September 08, 2005

Puritan Fetish

The Puritans have been getting a great deal of attention in my classes lately. In Literary Criticism we read and dissected "Young Goodman Brown," and I returned in my mind to my readings of The Scarlet Letter. In Reading the Bible as Literature our studies of the Scriptures in English have carried us into the reign of James I, who became yet another ruler to dash the hopes of those who had been aching for a Protestant agenda in government ever since the all-too-short reign of Edward VI some 55 years before. And there were hints at the extreme religious group that would soon emerge . . . One that would gain so much power so quickly that they would be able to overthrow the government less than 40 years later and plunge England into civil war.

And, in Intellectual History in America, we discussed at length "The Puritan Imprint" and the intellectual character of the Puritans based on readings from "The New England Mind" by Perry Miller and various primary source works from people like Mather, Edwards, Bradstreet, and Winthrop (see also Wilson's excellent post on Roger Williams). Our text spent a great deal of time belaboring the idea that, yes, the Puritans were very intellectual types, despite their apparent dogmatism and authoritarianism.

He proved his point by citing the extensive writings of the Puritans, their complex and well-developed theological system, their standards of education from young children through university students, and the religious controversies they became embroiled in, especially during the English Civil War.

The Puritans were by no means perfect. They gave us the expression "witch hunt" from the universally-reviled goings-on in Salem. Lovers of the learning and The Arts hate them for the closing down of London theaters and their general disapproval of secular art, philosophy, etc. But what can we, as Christians and as Americans, learn from the Puritans today?

As we continued to read about them and discuss them, there began to emerge in my mind an image of men and women strong in faith, character, mind, body, and spirit, who weren't going to settle for anything less than a community of believers governed entirely by the principles of the Bible and devoted to spiritual and intellectual growth along biblical lines. This was their vision for the colonies in America and, in one way or another, that has had a profound impact on our history.

It has been fascinating to study, not only the Puritans, but those who laid the foundations for them, and those who looked back on them after they were gone. Men like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale led the way towards a translation of the Bible in English (an unbelievable story in itself) as the Catholic Church fell into chaos and disarray and seemed ready to fragment into a million pieces, and Henry VIII (for his own reasons) pulled away from Rome to establish the Church of England. And, of course, there are the giants of the Reformation like John Calvin and Martin Luther, making a successful break from Catholicism and establishing new doctrines.

Then there is Nathaniel Hawthorne, a 19th Century Romantic and one of the great American authors, who also happened to be descended from the Puritans. He, if his writings are any indication, was fascinated by them, both their flaws and their better qualities, and he used their communities as the setting for inquiries into the nature of good and evil, piety and sin, love and revenge . . . He saw the Puritans as flawed and conflicted human beings, many of whom tried (with mixed success) to do the right thing.

Hawthorne's perspective on the Puritans is, I think, both healthy and valuable. Their ideals were sound, even when their practices were not. Their impact, both on the world around them and on generations to come, was profound. And always they strove towards a firm establishment of God's Kingdom on earth. What more could we ask of any Christian in any age in history? Has any single group of believers at any one point in history since the Apostles succeeded as the Puritans did?

Posted by Jared at September 8, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack