U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Milton?

“By gradual steps (which have not yet been traced),” wrote Perry Miller in 1956, “Paradise Lost became, around the middle of the eighteenth century, not so much a secondary Book of Genesis as a substitute for the original.”1 This bold claim from Errand into the Wilderness has always intrigued me. It contains implications for reception history, history of the book, American intellectual history, and above all, Puritan theology, if devotees of the principle sola scriptura, by the eighteenth century, practiced sola scriptura… and Milton! Here is my preliminary attempt to uncover and examine a little of this chapter in American intellectual history.

The first copy of Paradise Lost, published in London in 1667, arrived in the new world in 1698, after New York City ordered a copy for its library. Yale listed Paradise Lost as part of its collection in 1714, two years before a young Jonathan Edwards arrived in New Haven to study theology. In 1715, Harvard College boasted that their collection included Paradise Lost as well as all of Milton’s other works. Historian and Milton scholar George Sensabaugh writes that early in eighteenth-century New England Puritan diaries began to abound with references to Milton. “Such testimony,” Sensabaugh argues, “along with notices in newspapers and magazines and almanacs, suggests that Milton was read and appreciated from Massachusetts to the Carolinas, that his phenomenal fame, though partially imported from England, was largely an indigenous growth.”2

This indigenous growth was nurtured in a Puritan environment by Puritan habits of reading. Puritans did not read as if words were dead. Believing that all true human perceptions of beauty or truth were the experience of God’s grace, they maintained that a profound or excellent text must come from the Holy Spirit, and that it must be alive and capable of “speech” to impress its truth upon the reader.3 Puritans thus believed that the true author of Paradise Lost was the Holy Spirit, speaking through John Milton—an idea with radical implications. For with this theology, Puritans elevated any great text to the level of the scripture, replacing sola scriptura with sola fide, and declaring any word written through faith sacrosanct. The alternative would be to claim that men, through no divine aid but only the work of their excellent minds, were capable of perceiving great truths. Another option would be to protect biblical authority by declaring it dead, not alive and available to be experienced through God’s grace. While Arminians and Unitarians chose the later alternatives, rather than make every inspired poet divine, Puritans in the early eighteenth century could not deny the supreme power of the Holy Spirit or the total depravity of man, and their reading of Paradise Lost as a divinely-inspired, living text radically altered their reading of the Bible.

Charles Chauncy, appointed president of Harvard College in 1654, was a simple man. The most passionate theological debate he engaged in involved whether baptism required full submersion in water or a mere sprinkling on the head. He lacked rhetorical skill and had so little poetic inclination that he “wished that someone one would translate Paradise Lost into prose, that he might understand it.”4 Had Chauncy lived to see the eighteenth century, he would have gotten his wish. By the time his great-grandson of the same name was preaching in the 1740s, the leading ministers in New England gave sermons that read like prose versions of Milton’s poem, borrowing his narrative, his imagery, and his characters, even when they contradicted the biblical story.

Beginning in the early eighteenth century, New England preachers began to incorporate Paradise Lost into their sermons. At first, they acknowledged Milton as the source, augmenting the scripture with the poem, but not yet confusing the two. As far as I can tell from sermons available to public access, the first minister to preach Milton regularly was Benjamin Coleman of Boston. In 1714, he gave a series of sermons using the metaphor of light to explain how God reveals truth to the elect. Coleman drew upon Milton for this metaphor, quoting from Paradise Lost to his congregation, and proclaiming “God is light. So He represents Himself unto us . . . the angels sing Hail, Holy Light! . . . our Milton learn’d it of them . . . our late angel of a man.”5 Coleman quotes Milton in five sermons delivered from 1714 to 1716. Later, his sermons relied heavily on Paradise Lost but led the reader unacquainted with Milton to believe his only source was the Bible. In a sermon delivered in 1735 entitled A Brief Dissertation on the Three First Chapters of Genesis, Coleman painted a pastoral picture of Eden found nowhere in the Bible, but revealed in Book IV of Paradise Lost. “The plants were covered with the sweetest Odour, and streams of pure water ran by the green shady walks,” Coleman preached, adding that “the trees were laden with painted fruit,” and that Adam and Eve “walked together, contemplated and discoursed” in this idyllic setting. In Book IV, Milton similarly describes Eden’s “odorous balme,” “murmuring waters,” trees bearing “fruit burnisht with Golden Rinde,” and the strolls Adam and Eve would take together in lofty conversation.6

