U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Perry Miller and the Puritans: An Introduction

Perry Miller was a complicated person. He was a teacher, writer, reader, literary scholar, O.S.S. officer, world-traveler, messy-eater, social critic, academic, alcoholic, atheist, spiritualist, philosopher, and, of course, historian. Was he the Father of American Intellectual history? I suppose there are a number of mid-century historians who might deserve that title, if it’s a valuable title at all, which is questionable. Regardless, Miller’s thought, if taken seriously and explored in all its delightful complexity, still retains untapped potential to inspire new modes of inquiry and writing in U.S. Intellectual history. Here is a brief (re)introduction to Miller as most of us first encountered him: historian of New England Puritanism.

By his own account, Perry Miller’s interest in the Puritans began when he was a student of literature at the University of Chicago in the late 1920s, after an accidental encounter and instant fascination with John Winthrop’s journal.
1 Miller’s description of the incident resembles Hawthorne’s “discovery” of the scarlet letter in a custom-house, except that Miller’s fascination was with an idea rather than an object. But Miller found himself in an intellectual environment decidedly hostile to the study of ideas and even more hostile to the Puritans themselves. Progressive historians, most notably Charles Beard and Carl Becker, argued that material concerns, not ideological imperatives, were the motivating forces of history; ideology was merely a fig-leaf for these base motives. Furthermore, due to their unrelenting belief in progress, these historians viewed the Puritans– conservative even for the seventeenth century– as the enemy. Puritanism, social critic H. L. Mencken satirized, was “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.” In this context, Perry Miller began his life-long argument that Puritan ideology should be taken seriously.

Perhaps in response to this hostile environment, perhaps because it was his nature, or perhaps not wanting to be out-done by H. L. Mencken, Miller’s writings contain sardonic denunciations of the value of the history of the material. “I am fully conscious that . . . I have treated in a somewhat cavalier fashion certain of the most cherished conventions of current historiography,” he wrote in the introduction to his first book, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, published in 1933. “I lay myself open,” he continued sarcastically, “to the charge of being so very naïve as to believe that the way men think has some influence upon their actions, of not remembering that these ways of thinking have been officially decided by modern psychologists to be just so many rationalizations.”2 In 1961, in a new preface to The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, he again denounced the value of social history in the same cantankerous fashion, writing that after he once remarked ironically that the history of Puritan thought seemed to some historians “as much written by the actions of men of business as by theologians,” he was “soon appalled by the eagerness with which . . . reviewer[s] seized upon this . . . as a welcome release from the burden of ideas which my treatment had imposed upon them.”3 The most generous sentiment Miller could muster for the history of the material in this preface was his concession that “trade routes, currency, property, agriculture, town government and military tactics . . . indeed require an exercise of a faculty which in ordinary parlance may be called intelligence.”4

Based partly on these remarks, historians have built a false characterization of Miller, greatly limiting their understanding of his contributions to the study of history. Historians treat Miller as a foil. They inaccurately accuse him of believing that the realm of thought takes places completely removed from environmental influences, of stressing intellect at the expense of the emotional and irrational, and of portraying Puritan thought as static and one-dimensional. While Miller’s belittling comments about social history share some blame for this misrepresentation, even a cursory reading of his texts reveals that those comments do not begin to tell half the story. In reality, the constant theme throughout all of Miller’s works is the infinite complexity of the relationship of ideas to environment, of reason to emotion, and, above all, the intricacies of Puritan thought itself. Revisionists, in accusing Miller of ignoring nuance, have themselves ignored the nuance in Miller’s work, a better understanding of which can provide valuable insight into his philosophy of history.

