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.