Saturday, February 27, 2010


Final connections about the sermons can be wrapped up in a discussion of the jeremiad form, using commentary from The American Jeremiad, followed by reflections on how the Puritans saw themselves.  A jeremiad is a political sermon—I like Bercovitch’s phrase “state-of-the-covenant address”—usually given on public occasions like I described in the previous post, especially election days.  Structurally, the form consists of three parts:
first, a precedent from Scripture that sets out the communal norms; then, a series of condemnations that details the actual state of the community…; and finally a prophetic vision that unveils the promises, announces the good things to come, and explains away the gap between fact and ideal. (16)
Bercovitch argues that the middle section of condemnatory rhetoric is intended to renew the people’s energy for their errand.  Rather than despairing, the sermons are forward-looking.  For instance, Danforth concludes his “Errand” sermon with the healing that God would do among them and with a reiteration of the settlers’ vision.  The jeremiads are expressions of hope in the mercies of a fatherly God, who sends afflictions not to destroy but to correct.  
Throughout these sermons, the covenant is expressed in terms of the past and the future: it has eternal implications running both directions in time.  The settlers saw themselves as heirs of God’s chosen people, the ancient Israelites; at the same time, they were ever moving toward a vision of a godly commonwealth and, ultimately, toward the New Jerusalem.  In terms of the past, therefore, preachers and leaders drew heavily on the Old Testament, particularly the story of the exodus from Egypt, wilderness wandering, and conquering of the Promised Land.  The influence cannot be emphasized enough: each sermon that I read applied history, imagery, and rhetoric from the Pentateuch to the New England situation.  The jeremiad form itself was drawn from the Bible—from Jeremiah, yes, but also from Moses and Joshua.  The history of Israel is a repeated cycle: covenant, rebellion, consequences for waywardness, repentance, restoration.  God always responded to repentant cries with a merciful restoration.
If the people will repent, God will heal.  That is the promise.  That is the visionary hope that orients the American Puritans toward the future.  “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).  It is God who will do the work and see that the prophecy is fulfilled, but the Puritans—like the ancient Israelites—must humbly seek Him.  Repentance involves behavioral transformation.  John Winthrop had set the vision of what this behavior should look like: he called it “Christian charity.”  In later years (the second generation that I keep coming back to), preachers revive Winthrop’s vision.  Hubbard, in particular, points to “charity” as the fertilizer (so to speak) which turns the wilderness into a fruitful garden.  Lack of charity had turned away God’s favor, he says, and a return to “this Grace” is the cure:
And we may have great cause to fear, that the decay of this Grace in New-England, hath in a great measure been the procuring cause that hath brought this black Cloud upon the beautiful face of our Sion in these ends of the earth….Could Christians but be persuaded to put off this private selfish worldly Spirit, and put on humility, and charity, and manifest a publick Spirit, how would it again revive the glory of the New-England churches. (61-62)
The jeremiad thus encapsulates into a communicable medium the rich Puritan sense of purpose—rooted in the past and envisioning the future.  Unexpectedly, the laments of separation from God are actually catalysts for the fulfillment of the New England mission.  The laments are based on an optimistic view of the errand: it will be accomplished when the people serve God with pure worship, that is, obedience to God and charity to one another.  The “black Cloud” will disperse, and God’s glory will shine in full light from their city on a hill.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Let’s back up for a general view of the sermons—their organization, context, and commonalities.  The sermons on which I focused each follow this outline:
-Scriptural text: 1-3 verses, usually from the Old Testament
-Detailed explication of the Scriptural text
-A doctrine drawn from the text (1-2 sentences, in which each word is carefully chosen)
-Defense of each phrase of the doctrine
-Reasons for the doctrine
-Application to the present situation (in sections, or “branches”)
Puritan preachers further clarify their argument by numbering points (and lists of points within points) and including clear transitions.  A church member would be able to go home and summarize to another person—or a child to a parent—the text, doctrine and main points of the sermon, even a sermon that was two or three hours long! 
Further, the context of current events often determined the type of sermon delivered.  There were election sermons, execution sermons, anniversary sermons (commemorating momentous events), public fast day sermons, etc.  On these special days, some of the most historically significant sermons were preached, illuminating the Puritans’ perspective on ecclesiastical and civil authority and their vision for Christian community.  Danforth’s election sermon “An Errand Into the Wilderness” focused on reviving the people’s religious fervor.  William Hubbard’s “The Happiness of a People,” delivered on election day in 1667, addresses the state’s role in religious affairs and concludes with a similar plea for a return to virtue and “Christian charity.”  The election sermons address the important theme of God's "controversie with New-England," a second-generation belief that God was punishing them as a people for sinfulness and calling them back by His mercy, if they would repent.  Increase Mather’s “The Wicked Man’s Portion” is a 1675 example of the execution sermon, and pleads for repentance from sin, to avoid an early death like that to be suffered by the condemned criminals.  Like the two above sermons, it contains a catalogue of specific sins.  Like Jonathan Edwards "Sinners in the Hands..." sermon, it dramatically demonstrates sin's consequences and the call to forgiveness.  Instead of a storming about fire and brimstone, however, Mather emphasizes the tragedy of a life cut short.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two Callings