The central tension that underlies all of Miller’s works and informs his theory of history is the complex relationship between the ideal and the material, or, as he understood it, the Puritans’ “errand” and their “wilderness.” Despite his sardonic comments about the material, Miller did appreciate the role of environmental factors in shaping history. The Puritans, he admitted in the first volume of The New England Mind, “took up many ideas not so much for theological as for social and economic reasons.”5 Even in his first book, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, he understood that “the hope of material advantage played a tremendous part in tempting people to colonial shores and shaping their life in the new scene.”Twenty years later, in the second volume of The New England Mind, he made the materialist argument that the covenant had accurately described reality for John Winthrop . . . but now reality– all the complex, jostling reality of this anxious society– demanded new descriptions. Ideas relative to these facts had to be propounded.”7

Miller understood that the “wilderness”–environmental factors– shaped the Puritan’s “errand”– their sense of purpose, their ethos– just as much as their ideas helped shape their reality. “A basic conditioning factor was the frontier– the wilderness,” wrote Miller in Errand into the Wilderness. “Even so,” he argued, “the achievement of a personality is not so much the presence of this or that environmental element . . . as the way in which a given personality responds.”8 In other words, when Miller claimed that “the mind of man is the basic factor in human history,” he was not suggesting that ideas constituted the driving force in history, but rather that any meaningful history must be a record of what the human mind did.8 “To concentrate upon what the mind made of events rather than upon the events themselves,” Miller argued in the second volume of The New England Mind, was to address the central questions of history.9 Thus, for Miller, the driving force in history was neither ideas nor environment alone, but the tension between the two, though the real substance of the story was the way in which the mind responded to this tension.

In acknowledging the importance of the environment yet vigorously maintaining an essential place for the human mind, Miller participated in a similar exercise as his Puritan subjects. “They were struggling to extricate man from the relentless primordial mechanism . . . to set him upon his own feet, to endow him with a knowledge of utility and purpose . . . so that he might rationally choose and not be driven from pillar to post by fate or circumstance,” Miller explained passionately.10 He, too, in writing about the Puritan experience, struggled “to extricate man from the relentless primordial mechanism” and, while conceding the influence of that mechanism, carve out a significant role for human freedom.

Within the realm of ideas, Miller identified a tension with which the Puritans also struggled– the tension between reason and emotion. Historians have complained that Miller focused exclusively on organized thought at the expense of feelings and passion. Nothing could be further from the truth. As he did with ideas and the environment, Miller identified the complex relationship between reason and emotion, maintaining that thought could never be completely separated from feeling and favoring an analysis of feeling and emotion. Throughout his various works, Miller was drawn to the “Existentialist” character of Puritan thought. According to Miller, the Puritans felt profoundly alienated, from England as well as from God, and were overwhelmed with a sense of their imperfect nature and imperfect knowledge. They struggled to affirm human freedom and God’s will in the midst of what seemed to them an arbitrary and absurd world. This, for Miller, was the emotional, “real being” of Puritanism, found “not in its doctrines but behind them.”11

Just as the Puritans struggled to maintain a balance between their intellectual doctrines and their emotions, Miller struggled to deconstruct Puritan thought and reveal the complex relationship between reason and passion within it. From this endeavor he developed a philosophy of intellectual history well ahead of the historiographic trends of his time. Miller best expressed this philosophy in his discussion of Jonathan Edwards in the chapter, “The Rhetoric of Sensation,” in Errand into the Wilderness.

As a young man, Miller explained, Jonathan Edwards had read John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, written in 1690. Accepting Locke’s argument that words are arbitrary constructions and therefore have no correspondence to the true nature of reality, Edwards “worked out . . . the immense distinction between knowledge of the word and knowledge of the actuality for which the word is a substitute.”12 “To excite the actual idea of certain realities” such as “the fear of God,” Miller wrote, proved a difficult problem for Edwards as a preacher trying to convey such ideas to his congregation. It is, however, an even more difficult problem for the intellectual historian, trying to understand what “the fear of God” actually meant, in emotional terms, to the Puritans. In dealing with this problem as a preacher, Edwards went far beyond Locke and “reached into a wholly other segment of psychology, the realm of the passions, and likened the word not only with the idea but also . . . with the emotions.”

