How Should We Remember the Puritans?

Vexed and Troubled Englishmen

How should we remember the Puritans?


When the word “Puritan” entered the English language almost 500 years ago, it came as an insult—a “soul-killing Nick-name,” as one of the insulted called it. One of the name-callers, a conforming clergyman exasperated by demands to purify the Anglican Church of all vestiges of Roman Catholicism, replied to his implacable critics, “We call you Puritans not because you are purer than other men…but because you think yourselves to be purer.”

In one variation or another, the charge has been repeated ever since. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne portrayed his Puritan ancestors as “stern and black-browed” members of “the most intolerant brood that ever lived.” The narrator of George Santayana’s 1935 novel The Last Puritan accused them of sharing with “the Bolshies” a “scorn of all compromises, practical or theoretical.” Just a few months ago, Maureen Dowd devoted a New York Times column to denouncing the left flank of the Democratic Party for keeping the spirit of “the Massachusetts Bay Colony…alive and well on the Potomac and Twitter,” thereby raising the risk of a second term for Donald Trump. These “modern Puritans,” she wrote, “eviscerate their natural allies for not being pure enough.”

No nation or culture has had a monopoly on this phenomenon: the hyperorthodox who recoil not only from the profane world but also from anyone who fails to share their revulsion. Nevertheless, serious historians have detected something peculiarly American in the type—beginning with the breakaway faction of Puritans who gave up on England in the fourth decade of the 17th century and emigrated to America, where, it is alleged, they aimed to prove their incorruptibility by serving as “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). And so began, some have argued, the insidious presumption that America stands alone, like ancient Israel, in covenant with God.

Today, college students are often introduced to this idea—sometimes called American exceptionalism—through “A Model of Christian Charity,” a speech by John Winthrop, a devout Christian of Puritan temperament who became the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Borrowing an image from the King James version of Matthew 5:14 (“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid”) that was itself an echo of Isaiah 42:6, the speech contained the famous claim that “we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us,” and it has become the prime exhibit for prosecuting the case against those first New Englanders. In the words of Daniel T. Rodgers, a distinguished professor emeritus of history at Princeton University who in his new book, As a City on a Hill, recounts the history of this argument in order to dispute it, the Puritans have been blamed for injecting “a sense of God’s chosenness into the distinctive cultural DNA of imperially expansive America.”

Rodgers’s book is not only a close reading of the reception and history of Winthrop’s speech but also a rescue operation for Puritanism itself. Rather than instigating the pernicious idea of the United States as God’s most favored nation, the Puritans, he argues, were unsure of their worthiness and subjected themselves to “the moral scrutiny of the world.”

To begin with, Rodgers shows that almost everything we thought we knew about Winthrop’s speech is wrong. Ever since a copyist (it’s unclear when) scrawled “Written on board the Arrabella on the Atlantick Ocean” on a cover sheet attached to the surviving manuscript, Winthrop has been imagined as raising his voice into the roaring wind on the roiling sea. But in fact, he was more likely to have delivered the speech—often called a lay sermon because he was not an ordained minister—in Southampton before embarking. Or he may never have delivered it at all.

For more than 200 years the work lay in manuscript, until the Massachusetts Historical Society published it in 1838, in a collection of documents in which it was preceded by a few poems just a cut above doggerel and followed by a short history of the US Postal Service. Throughout the 19th century, the speech remained little more than an antiquarian curiosity. Even in the early 20th century, when scholars began to take note of it, no one attributed to it any claim of divine special favor. Writing in 1916, the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who traced his New England ancestry to the 1660s, heard in it an “emphasis on collectivism rather than individualism”—as if Winthrop had been a secret socialist.

The modern career of Winthrop’s speech got underway in the 1930s, when a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Perry Miller, went east to Harvard, in part to study with Morison. Miller, who also had New England roots (he was related to Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy) but cultivated the personal style of a Midwestern tough guy in the Dreiser-Hemingway mode, had dropped out of college for a while and joined the merchant marine, which took him, among other places, to the west coast of Africa. It was there, he later recalled in brash emulation of Edward Gibbon—who had been seized by the ambition to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while contemplating the ruins of the Forum—that Miller discovered his destiny while unloading drums of American oil. Suddenly, he grasped his life’s mission: to expound to the world “what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States.” This propulsion, Miller insisted, had been ignited in colonial New England.

In two magisterial volumes composed in the 1930s and ’40s—The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century and The New England Mind: From Colony to Province—Miller ranged over a vast number of tracts and sermons from both old and New England and assembled them into a brilliant portrait of the Puritans, as Rodgers puts it, “in an existentialist key.” For Miller, “dread…lay at the heart of the Puritan experiment,” by which he meant not primarily dread of the wilderness or America’s native “heathen” inhabitants but dread of themselves. At the core of the Puritan church, in his view, were not the sacraments of baptism or Communion (though he chronicled the furious disputes that arose over qualifications for these rites) but the copious sermons whose central subject was the ubiquitous sin of pride.

