Those Misunderstood Puritans

by Samuel Eliot Morison

THERE is no doubt that the Puritan is unpopular nowadays. The tercentennial of Massachusetts, the Puritans' pet colony, left the American public completely cold. Even in the old Bay State the celebration had a mildly apologetic tone, taking the line of praising the Puritans for a religious liberty which they never respected, and for a democracy which came in spite of them.

The average man was not convinced. He regards the fathers of New England as a set of somber kill-joys whose greatest pleasure was preventing simple folk from enjoying themselves, and whose principal object in life was to repress beauty and inhibit human nature. Many people of good New England stock have a strong "complex" about Puritanism, which upon analysis is found to be derived from a sour old grandfather who made the Sabbath hideous or a tight-lipped maiden aunt who gave up for lost anyone who preferred the brush or the fiddle-bow to the pen or the hammer. It would be a mistake to judge Puritanism from its period of deliquescence, when the fruitful kernel had grown into a tree of strange aspect and only scraps of the hard shell remained.

Every age will conceive the past in its own terms; and for this reason the Puritans have suffered almost as much from well-meaning historians as from thoughtless critics. Around 1800 the general schoolbook idea of the New England Puritans was that they were rebels against England. Toward 1830 they became heralds of democracy as well. In another generation they became, for the North, prophets of humanity and union - for did they not try to uplift the poor and unite the colonies? - while for the South they were the people ultimately responsible for abolition hatred and radical cant. And a people who liked their liquor hard and straight have even been held responsible for prohibition!

The right approach to the Puritan founders of New England is historical, by way of the Middle Ages. They were, broadly speaking, the Englishmen who had accepted the Reformation without the Renaissance.

This group was composed largely of yeomen farmers and artisans, led by clergymen educated at Oxford and Cambridge, and by country gentlemen and city merchants. There was no class-struggle complex in their minds; their common bond was religion and their point of view, in most matters, was distinctly medieval. Despairing of effecting their purposes in the mother country, finding the trend of events going against them and the situation becoming worse every year, they embarked on the audacious adventure of establishing in the New World a City of God--just such a Christian civilization as existed in the mind of St. Augustine and other medieval dreamers.

In spite of the anti-Catholic bias of the Puritan, he was much nearer to the medieval Catholic in his ideas than to the twentieth-century Protestant. Here is no paradox. Your Yankee Puritan railed at the "Papists," and set up a polity as unlike the Roman as any church could be. But these differences in opinion and practice were nothing in comparison with the fundamental unity of purpose.

What was the central core of Catholic thought in the Middle Ages? That man was created for the glory of God, and that the unique duty and purpose of man was to serve God and do His will. This was just what the Puritan thought about life. Only he also believed that the Catholic Church had taken a wrong turn since the death of Augustine, that it had become corrupt in doctrine and perverted in emphasis; and that William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, was cherishing these corruptions instead of going through with the Reform.

The Puritan cast off all these accretions of the centuries, repudiated all the compromises that the church had made with circumstances and with human nature, and found his absolute, his supreme court of authority, in the Bible. He preached a "naked Christ" (as he called the Christ he found in the Gospels) with no trimmings; he erected the Congregational Church, which he fondly supposed to be a copy of the primitive apostolic church. He yearned for a direct approach to God - to learn and to do God's will.

If he despised the ancient pageantry of worship, it was because he would have no false and sensuous symbols between himself and his Redeemer. If he rejected the intercession of the saints, it was because he would meet God face to face. If he preferred a barn to a Gothic cathedral as a place of worship, it was from no quarrel with beauty as such, but because beautiful architecture, stained-glass windows, and church music seemed to him screens between the Christian and Christ. This program was impossible to carry out in the England of Charles I and Archbishop Laud. The Puritan felt that the Christian way of life could not be followed in a frivolous and corrupt England. He emigrated in order to lead this way of life.

They supposed that all the essential truth of divine revelation had been discovered by 1630 and that, except for details, their theology would be immutable and perpetual. As a bulwark they planned a system of education. Children must be taught to read, that they might read the Bible; parsons must be trained in the three learned tongues, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, that they might read the Scriptures and the early church fathers in the original. An ignorant ministry was dreaded by the Puritans even more than an illiterate population; and they took good measures to guard against both--creating within a few years of the founding of New England, a remarkable system of primary schools, Latin grammar schools, and a college.

The system, with its emphasis on the Bible, public speaking, mathematics, and Latin and Greek literature, equipped boys admirably for the purposes of that day.

The New England Puritan, then, established a tradition of free, popular education, which became the American tradition. That remarkable group of scholars, scientists, and men of letters which appeared in New England was no accidental or spontaneous eruption. They inherited a humane tradition that the Puritan fathers brought over from Oxford and Cambridge and nurtured through Indian wars and frontier poverty. Humane tradition, I repeat; not barren theology. Around 1650 Harvard students were delivering Latin orations full of classical quips, composing verses on Leda and Flora, as well as upon the wonder-working providences of Zion's Savior in New England.

Elnathan Chauncy, a Puritan Harvard President's son, copied Herrick's Hesperides and Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar into his college notebook.

Anne Bradstreet, in a frontier village by the Merrimac, wrote lines reminiscent of Shelley: "If winter come, and greenness then do fade, a spring returns, and they more youthful made."

