Puritans and principles

Edwin Hall, in his book Puritans and Their Principles (1846) wrote mainly to give the history of the Puritans, focusing on the religious differences in British history which led to the emerging of the Puritans in the context of the Catholic-Protestant conflict, and later the measures against the Puritans specifically. But in the first chapter, Hall emphasizes the importance of the Puritans’ beliefs and the principled stand they took, and he traces the development of a trend towards the freer societies which eventually developed in Britain and the English colonies.

However, even in 1846, the Puritans (who no longer existed as a recognizable group as in 17th century New England) were already in disrepute. ‘Freethinking’, irreligious people despised what they thought of as the narrowmindedness and intolerance of the Puritans, and the Puritans were already derided by nonbelievers as well as those of other religious denominations. Hall believes this was undeserved and he seeks in part to rectify some misconceptions or outright lies.

To descendants of the Puritan colonists, who were the ancestors of many old-stock Americans, this purposeful smearing of the memories of our forebears is important. After all, truth matters, and those who have spread, or are still spreading, these warped viewpoints and lies should be answered.

Hall is mostly concerned with religous issues, but he does address the popular misconceptions about, and slanders of, the Puritans. Obviously those lies still persist. Hall speaks of the religious leaders who persisted in ‘with boldness’ attacking the memory of the Puritans:

“...[D]enouncing us and our Puritan fathers as rebels and schismatics; our churches as no churches […] and all people who do not submit to some Prelatical Hierarchy as …out of the pale of Gospel grace.”

Incidentally, in some places on the Internet, all Protestants in general are liable to being told similar things. According to some who think Protestants are ‘rebels and schismatics’, our ancestors are likely in Hell and we ourselves are headed there. Inter-faith differences motivate at least some of the anti-Puritan rhetoric.

However most of it is due to people simply repeating what ‘everybody else knows’, that Puritans were severe, grim ‘killjoys’ who opposed any kind of recreation or ‘harmless fun’, and they were asexual, opposed to natural human urges for companionship or procreation, especially outside marriage. In our libertine age in which seemingly anything goes, as the left dismantles — no, demolishes, with a vengeance, all rules of morality, even the common-sense ones — the Puritans are, more than ever, an object of contempt.

Hall notes the other common stereotypes of the Puritans: they had no sense of humor, allegedly. They were said to be ignorant and rigid-minded, bigoted, fanatical. However there is no evidence of this; many Puritans were highly intelligent, well-educated in the best schools, and they read widely, having had what we (unfortunately) call a ‘liberal education’. Nowadays a ”liberal education”, sadly, makes us think of those indoctrination centers, which we laughingly call ‘institutions of higher learning’, which do in fact produce ‘narrowminded, rigid, and ignorant’ people who are now self-named ‘progressives.’ Maybe this, in part, explains why some on the right try to identify the Puritans of old with the pig-ignorant, faux-pious ‘progressives’, with their fanaticism. And this is not new; it calls to mind figures like the homicidal John Brown, so moved by ‘compassion’ that he killed some of his own folk. The Puritans were not known for such fanaticism or bloodshed.

At this point someone inevitably brings up ‘Salem.’ That’s a complicated story, being made more complicated by the fact that most Western people, being unbelievers in the ‘supernatural’, think anyone who would accuse others of witchcraft, is by definition crazy. So the Salem folk, per popular belief, were not only ‘crazy’ but fanatical. This is not an easy issue, so I’ll leave it, except to say that, contrary to popular belief, in Salem not one person was ‘burned’ as a witch, or for any other crime. Hanging was the only capital punishment in Salem then, as far as I’m aware. Incidentally some of my maternal ancestors lived in Salem then, and I have read the official papers on the Salem witch trials.

The past truly is another country, and it is almost impossible for us to put ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes, though we are expected to live amongst people with beliefs far different to our own, more different than the ways of our ancestors of 3 or 4 centuries ago.

But it is vital, I think, for anyone truly educated, to read old books rather than having our knowledge come at a remove via modern (post-modern?) ‘historians’ with biased viewpoints and axes to grind. For such people everything is politicized, and subject to the fashion of the ‘culture of critique’, being torn apart and judged by today’s twisted standards. So the old books are superior for geting a fuller picture of the past, minus the craziness of the current year.

One of the principal critics of the Puritans was Scots philospher David Hume. An article in the American Conservative, from 2011, says this:

The Puritans, and the even more radical sects in orbit around them, did not seek reform but total transformation. And “every successive revolution became a precedent for that which followed it.” [Emphasis mine].

