Puritanism (American History Through Literature)
The influence of American Puritanism is pervasive in the literature of the nineteenth century. The uniquely American Puritan vision of the seventeenth century arose from the English Puritanism that engendered it. Indeed many first-generation American Puritans, such as John Cotton (1584652) and John Winthrop (1588649), were emigrants from England who sought religious freedom in the New World. First-, second-, and third-generation American Puritans developed and refined a special vision of Calvinist theology that has continued to influence American self-definition into the present. When Ronald Reagan argued in his 1980 presidential campaign that the United States had lost much of its former glory and should return to its position of past leadership in the world, he quoted John Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" (1630), delivered 350 years earlier during the sea voyage that ended in establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony:
He shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: "The Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have under-taken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world: we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God's sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us, till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going. (P. 23)
This declaration succinctly articulates what has come to be known as American exceptionalism. At the root of American society and culture lie a vision of uniqueness and a sense of mission. In the introduction to her American Exceptionalism, Deborah L. Madsen states,
Exceptionalism describes the perception of Massachusetts Bay colonists that as Puritans they were charged with a special spiritual and political destiny: to create in the New World a church and a society that would provide the model for all the nations of Europe as they struggled to reform themselves (a redeemer nation). . . . Thus America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself and, at the same time, America and Americans must sustain a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destinymerica must be as "a city upon a hill" exposed to the eyes of the world. (Pp. 1)
This Puritan notion of election, divine sanction, and high purpose has pervaded American identity, politics, and culture ever since, although it has evolved over several centuries from a specifically religious vision into a much more secular one: rather than exemplifying a pure church America's mission became exemplifying a free, egalitarian, democratic society.
In the mid-nineteenth century Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864) brought widespread attention to America's Puritan past by setting many of his works in seventeenth-century New England and by demonstrating the continuities of the seventeenth century with the nineteenth. The House of the Seven Gables (1851) is perhaps his most obvious illustration of these continuities, in which the "sins of the fathers" are visited upon succeeding generations of "children." Many of Hawthorne's plots center upon problems of doctrine and conscience that he detected in his wide reading about his own ancestors' past. "Young Goodman Brown" (1835), an allegory treating illusion and reality, resembles John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678), complete with a journey motif, a spiritual burden that must be resolved, and an assessment of human character in relation to Puritan doctrine. "The Minister's Black Veil" (1836) also shows how character assessment is not always what it seems to be, and "The Maypole of Merry Mount" (1836) and "Endicott and the Red Cross" (1838) both reexamine historical incidents in the light of Hawthorne's humanistic understanding of Puritanism. His masterwork, The Scarlet Letter (1850), chronicles the story of Hester Prynne, an adultress who mothers an illegitimate child, Pearl. The Puritans in The Scarlet Letter, described as dour, severe, unpleasant people, act as a foil to the vibrant humanity of Hester and Pearl, whose life together as outcasts from the Puritan community assumes center stage for most of the novel. Indeed, it is their relationship and Hester's heroic overcoming of her punishment that gives readers an inaccurate portrait of seventeenth-century Puritanism as it conflicts with human love.
Even in works not set in early America, such as The Marble Faun (1860), which takes place in Rome, Hawthorne returns to such biblical themes as the Fall of Man and the effects of guilt. In "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844), another narrative set in Italy, the blatantly obvious Garden of Eden is peopled by characters who may be identified as God, Man, and Satan. Thus Hawthorne's writing develops out of the materials of early American Puritanism, and though his narratives often disfigure the historical moments they purport to portray, his influence in spreading the gospel of early American Puritanism is undeniable. Moreover, his pervasive use of allegorical techniques and other rhetorical strategies learned from his ancestral Puritans extends their influence into succeeding centuries.
Another prominent nineteenth-century American theme closely associated with the "city upon a hill" and American exceptionalism is the idea of Manifest Destiny. In 1845 a journalist named John O'Sullivan (1813895) first used the term in an editorial for the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, in which he advocates the annexation of Texas, declaring that it is America's "manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions" (p. 5). It has been an important by-word of American development and progress ever since. Manifest Destiny was easy to understand as God's divine intention for America to expand westward, sanctioning the removal of Indians from their lands and the war with Mexico that resulted in America's acquisition of Texas and much of what is now New Mexico and southern California. The ideology of Manifest Destiny inherited by nineteenth-century writers from the canonical literature of the preceding centuries, captured the imagination of Americans as their frontiers expanded westward, from the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804806 to the linking of east and west in the transcontinental railroad in 1869.
