U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Guest Post: Modernity and Its Malcontents: or, Why Make Fun of the Puritans?

The following guest post comes to us from Chris Fite, who is a PhD student in History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include the histories of botany, horticulture, and agriculture. He is currently following the trail of William J. Robbins, American botanist and longtime director of the New York Botanical Garden. Among other things, Robbins liked to remind people, “Without plants, we would starve to death, die of suffocation and expire from a combination of deficiency diseases.”

The New Yorker recently published a short humor piece called “Puritan Yoga.” It imagines a contemporary yoga class run by seventeenth-century Puritans. As one might suspect, it is not a flattering portrait. Reading it on the subway, I felt a surge of indignation on behalf of the Puritans. Am I upset that someone poked fun at them? Not so much. What bothered me was a broader perception that this satire reflects. Puritans often play a caricatured role in the American imagination. Generations of schoolkids have learned about Calvinist killjoys in bonnets and pointed hats. Just like the New Yorker yogis, these gloomy colonists spent every moment in abject terror of the Almighty and their own bodies. Historically, the Puritans have also served as proxies for debating the place of Christianity in American politics and culture.

What are the sources of these perceptions? I suggest that one place to look is the traditional canon of high school literature classes. Two of its staples, The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, put the Puritan legacy front and center. Of course, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller adapted this legacy for their own purposes and historical circumstances. As good constructivist scholars, it is easy to say, “Puritans as historical actors are different than Puritans as characters used by later authors.” That distinction is not self-evident for the countless students reading these works. The difference between history and historical memory is not an intuitive concept, nor even one that is easy to understand when first introduced by teachers.

We also cannot forget “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the oft-anthologized sermon by Jonathan Edwards. In my own experience, Edwards was not celebrated as an early American intellectual. Rather, he was presented as the ancestor of the American “fire and brimstone” preacher. This archetypal evangelist is a convenient catch-all for perceived Christian excesses in the past or present. As teenagers, we were relieved that we didn’t live in Edwards’ time and place. The significance of his sermon in its time and place was something I only appreciated much later. For that matter, John Calvin, one of Edwards’ chief forbears, didn’t come out looking too great either. He did not appear as an early modern humanist, or even a humane person. He was the dour Reformer obsessed with damnation.

I try to stay mindful of such experiences as I work on a PhD in the history of science. Despite the narrow-sounding name, our field is by no means limited to things that people have called “science.” We consider the myriad ways in which people sought to understand the world around them. Their ideas and actions do not fit neatly into boxes labeled Science, Religion, Philosophy, Magic, or Poetry. Yet, the triumphal narrative of modernity is built on boxes and labels. Rational heroes, like Isaac Newton or Giordano Bruno, must be cleansed of their irrational sins. Less fortunate are the magicians, mystics, alchemists, charismatics, spiritualists, and others who blur the lines of (ir)rationality. They become malcontents relegated to the margins of Progress.

Arguably, English and American Puritans contributed greatly to the development of modernity (to the extent that we can ever define modernity). However, the popular caricature of the Puritan relies on a different understanding of modern. In that definition, what is modern equals what is right and good in the present or recent past. In this way, the Puritans join modernity’s malcontents in the popular imagination. They become zealots who lived in dysfunctional communities. They also become fodder for jokes about ignorance, shame, and anything else considered illiberal in our own time.

Historical misperceptions are frustrating. However, they should also prompt us to reflect on our own work as historians. What do these misperceptions tell us about historical memory? How we might promote different understandings? For those more familiar with the histories of Puritanism and its historical memory, I welcome suggestions for further reading or for addressing these issues in the classroom.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “Different understandings”–I’m not sure. Broader understandings of the many aspects of Jonathan and Sarah Pierpont Edwards–relatively easy, just using wikipedia and google (for Sarah). After all, they had 11 children and many grandchildren, including Aaron Burr of “Hamilton” fame–so many descendants they were used to prove eugenics. Jonathan bought a slave, but his son was an early abolitionist. A frontier preacher, but saw America as perhaps the culmination of history. Interested in the natural world and science, but died from his smallpox inoculation. Most of all the relationship of Sarah and Jonathan (he fell in love when she was13, married when she was 17) destroys the stereotype of dour Puritans.