Theology was to be sure, the chief interest of the Puritan intellectual class; but theological speculation is no intellectual blind alley. It was Jonathan Edwards who said "virtue is a kind of beauty." The New England villages which survived the colonial period are the most perfect architectural groups north of Mexico; and the clipper ships which later kissed the waters of Puritan seaports were the most beautiful objects that the hand of man has produced in these states. Notwithstanding, we have often been told that the Puritan hated beauty, looked on creative art as sinful, and made a virtue of ugliness.

The Puritan was not insensible to beauty, although he could not regard it as an independent quality, separate from use or morals. His attitude toward art was one of indifference rather than active dislike - which is not far from the average American attitude today. The Puritans cared nothing for "objects of art," as such. Unlike the English gentry of their day or American millionaires of ours, they did not import old masters from Italy and Boulle furniture from France; they did something much better for a nation's artistic tradition by producing beautiful objects of daily use.

These objects had to be useful, otherwise they were "vanities." The only desirable form of pictorial art was a family portrait; the only music wanted was psalm tunes.

All else would have been a "waste of precious time." Here was a Puritan concept essentially modern, not medieval, and one that has gone into the very marrow of American life. A medieval churchman cared not how his flock spent their time, so long as they performed their duties; man's leisure was his own. But to the Puritan, idleness was a cardinal sin, for every second of time was God's gift to men, to be improved in His service. Not, however, in religious devotions; man could best serve God in his daily occupation. Intellectual or manual labor, honestly performed, was more pleasing to God than the unprofitable meditations of a recluse, or the self-scourging of an ascetic. But one must keep occupied. "We resolve to approve ourselves to the Lord in our particular callings," reads the Salem church covenant, "shunning idleness as the bane of every state." The Puritans deduced this code of keeping busy from the epistles of that energetic Jew, St. Paul. Hence much legislation by the Puritan colonies against gamblers, "tobacco-takers," and "stage-players." Cards and the theater were under all circumstances a waste of precious time, and therefore wholly banned.

This was an excellent code for pioneer communities in New England, where summer-time idlers were apt to become winter charges, and where children must be bred up to habits of industry. Apart from this doctrine of profitable activity, the Puritan as such contributed nothing to American economic thought, although the New Englander as such organized American industry, commerce, and shipping in order to escape from his hardscrabble farm. Here we are depriving the Puritan of one of his few contemporary laurels.

Puritanism has been called a protest against medieval economics. The beginning of laissez faire American success-worship has been connected with Puritan theology. This is all moonshine. The founders of New England got their economic ideas from St. Thomas Aquinas. They strictly forbade usury and profiteering; they pursued that medieval will-o'-the-wisp-- the "just price"; they regulated production, prices, and wages, and even attempted to naturalize the trade guild. Democracy, whether a blessing or a curse, is the child of natural conditions on the frontier, not of Puritanism. It owes more to Pennsylvania than to New England. Here we must contradict historians overeager to read their own conception of political science into the past. The New England Puritan, to be sure, founded Congregationalism, which gave the ordinary man much greater power in his own church than any other polity. But it was the Reverend Samuel Stone of Hartford who characterized the New England church as a "speaking aristocracy in the face of silent democracy." He might have said the same of the early New England governments. Heavy precautions were taken by the New England leaders against the popular will's having a chance to express itself, for the Puritan upper class had no faith in the average man's capacity or virtue; human nature was vile, and wanted control and authority. And although the common people acquired more power every generation, it was not until the nineteenth century that they began to distrust educated leaders and experts, to insist on rotation in office, weak executives, and other devices of democracy.

It is true that certain American political institutions, such as the ballot and elections at fixed dates, may be traced to early Massachusetts; but that is because the Bay Colony had a trading-company charter, not because she was Puritan. Her leaders would have had life terms for officials if they could; and the founders of Connecticut established a marvelous system of nomination which kept the governor and council in power as long as they cared to serve.

For all that, the Puritan gave something to American political institutions. His legacy was public spirit, and a respect for law and order. If there was little office-seeking among the early Puritans, there was no dodging of responsibility; and the standard of official integrity was high. I have found no record of malfeasance in public office in any New England colony or state, before the nineteenth century --there have been plenty since the religious sanction evaporated. Law and order- "loren owdah" as the Yankee pronounces it - became his shibboleth.

There was a debate on this in the early days of the Massachusetts Colony. Governor Winthrop argued "that in the infancy of a plantation, justice should be administered with more leniency than in a settled state, because people were then more apt to transgress." But Haynes and Dudley, Hooker and Cotton, maintained "that strict discipline, both in criminal offenses and in martial affairs, was more needful in plantations than in a settled state, as tending to the honor and safety of the Gospel. Whereupon Mr. Winthrop acknowledged that he was convinced."

From that day on, strict laws and strict enforcement thereof were the code of the Puritan colonies; and to a remarkable degree they succeeded in checking the social dissolution that comes from frontier life and the loss of old-world sanctions. This stern discipline fell heavily on frontier individuals; but it gave to the Yankee race a law-abiding tradition. New England never passed through the gun-toting, frontier-bully stage of society, so picturesque to read about, but leaving a tradition of lawlessness to the communities so unfortunate as to have been through it.

New England in the long run proved to be no more a City of God than Old England. Moral intensity and spiritual virility evaporated. Yet, for our purposes today, and for the America of the future, this courageous adventure of seeking to live the New Testament life in the wilds of the New World cannot be deemed a failure. The important thing is that they had faith, that they were stout-hearted for an ideal and sought the light of a higher power than their own wants and wills. The spirit of New England Puritanism still survives and it will be a sad day for the Republic if it dies.