"There are Two Callings to be minded by All Christians. Every Christian hath a General Calling, Which is to Serve the Lord Jesus Christ and Save his own Soul in the Services of Religion that are incumbent on all the Children of men....But then, every Christian hath also a Personal Calling; or, a certain Particular Employment by which his Usefulness in his Neighbourhood is distinguished....

"A Christian, at his Two Callings, is a man in a Boat, Rowing for Heaven, the House which our Heavenly Father hath intended for us.  If he mind but one of his Callings, be it which it will, he pulls the Oar but on one side of the Boat, and will make but a poor dispatch to the Shoar of Eternal Blessedness...."

--Cotton Mather, from "A Christian at His Calling" (1701)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Glory to [man]

By the second generation of Puritans, many texts were declaring that the religious state of colonists was in danger.  In the first chapter of Errand Into the Wilderness (1956), Perry Miller interprets these texts—particularly Danforth’s sermon—as admitting that the errand had failed.  Miller writes of this failure mainly in terms of public image: 
If the rest of the world, or at least of Protestantism, looked elsewhere, or turned to another model, or simply got distracted and forgot about New England, if the new land was left with a polity nobody in the great world of Europe wanted—then every success in fulfilling the terms of the covenant would become a diabolical measure of failure.
According to the passage, the Puritan errand was to become “a city on a hill,” so if the world stopped paying attention to them, their work was—to put it more mildly than Miller—futile.     
Now, one of the main themes I’m looking for is the Puritans’ balance of the material world with inner spirituality, so Miller’s idea stands out to me.  Does he mean that the American Puritans’ highest concern was to reform European civil and ecclesiastical government through their example?  Did these men and women renounce the world to be recognized by the world?  Were they concerned about their public image or about giving glory to God? 
The “errand” seems a bit more internally-grounded than that…or should I say eternally-grounded?  Their errand sprang from a covenant with God.  Therefore, the Puritans were answerable to God.  Their primary mission was pure worship of and obedience to Him.  The creation of a model form of governance was certainly connected to this, but the anticipated worldwide fame was to be a result of the primary mission. And even this secondary result was not for the Puritans’ own reputation…it was for the glory of their God. 
Let’s go back to the man who set the colony’s vision in the first place.  John Winthrop, while still on board the Arbella, warned of the Lord’s wrath and vengeance if “wee shall…embrace this present world and prosecute our carnall intencions, seekeing greate things for our selves and our posterity.” The original vision did not seek recognition. Rather, the “city upon a hill” would be a natural result of their experiment. It would be a proof that they were fulfilling their covenant by living in brotherly love.
The core sense of failure expressed in the sermons was internal and spiritual—our community has backslidden because individuals no longer fervently love God—our churches are no longer pure gold, but mixed with alloy.  Puritan leaders were disappointed about England’s lack of interest.  They grieved over their perceived alienation from God. 
The Puritans’ intertwining of political and religious concerns is a complex issue that I’m just beginning to touch.  At this point I say, yes, the Puritans had a sense of social and political purpose, but the spiritual realities of their covenant seemed to take precedence. In other words, political goals flowed out of their primary concern of glorifying and serving God. 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Currently Reading

I'm also adding a few sermons to finish up this section of the semester: William Hubbard's "The Happiness of the People" and possibly Cotton Mather's "Pillars of Salt."

