Debunking the myths of the Puritans

A revisionist argues that historians have turned the authoritarian, conformist puritans into reflections of their own complex, Harvard-educated selves.

By Maria Russo
Published November 25, 1998 7:02PM (EST)

With so little history to wrap our imaginations around (no Ming Dynasty, no
pharaohs, no philosopher kings), it's no wonder Americans have made the
Puritans the subject of so much cultural mythmaking. On the face of it,
they're hardly compelling material: a smallish group of ascetic-minded
religious malcontents who tried to hammer out a theocracy in the
wilderness. Yet the Puritans star in some of our most enduring national
fantasies, starting with the one about white-Indian cooperation that we
dust off every Thanksgiving.

Even academics who study the Puritans have found surprising dramatic
possibilities in those 17th century New Englanders. The last
half-century of American Puritan studies has been dominated by a succession
of scholars who looked at their subject with an auteur's eye. Perry
Miller's 1939 "The New England Mind" came first, recasting the fusty Puritans
as players in a high-minded, soft-around-the-edges drama of our national
origins. Miller's story had an uplifting, Frank Capra-esque feel to it. He
presented the Puritans as a "chosen people" who felt they were called on an
"errand into the wilderness" to escape the corrupted Old World religious
landscape. Miller looked at the Puritans' writings -- sermons and tracts,
and some poetry -- and saw not Christian boilerplate marked by petty
theological disagreements, but a sparkling, highly literary repartee. A
distinctly American way of thinking, Miller proposed, grew out of the
Puritans' intellectual legacy.

This jaunty account stood fast until 1978, when the roguish Sacvan
Bercovitch came up with a postmodern alternative in "The American Jeremiad."
Bercovitch had the Puritans staking out predetermined positions in a sly
game of power plays worthy of David Mamet. Tired of being kicked around in
Europe, Bercovitch's Puritans sought the chance to run their own show in the
New World. Soon, however, a hegemonic religio-political center emerged and
began oppressing dissenters and cultural outsiders, who in turn tried
gamely but unsuccessfully to subvert the center. In the internecine Puritan
conflicts, Bercovitch held, the stagnant, intellectually repressive,
peculiarly American two-party system was born.

By the 1980s, this starkly
political rendering was soundly rejected by a group of scholars led by Alan
Heimert and Andrew Delbanco, whose "The Puritan Ordeal" gave us a more
sympathetic restaging. This account of the Puritans had a Woody Allen
quality: They were an anxious, uncertain band of religious misfits, put to
the test by the "howling wilderness" they found here, frustrated by their
own intractable theological disagreements. Delbanco's Puritans wrestled
idealistically among themselves in hopes of a consensus they never managed
to achieve, sowing the intellectual seeds of our conflicted but
freedom-loving nation of immigrants.

Enter Michael Kaufmann, an associate professor of English at Temple University, whose "Institutional Individualism: Conversion, Exile and Nostalgia in Puritan New England" comes out in December from Wesleyan University Press. Kaufmann asserts that Puritan scholars have staged all these dramas on some pretty flimsy suppositions.

First of all, the Puritans did not have the sense of autonomous selfhood they'd have needed to play out the Puritan scholars' ego-filled scripts. They derived their sense of individual identity largely through institutional and family allegiances. In Kaufmann's view, blindness to this fundamental reality of the Puritans' world has led to some devastating critical ironies. Puritan Anne Hutchinson, for example, who was put on trial by elders for holding meetings in her home to discuss scripture and sermons, has become a darling of feminists, who call her "a champion of individual liberty" and praise her subversive sensibility. Hutchinson was banished and excommunicated on seemingly trumped-up charges of "erroneous opinion." Yet throughout her two grueling trials, she insisted that she had no desire to undermine established authority, let alone claim authority for herself.