I gather that the writer of that piece, Donald W. Livingston, is paraphrasing Hume’s point of view, rather than offering his own opinion. Hume obviously thought the Puritans wanted, or intended, to ‘transform society’. Hume thought the Puritans to be the English analogue, in the context of the English civil war, of the Jacobins. The Puritans were not revolutionaries in that sense, much less destroyers of society as the neo-Jacobins of our time are. Most people don’t get that the Puritans did not want to force their Christianity on others or to conquer anyone or rule over anyone; they simply wanted the freedom to live and worship as their faith required. They were, plain and simple, separatists. Had they not been so desirous of following their faith, they would not have left their beloved England and endured the hardships of crossing the Atlantic, fighting hostile Indians, and for a time, starving and living in primitive conditions.

They never tried to dictate to those who were not of the same convictions.

However, dissent inevitably inserted itself in the original colonies, eventually, but that’s the way of the world, and it’s another story for another time.

There is so much more to be said about the Puritan issue, and I may revisit it. For those interested, I would advise reading some of the many old sources, old books which are available on the Internet, especially on Archive.org or other e-book sites. I would recommend reading diaries or letters from some of the earlier colonists, including those of Winthrop or Bradford. They are not hard to find online.

It’s always important to counter lies on subjects like this; it’s too rarely done, and that’s the way the lies always seem to win out.

#history, #massachusetts-colony, #new-england, #puritans, #salem-massachusetts

11 thoughts on “Puritans and principles

  1. The English Puritans were often representative of their largest party– the Presbyterians. While hard lines were drawn regarding divine-right polity during the first-half of the 17th-century (atypical of early Reformation from which our standards were borne), the Presbyterians were like Anglicans in so far as they likewise wanted, and were willing to cooperate in, a national church. That might be an important point for us, and eventually that sentiment led to the Restoration Charles II alongside a promise to review the Prayer Book and comprehend Puritan scruple.

    Unfortunately, the talks at Savoy produced little in terms of what the Puritans had hoped, and the Cavalier parliament was rather embittered. However, Charles II, and later his brother James II, found ways to create a de facto toleration for Puritans through the issuing of indulgences, so I wouldn’t be so quick to say Charles broke his promise at Breda. There were also a handful of attempts, even under Bishop Seldon, to investigate assuaging Presbyterian grievance which led to the 1689 committee from the American BCP derives.

    Another common misunderstanding regarding Puritans is puritanism itself changed in the course of the late 17th and early 18th century– giving rise to various stripes of Unitarianism. It became very settled and respectable– hardly a protest movement in England. Also, keep in mind, English Presbyterianism was very different from the Scottish sort– having no substantial presbyteries rather using Associations and mostly laid out on a voluntary basis. It had a strong dose and mix of congregationalism to it– ran by elite Trustees and their clergy rather than the covenanted-congregation.

    I’d also venture to say wider Puritanism is important with respect to the national idea since it was capable of overlap with other segments of the Reformation, including English anabaptists. Hence, men like George Fox and John Smyth rising out of the edges of congregationalism. I’ve developed a soft-spot for English anabaptism. Less radical are the Puritan semi-separatists before the civil war, preceding the 18th-century English pietist movement, but having much the same spirit about them.

    As I read your post, I can’t help but be reminded how similar the alleged grim sternness of the Puritans is repeated with latter holiness movements out-bursting from the two transatlantic Great Awakenings– even the Methodists as a genetic, albeit hinterland, kin to the Anglican Church.

    Given our poor straights today, I often feel the pietist ‘church within the church’ model is something worth considering. Fortunately, we have many rich examples to draw upon from our own history, but when it’s bashed by Catholic Irish or Republican Germans we are sadly alienated from it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comments, Charles. Obviously you have in-depth knowledge of this subject. As far as the Puritan movement giving rise to later iterations, I only know that in New England, specifically Massachusetts and Maine where my ancestors eventually settled, it seems Congregationalism was the most popular, whereas I think my direct ancestors became Methodists, It seems today’s Methodists are more focused on ‘Social Justice’ and that also contributes to today’s popular stereotypes of the legacy of Puritanism being the ‘Social Gospel.’