Jonathan Edwards, probably one of the most careful writers when composing his sermons, once used Milton as a lens through which to interpret the Bible. In defending a Calvinist interpretation of John 17:12, Edwards employed two familiar tactics. First, he interpreted the passage in light of other biblical passages. Second, he looked at the original Greek text and insisted on a particular translation with a meaning that supported his interpretation. But Edwards then quoted Book II of Paradise Lost: “God and his Son except/ created things naught valued he nor shunned.” That Edwards, a strict disciple of orthodox Calvinism, which proclaimed sola scriptura and eschewed all authority other than the Bible would turn to Milton to defend his interpretation of a passage from John is remarkable, and suggests that the principle of sola fide produced a radical way of reading texts that ultimately challenged the authority of the scripture.

Edwards lists Paradise Lost twice in his meticulously kept log of all books and essays he read. His high praise and enthusiasm for Milton and his theology of grace suggests that he could have believed Milton to be divinely possessed when he wrote Paradise Lost and thus a valid authority for interpreting scripture.7 But perhaps even more remarkable is Edwards’ unacknowledged use of Paradise Lost in a sermon on recognizing true grace delivered in 1743. “The devil has . . . a great knowledge of heaven,” Edwards explained in this sermon. “For he has been an inhabitant of that world of glory: and he has a great knowledge of hell, and the nature of its misery; for he is the first inhabitant of hell; and above all the other inhabitants, has experience of its torment, and has felt them constantly, for more than fifty-seven hundred years,” he declared.8 These facts about Satan, particularly the date “fifty-seven hundred years,” come from not from the Bible, but Paradise Lost, which Edwards’ journal shows he read just three weeks before delivering the sermon.9 Edwards’ use of Paradise Lost and his dating of the time Satan spent in heaven are particularly interesting considering Edwards’ reluctance to use new science such as Newtonian physics, which he also read with enthusiasm, to add to the Bible in the form of speculation about the age of the earth or the date and manner in which the world would end, something many of his contemporaries engaged in.10 Edwards’ willingness to entertain thoughts about the years Satan spent in heaven based on Paradise Lost suggests that he considered the poem on the level of scripture.

After 1740, quotations from Paradise Lost abound in at least two sermons of every major New England minister. Jonathan Mayhew, a bitter opponent of Edwards, quotes Milton in over two dozen sermons. Charles Chauncy, whose great-grandfather had longed for a prose version of Paradise Lost, allowed Milton’s description of Eden and the motives and personalities he assigned to Adam, Eve, and Satan to creep into his sermons, although his direct quotations remain from scripture alone.11 As Perry Miller suggested, Paradise Lost nearly replaced Genesis in the Puritan imagination.

Another demonstration of Milton in the popular imagination comes from the New England Primer, the children’s book designed to teach religion and reading. Children learned the alphabet from this book by associating pictures and a rhyme with each letter. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” sang the rhyme for the letter A. The simple illustration that accompanied this rhyme began as a picture of Adam and Eve next to the tree of knowledge in the first edition. In the second edition, Adam and Eve are depicted next to a snake-devil. John Milton made the snake that encouraged the transgression Satan in disguise; the Bible does not say that the serpent is the devil. The drawing of the fall in the second edition of the New England Primer thus depicts a scene from Paradise Lost, not Genesis. Finally, a later edition of the primer shows only Eve with a fruit in her hand. The choice to depict only Eve is curious, since the rhyme remained “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” In Paradise Lost, Eve is tempted by the serpent alone; she takes the fruit alone, and only later does she encourage Adam to join her in sin. In the Bible, however, Adam and Eve are together when the serpent approaches them and together when they eat the fruit. It is only after God discovers their sin that Adam claims Eve was primarily responsible. Again, the primer’s drawing of the fall is therefore a better illustration of Milton’s version than of the biblical version.12NEP1

While the Puritans appreciated Milton because they could take his poetic fiction for another version of biblical truth, Unitarians appreciated Milton because they believed his poetry could not be misunderstood for fact. New England Unitarians embodied what Henry May has called the Didactic Enlightenment, built on Scottish common-sense philosophy.13 This Enlightenment strain reacted against the subjectivism and skepticism of George Berkeley and David Hume; followers of the Scottish common-sense movement therefore tried to establish the faith in objective reality that Berkeley and Hume had shaken. In the tradition of this ideology, Unitarian poet William Cullen Bryant praised Paradise Lost for showing a controlled use of the imagination, grounding the fantasy of his mind on the objective fact of the Bible.14