Kaufmann may be the first scholar ever to take Hutchinson at her word. He claims that Hutchinson saw herself as a passive vessel, determined only to "hear" God's word correctly (a gesture the elders found threatening and called antinomianism) and to promote and study the teachings of her revered minister, John Cotton. Kaufmann has no patience for scholars who think they're somehow liberating Hutchinson by seeing her as a renegade. In fact, he points out, they're only accepting the court's damnation of her -- only now we think it's a good thing to have been damned by such shallow, authoritarian fools. She herself would have been saddened to go down in history as a sardonic subverter of the patriarchal institutions from which she derived her identity and sense of religious purpose, Kaufmann asserts.

If anything, she longed for the church and its ministers to be stronger and therefore more worthy of her devotion. Wracked by paranoia as the Hutchinson controversy escalated and people began taking sides, the elders may well have come to the wrong conclusions about the threat to their authority presented by Hutchinson. As a woman, she was an easy target (a point Kaufmann might have developed more). Oddly, this scenario seems never to have occurred to Puritanists dazzled by their portrait of Hutchinson as a self-assertive, self-reliant leader. In the final irony, Hutchinson has now been added to the pantheon of American women writers, although all our records of her words are transcripts of her trials. As far as we know, she never wrote a single page.

Puritan Roger Williams, who wrote innumerable pages over the course of his lifetime -- most of them harangues against anyone who challenged his hard-line views -- is now seen as an early mouthpiece for causes ranging from multiculturalism to environmentalism. For Kaufmann, Williams can only be viewed as progressive if you factor out his religious views, which are the backbone of everything he believed.

In his tireless calls for the separation of church and state, for example, Williams has been seen as a precursor of the Constitution's establishment clause -- yet it was the church he wanted to protect from the state, not vice versa. And in Kaufmann's telling, Williams' vaunted tolerance of Indians and religious dissenters stemmed from his conviction that they would all burn in hell anyway, so why expend the energy on persecuting them, let alone trying to convert them?

As anyone who has spent time in Rhode Island knows, we see Roger Williams today as a radical individualist, anti-authoritarian to his core, a political Jack Kerouac type. But Kaufmann reminds us that Williams was, after all, appointed governor of Rhode Island. It was a neat trick that conservatives today have perfected: Williams promoted the image of himself as an exile, all the while remaining one of the most well-connected political insiders in the colonies.

Over the last decade, the ground of early American scholarship has shifted. The Puritans no longer occupy center stage. In the most recent accounts of how the United States developed, the Puritans are one brief chapter, and not necessarily the first one. There are now several locations from which American culture is seen to have sprung -- Chesapeake Bay, for instance, and "the Americas" as an imaginative whole. This critical divide is bookended by two teaching anthologies used in early American literature courses: Heimert and Delbanco's 1985 "The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology" (Harvard University Press) and Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner's 1997 "The English Literatures of America, 1500-1800" (Routledge).

Jehlen and Warner give space to the likes of John Cotton, but place him alongside other New World voices from Southern and Spanish settlements, as well as documents from both sides of European-native contact. The Puritans' arrival in America, after all, belongs as much to the history of native peoples as to that of Europeans. Scholars who do focus on the Puritans are likely to link their intellectual achievements to the violence and brutality of their wars with the Indians, as in Jill Lepore's recent "The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity" (Knopf).

Why did the Puritans get top billing for so long? A lot of it can be explained by just the kind of preoccupation with institutional power -- and its individual beneficiaries -- that Kaufmann sees driving the Puritans themselves. From Miller to Bercovitch to Delbanco, Puritanists have been Harvard-centric, trained there and often returning there to teach, acting out the same cycles of filiopiety and rebellion that shaped the culture of the Puritans (who were, come to think of it, the founders of Harvard) in books often published by Harvard University Press.

It's not surprising that the Puritans and their psychodramas captured the imaginations of these scholars, Kaufmann suggests. Of all the groups who occupied North America in the colonial period, the Puritans were the most articulate about issues that are still important -- to an ambitious academic living in Cambridge, at least, if not to a low-income single mother living in Wyoming. Kaufmann's feat is to show us that in the Puritans we may not find the origins of American culture itself, but we can certainly see the prototype for the American intellectual academic.

Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

MORE FROM Maria Russo

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Academia Books College