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes, but social justice ‘theology’ is a problem rampant throughout all the historic Protestant denominations (mainline). Given the sad state of affairs, all we can do is go back and usher a project of retrieval. I think in time, once the money dries up, the liberal mainline will be compelled to consider what various founders believed– their design and origin., etc.. One thing I admire about your studies is charting the actual emigration of English descent people form the New England area– countervailing the misconception that New England is still ‘English’. Rather, we find their descendants concentrated elsewhere(?). Probably likewise with their religious affiliations (hence, Methodism to Mormonism, even)? If an genuine Anglo-Prot patriotism is every to re-emerge, these things might be factors? Congregationalism indeed was most popular, and during the early 19th century, I think due to circumstances of revival, they enjoyed a Union agreement with middle state Presbyterians. I speculate this ended by 1833 due to persisting ethnic distinctions– the bulk of the Scottish -descent Presbyterians unable to digest the latent independency and moderation of the English variety– characteristics mentioned previously. In other words, English and Scottish Presbyterianism had specific differences often forgotten.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Anyway, the English and Scottish Presbyterian types are probably worth study for those interested in intersections and distinctives. They may even correlate to national characters or at least stubborn history? Another related topic, as I think about it, might be the very early phase of the Scottish church– before confessional hardening and the first attempts of Stewarts to provide superintendents/ episcopacy. There’s also a later ‘Anglicanization’ period after covenantors left by the Free Church, leaving behind a bulk of ‘engagers’ or moderate men. These latter sort tended to be a bit more friendly to the English and even evangelical personalities like G. Whitefield. Indeed, Whitefield has his own biography of warm relations with American Calvinists which sort of paved the way for the Congregationalist-Presbyterian Union agreement. For us on the Pacific Coast, the missionaries sent were much more attune to the joint English-Scottish venture in presbytery than they were in Hodge’s rejection of it. We have heroes like ‘Timothy Dwight Hunt’ who had New England roots yet supported by the Presbyterian mission. Most of the missionaries appear to be “New School” men, and were willing to undertake Federated work with other evangelicals– so very much a Protestant front in the Far West (and at our formative period of history).

      Liked by 1 person

    4. So much of this is lost to memory despite markers and monuments still standing in public view (but also needing desperate restoration). Again, these memories follow the same track as the overall marginalization of Englishness. As you’ve pointed out, this is even the case among self-professed ‘nationalists’ which is the oddest and most vexing thing of all.

      Liked by 1 person

    5. Charles, thanks for your comments. I wonder if you can recommend any books or other sources on the subjects you mention such as English and Scottish Presbyterianism. I confess I am not conversant with the subject; I would like to know a little more about it.

      To go back to an earlier comment of yours, yes, a lot of New Englanders migrated West (quite a few in my family tree) and many of them became Mormons. The Kimball family were very prominent in early Mormonism and may still be, as far as I know. I have a few close relatives who are Mormons.

      I do wonder sometimes why some of the descendants of the Puritans did end up getting involved in the ‘Transcendentalism’ and also the spiritualism fad that was popular starting in the 19th century, and wandered away from Christianity; after all our ancestors endured in order to practice their faith freely.


  2. It is a dream of mine be a great Anglo Puritan historian and theologian. I wish I had the energy to learn all about them. Old sources are definitely the way to go. I am not ashamed of Puritans being controlling and authoritarian.
    The “English” identity is too good for modern Americans .

    Charles, these “nationalists” care only for themselves. The Europeans who were sent over were the worst, least wanted members of their people. They laugh at how dumb Anglo-Saxons were for letting them in.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. https://andreaweekly.blogspot.com/2019/01/richard-spencer-finds-nothing.html

    Hello Bonnyblue and folks

    Andrea Daley Utronebel has a variety of commentary websites.
    The URL above is for a good piece involving the place of religion in society.

    “Richard Spencer finds Nothing Redeemable about the ‘Puritanical’ Foundations of the American Civilization — He is missing the Larger Picture of the Iron Triangle — What if Jewish Zealots, instead of Jesus and Paul, had come up with a Universal Faith?”


  4. Click to access TheYankeeProbleminAmerica.pdf

    Clyde Wilson gives his skeptical Southern view on Yankees.

    “The ethnic division between Yankees and other Americans goes back to earliest colonial times. Up until the War
    for Southern Independence, Southerners were considered to be the American mainstream and Yankees were
    considered to be the “peculiar” people. Because of a long campaign of cultural imperialism and the successful
    military imperialism engineered by the Yankees, the South, since the war, has been considered the problem, the
    deviation from the true American norm. Historians have made an industry of explaining why the South is different
    (and evil, for that which defies the “American” as now established, is by definition evil). Is the South different
    because of slavery? white supremacy? the climate? pellagra? illiteracy? poverty? guilt? defeat? Celtic wildness
    rather than Anglo-Saxon sobriety?
    Unnoticed in all this literature was a hidden assumption: the North is normal, the standard of all things American
    and good. Anything that does not conform is a problem to be explained and a condition to be annihilated. What
    about that hidden assumption? Should not historians be interested in understanding how the North got to be the
    way it is? Indeed, is there any question in American history more important?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Puritan, I just noticed the link you included. Thanks for that, though those disparaging anti-South articles get depressing. Still, that’s how things are now. 😦


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