The essential task of the Puritan minister was to destroy the presumption that any human being had the slightest merit in the eyes of God. But Puritanism also offered consolation. It taught that the more unworthy one feels before God, the more ground there is for hope. This was the preacher’s paradoxical work: to castigate his flock without mercy (“the minister,” as one thundering preacher put it, “will discover the lusts, and deceits, and corruptions, that you could not find out”) until, stripped of the belief in their essential worth, penitent listeners would throw themselves upon God’s mercy. According to one English minister who did not emigrate to America but mentored several leaders of the emigration, “None are fitter for comfort than those that think themselves furthest off.”

These were among the themes of Miller’s demanding two-volume study of the “New England mind.” But the work for which he remains best known was a kind of coda—a short essay published in 1953 whose title, “Errand Into the Wilderness,” he borrowed from an Election Day sermon delivered in 1670 by the Puritan minister Samuel Danforth. In that essay, Miller focused on “A Model of Christian Charity,” arguing that Winthrop’s little flotilla, which sailed from Southampton to Salem, Massachusetts, in April 1630, was a “task force” launched for the purpose of working “out that complete reformation which was not yet accomplished in England and Europe, but which would quickly be accomplished if only the saints back there had a working model to guide them.”

Winthrop and his comrades, Miller contended, departed the Old World not to abandon it but to save it. They wanted to build in New England a model of what old England should be. They fled the Anglican crackdown on religious dissent (several ministers who joined the exodus had been threatened with defrocking or worse) and sought safety in America in order to erect a true church. What they had in mind was not an ecclesiastical establishment like the Church of England, with authority exerted downward from king and bishops. Instead they envisioned independent communities of gathered believers, each with authority vested in itself and served by a pastoral and preaching ministry—what became known as Congregationalism.

Miller was a prodigious scholar, but he could be carried away by his metaphorical imagination. He told a dramatic—even melodramatic—tale of self-exiles bewildered as the world they left behind changed beyond recognition. In the 1630s and ’40s, while New Englanders built their godly commonwealth, their Puritan comrades in old England were fomenting not only church reform but also a political and social revolution, including what Michael Walzer, in The Revolution of the Saints (1965), called “the whole apparatus of radical politics: the illegal press, organized book smuggling, a rough underground network.” They defied the bishops and worked to restore power to Parliament after its dissolution by Charles I, to depose and ultimately execute the king, and under Oliver Cromwell to establish a regime with a degree of religious pluralism that shocked their brethren abroad.

Watching from afar, Miller’s Puritans were forced to confront their obsolescence. The guiding example of their city on a hill was no longer needed. Miller, who served in Britain during World War II with the Office of Strategic Services, compared them to a platoon of soldiers sent on a reconnaissance mission who, by the time they get back, find that “the situation at headquarters [is] entirely changed” and their mission has been forgotten. To amplify his point, Miller added a theatrical trope to his military metaphor. The emigrant Puritans were like an actor who, having prepared for “the leading role in the greatest dramatic spectacle of the century,” stepped onto the stage “only to find the theatre empty, no spotlight working, and himself entirely alone.” “Having failed to rivet the eyes of the world upon their city on the hill,” Miller concluded, “they were left alone with America.”

Miller’s prose was heartfelt and arresting, so much so that many students and readers who went on to teach or write about early America had their impression of Puritanism shaped by him. But Rodgers also notes the oversights and exaggerations in his rendition of the Puritan errand. For one thing, Winthrop said nothing in “A Model of Christian Charity” about transforming England but spoke only of “succeeding plantations”—that is, future colonies—about which he hoped “that men shall say…the Lord make it like that of Massachusetts.” Rodgers also makes the telling point that Miller used the word “model” in the modern sense of a small precedent to be replicated on a larger scale, but in the 17th century it could also mean something closer to what we would call an analysis or anatomy, “a condensation,” Rodgers writes, “the marrow and principle of the thing being outlined.”

Moreover, Miller missed the force of the crucial words that Winthrop wrote immediately after “we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us”: “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.” These words—which express the existential anxiety that Miller did so much to illuminate in his earlier work—attest to Winthrop’s craving fame less than he feared notoriety.