This, declared Miller, was Edwards’ “great discovery . . . that an idea in the mind is not only a form of perception but is also a determination of love and hate.”13 Edwards, as preacher, and Miller, as historian, both recognized that to truly comprehend an idea required going beyond the words that symbolized it and penetrating its emotional meaning. With this understanding, Miller explained, Edwards “redefined ‘idea’.”14 “He so conceived it that it became a principle of organization and of perceptions not only for the intellectual man but for the passionate man, for the loving and desiring man, for the whole man,” wrote Miller, adding that “an emotional response is also intellectual . . . . an intellectual [response], in the highest sense, is also emotional.”15

Miller, too, “redefined ‘idea’” with this chapter in precisely the way he argued that Edwards redefined it. Miller published Errand into the Wilderness in 1956, well before the linguistic turn, yet his discussion of Edwards and the “real being” behind Puritan doctrine reveals that he understood what still eluded historians of his time: to fully understand an idea of the past, the historian must deconstruct the language which signified that idea. Historians of the 1950s had a narrow view of ideology, understanding it as inherently erroneous, a mere cover for material concerns (“Totalitarianism is ideology. Democracy of the American brand is anti-ideology,” wrote Jacques Barzun). In contrast, Miller understood ideology as the passions and emotions, the feelings of love and hate, which most accurately and meaningfully reflected the experience of his subjects. While intellectual historians in the 1950s also tended to understand ideology as doctrine consciously articulated by philosophers, Miller claimed ideology for any human with the ability to express passions and desires. Furthermore, far from separating abstract, organized thought from the emotional and irrational, Miller demonstrated that the two were inseparable and he focused on the importance of emotion.

In 1962, one year before Miller’s death, John Higham called for a new kind of history that would allow the historian “to grasp the moral tone of a particular time and place” and explore the “tangled combinations . . . of love and hate . . . pervading a career, a movement, or a period.”16 In Errand into the Wilderness, Perry Miller had already discovered, and indeed gone beyond, Higham’s new history. He explored the passions and emotions of the Puritans, the “real being” behind their religious doctrine, and strove to understand their ideas in their own terms. What remains most fascinating is that Miller developed this modern approach to history by following the lead of his seventeenth and eighteenth century subjects.


1 Perry Miller, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated, 1970), xxv.

2 Miller, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, xxv.

3 Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), preface.

4 Ibid.

5 Miller, The New England Mind, The Seventeenth Century, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 397.

6 Miller, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, xxvi

7 Miller, The New England Mind, FromColonies to Province, 485.

8 Miller, Errand into the Wilderness, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Incorporated, 1964),1.

9 Miller,3.

10 Miller, The New England Mind, FromColonies to Province, 310.

11 Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, 484.

12 Miller, Errand into the Wilderness, 178.

13 Miller, 179.

14 Miller, 180.

15 Miller, 180-81.

16 John Higham, “The Historian as Moral Critic,” American Historical Review, 67:3(1962), 622.

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Twenty years later, in the second volume of The New England Mind, he made the materialist argument that “the covenant had accurately described reality for John Winthrop . . . but now reality– all the complex, jostling reality of this anxious society– demanded new descriptions. Ideas relative to these facts had to be propounded.”

    Amazing that Puritans were less religious and more practical than Marxists, eh?

    Wonderful piece, Rivka. I’m always struck at how quickly the Puritan imagineerings of how life in the New World should be mutated into Americanism [for instance, that political liberty became as sacred as religious liberty].

    An interesting [although in my view not fully realized] take on the Puritans is Barry Alan Shain’s


    “In The Myth of American Individualism, Barry Alan Shain has furnished some provocative answers. Reviewing a vast and impressive literature, Shain simultaneously debunks both the Lockean liberal and civic republican theses. With the revisionists, Shain bears witness to the communal character of the founding era. In contrast to the civic view, however, he finds that Americans willfully gave themselves not to a spirited public life, but to the spirit of the Lord that dwelled within the breast of each believer. The republican tradition “insisted that full human development was only achievable through direct political participation.” But Protestant America “did not understand political life as having intrinsic worth or as defining the sole path toward full human development.”

    As “a largely Christian and overwhelmingly rural people, Americans…understood politics as instrumental in the service of higher religious and other publicly defined goals.” Their conception of liberty (which Shain denotes “English political liberty”) “emphasized the instrumental rather than the intrinsic value of political life.”

    The Founding 1.0, the “Planting” through the Revolution, was not about the nation-state–that would wait for 2.0 and 1787. The original conception of America was of autonomous and internally cohesive communities, loosely bound together as the several states, the states even more loosely bound by the Articles of Confederation.

