Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Augustinian Tradition

When the wave of religious assertion which we call Puritanism is considered in the broad perspective of Christian history, it appears no longer as a unique phenomenon, peculiar to England of the seventeenth century, but as one more instance of a recurrent spiritual answer to interrogations eternally posed by human existence.
Thus writes Perry Miller in The New England Mind: the Seventeenth Century, as he embarks on a fascinating explanation of the Puritans’ extended heritage.  Considering Puritanism in context of the Christian tradition—and, even more, in light of the great human questions—lends greater significance to my own study.  I hesitate to claim understanding of a movement until I know its place in history, major forebears, and how it speaks to these questions:  What is man?  How should he live?  Thus, considered in relation to the major currents of Church history, the Puritans can be both better understood and more ably appreciated.  Because I am just beginning to grasp the broad historical issues, my formulation will err on the side of simplicity, but here’s a try…

Early in Church history, Christianity separated (and tried to synthesize) two influential currents: the Augustinian tradition and the Scholastic tradition.  These two movements were defined by their answers to these questions: Which is pre-eminent: faith or reason?  If you choose one, what place does the other have in Christian practice? Can there be a synthesis?

In devotional practices, the Puritans follow in the tradition of St. Augustine, who placed faith foremost.  In The New England Mind, Miller identifies the Puritans’ location within this centuries-old tradition of piety.  Miller reminds us that “Augustine is the arch-exemplar of a religious frame of mind” continued over fifteen hundred years of religious history, of which “Puritanism is only one instance” (4).  He emphasizes that Puritan thought was not entirely new.  The Puritans’ fervent repudiation of Catholicism did not mean that they rejected all aspects of it; rather, they drew heavily on Augustine’s doctrine, medieval devotional works, and even contemporary Catholic authors.

As Augustinians, Puritans favored revelation over reason.  Reason is corrupted, they thought; we cannot trust it.  This debate dates back to the medieval Scholastic movement and, especially, Thomas Aquinas, who revived interest in Aristotle and emphasized the role of reason in Christian understanding.  The Puritans conceived dangers with Catholic attitudes toward reason: Through reason, they thought, we can only conceive God through balancing his attributes, e.g. justice and mercy. These attributes are modes of human understanding—they are not God’s essence (13).  Because we tend to exalt one attribute above another according to our tastes, we can easily arrive at a skewed view of the Almighty.  We must keep these attributes in balance and never forget the essential mystery of God.  Thomistic theologians had erred by making God too rational” and exaggerating certain of His characteristics (13).  Puritans accused scholastics of trying to “confine the unconfinable within artificial distinctions.

Rather than depend solely on reason, the Puritans depended primarily on the revealed Word of God, i.e. the Bible.  Miller notes a reservation, though, consistent with the Puritan concept of God’s incomprehensibility: the Bible does not reveal God’s fullness (10).  Behind the Bible is God’s secret will, His mystery.
St. Augustine's contrition
Puritan descent from Augustine is clearest in the matter of sin.  Man is living at odds with the all-perfect God.  Miller summarizes Augustinian piety in relation to sin: “The maimed soul, even while persisting in evil, longs for deliverance from the body of this death, for reinstatement in the created harmony” (22). The core problem is man’s separation from God and man’s own imperfection: “The Augustinian strain of piety flows from man’s desire to transcend his imperfect self,” to connect with the divine (8).  It “cries out for forgiveness of the sins by which he has cut himself off from full and joyous participation” and “draws sustenance from the moments of exaltation in which glimpses of the original happiness are attained” (8).  Knowledge of God and of one’s soul are the means to attain truth and happiness.  To seek this knowledge, Augustine and the Puritans turned to an “analysis of soul.”  These ideas reappear in Puritan works: Augustine is quoted frequently, echoed in their rhetoric, and read often by Puritans.