Walt Whitman (1819892) was only one of many American writers who embraced the idea of divine progress in the expansion of the United States. Herman Melville (1819891) and Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815882) were both experienced seamen who had seen the world, particularly the Far East and the islands of the Pacific, and whose writings are sprinkled with allusions to the power of ocean commerce to unite the world. Melville had been raised in the Calvinistic Dutch Reformed Church in upstate New York, and his works are filled with the rhetoric of Calvinism. In Moby-Dick (1851), for example, Father Mapple's sermon in the Whaleman's Chapel on that wayward biblical prophet Jonah, who attempted to run and hide from God's bidding, serves as a warning to the doomed sailors of the Pequod that Providence must be obeyed in all things and that individual destiny is predetermined. Captain Ahab's destiny is "fated," just as in Billy Budd (1924) the hapless young sailor is condemned by Captain Vere's peremptory judgment: "Fated boy . . . , what have you done!" (p. 99). Calvinism is everywhere and unavoidable in Melville's writings.
Contemporaries of Hawthorne and Melville were saturated with Puritan and Calvinistic doctrine, as churchgoing was regular and sermons were long. The Great Awakening , variously dated between 1730 and 1760, and the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and 1830s insured that several generations of American churchgoers knew the meaning of God's wrath and could understand a jeremiad. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882), trained at Harvard to become a Unitarian minister, and Henry David Thoreau (1817862), also trained at Harvard in the early nineteenth century, both inherited the sins of the fathers from seventeenth-century Puritanism. Emerson's "Concord Hymn" (1837), celebrating the commencement of the American Revolutionary War on 19 April 1775, echoes American exceptionalism when his "shot heard round the world" gives global significance to the events in ways that the colonial militia could not have conceived in their simple determination to separate from Britain's domination. Emerson's Nature (1836) echoes the epistemology of Jonathan Edwards in such works as A History of the Work of Redemption (1774). Thoreau's Walden (1854), incorrectly perceived to be a manifesto for the green movement and mistakenly associated with his essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849) as an antiauthoritarian credo, is in fact a carefully written, rigorously revised examination of the cycles of nature with exact correspondences drawn between nature's ways and those of human beings, when they are not living what Thoreau famously calls "lives of quiet desperation." It is a testament of renewal and has all the hallmarks of a Puritan conversion experience, right down to the "before" and "after" structure that Thoreau intended for the piece to represent. More significantly Emersonian self-reliance may be traced to its roots in the Protestant-Puritan emphasis on the individual if not on self-determination.
American Puritanism, as interpreted by nineteenth-century ministers, did not always stress conformity and consensus. Rather it represented for the post-Revolution citizens of the new nation the strength to challenge authority and an often lawless individualism that expressed itself in the numerous reform movements found in the antebellum United States. Chief among these, of course, was the abolitionist crusade led by William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, and Wendell Phillips. However, Garrison (1805879) got his start as a temperance crusader; and in antebellum slave narratives, biblical fundamentalism and a belief in divine intervention in human affairs are hallmarks of plot and theme. Utopian communities such as Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, where Hawthorne spent much of 1841 and about which he wrote The Blithedale Romance (1852), were direct descendants of Plymouth Plantation and other New England Puritan communities of the seventeenth century. But it was the abolitionist movement and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852) that best illustrate the continuity of the ideology and literature of the nineteenth century with early American Puritanism.
In January 1831 the abolitionist crusade caught fire in the rhetoric of William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, which continued weekly publication for thirty-four years, until the passage in December 1865 of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, by which slavery in the United States was abolished forever. Garrison was raised around Calvinist Puritans in Boston, and while he remained generally anti-institutional and anti-Constitutional throughout his career as a reformer and abolitionist, his moral perspective was deeply influenced by the Declaration of Independence, with its emphasis on individualism, and by the ancient doctrine of the Golden Rule. Like the New Testament Jesus, Garrison called not simply for the abolition of slavery but for total social equality for all minorities, and he eschewed pomp and circumstance even when his cause, the abolition of slavery, was triumphant. From the beginning he was determined and intolerant. "I am in earnest will not equivocate will not excuse will not retreat a single inchND I WILL BE HEARD," he declared in the first issue of The Liberator on 1 January 1831 (quoted in Mott, p. 278).
