Arts, Culture & Humanities

Pilgrims, Puritans, and the ideology that is their American legacy

Claude Fischer

Puritan with a rifleMuch of what we know about the roots of American values arises from what we know — or, don’t know –  about the dissident Protestant sects that settled Massachusetts, the Pilgrims and the much more numerous Puritans. The fourth Thursday in November commemorates the earliest event in our national holiday calendar, the Pilgrim’s thanksgiving for barely surviving their first winter in 1621. Many a Thanksgiving Day speech-maker hearkens back to these early New England settlers to understand America and to seek guidance for the American future.

Historians warn, however, that the Puritans were a strange group, one highly atypical of early America; they were perhaps more a cult than a community. Scholars have, in the words of one, “long since abandoned any interpretation grounding the American nation in Puritanism.” Yet the Puritans may have left us something enduring besides the holiday and tourist sites: not a model for American community but an ideology for American culture.

True believers

The Mayflower‘s Pilgrims in Plymouth and the Boston-area Puritans, often confused, were two different colonizing groups (see, for example, here). The Puritan settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony outnumbered Plymouth’s Pilgrim settlers by about 10 to 1 and absorbed them in 1691. It is mainly the Puritans and their descendants, such as the Minutemen of Concord, who form the popular image of America’s early settlers. Ronald Reagan, for example, famously borrowed the wish that “we shall be a city upon a hill” – to be a “new Jerusalem,” God’s light to the nations – from the speech leader John Winthrop gave aboard the Arabella, the ship taking the first Puritan settlers to the New World.

Thanks to the records the colonists left behind, the influence of Massachusetts, and the visibility of their descendants (Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Adams, and so on), we know a lot about the Puritans of the 17th century, more “than any sane person should want to know,” according to historian Edmund Morgan (cited here).  We know that they were atypical of Early American settlers. For example, they lived in compact villages rather than spread out in homesteads; they were relatively isolated from world commerce; they were homogeneous; and they were sternly religious. Most distinctively, they lived in tightly-controlled communities, in what historian Michael Zuckerman has called “a totalitarianism of true believers.”

In the mid-1600s, at the zenith of their culture, Puritan villagers held land in common, belonged to a single and strong church, and resisted the intrusion of outsiders. They controlled individual behavior by fierce gossip, defamatory and often obscene billboards, and court suits. In one town, 20 percent of the adults in each decade found themselves charged with an offense, usually a morals violation. Magistrates compelled Sabbath attendance and suppressed religious alternatives, to the point of executing dissident Quakers. Jack Greene has explained that the Puritans

used mutual surveillance to . . . suppress individual deviance and sin, exert tight control over the unruly forces of the market, diminish acquisitiveness and the covetousness or frivolous indulgence it engendered, locate every person in an appropriate calling . . .  and achieve a degree of communal unity virtually unknown in the fluctuating world of early modern England.

Colonists almost everywhere else in 17th and 18th-century America lived in far more unorganized, disorderly, and diverse places. (For more detail, see Made in America, Ch. 4.)

Moreover, these Puritan societies did not last long. As the towns grew and connected to the outside world, residents became more divided and less deferential to the elites – a trend that exploded in, for example, the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1690s.

Withcraft trial at Salem

Witchcraft trial at Salem

Within a century of their communities’ founding, residents turned to export trade, watered down the standards for church membership, accepted more religious diversity, fought over a variety of issues, increasingly eluded community punishment for their sins, and left town. By the late 1700s, the churches became, as one scholar shows, open “centers of worship that could maintain a measure of peacefulness simply because the discontented could leave and join, or form, another group [church] whenever they pleased.”

Ideological inheritance

So, the Puritans formed short-lived, authoritarian religious communities that were atypical for their times – hardly the prototype for the America which emerged nor a model for America that most Americans today would want. Yet they did leave us with an important legacy – an ideology of individual choice and social contract.

Much of Puritan theology rested on the idea of covenants, one between God and man and one between man and man. Central to those covenants was the principle of free choice. As the great scholar of Puritanism Perry Miller wrote, “The individual voluntarily promised to obey civil and scriptural law, for the seventeenth-century Puritans believed that meaningful obedience could only grow out of voluntary consent, never out of coercion.” Even birth into the Puritan village did not guarantee full membership; choice did. In the early decades, churches required people to have and to describe a conversion experience before they could join the congregation. The coercive quality of Puritan life ran against their explicit ideology and theology. As the grip of the Puritan elite on townsfolk weakened, the practice of religious freedom expanded and doctrines emphasizing personal belief and individual routes to salvation became even more important.

These developments brought 18th-century Puritans, for better or for worse, closer to the culture of other northern colonists, a culture that stressed individual self-reliance, voluntary association, and resisting authority and hierarchy. But the Puritans brought with them an explicit, religiously-based ideology of choice and contract that justified that American culture.

Americans have in the centuries since the first thanksgiving followed more the preaching than the practices of the early Pilgrims and Puritans.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

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