Friday, May 9, 2008

Perry Miller and the Puritans

Random thoughts sparked by The Lead and my long buried memories of reading Perry Miller:

Jim Naughton has pointed to the excellent article by Tim Townsend, "Love Thy Neighbor," in the recent edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. The closing section, detailing Townsend's run-in with the dark forces of the blogosphere is sobering, to say the least.

I noticed the following passage in the opening about New England Puritans, as described by Perry Miller, the famous historian of American intellectual history:
What Winthrop had in mind was a political system whose top priority would be, as the historian Perry Miller wrote, “the duty of suppressing heresy, of subduing or somehow getting rid of dissenters—of being, in short, deliberately, vigorously, and consistently intolerant.” The Puritans believed they, like the Israelites of the Hebrew scriptures, had a covenant with God. And they believed that fellow colonists like Roger Williams, who preached religious tolerance, could go straight to hell. Or barring that, Rhode Island.
("Love Thy Neighbor" p. 1).

Anyone who studied Perry Miller and the Puritans know that while this was, indeed, a part of the history, the New England Puritans were a complex and fascinating lot, with some brilliant minds and positive contributions to American culture along with the negative. The dark side, however, comes through even in this excerpt from a summary of Perry Miller's work:
By the late 1650s, the Puritan experiment in New England experienced significant challenges. Of the great founders only Richard Mather (father of Increase) remained. New England Puritans were increasingly an isolated Protestant sect, particularly in light of the relative religious toleration adopted in England. "New England had become, by remaining faithful to its radical dedication, a stronghold of reaction" (p. 9) Moreover, "New England was no longer a reformation, it was an administration. It was no longer battling that most of the populace should be left out of church-fellowship, but was striving to keep church-fellowship alive" (p. 11). .... During the second half of the seventeenth century, other factors emerged to further erode the original vision of the city upon a hill. Trade emerged as an end unto itself, not to serve God; younger generations in increasing numbers failed to meet the tests for church membership; old social hierarchies and orders were upset; social vices such as drunkenness and extramarital fornication became more prevalent, and the colonial status within the empire changed. Ministers responded to the perceived erosion of religious values and mission with the jeremiad, a new literary form that took aim at all the sin and strove to make sense of the changes in society. The jeremiad was a way of "making intelligible order out of the transition from European to American experience" (p. 31); it was, according to Miller, "purgation by incantation" (p. 34).

Ministers were increasingly on the defensive. Largely at their behest, the Half-Way Covenant was adopted as a means of assuring the perpetuation of church membership. They found, however, that the measures, though enacted, were bitterly divisive....
Donald A. Duhadaway, Jr, "Perry Miller and the Puritans."

Covenants formulated by the Puritans seem to have never been a good idea.

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