Milton’s imagination is only controlled, however, when the Bible is guarded as a dead text and conversion is simply a matter of accepting it as truth, not a private experience of grace and regeneration. In 1834, A. H. Everett explained why Milton was safer than Shakespeare. “In Milton’s creation, we feel the hands of a master;– in those of Shakespeare, we forget it” he cautioned.15 According to Everett, both Milton and Shakespeare were geniuses, but Shakespeare’s fiction could dangerously melt into fact; Milton clearly remained the effort of a creative mind. Yet the experience of earlier New Englanders with Milton demonstrates that there is nothing inherent in his writing that makes it easy to discriminate from fact, but rather a different way of reading and a different understanding of the role of the poet that changed Milton from an “angel,” as Benjamin Coleman had preached, to simply a talented writer.

Ralph Waldo Emerson attacked this Unitarian way of reading, complaining in 1838 before the Harvard Divinity School that “men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.”16 For Emerson’s New England ancestors, God and scripture were alive and in danger of becoming perverted by the interpretation of a poet; for Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists, God and the Bible were secure, frozen, and dead. “I would have my pen so guided as was Milton’s when a deep and enthusiastic love of goodness and of God dictated . . . to the bard,” a young Emerson wrote, reflecting a Puritan view of the source of Milton’s genius.17

In his essay, Intellect, Emerson writes: “To genius must always go two gifts, the thought and the publication. The first is revelation,” he continues, “always a miracle, which no frequency of occurrence or incessant study can ever familiarize, but which must always leave the inquirer stupid with wonder.” “But to make it available,” Emerson says of the subjective experience of great truth, “it needs a vehicle or art by which it is conveyed to men.” To be communicable, he concludes, experience must become objective. “We must learn the language of facts. The most wonderful inspirations die with their subject, if he has no hand to paint them to the senses,” Emerson declares.18

Should historians write like Emerson’s Unitarians, as if the past were dead? Can we make the past an expression of our thought? Writing about the way figures in the past have read and used literature, aside from offering unique insight into their mental and cultural worlds, can provide a starting point for the historian to experiment with writing about the past the way Puritans used Paradise Lost— as an objective reflection of subjective perception.
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1 Miller, Errand in the Wilderness (New York, 1956), 220.

2 George F. Sensabaugh, Milton in Early America (Princeton: 1964), 37.

3See, Leigh Eric Schmidt, Hearing Things (Cambridge and London: 2002).

4 Quoted in Miller, Jonathan Edwards, 27.

5 Benjamin Coleman, A Discourse on the Incomprehensibleness of God, Boston, 1714.

6 Coleman, A Brief Dissertation on the Three First Chapters of Genesis, Boston, 1735.

7 The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University < http://edwards.yale.edu/>.

8 Jonathan Edwards, True Grace, Distinguished From The Experience Of Devils, Northampton, 1743.

9 The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University < http://edwards.yale.edu/>.

10 See Miller, Jonathan Edwards.

11 “Eighteenth Century Collections Online” is an excellent resource for searching within published sermons.

12 New England Primer, < http://www.sacred-texts.com.>

13 Henry May, The Enlightenment in America (Oxford: 1976).

14 K. P. Van Anglen, The New England Milton: Literary Reception and Cultural Authority in the Early Republic (University Park: 1993), 62-63.

15Anglen, 65.

16 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address” in Robert D. Richardson Jr., ed., Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems (New York: 2007), 116.

17 Quoted in Anglen, 115.

18 Emerson, “Intellect.”

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Interesting post, Rivka.

    I have been thinking about the notion of the sacrality of all “true” texts lately in connection with the idea of “canon,” somewhat along the lines laid out by John Guillory, who rightly points out that the whole notion of canonicity is borrowed from ecclesial history. Of course, the Puritans and Milton precede notions of a literary canon by a few hundred years, but this post very helpfully marks out one path to the secularization of the idea of canonicity.

    I’d be interested to know if the Puritans found themselves needing to “make a case” for the esteem given to Milton, or do any apologetic spadework. If so, I think every modern-day Fundamentalist’s favorite proof-text for claiming divine inspiration of scripture (2 Tim 3:16) would certainly have been of use to them. The Greek deploys no special noun for “scripture” in the verse. While the noun used there — graphei — is the same one used in the Septuagint for “scripture” — it is just a humdrum Greek word that means “writings,” and the specialized use of it to refer to the writings that the faith-community would care about must be understood from context. So I’d like to know about the “catholicity” (or lack thereof) with which Puritans understood this term.