Nonetheless, when the time came for resistance and revision, as always happens when a new generation of scholars succeeds the last, Miller’s version of the Puritans was not tamped down but ratcheted up. Another gifted scholar, Sacvan Bercovitch, born in Canada to (in his words) “Yiddishist left-wing” immigrant parents, was astonished upon his emigration to the United States to discover the persistence of the myth of America as God’s darling nation. Beginning in 1975 with The Puritan Origins of the American Self—which took as its proof text Cotton Mather’s Nehemias Americanus, the Life of John Winthrop (1702)—Bercovitch, who eventually succeeded to Miller’s professorial chair, argued that his predecessor had not gone far enough. Puritans did not merely see themselves as taking incremental steps toward reforming international Protestantism; they saw themselves appointed by God to prepare the “scene of Christ’s triumphant descent to His New Jerusalem.” They imagined New England as no less than the site of the Second Coming, from which truth would radiate throughout the world, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. These were not Miller’s Puritans beset by self-doubt. Bercovitch’s Puritans were convinced, with terrifying certainty, of their divine charge to lead what he called “the last stage of the worldwide work of redemption.” Their hallmark was not dread but an overweening confidence in the sanctity of their mission. They saw themselves as legatees of the divine mandate granted to ancient Israel.

Writing in the shadow of another war—the United States’ monstrous misadventure in Vietnam—Bercovitch went so far as to claim that the Puritans had “used the biblical myth of exodus and conquest to justify imperialism before the fact.” In this reading, Winthrop’s speech becomes the ur-text for a kind of collective narcissism that runs through American life: the brazen conviction that the American way is the only way. By implication, the Puritans were retroactively responsible for the predations committed in the name of manifest destiny, for the folly of trying to remake Europe in America’s image after World War I, for the fanatic hatred of godless communism, and for the catastrophic intervention in Vietnam.

By the turn of the 21st century, after the tragic sequence of 9/11 and the Iraq War, this way of telling American history had become so habitual among some scholars that when a Harvard undergraduate, Pete Buttigieg (who studied with Bercovitch), wrote in his 2004 senior thesis that “the very founding of America was an act of international intervention…which would recur in later years with America’s exportation of its democratic creed,” he was repeating an academic dogma.

Rodgers insists that neither Miller’s version of the Puritans attempting to save the Old World by example nor Bercovitch’s version as the self-appointed vanguard in the cosmic drama of salvation gets Winthrop and his contemporaries right. In this judgment, Rodgers is not alone. In a sweeping new history of what he calls “the city-state of Boston,” Yale historian Mark Peterson laments that “these interpretations badly distort the meaning and influence of the governor’s words,” and Michael P. Winship, in a valuable new history of Puritanism, Hot Protestants, observes that the idea that the “puritans envisioned New England as the site of the millennium’s New Jerusalem” has “been thoroughly discredited.” And so the pendulum swings. The Puritans seem to be coming back into view not as progenitors of some future America but as they appeared to themselves in their own time, what the mid-20th-century historian Carl Bridenbaugh called “vexed and troubled Englishmen.”

In taking the turn to a more historicist approach, it makes sense, as Rodgers does, to stick with Winthrop as the Puritans’ representative man. Before emigrating to America, Winthrop struggled to negotiate the accelerating transformation of England from a relatively static feudal order to a dynamic and disruptive—morally as well as socially—market economy. A member of the landed gentry, he feared that England was becoming a place where “no man’s estate almost will suffice to keep sail with his equals, and he who fails herein must live in scorn and contempt; hence it comes that all arts and trades are carried in that deceitful and unrighteous course, as it is almost impossible for a good and upright man to maintain his charge and live comfortably in any of them.” In short, it was becoming harder for men of Winthrop’s rank to be both virtuous and prosperous.

“The aim of the great landowner,” as R.H. Tawney wrote in his still valuable Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), “was no longer to hold at his call an army of retainers, but to exploit his estates as a judicious investment.” Winthrop was not quite a great landowner, though he owned enough to have commissioned a portrait of himself in ruffled collar and white gloves. But when Suffolk, his home county in England, was struck in the 1620s by an economic downturn and revenue from his land holdings declined, he felt compelled to accept an appointment as an attorney to the Court of Wards in London in order to supplement his income. This work was rife with opportunities for corruption. Bribery and favor trading were rampant, and it was common practice for the court to sell wardships on behalf of the king to bidders intent on extracting value by carrying off timber and crops, allowing buildings to rot, and thus leaving the ward, when he came of age, with a depleted inheritance.

Meanwhile, Winthrop’s real estate holdings in Suffolk forced upon him vexing questions. Should he raise rents on subsistence farmers who had long resided on his property at nominal fees? Should he prohibit scavenging? Should he enclose his lands with hedges for the purpose of raising sheep, thus driving his tenants into the swelling ranks of vagabonds or what we would call the homeless? As the great historian Christopher Hill wrote, this was a time when large landowners “had no inhibitions…about evicting whole villages to make room for sheep” in order to profit from the growing wool export trade.

