The Puritans had something right: when confronted with adversity, the whole society took the responsibility upon itself, every individual, regardless of position or status, as God’s punishment for their collective sins. The Puritans knew how to respond. Shipboard fasts repeatedly saved the vanguard of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from the peril of storms and seasickness. When the fleet landed in June 1630, Governor Winthrop realized “there was not enough food for the winter,” and dispatched their ship the Lyon back to England. By February 1631, their provisions nearly exhausted, “the people appointed a day of solemn humiliation,” and “the Lyon immediately hove into sight.” The whole colony quickly celebrated “a day of thanksgiving, not to Winthrop—who was but the instrument of Providence—but to the Lord Himself, who brought the Lyon safely into Boston Harbor, no doubt in direct response to the ceremonial humiliation.”
Now, you may laugh at their naivete, out of smug superiority. But I submit that the Puritans had something right, something that we have lost. And I don’t mean blind faith in a personal God, or in Science and Technology; or even in William James’s pragmatic wish to travel hopefully, a confident expectation that things will work out for the best in the long run. Nor do I say this out of cynicism or atheism, neither of which inform my views.
But vary their formula in light of subsequent experience: imagine holding the entire society, every individual, corporate organization, foundation, and institution co-equally responsible for the catastrophes they confront or create. Or for the boons, godsends, and windfalls that may visit a society.
I am not proposing that we return to the ecclesiastical polity of the original primitive Puritan theocracy. What I am suggesting, however, is that the Puritans enjoyed a society in which every individual member was acknowledged and fully integrated into a cohesive community. Further, I would allege that, in movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, March for Life, Me Too, in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal”—even within some of the most violent and racist proto-nativist groups—as well as in a thousand other examples throughout our society, there is a desperate yearning for precisely this kind of community; a form of community which we have lost, misplaced, or willfully denied.
Therefore, despite the their many failings and sins, the original Puritans have a great deal to teach contemporary Americans that is constructive, pertinent, political, and timely. And by Americans I mean all Americans, citizen and non-citizen alike, undocumented worker and resident immigrant, regardless of ethnic or religious heritage, sex or gender identity, level of education, income, and party affiliation. I omit race as a category, since I agree with historian and geneticist Spencer Wells that there is only one race on this planet: the human race.
Perry Miller revolutionized Puritan scholarship. “THE career of Perry Miller rebukes us all,” Edmund Morgan wrote in 1964, shortly after Miller’s death in December 1963. “And he compounded the force of the rebuke by working at a subject cast aside by previous scholars as too arid to be worth investigating: Puritan theology.” Morgan further argued that Miller had “the best historical mind of his generation, perhaps of his century, devoted it earnestly, fruitfully, humbly, and unrelentingly to scholarship,” Morgan declares flatly. Morgan underscores the “vast apparatus for describing reality” that “Miller saw in Puritan theology.” Miller of course was an atheist “who never pretended anything else.” But he had enormous respect for the subject he chose to devote his life and career to.
The terms “Puritan,” “Puritanism” and “Puritanical” have come to have derogatory connotations for moderns. I imagine most Americans would agree with H. L. Mencken’s now classic caricature of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” What is hard for us in the twenty-first century to grasp is that this is a caricature.
Miller’s research showed that the Massachusetts Bay colonists of the seventeenth century did not wear black but dressed in every color of the rainbow (the vegetable dyes they used did not survive the test of time, which is why we imagine that they dressed in black, like the Thanksgiving images of Plymouth Pilgrims), had large families (to offset high child mortality rates from diseases like smallpox, cholera, and typhoid), and consumed enormous quantities of rum with neighbors (Mencken would have liked that). By the standards of their day, and in an age dominated by the revolutionary religious teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin, the Puritans were robustly secular. This brand of Reformation Protestantism is America’s original heritage; to fail to understand it is to fail to comprehend our identity and our history as a people.
Despite a “strong element of individualism,” Puritanism is equally defined by a collectivist or communitarian social mandate. “The lone horseman, the single trapper, the solitary hunter was not a figure of the Puritan frontier; Puritans moved in groups and towns, settled in whole communities, and maintained firm government over units. Neither were the individualistic businessman, the shopkeeper who seized every opportunity to enlarge his profits, the speculator who contrived to gain wealth at the expense of his fellows, neither were these typical figures of the original Puritan society.”
Nor is the underlying reason far to seek, as Miller explains:
Puritan opinion was at the opposite pole from Jefferson’s feeling that the best government governs as little as possible. The theorists of New England thought of society as a unit, bound together by inviolable ties; they thought of it not as an aggregation of individuals but as an organism, functioning for a definite purpose, with all parts subordinate to the whole, all members contributing a definite share, every person occupying a particular status.
Furthermore, Miller points out: “They would have expected laissez faire to result in a reign of rapine and horror. The state to them was an active instrument of leadership, discipline, and, wherever necessary, of coercion; it legislated over any or all aspects of human behavior, it not merely regulated misconduct but undertook to inspire and direct all conduct.”
Ask yourself: Does “rapine and horror” accurately describe our contemporary experience of human trafficking and the epidemic of gun violence symbolized by Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, and Jeffrey Epstein, Sandyhook, El Paso and Dayton?
When Perry Miller writes in “The Cambridge Platform of 1648” that
certain elements…which have gone for freedom, for private judgment, for doing what one will, all those which we may lump together under the rubric of “individualism,” have been developed at the expense of certain other elements that once were equally a part of our tradition,
he is referring to the social conception that is “equally in the platform, which is explicitly in it”; a social conception that “once had sanctions” enforcing “the principle that a corporate body is created by the consent of constituent members.” Such sanctions served to delimit or restrain the excesses of that “individualistic” component. This founding principle, Miller says, or something very like it, can be found in both our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The wording “corporate body” is misleading, since the phrase and its cognates have come to mean a specific economic organization devoted to profit-maximization rather than a community, society or civilized polity as a whole. Res publica is not reducible to The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Fortune 500, or the NYSE. Still less should it be confused with ExxonMobil, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Walmart, or the Department of Homeland Security.
In that essay’s final paragraph, Perry Miller has this to say: “Because the platform is a symbol for our society—of Western European society, or at least of Protestant society—at the precise moment when a balance between the corporate and the private welfare was being struck, it is altogether possible that another century of unfolding tradition may find future inheritors of the platform rediscovering in it ideals which the last two centuries have steadily neglected.”