Charles Hambrick-Stowe, in The Practice of Piety, illustrates the likeness of many Puritan personal writings to Augustine’s Confessions  and identifies the Puritan relationship to other Augustinians (26).  Hambrick-Stowe, who acknowledges his debt to Perry Miller, probably drew the Augustinian connection from The New England Mind.  He adds that the Puritans are not Augustine’s only heirs.  He traces Augustine’s influence through the medieval mystics and even to seventeenth-century Anglican meditative poet George Herbert.  The American Puritans evidently used Catholic devotional texts, including the works of medievals Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas à Kempis, and they read George Herbert, their contemporary.  Independently of this study, I had developed interests in Western mysticism and in Herbert, so it’s exciting to see a common thread!

The Puritans do have clear, significant answers to questions about humankind, and they did not formulate these answers in a vacuum.  I’m interested in exploring further how these influences affected their thought, their devotional life, and even their word choice.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Selfish Piety

So faithful were the Puritans to “grace alone” that pious practices—if performed from self-exertion and to earn salvation—could be considered sinful acts of pride.  David Brainerd (later a Puritan missionary to the Indians) poured his life into prayer, fasting, and other exercises for years, but he gained no assurance of salvation.  He realized later that these were all selfish acts; the more he tried, the further he became mired in sin.  
Before this, the more I did in duty the more hard I thought it would be for God to cast me off….But now the more I did in prayer or any other duty, the more I saw I was indebted to God for allowing me to ask for mercy; for I saw it was self-interest had led me to pray, and that I had never once prayed from any respect to the glory of God….I saw that I had been heaping up my devotions before God, fasting, praying, pretending, and indeed really thinking sometimes that I was aiming at the glory of God; whereas I never once truly intended it, but only my own happiness. (Life and Diary Part I)
In the above passage, Brainerd shows the Puritan attitude toward examining their behaviors: the underlying motivation is what matters.  Perry Miller observes, “Guilt or innocence consisted not in what was done but in what was intended” (The New England Mind 52).  Since intentions cannot be judged from outside, and judging one’s own motives is a tricky business, Puritans navigated this soul-searching by using Bible- and prayer-based methods of self-examination.  Their purposefulness and faithfulness in these exercises astounds me!  Yet the impetus is real: to be secure in salvation, you must be sure that you depend on grace, not on your own devotional practices.  And even after salvation, you must remember that your piety fully depends on Christ’s work.
David Brainerd at last came to the conviction that Christ alone was able to save, but he continued to be aware of this issue, recording years later,
Had some intense and passionate breathings of soul after holiness, and very clear manifestations of my utter inability to procure, or work it in myself; it is wholly owing to the power of God.  Oh, with what tenderness the love and desire of holiness fills the soul!  I wanted to wing out of myself to God, or rather to get a conformity to Him. (Life and Diary Part V)
Compared to the first quotation, in this quote Brainerd has moved from selfish to selfless piety.  Enthralled with holiness, he longs to be wholly freed from hollow, prideful righteousness.

Puritan Self-Fashioning: An Oxymoron

In the last post, to balance out the view that Puritans focused only on sin, I highlighted the godly delight that follows Puritan self-examination.  I came across an article that concurs with this correction but makes another error; though the article focuses on an English (not American) Puritan, I’d like to address the critic’s viewpoint here.  In “Puritan Self-Fashioning: The Diary of Samuel Ward,” Margo Todd recognizes the faulty view of those who negatively emphasize Puritan cataloguing of sins, but the alternative interpretation she offers is still unfaithful to Puritan thought.

Todd argues that Samuel Ward’s diary is misrepresented by current editors: undue attention is given to the guilt-ridden sections of his writing, in which he lists his sins.  This negative selectiveness on the part of scholars furthers a common misconception—that Puritans are all constantly, morbidly focused on their sins.  This is an unbalanced approach to Ward’s character.

She asserts, instead, that Ward was “defining himself, designing for himself an identity,” an activity inspired by Renaissance notions of the self.  This alternative reading is a modern misreading.  Certainly, the Protestant practice of self-examination is closely related to the self; Protestant reformers were heavily influenced by Renaissance humanism.  However, self-examination does not involve remaking oneself.  Rather, it is about being transformed. 

