Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Puritans' ridiculous beliefs... in 1776

by Lori Stokes

I'm reading The Puritan Ordeal by Andrew Delbanco, and while the book is focused on the Puritan religious beliefs in the 17th century, one can't help reading it in part as a treatise on American political beliefs in the 18th century.

--The Puritans "impute all faults and corruptions, wherewith the world aboundeth, unto the kind of ecclesiastical government established." And in 1776, all faults and corruptions would be imputed to the kind of political government established.

--"[The Puritans] had a deep desire to believe in human moral capability. ...Virtue, like a muscle or a limb, required continual strengthening through exercise." Just as the Founders believed in the ability of humans to improve themselves and their condition, and believed fervently in the need for regular exercise of democratic virtue.

--"[Some contemporaries of the Puritans felt] they were fanatics who held out the fantastic promise of renovating human nature by effecting institutional change [within the church]." In 1776, it was institutional change in government that offered the ridiculous promise of utterly changing mankind.

In short, the Puritan conviction that the right religious practice could perfect the human soul, end poverty, curtail crime, alter human nature, and change the course of human history, putting it on a teleological path to utopian paradise on Earth, is almost indistinguishable from what the Founding generation believed the right form of government, in this case representative democracy, could do.

It is natural for us today to feel the Puritan reliance on religion was personal and uninformed, while we honor the Founders' identical beliefs because the Founders transferred the process of perfecting humankind from religion to politics.

But Puritan religion was political, in the sense that the original New England Puritans developed their own social and political structures based on their religion. The small town, unified around one church, representing its people at regular intervals in town meeting, which was adopted across the nation over the course of centuries is the legacy of the Puritans. The New England Puritans also created a chief legislature in Boston (the General Court), to which towns elected representatives.

This social and political structure reflected the Puritan religious belief in the independence of the individual, and the right of people to associate and represent themselves freely, which had been denied them in England.

It is no great leap to see that these religious beliefs in New England morphed slowly into political ones. It's a quick and easy step to go from Puritan fervor for a religion that upholds individual liberty and self-representation to Founding fervor for a form of government that does the same.
Everything that can be said slightingly about the Puritans' wacky religious beliefs, then, can be said admiringly about the Founders' inspiring political beliefs. You just become fully aware of how the lens of religion affects your opinion. Primed to dislike people who were religious fanatics, and who have gained a reputation for intolerance and violence, we find the Puritans' beliefs that the religious practice they invented could change the very nature of humans to be ridiculous, typical of religious zealots. Primed to admire people who founded this nation and introduced representative democracy to the modern world, we find the Founders' beliefs that the political system they invented could change the very nature of humans to be thrilling, and self-evident.

I have to believe that thousands of New Englanders living in the Founding period, who came from Puritan stock, inherited their ancestors' passion for perfectablility, expressing it through politics rather than religion. As we know from our own experience, politics can be a powerful religion.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Welcome back, Lori Stokes! You were missed, especially by me, as I have much to learn about the Puritans.

The idea of the perfectibility of man [let alone society] is philosophically ubiquitous in the years surrounding the Founding. I'm not a Wiki fan, but it has its uses and this should do for the wide overview.

Of course, where John Calvin saw "perfectibility" as a function of God's grace [as did many pre-Reformers like Augustine], and God was the standard of perfection, as notions of God and grace got pushed aside for man and man's will, well, there is much to discuss, and this could be the nexus of the modern controversy.

[That virtue must become a habit goes back to the ancient Greeks, and is undisputed by all, even by those who believe "faith alone saves." What virtue comprises---the question of what is good---is another matter entirely.]

Pinky said...

It's great to read something that pushes us to learn more about the subject. That's what your article did for me, Lori.
Why I haven't thought of it before baffles me. I guess I just took the answers for granted. And, was I ever wrong!
What was education in the eighteenth century all about in America's colonies? The answers have to have something to do with how the people thought about their day to day existence. What were the ideas and habits of the Puritans--as well as of the other religious groups?
I think this pursuit holds some of the key elements to our questions about directions of our fledgling society. Was America founded to be a Christian nation or was there an all out attempt to move our Founding away from a religious base?
Here is
an interesting look at the ideas involved.

Pinky said...

I think a very strong argument can be made that America was Founded to NOT BE a Christian nation based on some of the information uncovered in the link given in my preceding post.

Lori Stokes said...

Hello everyone, and thanks for the welcome! I'm glad to be back.

I took a look at the link Pinky gives; it's not completely accurate. One part that bothered me is symptomatic:

"[In Puritan Massachusetts] civil and religious authorities cooperated in protecting the new state against error from without and schism from within, but the clergy were the final depository of power in the colony."

This is untrue; the clergy had the final say on theological matters, but were actually banned from participating in politics, and were happy to remain outside of politics.

"For the sake of unity and strength the ideals of religious freedom and democracy were sacrificed."

The first thing John Winthrop did was expand the franchise, despite his specific instructions from England not to do so. I don't know what religious freedom was sacrificed; you can only make this argument if you think the Puritans meant to establish a colony that allowed freedom to worship according to any faith. This was clearly not the case.

"Gradually, however, the supremacy of the theocracy was undermined by a number of forces, and when the royal absolutism which Charles II and James II had attempted to substitute was itself demolished in 1689, theocratic rule was not fully restored in Massachusetts, and in the new charter of 1691 the basis of the franchise was no longer church membership, but property."

This is very mixed-up; Charles II never attempted to rule New England directly, he only asked for tolerance of Quakers. There was never theocratic rule in MA, as I point out above. The franchise did change to property, but this does not represent the falling apart of the Congregational church.

So this long comment is basically just a reminder that you have to look at the tediously scholarly stuff first to get the truth on the Puritans, or else you start wandering into error, as they might have said.

Pinky said...

I'm sure you're correct, Lori.
But, my intentions in providing that link were more about how the Colonists received any education in our Colonial days.
And, further, when it came time to attend college, education was ALL about preparation for the ministry. So, in a very real sense, this statement you quoted, "[In Puritan Massachusetts] civil and religious authorities cooperated in protecting the new state against error from without and schism from within, but the clergy were the final depository of power in the colony.", can be seen to be true as that is how the educational system worked.