    Comparing and contrasting Edwards, Franklin, and Whitfield worked well for my history professor over 50 years ago.

    • Bill, thank you for the suggestion about Edwards, Franklin, and Whitfield. Reminds me of a George Marsden lecture I heard several years ago. He was doing a similar comparison. Come to think of it, that lecture probably started me on this line of thinking.

  2. Thanks for the post, Chris. On Puritans and memory, two books come to mind. First, Margaret Bendroth’s *The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past* (UNC, 2015), which I haven’t read but have heard good things about. Second, Gretchen Adams’s *The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Witch Trials in Nineteenth-Century America* (Chicago, 2008), which I have used freshman-level undergrads. It’s lively and short and readable, but also quite good, and would pair well with primary sources like The Crucible.

    • Thanks for the recommendations, Charlie. I’ll put them on my list. This topic is outside my 20th-century comfort zone, so I certainly need good sources for possible future teaching assignments.

  3. Hi Chris — I’m wondering if you saw Eran’s post the other week on the decline of the Weber thesis in early American history; it would seem you would be well positioned to respond to his questions there: http://s-usih.org/2017/03/in-defense-of-the-weber-thesis.html

    Also, I am wondering what you think of the film, The Witch. For my money it is best portrayal of what being an actual believing Puritan must have been like. But then again I, like Eran, am not so sure about the attempt to recharacterize Puritans that you’re referring to here. I get they weren’t caricatures; for sure; but no one has answered yet for me in what sense it is unfair to say that they were plagued by guilt, or that they were engaged in a project of personal repression, or what not. There is a danger, in other words, of responding to caricatures by running too far in the other direction, no?

    • Hi Robin. I had missed Eran’s post, so thank you for the link. Like Eran, I too am coming more from a side interest in Protestant history. However, I agree that there should still be interpretive value left in broad claims like the Weber thesis. I haven’t seen The Witch yet, but it’s been recommended to me for the same reason you mentioned. I wouldn’t want to swing from caricaturing the Puritans to championing them in an overly sympathetic way. I should have cited the occasions where I’ve seen that done (for me, more often occurring in personal conversations). I suppose I’m most curious about Calvinism vis-a-vis other theological traditions and Protestant denominations. I think there’s something singular about the double predestination of Calvinism, but I wonder how the guilt, repression, and other manifestations compared with Anglicans, Anabaptists, Wesleyans, etc.

  4. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints, and J I Packer, A Quest for Godliness are helpful (and sympathetic) overviews of Puritan thought and give us a clearer picture than the caricatures. Both rely heavily on primary sources, of course. The Puritan movement should be understood as far more than the Salem witch trials. On the whole, they seem to be marked by piety and scholarship, devotion to God, to family and church and the good of society. Sampling the writings of both English and American Puritans is helpful in this regard. Stephen Nichols ‘ The Reformation has a helpful overview (ch 7) and some representative reading selections. Banner of Truth Trust has made many of their works available in small paperbacks, with slightly modernized English. Of course, many are available digitally for free or cheap. Bunyan and Perkins and Sibbes and Watson are examples of some who are still quite accessible for modern readers. Edwards himself has quite a range. His early observations of the spider, his sermons, his history of revival in New England, his compilation of Brainerd’s diary, his sermons, and his philosophical and theological works cover a lot of ground. If I were teaching a class and focusing on him, I’d have students read a few examples of his writings, especially a sermon or two in addition to his most famous one.

    • Doug, thank you for all those recommendations! Much appreciated, especially the primary texts. Having students read multiple Edwards selections is a great solution. Gives an opportunity to contrast the particulars of the sermon format with other types of written or spoken communication.

      • You’re welcome, Chris. I remember reading “The End for Which god Created the World.” I would literally chew on a paragraph for thirty minutes sometimes. On the other hand, I could read through one of his sermons in about that time. You could tell he knew his audience.

        I also recommend this brief primary source from a Puritan on what a Puritan was. “The Character of an Old English Puritan, or Non-Conformist” by John Geree (1646) at http://www.reformedbaptistinstitute.org/?p=212

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