    Today, whatever remains of federalism is what remains of the original Planting.

  2. Nice article. If you haven’t yet read it, David Hollinger’s “Perry Miller and Philosophical History,” History and Theory 7, 2, May 1968, might be helpful. He speaks of Miller’s dedication to a “harder relativism” than offered either by positivism or the progressive historians, and compares his epistemologically informed approach to that of Thomas Kuhn, whom Hollinger was soon to treat in “T.S. Kuhn’s Theory of Science and Its Implications for Hist,” AHR 78, 2, April 1973

  3. So, Rivka, are you arguing that Perry Miller was the prototype for historians of emotion—i.e. that he was the first to study history of American emotions? If so, what do today’s historians of emotion say about Perry Miller? Do they acknowledge his work? – TL

  4. I think that Miller, following Locke/what he thought Jonathan Edwards did with Locke, believed that ideas ARE emotions. I would argue that he was among the first to look at the history of ideas as a history of something other than ideology, conceived as parochial and inherently erroneous. We could call this a history of emotion or of human longing. Miller called it the “real being behind” doctrine. But no historian, other than David Hollinger in the beautiful article that Bill Fine mentioned above, has treated Miller as anything other than poet (this is intended to belittle his value as an historian), cold warrior (I argue this is completely false), or typical “high” intellectual historian who took ideas as perfect systems separate from all other realms of human life.

    • This is very interesting. Having read Arthur Lovejoy’s *The Great Chain of Being*, I would be willing to argue that his text was most certainly not a narration of ideas as mere ideology (as you’ve partially defined it). With Dan Wickberg (I’m pretty sure), I believe that Lovejoy tried hard to balance the universalist aspects of unit ideas with the contextual circumstances of any age in question. But I don’t know Lovejoy’s feelings/thoughts about Miller’s work, and vice versa.

      Also, your post is making me want to reread the *New Directions* volume (1979) with Miller in mind—to tease out the assumptions and predispositions of the Wingspread folks in relation to Miller. My memory is that Wingspread participants may have oversimplified Miller’s style, goals, and assumptions. – TL

      • Ah, yes, I forgot about Lovejoy. I was thinking of Hofstadter, Becker, Beard, Bell, Boorstin… those guys. Curiously, I have found no reference to Lovejoy or his work in any of Miller’s papers (Miller kept a list of every book he read from age ten….) I would like to look at Wingspread again, too. My sense is that they thought Miller part of the problem with intellectual history, based on a simplified understanding of Miller and because concern over “social history” framed much of the conversation.

      • A quick look at JSTOR indicates that Miller only published two pieces (one a book review of Van Wyck Brooks’s New England Indian Summer) in the Journal of the History of Ideas (in the early 1940s), and his own work was only reviewed once (in the very first issue of the JHI in 1940–The New England Mind: The 17th Century). Miller’s work was much more likely to appear in places like the Harvard Theological Review, The New England Quarterly, and the William & Mary Quarterly. There is an interesting question here about the relationship between Lovejoy’s history of ideas and Miller’s work, aimed at a more holistic understanding of thought that looks something more like a synchronic “cultural system” (especially in the first volume of the New England Mind).

    • In a way, I think you’re caricaturing Miller’s critics as much as you say they caricatured Miller. For example, Bernard Bailyn, toward whom some of Miller’s barbed criticisms of social history were aimed, reviewed Miller’s New England Mind: From Colony to Province, quite favorably, but made the point that Miller was “outrunning his own interference,” that is, extemporizing a social history from the literary documents that had not yet been written from the social history sources — Bailyn himself was writing it at the time, in the form of The New England Merchants in the 17th Century. That is, Bailyn much appreciated the close relationship in Miller’s work between intellectual currents and events in the world, but was still committed to the importance of knowing what those events were, especially those not easily detected by people living through them (what Bailyn would later call “latent” history). Bailyn’s critique of MIller was based on Miller’s belief that you could read everything you needed to know about society out of the literary documents. A good deal of Bailyn’s career has been devoted to showing that this isn’t so, from his very early use of computers in his book on Massachusetts shipping, to his reconstitution of migration patterns in the 1770s in Voyagers to the West. And yet, of course, Bailyn is perhaps best known for his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which adopted a method much like Miller’s for teasing out the ideological framework, as well as its grounding in the particularities of colonial social and political experience, as a way to make sense of the literature of the American Revolution. And Bailyn is not the only one — I think a similar case could be made for the work of Edmund Morgan, Henry May, Robert Middlekauff, David Hall, and others who have been critical of Miller’s work but still take it quite seriously exactly because of its insistence on bridging high intellect and lived experience.

