Polishing the Puritan Image
Francis J. Bremer, Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009)
The esteemed Millersville historian Francis J. Bremer has recently given us a delightfully rich little volume, Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction. Bremer's now-classic works Congregational Communion: Clerical Friendship in the Anglo-American Puritan Community, 1610-1692 and John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father were groundbreaking in their transatlantic scope, and in this new book he ably traverses English and American contexts, highlighting cross-fertilization and emigration back and forth across the Atlantic. An engaging read, enlivened with primary quotes and illustrations, this overview of Puritan political history, beliefs, practices, and interpretation demonstrates the flexibility rather than the rigidness of this fascinating religious culture.
While presenting the major events and figures in Puritan history, Bremer attempts a recovery of the Puritan image in the popular imagination. He is well aware that there is a more than a grain of truth in stereotypical images of Puritans as "theocrats" and "bigoted heresy hunters," but he explains why "[d]ialogue to facilitate a better apprehension of the truth was generally welcomed in early Massachusetts" and "[u]nity was the goal of the New England puritans, but not necessarily uniformity." For example, one of the early Massachusetts church synods came up with a list not of required beliefs but of "unacceptable doctrines." In a similar way, though Puritan theologians may have spent time thinking through the nuances of predestination, they rarely explored it in their catechisms and sermons. And while Puritan conversions could be dramatic and sudden, their experience of salvation "could also be a gradual, subtle process."
Contesting the image of Puritans as killjoys, Bremer quotes the English Puritan minister Richard Baxter's maxim that "overdoing is the ordinary way of undoing." Puritans enjoyed sex, alcohol, attractive clothing, music, and dancing; it was excess that they denounced. They learned from Reformed theology that creation is good and that sin results not from its use but from its abuse. Puritans preferred beer in part because it was safer than the water supply, and "'small beer'—a less potent brew—was offered to children who had been weaned." The Puritans' outlook on sex marked a shift from medieval views; they advocated sex for enjoyment as well as procreation. "Intercourse between husband and wife was encouraged not simply as a means for having children, but as a joyous expression of love that bound the couple together," Bremer writes. The "duty to desire" was even enforced by law: "A Massachusetts man was excommunicated by the Boston church for withholding sexual favors from his wife." While contemporary writers persist in identifying close-mindedness and repression (or even aggression) as Puritanism's lasting contribution, Bremer hints that the puritan inheritance is more along the lines of "personal responsibility, the individual's participation in government, and the importance of education."
A gem of a concluding chapter, "The Puritan Legacy," traces the uses of Puritan history from the 18th to the 20th centuries, arguing that the "story of how puritans have been understood and misunderstood has itself become part of the meaning of puritanism." An ambitious section that suffers from lack of space to elaborate, the chapter nonetheless contributes significantly to Bremer's effort to debunk stereotypes by placing the stereotypes themselves in historical context. On the English side, Bremer finds the Puritans' greatest influence on literature through the work of John Milton, John Bunyan, and Isaac Watts. Puritan history also played a significant role in 18th- and 19th-century English politics, whether partisans called Puritans "fanatics who under the guise of piety subverted the established order," as did David Hume, or "paladins of liberty and harbingers of democracy," as did Daniel Neal.
Bremer even locates the specific historical origins of misconceptions. For example, he traces to the popular 19th-century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay the misconception "that puritans objected to bearbaiting not because it inflicted pain on the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators." We also learn how much Oliver Cromwell's more positive 19th-century image as a man of genuine faith and surprising tolerance was due to Thomas Carlyle's edition of his Letters and Speeches in 1845.
America's treatment of Puritanism took a different trajectory. The revolutionary generation liked to revere Puritans as champions of liberty. For example, Samuel Adams was called the "Cromwell of New England" and chose the pen name "a Puritan" when writing newspaper articles "linking royal policies to popery [Catholicism]." Nineteenth-century historians, concerned with accuracy as well as shedding Victorian moralism, rejected this image of liberty in favor of an image of Puritans as persecutors of dissent. In the 20th century, historians such as Vernon Parrington continued in this vein by incorporating Puritanism into a critique of fundamentalism and the prohibition movement, characterizing puritan ministers as "frightened by the free spaces of creative thought."
A wealth of recent scholarship on both sides of the Atlantic, including many of the works in Bremer's excellent "Further Reading" section, rehabilitates Puritanism as a multifaceted and colorful religious world with boundaries that were both carefully monitored and surprisingly elastic. Bremer's Short Introduction provides an elegant and accessible gateway into this world.
Adrian Weimer teaches American religious history at the University of Mississippi.
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