own partisan purposes.

Bozeman declines as well to root around in Puritan soil in order to unearth the determining motifs of American history. He rejects the notion of a controlling mission, dismissing this idea as a myth cobbled from a careless analysis of Winthrop’s desultory remarks about cities and hills — “not only the most quoted but the least understood [words] in the Puritan literature.” “We fled from men’s inventions”: this, not some “errand into the wilderness,” nails down the true aim of the Puritan migration. Once free of baleful “inventions” — those factitious innovations alleged­ly tacked on to the apostolic faith — the founders of New England hoped to recapture the spirit and practice of primitive Christianity. Nor does Bozeman waste any patience on historians who inflict an obsessive millennialism upon the Puritans.

Since To Live Ancient Lives appeared before The Puritan Ordeal, Bozeman did not have the advantage of consulting Delbanco’s pro­vocative book. But in a footnote, he cites an article that Delbanco published in 1986, and calls it “the most sweeping denial of a found­ing Errand of all.” True, but this should not mislead one to assume that, in discarding Miller’s thesis, Delbanco shuns, as does Bozeman, the role of grand theorist of the American experience. Del-banco may repudiate Miller’s central formulation, but he is Miller’s heir in his desire to derive from the Puritans the essential lineaments of the American mind and charac­ter. He tips his hand at the outset, his choice of words indicating that he has more in mind than a bare analysis of 17th-century Puritanism. “This book is about the experience of becoming American in the seventeenth century,” he states in the opening sentence. But, he adds, rising to Millerian heights, he also intends to illuminate “the persistent sense of renewal and risk that has attended the project of becoming American ever since.” Begin at the begin­ning, advised Perry Miller, and the rest of the American experience is yours for the taking.

Delbanco interweaves two dominant themes. He emphasizes first that the Puritans were above all immigrants, “a fact too little reckoned with,” he complains, “by historians whose primary interest is in the life of the mind.” By accenting this feature of the Puritan venture, he trans­forms Miller’s audacious, self-assured settlers — men who strode ashore eager and ready to seize command — into a trembly, huddled clutch of exiled Englishmen who, more than anything else in Delbanco’s accounting, wonder what in heaven’s name they are doing in this God-forsaken land. Commenting on the “literature of emigration” — the Englishman’s attempt to justify his abandonment of the motherland — Delbanco observes that “it is…without poise, flustered, knotted into embarrassed contradiction.” This theme of Puritan-as-immigrant enables the author to leap ahead, to sweep all of American histo­ry — a history, after all, of wave upon wave of arrivals — into his purview. The newcomers’ “persistent sense of renewal and risk” applies to the forlorn Englishman gazing at the “howling wilderness” of the New England coast in 1630, but it equally fits the jittery Polish Jew tumbled out of steerage and onto the mean streets of New York City in 1910.

This emphasis takes second place to Delbanco’s deepest concern: to track the Puritans’ “response…to the universal problem of coming to terms with evil.” Here one spots a salient reason for the Puritans’ decision to assume the emigrants’ arduous lot. “The journey to America was in part an effort to conserve what was left of the convic­tion that sin, rather than being an entity implanted in the soul, was something more abstract: a temporary estrangement from God.” Despite the rise to domi­nance by the end of the 17th century of what Delbanco sees (mistakenly, I think) as a Manichaean sense of evil, New Englanders never lost “the belief that their lives” could be “radically renewed.” Anne Hutchinson and the antinomians kept this hope and faith fresh during the early years of New England; Jonathan Edwards energized the “party of hope” in the fol­lowing century; and in the 19th century Emerson repu­diated most of the Puritan legacy while clinging reso­lutely to his ancestors’ commitment to the potential that resides in regenerate humanity. Delbanco ad­vances this as his contribu­tion to the quest to discover in Puritanism the key to America. The possibility of radical self-renewal: this is the “credo of our culture.”