Do y'all have further sermon suggestions?  Even if I can't read them all now, I'm making a list of pieces to read later.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Re-establishing the Covenant

I’ve begun this blog not with the original settlers of Massachusetts Bay, but a second generation Bostonian. Samuel Danforth’s sermon was delivered in 1670, forty years after the colony was founded, and eight years after the Halfway Covenant had relaxed church membership requirements.

When Danforth laments the people’s fall from spiritual fervor, his main audience is not the visionary founders (Winthrop and the rest)—the ones who experienced the excitement of a new mission. Rather, he’s exhorting their children. How do you get a new generation to catch the vision, when all they have known is frontier hardship? Danforth reaches far into the past and borrows a rhetorical trick used by an ancient Hebrew leader.

Moses on Mt. Sinai/Horeb

After their exodus from Egypt under Moses, the Israelites had unfaithfully stopped short of entering the Promised Land. As a result, that generation was condemned to wander the wilderness another forty years. The people finally again reached the borders of the Promised Land, but the original generation had died off. When Moses addressed the Israelites in Deuteronomy, he was speaking to the second generation, who were being given a chance to fulfill the original mission. Listen to what he did:
And Moses called all Israel and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day. (Deut. 5.1-3 KJV; see also 4:10-13)
Using language, Moses projected on the children the covenant of the parents. The proclamation of the original covenant at Sinai puts it into effect a second time, for this and all future generations. He’s saying, “Though you were not alive yet, you were there. YOU made this covenant with God.”

Danforth's "you" projects the same power. In the quote I posted earlier, the present audience is implicated in the original choice to go to America. Danforth seizes the past, transports it, and lays it on top of the present, in order to create in his listeners an urgent sense of vision and a multi-generational continuity.

Monday, February 8, 2010

An Angry God?

Though he lived a century after the original colonists, Jonathan Edwards is a well-known heir of their Puritan Calvinist tradition. His sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," with its terrifying, fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, famously portrays God's merciless wrath toward the unsaved.

The Puritans were definitely conscious of God's wrath, and yet they were equally aware of his mercy in Christ. Edwards' sermon focuses intensely on God's sovereign wrath, with a brief ending reminder of the "door of mercy wide open." In Danforth's "Errand in the Wilderness" sermon, conversely, a short section on wrath is followed by pages about God's abundant mercy.

Whatever the balance be, the two concepts were evidently inseparable for the Puritans. Why expound upon God's wrath, if escape from it were hopeless? Again, what significance does "mercy" retain if there's no impending punishment?

Friday, February 5, 2010

What was the "errand"?

“You have solemnly professed before God, Angels and Men, that the Cause of your leaving your Country, Kindred and Fathers houses, and transporting your selves with your Wives, Little Ones and Substance over the vast Ocean into this waste and howling Wilderness, was your Liberty to walk in the Faith of the Gospel with all good Conscience according to the Order of the Gospel, and your enjoyment of the pure Worship of God according to his Institution, without humane Mixtures and Impositions.”

According to Danforth, the Puritans’ purpose was twofold: liberty of conscience and purity of religion.

I’d like to focus on the second purpose. After all, they’re called “Puritans” for a reason!

Purity of religion is not primarily a negative goal—one focused on exclusion. Rather, it is primarily a positive goal, focused on attainment of an ideal…an ideal that simply does not coexist with certain opposing elements—most notoriously, heretics.

First and foremost, religious purity is concerned with the soul. Danforth reminds his congregation of spiritual disciplines for the health of church and soul.