Winthrop never shed his inhibitions. He may have fled England in part because he feared becoming one of the losers in the new economy, but he also feared becoming one of the morally compromised winners. As Rodgers aptly puts it, Winthrop’s flight from old to New England is best understood not only as “an ocean passage but a passage from self to others.” His “Model of Christian Charity” was filled with yearning for a lost—no doubt largely imaginary—world where poor and rich treated each other with reciprocal loyalty.

Winthrop was certainly no radical egalitarian of the sort found in Hill’s revelatory book The World Turned Upside Down, about the Levellers and Ranters who dreamed during the English Civil War of expanded suffrage, the redistribution of wealth, and limits on the size of property that any landowner could possess. But neither was he insouciant about the plight of the poor, however much he believed, as he wrote in the opening lines of “Model,” that God “hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor.” These words have often been read as an ominous overture to the long history of Americans justifying the extremes of poverty and wealth as consistent with natural law. But as Rodgers shows, this is a bad caricature. Rather, Winthrop hoped that in the New World, God would touch the hearts of those empowered like himself “so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor.” One of the most significant passages in “A Model of Christian Charity” is his discussion concerning the repayment of loans. If the debtor “have nothing to pay,” he said, citing Deuteronomy 15:2, then “thee must forgive him.”

Rodgers gives a subtle account of how the memories of destitute people in old England—“wandering ghosts in the shape of men,” as Winthrop called them—haunted not only Winthrop but also other magistrates and ministers in New England, where harsh measures such as whipping vagrants were implemented alongside the “abatement of taxes for poorer town residents” and grants of grain or firewood to families in distress. “Grudging as it often was,” Rodgers writes, “public, tax-supported responsibility for the poor” was “a fixture of New England town life.” “By 1700,” he points out, “Boston was spending perhaps a quarter of its budget on poor relief.” At the center of As a City on a Hill is the insight that Winthrop and his fellow Puritans believed that “market price and ordinary market relations would not suffice for a moral community.”

In later chapters, Rodgers tells the story of how “‘A Model of Christian Charity’ was plucked out of Winthrop’s context” by politicians, pundits, and even some historians and “reimagined as something quite different—as a founding document for the nation itself.” In the process, “the moral question Winthrop had placed at the core of his text would no longer be the part of the Model that mattered.” Winthrop and his fellow Puritans were turned into prophets of nationalism and unfettered capitalism, and “the aching tension,” as Rodgers calls it, “between the social fact of inequality and Winthrop’s yearnings for a community rooted in love” was all but lost.

Disputes concerning the meaning of the past are, of course, indices to conflicts over the present and divergent hopes for the future. Such a dispute took place some 40 years ago—though it is not usually thought of as a debate about Puritanism and its legacy—between two American presidents. In July 1979, in what became known as the “malaise” speech (although he never used that word), Jimmy Carter spoke of a “spiritual crisis” in the United States and called for a renewal of Americans’ “faith in each other.” In preparing his speech, he was counseled by, among others, Christopher Lasch, who was steeped in the history of the Puritans and especially valued their vision of a society in which, Winthrop wrote, “we must…make others conditions our own” and “must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others necessities.” Winthrop asked his fellow emigrants to keep their “eyes [on] our commission and community,” and using the language of 1 Corinthians, he beseeched them to conceive of themselves “as members of the same body.” Although Carter made no direct reference to “A Model of Christian Charity,” his admonishing speech, now notorious for its political miscalculation, was filled with echoes of Winthrop’s call for charity and self-restraint.

Carter’s recapitulation of Puritan social and ethical ideals proved unpersuasive. Sixteen months later, Ronald Reagan defeated him for the presidency and set out to dismantle a half century of public policy from the New Deal to the Great Society designed—however meager those efforts may seem now—to mitigate the inequities of American society. Reagan, too, appropriated the Puritans. For him, they were laissez-faire capitalists in the making, prophets of a free market utopia. Over the next eight years, on at least 30 occasions, he echoed Winthrop’s speech (to which he liked to add the word “shining” as a flourish before the scriptural phrase “city on a hill”). Reagan’s shining city bore little resemblance to Carter’s anxious nation. It was a triumphant image of American power, prosperity, and eminence, a “movie-set city,” as Rodgers describes it, with nothing in it of Winthrop’s clarion warning that God is affronted when putative believers “shutteth our ears from hearing the cry of the poor” (Proverbs 21:13) or “worship other Gods, our pleasures, and profits.”

Every generation imagines its own version of the Puritans’ errand. The one Rodgers invokes—a social experiment conducted with an “acute sense of the conditionality of God’s promises” and “more open to self-criticism, even to a certain humility, than most in history’s annals”—is a salutary one for our dark time.

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