Note the active and passive voices: “Remake oneself” vs. “Be transformed.”  What are the implications of this slight difference in terms?  The former assumes that God is not real, while the latter assumes God’s existence.  “Remake oneself” implies only one actor, the self-examining subject, whereas “be transformed” requires two actors: God transforms the believer. 

To be historically honest, readers of Puritan religious texts must take full account of the authors’ strong faith in God.  Self-examination in the Christian tradition is a process of being transformed, of allowing God to illumine the soul.  Romans 12:2 reads, “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  This transformation moves a person from desiring his own will to “proving” God’s will.  Meditation on God, while revealing dark sins in the soul, fills the believer with God’s Spirit, so that he becomes more like Christ.

Todd interprets this God-performed inner transformation as self-performed self-creation.  By taking this approach, Todd discounts Ward’s faith.  In “self-fashioning,” there is no room for God. 

In the Puritan view, the sinful self is not capable of change; justification and sanctification are the works of God alone.  Perry Miller, in The New England Mind (1939), writes of Puritan theology: “The one bedrock certainty about the matter is that grace is a supernatural power and that no man can enact regeneration by his own exertions.” (27).  Man, who brought on himself horrible anguish of sin, “could hardly expect to find within himself the power to master it.  The force of this conclusion gave the Puritan cry for deliverance through the grace of God its urgency and its poignance” (25).  Deliverance from the anguish of sinfulness could only come through God.  Humbly, the believer approaches God to seek cleansing from sin, purification of heart, and a nearer likeness to Christ.  The believer brings only himself to God, and God does the work through grace.

What did this look like in private devotions?  It means that self-examination depended completely on God: Human ability played no role in devotional practices.  God’s words provided the subject of meditation (the Bible), and He supplied the will to seek His ways (Hambrick-Stowe 45).  In self-examination, people were to “be unbottomed of Self, to dye to Self-advancement, to Self-glorification, and to all Selfish joyes” (Corbet Self-Imployment in Secret, qtd Hambrick-Stowe 173).  Quite the opposite of self-fashioning!

Goal of Self-examination

To lay a foundation for talking about Puritan devotional practices, let’s clear up a misconception: the practice of self-examination was not just a morose focus on the minutest sins.  While many engaged in listing their sins, they had a goal beyond self-examination: a clearer view of Christ.  Realization of one’s own sinfulness was followed by a realization of God’s grace, delight in His presence, and spontaneous prayers of thanksgiving.  In my readings, I have observed both facets of Puritan meditation: confession of sin and confession of God’s blessings.

Puritan meditation on sin was followed by meditation on “the joy of union with Christ,” Charles Hambrick-Stowe points out in The Practice of Piety (p.165).  The process of devotion was to know the evil of your heart and then come to Christ.  John Downame, in his widely-read period devotional manual, wrote:
“Wee are not to bend all out thoughts to meditate and call to mind all our sins…The huge cloud of our sinnes being neere our eyes, will hide from our sight the shining beames of Gods mercy and Christs merit….As soone as wee cast one eye upon our sins for our humiliation, let us cast the other presently upon Christ Jesus, who hath payd the price for our redemption, and suffered all the punishment which we by our sins have deserved.” (167) 
 Once properly humbled by knowing himself, the believer could see the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice.  Then, in “the highest form of self-examination,” a saint could return thanksgiving, meditating on blessings bestowed by God (175).

