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The Puritan Conscience

This article was originally printed on August 31, 1953

The New England Mind: From Colony to Province
by Perry Miller

Perry Miller's first authoritative study of the New England culture: The New England Mind: the Seventeenth Century appeared in 1939. It established its author as the most thorough and competent student of our historic Puritanism. It must therefore be welcome news not only to scholars but to the general reader that after the interruption of the war years, he has now carried his studies through the eighteenth' century in The New England Mind: from Colony to Province. Miller has managed to get inside the Puritan mind in a remarkable degree. This is no small feat, since it must appear to a modern a mind so different from ours, that it may excite wonder and pity but will not prompt comprehension.

Miller is a meticulous scholar, who has mastered the documents of the age so that he permits the Stoddards and the Mathers to speak for themselves. But he is no pedant, which is to say that he superimposes upon the science of history the imagination of the artist. His work amply proves that good historiography is both art and science. The finished product of such an historian will therefore prove exciting to an intelligent reader even if he is not greatly concerned about the Puritans or interested in the relation of this strange beginning to our subsequent history, or perhaps in the ties of the relation of Puritan morals to our present moral codes.

Mr. Miller does not reveal any preconceptions on the meaning of Puritanism, and he avoids the note of condescension which so frequently colors modern estimates of old and strange cultures. He is therefore enabled to bring out the full flavor of the ironic history of a settlement which was based upon presuppositions which proved in almost every case to be totally different from those which govern our American culture this day.

The story of the adjustment of Puritanism to the ethos of a new Continent, and of its failure through its success is even more interesting in the seventeenth century than in the sixteenth. The story sometimes involves the dissolution of contradictions in the heart of Calvinism. It was, as all Calvinism, informed by a perfectionist impulse which expressed in "separatist irresponsibility" and by a "theocratic" impulse which sought to bring the whole of civil society under the dominion of the divine through the rule of his "saints." The adjustment of these two impulses produced the "halfway covenant." The perfectionism was, in the words of Max Weber, an "intramundane asceticism." It did not ask for a withdrawal from the world but for diligence in worldly pursuits. As a result it made for success in business; and this success undermined the original piety. Miller suggests that to the ritualistic jeremiads the constant confessions of sin were more than a Calvinist ritual. They were the expression of an uneasy conscience of men who knew that they were not saints but they were also dimly aware that the evil which they confessed could not be so easily eliminated because it was so intimately related to the good which they espoused.

Perhaps the most serious defect of Calvinism was its theory of special providence according to which every event in history or in nature, for that matter, was thought of as the fruit of a conscious divine decree. Thus every drought, or other natural disaster, and every civic disturbance was interpreted as the result of God's "wrath." It prompted penance and fasting. Every favorable circumstance, on the other hand, was interpreted as a proof of God relenting against a rebellious people. Naturally the unfavorable first outweighed the favorable ones: but amid the wide opportunities of the new Continent the signs of God's "favor" were bound to be finally more numerous than the signs of his "wrath." The creed therefore operated to hasten the descent from Puritanism to "Yankeeism" in the eighteenth century. Our annual Thanksgiving festivals in which we congratulate God on having such a virtuous people are vestigial remnants of this declension.

The pretension of virtue by the saints offered special, difficulties not only because it was the type of virtue which promised worldly rewards but because it was made the basis of political authority. The Puritan preachers were political oligarchs; their rationalizations and hypocrisies were obvious. Miller, as a good artist, does not belabor, them but merely lets them reveal themselves and records the inevitable cynicism and resentment which their pretensions elicited. These resentments, together with developments in England, where the toleration was established under William and Mary, ultimately undermined their authority.

In a choice passage Miller analyzes the tortures of soul in Cotton Mather, as he justifies the witch trials against his own better judgment:

Why did the poor devil not leave well enough alone, publish the reports and throw into the fire everything that he had poured out during the days of waiting? . . . The fuller explanation, accounting for his conscious, and unconscious motivations, is the compelling force of the jeremiad. He had to find a rationale for his country's ordeal and at the same time a modicum of peace with himself; he did it by forcing the whole wretched business in the traditional scheme of sin and retribution, which to him was the only form that would give conceivable significance either to New England's tragedy or to his own comprehension of it.

This Calvinist experiment in the "rule of the saints" was, in other words, enough to end all such experiments. It did not of course prevent a new and more terrible secularized version of it which we know as Communism. But it is silly to draw the moral particularly when a virtue of Miller's book is that he forbears and lets history speak for itself.

It is possible to choose only a few of the many themes which Professor Miller illumines in this great work. One hopes that it will have a wide reading despite the specialized character of the study.

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