    On the influence / ubiquity of Milton, I’m convinced. On the notion that the changing illustrations in the primer were influenced primarily by Milton, I’m not so sure. I think you have to do more spadework in terms of looking at various woodcuts / iconographic representations of the Fall that would have been current in other books / pamphlets, illustrated Bibles, etc. Cranach’s woodcuts for Luther’s Bible included Adam and Eve and a serpent in the tree — the serpent is not Milton’s innovations, and it isn’t Cranach’s either. So I think you’d need to look at how Bibles were illustrated and see how that does / doesn’t track with changes in the primer’s illustrations.

    The iconography of Eve by herself does represent a different interpretive emphasis, but the notion of Eve being alone with the serpent is not original with Milton either (nor is the iconography). Here is a link to a 15th century woodcut featuring the serpent tempting Eve alone:

    15th century woodcut

    As to Milton depicting “the objective fact of the Bible,” this story is one of those (many) places where the text gives like an accordion to accommodate various interpretive emphases (in some places it gives more than others).

    The text of Genesis 3 begins with a colloquy between the serpent and Eve. The first five verses are a dialogue between the two, and Adam is not mentioned. Verse 6b notes that Adam was “with her,” but it is not clear from the text itself when that “withness” began in the narrative — are we to understand that Adam was a silent witness to Eve’s conversation with the serpent, or are we to understand that Adam came shambling up after the fruit was already picked?

    The bare text by itself can be read either way, and has been read either way. But even for the sola scriptura crowd, the text has never been “by itself,” whether illustrated or not. There is a long exegetical tradition surrounding Genesis 3, a tradition from which Milton may be drawing upon one strand and the Puritans on the same strand or a different one. But I think that you’d need to scrutinize that tradition more closely to make the case that it is chiefly to Milton that we owe an emphasis on the “solitude” of Eve.

    Indeed, in his commentary on Genesis, Calvin argues quite vociferously that while some suggest Adam must have been with Eve all along, this is clearly not the case. Calvin and the Puritan divines all read the Fathers, so I would go Patristic on this one in order to sort out the genesis (!) of the various main “plot lines” of Genesis 3. And going Patristic probably also means going rabbinic, since rabbinic interpretations of the Torah were known to and discussed by various Fathers.

    I do think that the larger question you are getting at quite ably in this post is crucially important — in the long historic process of “desacralization,” what happens to the relationship between texts (or Texts) and truth (or Truth)? This has a great deal to do with debates over the canon.

  2. I like this Rivka’s stuff. And props to LDB for some nice biblical background, esp the Calvin.

    BTW, the battle of St. Michael vs. Satan part is from Revelation 12, the last book of the Christian Bible.

    7 And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

    8 And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

    9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

    And going Patristic probably also means going rabbinic, since rabbinic interpretations of the Torah were known to and discussed by various Fathers.

    Interesting lead, LDB. Thanks in advance for anything further on these lines. There are evangels who have simply preempted the chase and declared the KJV as divinely authoritative and inerrant, hence no need for learning all that boring Greek and Hebrew and stuff.

    Theology can be really sweet sometimes.

  3. Loved this paraphrasing of Miller on Puritans’ reading habits: “Puritans did not read as if words were dead. Believing that all true human perceptions of beauty or truth were the experience of God’s grace, they maintained that a profound or excellent text must come from the Holy Spirit, and that it must be alive and capable of “speech” to impress its truth upon the reader.”

    Ditto Lora on canonicity and its relationship to ecclesial history via Guillory (who gets it from Rudolph Pfeiffer, *History of Classical Scholarship…* (1968), who had in turn noted that the association first appeared in 1768 in the work of David Ruhnken), [Guillory, p. 344n9]. The classics-canon relationship dates, in fact, from roughly Edwards period.