This sequence—humiliation of self to praise of God—was lived out in public and private Puritan practice.  A town’s covenant-making day was commonly a “Day of Humiliation,” and covenant-renewal was always performed in conjunction with a fast day.  These serious occasions, though, were each followed within a few days by an appointed Day of Thanksgiving.  In individual devotions, the same pattern manifests, notably in Cotton Mather’s Diary.  At about age 18, he one day awakened to his sin of pride, so he set apart a day of humiliation.  On this day, he examined himself and found himself “most wofully guilty before the Lord” (16).  He recorded reasons, prayers and his hope in God’s assurances.  Three days later, he scheduled a day of thanksgiving.  In systematic plain style, he recollected and recorded Mercies, praised God on his knees for specific things, and considered how he would show gratitude in future actions.  Overwhelmed by God's goodness and grace toward him, Mather concluded earnestly, " “Shall I not every Day, in every Capacity, Relation, Company, bee contriving, What can I now and here do for God? And lay myself out accordingly.  Oh! that, oh! that, Oh! that, God would help mee, thus to do!”

Self-examination, then, is not an end in itself: it moves toward communion with God.  By prayerfully focusing on one’s own soul, one prepares to move to a deeper focus on God.  The result of this meditation is joy, gratitude, praise, and resolution. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Remind me again...Why am I studying the Puritans?

[The great American Puritan works are] quite good enough to be read through, in their entirety, by all who imagine themselves capable of taking pleasure in the way human tones reveal themselves in a language once vividly expressive but available to us now merely as writing; and in the way writers invent or arrange their own structures of thought in order to encompass other structures of thought, equally human in origin, whether Scriptural or merely systematic, and so to express and transmit the results of their private meditation and social conversation on the most serious of human subjects.  To be read…by any critic who has ever wondered…whether there is more to literary life than ‘Poems and Stories.’ (xvii)
-Michael Colacurcio  
Godly Letters   

For in that first century, primitive conditions of life and the Puritan culture conspired to produce a literature distinguished by closeness to fact, energy and vividness of expression, and at times a soaring imagination.  Rarely has the mind worked with greater vigor and penetration than in the early New England community; rarely has the written word been used more effectively; rarely has the human spirit burned with an intenser, brighter flame.
-Randall Stewart
"Puritan Literature and the Flowering of New England"

Now I'm ready to keep reading!

Leaving New England

 “As many as one in four settlers abandoned New England,” asserts Susan Hardmoon Moore in her interesting study, Pilgrims: New World Settlers and the Call of Home (p.14).  Really?!  I knew that the Puritan emigration from England slowed mid-century when persecution diminished—after all, Puritans even gained control of the British government for a while.  The period of 1630-39 contained the great Puritan exodus from Britain.  However, I didn’t know that “in the decades after 1640, far more people left New England each year than went there” (p.1).  This significant emigration from New England provokes the question: why did so many leave?  Moore tackles the question…and there I leave all of us in tantalizing suspense. 

I wanted to introduce this book (suggested by a blog reader) for your exploration and my future reference, when I’m ready to research these questions.  I’m interested in transatlantic studies, so a movement of people who brought New England experiences back to England is intriguing.  How much of the New England perspective was then incorporated by English Puritans?  Did the return of so many settlers demean the colonies, or did the exodus spread New England’s influence in an unexpected way?

Puritans vs. Their Writings

If I am asking questions about American Puritan culture in general, and I'm answering them using Puritan writings, I have to resolve a difficulty: those who wrote such memoirs were the best educated, socially privileged Puritans.  How can their experiences and attitudes be taken as representative?  

In his preface to The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England, Charles Hambrick-Stowe sees only a narrow gap between the Puritan "social elite" and popular society.  Puritanism was a devotional movement, and, though extraordinary education was peculiar to clergy, the Puritan populace was remarkably similar to their leaders in piety and religious practice.  One evidence is the extremely wide use of certain devotional manuals (guides to prayer, meditation, and Scriptural study) in households throughout the colonies.  

However, Michael Mages, in Magnalia Christi Americana: America’s Literary Old Testament, points out the fallacy of assuming that all Puritans are like their preachers.  In the context of the Magnalia's third book, "Lives of the Divines," which lauds exceptional New Englands pastors, Mages observes that preachers do not give a picture of everyday Puritan men and women.  Pastors were specially educated at a high level and with theological depth; moreover, many were morbidly focused on death and sin.   