Although he rejects the contention that millenarianism supplied the motive force of early New England Puritanism, Delbanco admits that a “messianic element” plays across the centuries of our history. There is nothing unique in this, he argues, for this phenomenon “is at work in all Western nationalisms.” In exonerating the Puritans of Bercovitch’s indictment of “imperialism before the fact,” Delbanco endeavors to ab­solve America in general of brandishing a singularly vicious streak of national arrogance. “History has given us no reason,” he cautions, “to judge the tribal certainties of Americans as any more virulent than those of other peoples. There are even some grounds for believing the opposite.”

With such a declaration, Delbanco reveals his affinity with Perry Miller. Miller was no apologist for Puritanism, and as an atheist, he could not assent to any of the Christian doctrines that had formed the warp and woof of existence in early New England, but he respected the people whose theological system he dissected. He took the Puritans seriously. More than anyone else, Miller rescued the Puritans from the abuse and ridicule they had suffered at the hands of the sneerers and scoffers of the 1920s.

Although Delbanco disa­grees with many of Miller’s conclusions, he holds the Puritans, as did his prede­cessor, in high regard. This explains a fear that nags him: “we seem to be return­ing to an older, hostile view of the Puritans,” the kind of mulish intolerance that Miller had to battle in order to win a hearing for Puritanism as a legitimate subject for respect­ful inquiry. The present threat comes, in Delbanco’s judgment, from “scholars of literary training and leftist inclination” who not only would deride the Puritans, but would also diminish the story of America into “a tedious sequence of bour­geois consciousness in ver­sion after indistinguishable version.”

Against this latest assault by debunkers and jaundiced critics, Delbanco asserts that his effort “is unabashedly devoted to a different possi­bility: the possibility of fervor rather than embarrassment in our membership in the American ‘hodiernal circle,’ in our inescapable linkage with the objects of our atten­tion as we move with them in a perpetual dance.” Acknowledging that he runs the risk of succumbing to “boosterism” (one of Mencken’s favorite targets), Delbanco does not shrink from at least a modest cele­bration of the American experience. In his defense of the Puritans against their detractors, a maneuver he accomplishes without sinking into cheerleading, Delbanco evinces a brisk appreciation for both the Puritans and the American adventure they helped to initiate. “The myth of America, if it still persists at all,” he avers, “has always rested on a precarious foundation. It is precisely its fragility, not its audacity — the proprietary worry of its believers, not their arrogance — that has made it some­thing different (dare we still say, something better?) than just another version of nationalist pomp.” In Miller’s phrasing, Delbanco admits his own “pressing necessity for expounding my America to the twentieth century.”

The Puritan Ordeal and To Live Ancient Lives signal the rise of a movement to focus a more flattering light upon the Puritans. At the least, Delbanco and Bozeman succeed in persuading one to exercise more caution before pronouncing the Puritans guilty of fanatical millenarianism and a prideful exulta­tion in their God-anointedness. But one need not be a disparager of the Puritans or a debunker of American myths to suggest that neither book fully explodes these charges. It will take more than two books to do that. Both men note the Puritan sense of uniqueness (the foundation for a concept of mission), and both recognize that millenarianism did in fact exist in New England, although each author argues that it developed later in the 17th century and was not part of the baggage that Winthrop and the original settlers lugged across the Atlantic.

Surveying the accumulated fruits of the revival in Puritan studies, Perry Miller concluded in 1956 that “after three decades of endeavor…we have not arrived at the comprehensive understanding we presump­tuously proposed.” Nor have we yet to reach that elusive “understanding.” The histo­rians’ interpretation and reinterpretation of our nation’s past is a never-ceasing enterprise. We can never reach a final and definitive understanding, for in brooding over our past, we ponder ourselves in the present, and as we and the present change, so do we acquire a new angle of vision on the past. In the end, books about Puritanism may tell us almost as much about the author himself — about his ineluctable struggle to find the key to his own experience as an American — as they do about the Puritans. This is no new discovery; Perry Miller spilled the secret a half-century ago.



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