Reconsidering the Puritans

Reconsidering the Puritans

The words puritan and puritanism carry a lot of baggage in our world right now. They are shaped, I have read, by early and mid-twentieth century writers like H. L. Mencken who wrote that a puritan was “haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere may be happy,” and by Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible about the Salem witch trials. The names carry with them the notions of religious enthusiasm and irrationalism. As for Mencken, well, we might just say engaging writing, bad history.

Novelist Marilynne Robinson, in a recent collection of essays What Are We Doing Here? (2018), challenges us to reappropriate the Puritans, and our heritage of Puritan origins in the U.S.A.  Robinson admits that she has a soft spot for underdogs, and maybe for challenging current orthodoxies. She recognizes that honesty compels her to speak out. She also claims to be a committed Calvinist, the theological origins of the Puritans, and so she speaks from within the tradition. The essays in the collection, “Our Public Conversation: How America Talks About Itself,” “Mind, Conscience, Soul,”  and “Old Souls, New World,” began as lectures at places like the University of Virginia, Harvard, and The Huntington Library in California. These are places where American history is prized, and she might expect people to listen. 

Robinson doesn’t qualify her arguments as a historian or scholar might, but she is not commenting as a scholar. She rightly does not limit the name Puritan to those who become Congregationalists later. She includes the “dissenting” groups (dissent from the Church of England in the 17th and 18th centuries). Those included are Presbyterians, and Quakers, and others. Robinson reaches back to the time of the original Puritan colonists in the early-17th century and to England at the time of the Civil War and Commonwealth when there was an eruption of dissent and experiments in new church bodies, or sects. Her words reflect on the Reformed tradition broadly.

The Puritans whom she reads were the intellectual and spiritual elite of the period. If she were a historian or scholar, she might remind us that the Puritans wanted first to purify the church of England from its seemingly Roman Catholic emphases, governance by Bishops, and a worship service that seemed like a Mass being the two most prominent. The Bible was to provide the model for church governance and worship. Second the Puritan desired for their life to reflect holiness, or godliness. Here is the root of the stereotype of the dour, astringent, guilt-ridden Puritan who condemned anyone who might seek to have some fun. A stereotype may have some truth, but in this case, it obscures more than it reveals. Mennonites historically share the emphasis on holy or godly lives and communities with the Puritans.

What does a 70ish, mid-western novelist and professor of writing have to say about the Puritans, the founders of New England? And how does she come up with it? 

Reading the Puritans

The second question first. She reads them carefully.  She has taken the time to read their writings, and they write a lot. It is carefully constructed writing, with clear, detailed argumentation and illustration. Puritan writers assume their readers have knowledge of the Bible, classical and (for them) recent history, and literary understanding far beyond what most of us now in the US have. They championed public education for both boys and girls before any others in the US. The pastors and political leaders like John Winthrop were trained at Cambridge University, and modeled the early great universities of New England, Harvard, and Yale, on Cambridge.  It is no coincidence that these Cambridge educated intellectuals named the city where Harvard still exists Cambridge.

In her reading she does not find the anti-intellectualism and enthusiasm that are part of the popular image. In fact, she finds quite the opposite. Puritans were skeptical of enthusiasm.  Jonathan Edwards, she notes, in his book on “religious affections” about the first or Great Awakening, tested enthusiastic and ecstatic claims to conversion and the touch of the Holy Spirit by changed behavior, consistently demonstrated.

Robinson notes that Puritans developed a deep understanding of “conscience.” Conscience was a primary element of being human, an internal sense of right and wrong, good and evil as we confront them, that needed education, refinement, and scrutiny. Those carefully constructed, biblically and theologically astute sermons were a primary element in that refinement process. This emphasis is the root of some of what is best in American culture with its emphasis on underdogs, fairness, justice, and reform. 

The Puritans excelled at self-examination, they wrote diaries of their spiritual and moral experience.  This is, I suspect, one forerunner, perhaps a primary one, of our contemporary practice of journaling. Robinson reads insightfully and notes how our popular image of Puritans misses the point; we can hardly keep up with the intellectual and spiritual intensity of their practice. Robinson’s novels reflect this ability for introspection.

Examination of what might be right and wrong in how we live together leads to desire for reform. She notes that reform is one of the most highly prized of American characteristics. (Our and the Puritans’ tendency to moralize is not always so highly prized by others.) Robinson explains that it is out of the Puritan north of the American colonies and states, that come the varied movements of reform in the 18th and 19th centuries. These reforms include the abolition of the slave trade and then slavery itself, moral reforms of all sorts like release from poverty, to temperance, and expansion of voting rights for women, and so much more.


Historians and political scientists have debated the significance of characteristic elements of Puritan thinking about government. They debate the meaning of the Puritan emphasis on liberty, and so their influence on revolutionary thinking. Historians discuss the emphasis on covenant, a biblical notion which was a primary root of social contract thinking, and its reliance on consent, two elements that show up in constitutional thinking.

Robinson focuses on the practical efforts at forming a government in New England that would offer protections that the laws of England did not have.  She compares the Massachusetts Charter of Liberties, with the more traditional Dale’s Code or Laws of Virginia. Dale’s law includes many cases in which the penalty is death: “traitorous words” against the king, missing sermons (after the third violation), murder (we might expect this), theft, perjury, slander of the governor, trade with indigenous peoples without authorization, killing of someone’s animals, etc.

The Massachusetts Charter is organized around liberties: of men, of free men, of women, of children (redress against parents), servants (limits on demands), foreigners and strangers (forbidding slavery), and even of animals (forbidding cruelty). The liberties are not entirely those we might desire in our era. However, even a quick review of the Charter will reveal protections of persons that show up later in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The examples in the comparison are my own (you can find the two codes at ). Robinson notes the differences between liberty and protections in one, and the prevalence of the death sentence in the other.  She explains that the Massachusetts Charter, true to Puritan commitments, follows the laws of the Old Testament book, Deuteronomy.  The codes may not be perfectly parallel, but the comparison is instructive. Had we lived in colonial times, we probably would have chosen to live in Puritan New England over Virginia.

Reclaiming our History and Ourselves

Well, this is enough to answer by way of illustration the two questions I ask above. Robinson has more to say, and it is all worth reading. Let me ask a third question. Why did her essays catch my eye? Or rather, why have I thought it important enough to write a long post for this blog (and spend several hours doing some more extensive reading)?

There are two answers. First it has been part of my privilege  to teach the history of the Reformed tradition for those who desire to be Presbyterian pastors (and other theology and ministry students) at the FPU Biblical Seminary. I am always looking for ways to encourage students to be open to the tradition. In our modern world, Reformed or not, we all share something of Mencken’s errant prejudice against the Puritans.

But second, I share Robinson’s contrariness, and often find our self-satisfaction in our sense of superiority to earlier times amusing. We lose our ability to understand who and what we are, if we cannot understand who and what came before us. In losing the Puritans, we have lost something of ourselves, and our heritage as Christians and as citizens of the US. Robinson helps us regain some of our past and ourselves.

[There are many new and good books out on Puritans and Puritanism.  I recommend a number of them in my reading list on Presbyterian and Reformed History and Confessions on this blog site .]

Educated State
Steve Varvis

Steve Varvis

Tagged: Church History Contemporary Culture History