Mages is right that the pastors underwent a tremendous preperatory education and were extraordinary individuals.  Those who left a literary legacy certainly were from a distinct social standing, especially the preachers. And he may be right that Mather's "Lives" does not portray the everyday Puritan.  As I saw last semester in "Life of John Winthrop," Mather emphasizes his subject's saintly attributes and leadership qualities.  

We need to remember that we are talking about Puritans.  There may have been a sort of "social elite," but there was no spiritual elite among church members--they were all equally dependent on grace!  What is significant is the commonalities of the Puritan mind: a commitment to family and society, a pressing toward God for signs of grace, a fear of God, a delight in His presence.  In other words, whether well-read or not, they are all Puritans.  They were people who held family devotions; flocked for miles to hear preachers, sometimes multiple times a week; and read the Bible in all circumstances, like Mary Rowlandson during her captivity, or like this imprisoned Puritan woman.

Actually, in raising the education level and spiritual rigor of their pastors, didn't the Puritans strive to inculcate in each lay person a fuller knowledge and deeper experience of faith?  The result was not a pastorate that rose higher and higher above a static society, but a pastorate that poured its gifts into ministry--and in so doing, elevated the people along with them. (I have to add a caveat: the failure of this ideal, i.e. the inability to spiritually motivate the people, resulted in the second-generation dilemma.)

Since I'm currently reading spiritual autobiographies, diaries, and poems, this debate about socially superior writers is quite pertinent.  Based on the Puritans' emphasis on piety, education, and participation among all people, I am inclined to think that, as Hambrick-Stowe asserts, the average Puritan was not that far separated from those who wrote what I'm reading.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


"Resolved, Whenever my feelings begin to appear in the least out of order, when I am conscious of the least uneasiness within, or the least irregularity without, I will then subject myself to the strictest examination."

Thus reads the sixtieth resolution in Jonathan Edwards's remarkable list, drawn up when he was a young man.  Out of the seventy resolutions, I chose the one above because it directly addresses self-examination, a Puritan practice that is particularly foreign to the typical modern person.  Edwards's "Resolutions" shows how he examined his soul and serves as a portal into the Puritan perspective.

Edwards was committed to living daily in full obedience to God.  Therefore, he questioned every habit, attitude, and idle tendency in his life, and he continually cultivated godly virtue and demeanor.  At the end of every day, week, month, and year, he meditated on his spiritual condition, his duties, successes, and sins.  Edwards left no stone unturned in his soul, so to speak, as he earnestly sought full surrender.  Awareness of death and eternity pressed on him--he resolved to live each day as if it were his last.

Personal devotional writings like Edwards's "Resolutions" and diaries show the Puritan character perhaps better than the other forms of writing.  The personal journals record individuals' struggle for proof of salvation, their earnest and disciplined lives, their abhorrence of sin, and their delight in God's revelation.  Joined with an understanding of covenantal community (shown in sermons), a reading of diaries or spiritual autobiographies is an excellent introduction to the Puritan mind.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Recent Read

According to Leland Ryken in Worldly Saints: the Puritans As They Really Were, we have been misled by modern portraits of the Puritans as dour, dark-clothed, money-grubbing, old, intolerant, strict, moralistic enemies of fun, color, art, sex, and emotion.  While the Puritans did sometimes indulge in too much self-loathing and were strict and intolerant compared to contemporary standards, they were hardworking, serious, moderate, well-informed, argumentative, and well-educated.  They sanctioned joy and normal clothing, they were opposed to hypocritical legalism, and, after all, no group at their time was fully tolerant in religious or political spheres.  The following paragraphs gloss certain points that interest me, illumine what I’ve already read, or apply to themes I’m exploring.

Comparison of American and English Puritans.
This book encompasses English and American Puritans.  The historical timeline was helpful, for Ryken traces the major points in 16th-17th century England that caused Puritanism to rise.  Compared to English Puritanism, Ryken finds New England Puritanism “a less attractive phenomenon—more prone to intolerance and heavy-handedness, to complacency, to legalism, to inner decay.”  Why? In England, Puritans were the persecuted minority, but in N.E., Puritans were the majority.  They had established churches and political structures, and people could devote themselves to “institutions rather than ideals,” thus corrupting their vision of pure religion. 