      • Thank you for this response, I think you raise an important point about the differences in sources and similarities in approach or goals between Miller and Bailyn. I certainly would exclude Henry May and Edmund Morgan (and David Hollinger, whose article on Miller we mentioned above) from the list of historians who don’t appreciate or understand Miller. But Middlekauff (a Miller student) and Hall, as well as a number of more recent historians of religion in America (most notably George Marsden in his 2004 biography of Jonathan Edwards) have all at some point been unduly dismissive of or have mischaracterized Miller. Regardless, I would argue that no one has fully recognized or built upon Miller’s unique and radical philosophy of history. As Edmund Morgan said, “Perry Miller’s contribution will be understood only when philosophers become historians and historians become philosophers.”

  5. I think a good bridge between Lovejoy and Miller — in terms of both disciplinarity and analytic frame — would be Morton White (Social Thought in America: The Revolt Against Formalism). Borus relies on White to good effect in his Twentieth Century Multiplicity.

    White seems to me to be a (the?) proto-historian of sensibilities — perhaps because his object of inquiry is the Pragmatic sensibility, broadly construed. In my precis on White, I suggested that RAF was “the Ur text of appraisals of the shift in sensibilities ushered (or ridden) in by the Pragmatists.” White’s glaring omission, of course, is James.

    There can be a “history of emotions” without James. There cannot, it seems to me, be a history of sensibilities without him — which makes White’s omission all the more glaring. He is standing on ground cleared by James.

    An interesting question, I suppose, might be whether/to what extent Perry Miller is standing on ground cleared by James.

  6. This is very interesting as it relates to current thinking of neuroscience, that is that emotions are critical to our everyday reasoning and functioning. We can’t reason without emotion. I think that during Miller’s day there was still a dichotomy between emotion and reason, that each was accessed without the other, Mr. Spock being the epitome of the reasoning without emotion. (Yeah, I know, Spock came after Miller but you know what I mean.) Can we say the Perry Miller intuited this connection?

    • Miller admired Jonathan Edwards for exploding the dichotomy between reason and emotion (check out his introduction to Edwards’ “The Sense of the Heart” in the Harvard Theological Review, 1949).

      • Thank you very much for the reference. For your records it is listed in April 1948, pp 123-145.

  7. Rivka (and Tim) — my sense of Wingspread, from New Directions, is not that Miller was the problem — maybe “the baggage,” or the long shadow of the father. The problem was the upstart younger brothers, the New Social History and — ye gods! — Cliometrics, so that intellectual history seemed to be wanting in “relevance” on several fronts. Several of the papers at Wingspread were concerned to demonstrate how intellectual history should learn from / adapt to the new regime, and perhaps pay a bit of attention to (as well as make use of) materiality. (I’m thinking especially of the piece on the half-tone effect, but also Hollinger’s invocation of these interesting new toys called Legos.)

    • Was there not a sense that as long as intellectual history looked like Miller’s, there was no hope for it against the new social history? Perhaps some of the papers you mentioned were too eager to “adapt” and too quick to dismiss Miller, or what Miller represented…

  8. Perhaps. Though I don’t think the discipline is in any imminent danger of forgetting Miller. I don’t even think it’s in danger of not reading Miller. I’ve certainly already been inoculated against that peril. Miller is still in print. (Morton White’s Revolt Against Formalism, interestingly, is not — had to scrounge around the interwebs for my used copy, printed in 1966.)

    There’s certainly a short-sighted tendency among some historians to relegate older works from earlier eras (e.g. Lovejoy) to the dustbin as somehow eclipsed or obsolete — which is an odd professional stance indeed for a historian, but says something about the sensibilities of academe, and the culture at large, at present.

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