In his lengthy list of actions taken against inner enemies of purity, Danforth addresses just two sentences to protecting from outer enemies: “What fervent zeal was there then against Sectaries and Hereticks?” and “What holy Endeavours were there…zealously opposing those that denied [the Lord and his holy Covenant]?”
When I encounter heretics in future posts, I’d like to keep in mind that “pure Worship of God” is a substantial reality this community worked to enjoy.

(By the way, italics are Danforth’s—he and his contemporaries were much more generous with italics and capitalization than our stingy modern grammar-books allow.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Samuel Danforth’s sermon concerns the abatement of the Jews’ original fervor to hear John the Baptist in the wilderness. When John began to preach, the people flocked to “see that burning and flaming light, which God had raised up.” Their zeal, however, soon expired. This is a recurring scriptural pattern: (1) The people go into the wilderness to worship God; (2) they forget “their Errand into the Wilderness” and become corrupt.

Danforth formulates this idea into a concise “Doctrine,” separated into two “Branches”:

Branch 1. Such as have sometime left their pleasant Cities and Habitations to enjoy the pure Worship of God in a Wilderness, are apt in time to abate and cool in their affection thereunto:

The New Englanders left civilized Britain with a weighty sense of their mission, but since have fallen into “lukewarmness,” that is, their love for serving God has lessened.

Branch 2. But then the Lord calls upon them seriously and throughly to examine themselves, what it was that drew them into the Wilderness, and to consider that it was not the expectation of ludicrous levity, not of Courtly pomp and delicacy, but of the free and clear dispensation of the Gospel and Kingdome of God.

What is the remedy to lukewarmness? Self-examination. This contemplative act is central to the Puritan experience. However, let’s clear up some misconceptions. Self-examination does not occur in a vacuum—it’s not self-generated meditation on oneself. Rather, it involves meditation on substantive realities:

-God’s mercies
“the serious consideration of the inestimable grace and mercy of God”

-Why you came here
“Of solemn and serious Enquiry to us all in this general Assembly, Whether we have not in a great measure forgotten our Errand into the Wilderness.”

-Former joy and spiritual diligence
“Let us call to remembrance the former days, and consider whether it was not then better with us, then it is now.”

-Your current situation (compared to the past)
“Doth not a careless, remiss, flat, dry, cold, dead frame of Spirit, grow in upon us secretly, strongly, prodigiously?”

Simply put, the cure for forgetfulness is remembrance. Self-examination was not a punishment for the Puritans. Rather, Danforth’s call to rigid examination was a kindness. How can I say that? Because Danforth’s type of self-examination is a liberation from complacent mediocrity, from an automatic, even-keel, do-what-you-want existence.

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—was the key to the Puritans’ perseverance through horrible circumstances.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


What comes to mind when you think of Puritans?

Black hats…shoe buckles…Thanksgiving…Squanto...

Expulsion of heretics…intolerance…patriarchy…gravity…

“city on a hill”…faith…hardship…glory to God…

I’ve heard quite a few opinions about this intriguing community. It’s not fair to judge people, though, until you have let them speak. My hope is to move beyond stereotypes to gain a truer understanding of the American Puritan community, based on their own words.

What was most important to the Puritans? What was the nature of community and family interactions? How did the Puritans integrate spiritual values with the demands of day-to-day life? Why did some go to extremes? On the other hand, who achieved a balance…and how? What was the role of words—written and oral, prose and poetry—in their culture? What did they mean by calling their enterprise “an errand into the wilderness”?

This semester, I am doing a reading project to answer for myself—and for you—these and other questions.

First, I will examine a few sermons—what was the religious heart of the colonists’ mission? Next, I’ll move to Cotton Mather’s tremendous account, Magnalia Christi Americana. Along the way, I will incorporate modern commentary, e.g. Perry Miller. After a few delightful weeks of poetry, I’ll wrap up with personal journals (I am ever impressed by people who were faithful to write each day’s occurrences!). As I read, specific themes will emerge and I’ll have a clearer idea of which to pursue.

The exciting thing is that this is a project of discovery...

Or, perhaps, rediscovery….of those visionary pioneers who first settled the land we now call home…America.

As the Puritans carve out their haven in the wilderness, my “errand” is to explore the wonderful wilderness of texts they leave behind.