Sermons.  I didn’t realize how incredibly popular Puritan preaching was in England and America, a good sermon drawing crowds from miles around.  This wasn’t because of fancy style, for the Puritans used what is called “plain style.”  They rejected the ostentatious, quote-filled sermons of their peers, thinking such words led to self-exaltation.  Besides, pastors were trying to reach all levels of society, even illiterate and poor.  Spiritual edification and intelligibility were more important than aesthetics, content more important than form.  John Flavel said, “Words are but servants to matter.”

Sermons were affective—intended primarily to move the listener toward right Christianity.  Samuel Ward wrote in his diary to “remember always at the hearing of God’s word to be applying the things delivered always to thyself, and so bythoughts will take less place.” [English]  Listening meant active involvement, especially notetaking and post-meeting meditation.  Edmund Calamy wrote, “One sermon well digested, well meditated upon, is better than twenty sermons without meditation.”  Remembering the sermon was essential for meditation, so sermons were very well-organized.  As I mentioned in one of my early posts, families repeated the main points at home.

Role of words.  Besides examining the sermon culture, Ryken makes cogent observations about the general role of words in Puritan life.  They were certainly a highly literate people, who so valued a liberal education that they founded Harvard only six years after settling in America!  Ryken writes, “The acts of worship emphasized by the Reformers and Puritans were overwhelmingly literary acts: reading the Bible, meditating on its meaning, listening to sermons, and talking to others about one’s grasp of doctrine” (124).   They expected the “verbal imagination to do the work” that Anglicans/Catholics had left to the visual senses.  Puritan language was richly reliant on “master images,” figures, and Biblical allusions.  Opposing the accusation that lengthy Puritan discourses are dry and forensic, Ryken writes, “Once we grant the validity of the verbal image, it becomes clear that the Puritan worship service did not starve the imagination or even the senses of the worshiper.  Allusions to the Bible carried immense imaginative and emotional voltage for a person to whom the Patriarchs were like neighbors and Mary and Martha like their own sisters.” (125)  Images, instead of being visually enshrined on altars and in statuary, were “embodied in the sermon.”

Ryken’s volume is an easy-to-read, encouraging, and candid avowal of both Puritan strengths and weaknesses.  It was mainly pleasure reading, yet I have also gleaned reading suggestions from Ryken’s extensive bibliographies and abundant quotations.  My summer study plan is relaxed, since I have other reading requirements, but I’m enjoying slowly perusing a few books!

Friday, June 4, 2010

On reading old books

"There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator....It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire....

"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it....

"The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them." --C.S. Lewis

Lewis cleverly explains one reason for my attachment to Puritan writings: they are from an age so different from mine that I can't help learning from them.  In our day, for instance, we don't talk much about the benefits of suffering.  Or, today it's taboo to claim that one's belief is the true one.  As a culture, we don't encourage sitting still, contemplating, and examining inner thoughts.  Yet these ideas were Puritan priorities.

Among the modern virtues we emphasize, have we neglected other important things?  At the same time that we see antique cultures' faiblesse, reading their literature can balance modern deficiencies.  And, like Lewis pointed out, we may just find their writing "easier and more delightful."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Next Steps

This semester-long reading project has officially come to an end, but I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve committed to a year-long reading/writing project on the American Puritans.  I will continue to explore the themes in my last post and eventually find a narrower focus.  So my next step is to decide what to read in the coming weeks.  I have these books in mind, since it’s time to familiarize myself with the literature written about the Puritans:

  • Michael Colacurcio, Godly Letters: the Literature of the American Puritans, for close readings of the first generation writings. 
  • Harry Stout's New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. Parts I & II deal with sermons, 1620-1700. 
  • Susan Hardman Moore, Pilgrims: New World Settlers and the Call of Home. Moore addresses the motivations for migration, then shows the viewpoint of those who decided not to stay (people who left New England during the British Civil Wars and Interregnum, 1640–1660).
  • Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were is more cultural than literary: it uses extensive excerpts from Puritan writings to show their views on various topics.