    Rivka: Please help me with the following question—Did the Unitarians seek, then, to reform or discipline Edwards-ian Puritanism via reading habits—by refocusing readers on the principle of sola scriptura? I got lost in the Cullen-to-Everett-to-Emerson portion of the essay. Was Everett also a Unitarian? And Emerson was born into a Unitarian family, but was not Unitarian, correct? Help me out. – TL

    • My view is that Unitarians– and this was also Emerson’s critique of the Unitarians who taught him– disciplined Puritan reading habits by insisting that words, even the divinely-inspired words in the Bible, are dead (Lee Eric Schmidt’s Hearing Things contains some fascinating analysis of this kind of shift in reading habits). The distinction between “sola fide” and “sola scriptura” was just my way of suggesting that the Puritans’ view of grace might interfere with their principle of scripture alone, if a Milton, filled with the Holy Spirit, could become elevated to the level of scripture.

  4. Rivka, this is fascinating stuff.

    I had a question about this section of your post: “they maintained that a profound or excellent text must come from the Holy Spirit, and that it must be alive and capable of “speech” to impress its truth upon the reader (3). Puritans thus believed that the true author of Paradise Lost was the Holy Spirit, speaking through John Milton—an idea with radical implications. For with this theology, Puritans elevated any great text to the level of the scripture, replacing sola scriptura with sola fide, and declaring any word written through faith sacrosanct. The alternative would be to claim that men, through no divine aid but only the work of their excellent minds, were capable of perceiving great truths.”

    I just want to hop onto Lora’s question about whether Puritans needed to vouch for Milton’s inspiration by citing a passage from Miller’s earlier The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, where he relates how, despite Puritan notions of depravity, there was still some wiggle room in their worldview for making distinctions between good works caused by “divine grace” and “natural causes.” The relevant passage reads: “Regeneration must be done ‘by an irresistible power’ or else it will never succeed in overturning the dominion of sin. Consequently, the initial requirement for a description of regeneration is a rigorous distinction between the effects of divine grace and all behavior elicited by natural causes. This distinction was not always an easy one for the Puritan to establish, because in fallen men there are faculties which can sometimes produce actions remarkably similar to those that result from faith, even at times seeming to excel them. The presence of these faculties argues no saving worth in man, it only proves the fiendish subtlety of his corruption. Sin does not always manifest itself as violence and rapine, but masquerades as virtue itself. . . .”*

    I was referring to your comment above that Puritans “maintained that a profound or excellent text must come from the Holy Spirit. . . . Puritans thus believed that the true author of Paradise Lost was the Holy Spirit. . . . For with this theology, Puritans elevated any great text to the level of scripture. . . .” Maybe Miller would not view writing a text (such as Paradise Lost) as constituting a “good work,” in contrast to doing an ostensibly “moral” act (such as giving aid to someone). I was just wondering if your argument is that Puritans necessarily had to view these inspirational literary compositions as divine (because, they contain “profound” and “excellent” insights)? Am I reading your post right? It’s very intriguing to me.

    *Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982; 1939), 28.

    • Thank you, Mark! This is an interesting problem and an excellent question. I would not, especially after the section of NEM you quoted, want to argue that Puritans necessarily believed every profound thought or successful/right act to be divinely inspired. After all, even after experiencing grace, good Puritans were supposed to question whether what they experienced was indeed the Holy Spirit or just a nice New England autumn day affecting their mood! However, the language that Puritan ministers used when talking about Milton (calling him an “angle,” for example), and the fact that they seemed to believe Paradise Lost was as authoritative as the Bible (using it to explain some Biblical passages, or to substitute it for others) suggests that many New England Puritans were happy to believe Milton divinely inspired. The language Edwards and other uses in their private writings to talk about Milton’s effect on them mirrors the way they talk about experiencing grace (saying that the work provoked tears, etc.)!

  5. L.D. and Tim:

    Thanks for your comments! I had not thought about this issue as related to cannon-formation, but of course it is! In my brief study of Puritan sermons mentioning Milton, as well as looking at the libraries in New England that purchased copies of Paradise Lost, I never found any sense of a need to justify the Milton-mania, but that would be very interesting, especially given fierce debates over literary cannons in later centuries (including our own)! I would look to (old) England for a debate over the use of Milton, and/or to the Unitarians. It seems that by the early 19th century, they may have had to may a case for Milton, though by then he had also already been canonized…

    Thanks, also, L.D., for deepening and clarifying some of the issues I touched on, and for the awesome use of Biblical Greek! I thought of the woodcuts mainly because Miller also mentions that one might see this transformation of Milton/the Biblical story in art/painting, and that was the closest thing I could find… Again, this was a quick study. I would love to see, do, and participate in much more!

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