Monday, September 20, 2010

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.


  1. "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."

    This is beautifully well-put, and so refreshingly accurate! So many people just hate the Puritans and want to believe the worst things about them, but you are absolutely right here and I'm very glad to read it.

    I would debate you over your caveat; this idea did not "fail" until the 18th century, and the tradition of scholars seeing a falling-away in the second generation, because of the halfway crisis is convincingly overturned by close study of that crisis--see in particular The Halfway Covenant by Robert Pope. It was the fierce spirituality of the second generation that created the crisis in the first place, and the passionate response of the ministry that put the tools in place to resolve it.

  2. "The failure of the ideal" is a rather casual blanket assumption, so thank you for questioning it! I didn't realize that there was another view about the second generation crisis, and I would be rather pleased to learn that the caveat is unnecessary--I'd rather record success than failure of a worthy ideal.