These books on literary criticism & cultural commentary will help with big themes, and I have a couple of other books that will address poetry. I can later narrow to articles about specific works.
I appreciate other reading suggestions, themes to explore, and general observations!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Semester in Review

So, what have I learned about the witch-burning, shoe-buckled, solemn Puritans? 
In my first post back in February, I posed several questions about these colonists, with the overarching goal of overcoming stereotypes by reading their own works.  Here I cull through my answers, as well as reflect on new themes that have emerged.  This is not a final commentary, but a pulling together of what I’ve learned thus far.  My intertwining thoughts follow a sort of “idea chain,” as you will see below…
My reading encompassed a variety of genres—sermon, ecclesiastical history, poetry, and personal narrative—which illumine the role of words in New England culture.  Sermons are highly structured presentations, easy to remember and repeat, voicing a message around which the community could gather, especially on noteworthy dates like election-day.  The jeremiad functioned as a call to renew the covenant with God.  As Bercovitch pointed out, jeremiads are forward-looking; condemnation is always followed by a call to renewal.
Sermons were not the only words meant to stir the people’s covenantal memory.  Mather emphasized remembering the covenant in the Magnalia, his work of ecclesiastical history.  With public agreements like the Salem Covenant of 1629, the colonists founded their communities on a covenant to live holy lives before God.  They continually affirmed these compacts through church and sermons, reminders in the church calendar, and home worship.  As the children born to original settlers grew older, however, they lost sight of what their parents taught.  Many did not “own” the covenant personally, so they lacked the passion for holiness.  I wrote that they needed to be reminded of the covenant, their history as a people, and their charge to live for God’s glory. Danforth used sermons and Mather used history to re-instill Christian commitment in those who were “lukewarm.” 
What did it mean for some Puritans to not “own” the covenant?  Christians needed to have a personal experience of salvation and profess their faith publicly in order to “own” the covenant.  Thus, Puritans were very concerned with the state of their souls, ascertained through self-examination.  Self-examination could be public, through sermons and covenant-readings, or private, as seen in devotional poems (Taylor and Bradstreet) or Rowlandson’s experiences.  Taylor and Bradstreet work through their spiritual struggles in verse form, praying and quoting Scripture to themselves.  Danforth presents self-examination as a remedy to spiritual lukewarmness.  From his sermon, I noted that self-examination is based not on empty meditation, but on specific remembrance.  The mind is focused on God’s mercies, as well as on life purpose and a comparison with former spiritual diligence.  These meditations convict and restore the soul.  I wrote, “A life lived fully in God’s service, such as Danforth and his congregation desired, is not achieved by default. Self-examination and remembrance—leading to renewed vision—were keys to the Puritans’ perseverance through horrible circumstances.” 
For Rowlandson, self-examination was linked with the Bible, the central Puritan text upon which all other texts are based.  Rowlandson’s meditation spiraled into negativity, until Scripture came to mind and gave her hope.  Quiet moments with her Bible enabled her to survive mentally and emotionally.  This semester’s writers all drew heavily on Scripture.  Some modeled Biblical forms, like the jeremiads.  Others were particularly heavy in Biblical allusions and illustrations, like the Magnalia.  Much of Puritan poetry is a reformulation of Scripture, particularly Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom, or another bestseller I didn’t write about, The Bay Psalm Book.  Further, the Bible was the source of Puritans’ self-definition as a people: the Israelites, the wilderness, and the Promised Land.
The Puritans identified themselves strongly with the ancient Hebrews, God’s chosen people who wandered through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  This explains why the Puritans called their enterprise “an errand into the wilderness.”  But why exactly did they board ships to America?  Danforth and Cotton Mather both address this issue.  In his sermon “An Errand into the Wilderness,” Samuel Danforth identifies the cause of emigration as liberty of conscience and purity of religion.  Similarly, according to Mather, they came to “seek a Refuge for their Lives and Liberties, with Freedom, for the Worship of God, in a Wilderness, in the Ends of the Earth."  Mather also emphasizes historical context: the Reformation and Protestant in-fighting. The American Puritans wished to be an example of pure Reformation to the European Protestants, to establish what John Winthrop called “a city upon a hill,” shining its beacon across the Atlantic.  I have purposefully left alone the most popular Puritan topics—witch hunts and heretical disputes.  Now that I have a basic understanding of the Puritans’ concern for purity of religion and for God’s wrath and mercy, I’m interested in dealing with their infamous shortcomings.
By reading their own words, I am gaining insight on how the Puritans saw themselves and their God.  Wrath and mercy are inseparable concepts.  Both Danforth’s “Errand” and Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” contain sections detailing the two concepts.  On the other hand, Wigglesworth’s Day of Doom is all about the wrath to come, in which there will be no mercy.  So how is that consistent with mercy?  Like the jeremiads, this poem ends with a fervent call to readers: come now to the merciful God, while you can still obtain pardon! 
Yes, the Puritans admit, we have sinned.  But He has promised pardon. The promise is central—to heal (Danforth), to restore (Rowlandson), to make of you a great nation and a light to the world (Magnalia).  “You shall be my people and I shall be your God” is an Old Testament promise to which this community clung (Ezek. 36:28).  “God is but waiting for an opportunity of our thankfulness and humility,” cried Hubbard, “to turn his face toward us that we may be saved” (“The Happiness of a People” 53). To enter into God’s promises, a people must humble themselves and live a pure religion of Christian charity.
Pardon from sin is not exemption from life’s hardships.  Even in the midst of war, famine, and sickness, Puritan writers point out the reality of affliction, as well as its attendant blessings!  The jeremiads are expressions of hope in the mercies of a fatherly God, who sends afflictions not to destroy but to correct.  For Bradstreet, in the battle between “flesh and spirit,” balance requires loving God more than all; afflictions are the test that shows whether we do.  She further believes that hardships are a form of God’s love, to draw one closer to Him.  Mary Rowlandson, too, turns her story of affliction into a lesson on gratitude.
Puritan writing is noticeably affective, or reader-oriented.  Every Puritan text asks for reader response at the heart/soul level.  Mather’s “Life of John Winthrop” calls readers to examine their lives, whether they are as godly and loving as Winthrop.  Even Rowlandson’s first-person narrative was more about impacting readers with God’s goodness than about recording a war experience.  Wigglesworth’s poem was aimed at convicting his readers and drawing them to the mercy-seat.  The personal and devotional poems of Taylor and Bradstreet are perhaps the least reader-oriented, for they focus on the writer’s soul experiences.  Yet, as Jeffrey Hammond explains, Puritan readers would meditate on these poems with eyes focused inward, applying the truths to their own Christian experience. 
Puritan writing is an integral part of remembering and personally fulfilling the covenant, an act of self-examination for both writer and reader.  In public sermons and personal texts, Puritan writers exhort patience in affliction, fear of God’s wrath, trust in His mercy, and faith in Biblical promises.  What attracted me to this community are qualities that are rare today: strong personal discipline, covenantal community, and the willingness to be quiet with one’s own soul. 
As the settlers cultivated the harsh New England wilderness using saws and hoes, many among them wielded pens to tame the wilderness of the soul.  And, centuries after the Puritans writers wielded their pens, I approach their texts with a willing mind and humble pen, aware that I’ve cleared only a corner of the wilderness.  At times I feel like an Israelite wanderer, but golden glimpses of the Promised Land of learning quicken my steps.  Hesitant to push the metaphor any further, I lay down my pen [laptop] for now, “blushing” like Bradstreet at this “ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain.”