Even more deeply rooted in specific Puritan doctrines was the abolitionist and reformer John Brown (1800859). Brown was the son of an extremely pious, fundamentalist Calvinist Christian, Owen Brown, who was a humble shoemaker and farmer but whose calling in life was to oppose slavery, which he saw as a sin against God. John quickly absorbed his father's intolerant fundamentalism and hatred of slavery. As David S. Reynolds observes,
Intense Calvinism and a republican belief in human rights would combine uniquely in John Brown. He never surrendered the Calvinistic doctrinesredestination, total depravity, God's sovereignty, and so forthe had learned from his parents. Their religion was not the modified Calvinism of nineteenth-century preachers like Charles Grandison Finney. . . . Instead, it harked back to the orthodox Calvinism of Puritan times. (P. 25)
The Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823911) observed that
John Brown is almost the only radical abolitionist I have ever known who was not more or less radical in religious matters also. His theology was Puritan, like his practice; and accustomed as we are now to see Puritan doctrines and Puritan virtues separately exhibited, it seems quite strange to behold them combined in one person again. (Reynolds, p. 27)
Both Brown, who was always dirt poor, and Wendell Phillips (1811884), a devout Calvinist and a Harvard-educated Boston Brahmin, stressed their divine callings as emissaries of God in the crusade against slavery.
Where Phillips remained primarily in New England and depended on his superior oratorical skills to convert audiences to the antislavery cause, Brown modeled himself on the archetypal Puritan Oliver Cromwell, whose regime in England (1648660) provides English history with the only instance of regicide. In 1648 in Westminster Hall, London, Cromwell's Puritans beheaded King Charles I. For Brown this represented divine sanction for a righteous religious cause even though Cromwell's regime ultimately failed and monarchy was restored in 1660 by Charles II. What emerges from Brown's puritanical denunciation of slavery as a sin against God and humanity, and his murder of proslavery advocates in Kansas and Virginia, is the way that abolitionism, which he also represented, came to be perceived nationwide. In a country beset by sectional division and endless debates about slavery, Garrison's abolitionism and Brown's militant terrorism came to be associated with New England Puritanism's perverse influence in antebellum America. Reynolds says,
In 1863 the Democratic congressman Samuel Cox typically blamed the Civil War on disruptive New England reform movements that he said were rooted in Puritanism. He insisted that fanatical Abolitionism caused the war, and, in his words, "Abolition is the offspring of Puritanism. . . . Puritanism is a reptile which has been boring into the mound, which is the Constitution, and this civil war comes like a devouring sea!" (P. 16)
Southern war songs such as "The Southern Cross" (1861) contain the same sentiment:
How peaceful and blest was America's soil, 'Till betrayed by the guile of the Puritan demon, Which lurks under virtue, and springs from its coil, To fasten its fangs in the life blood of freemen.
(Reynolds, p. 16)
Reynolds goes on to say,
What linked Puritanism with Northern reform [and abolitionism] was its powerful heritage of antinomianismhe breaking of human law in the name of God. Antinomian rebels from Anne Hutchinson onward put divine grace above social codes. In the nineteenth century this spirit fostered a law-flouting individualism that appeared variously in militant Abolitionism, Transcendentalist self-reliance, and the "individual sovereignty" championed by anarchists. (Pp. 167)
Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," Emerson's "Divinity School Address" (1838), Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography (1791), and Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement of the 1960s all sanction obedience to individual conscience over slavish allegiance to immoral human laws. Although the theocracy of seventeenth-century New England was perhaps America's most intolerant society, its legacy to the United States was individualism based on a personal encounter with God in conversion that could not be rescinded by any state or governmental authority.
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE
Equally linked to the Puritan past was Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896), the daughter of Lyman Beecher, a stern Calvinist who was president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky and one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. All six of her brothers were ministers, and she married Calvin Stowe, a minister and professor of biblical literature. Her masterwork, Uncle Tom's Cabin, sold more than 300,000 copies in its first year, and by the eve of the Civil War it had sold more than four million copies in the United States alone; thus one in every three persons in the United States in 1860 owned a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Its Puritan roots run deep. In chapter 9, Mary Bird, a Bible reading fundamentalist Christian, confronts her U.S. senator husband about his recent vote in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The strength of her argument is entirely biblical. Characterization, plot structure, episodic allegories such as Eva's baptismal rescue from the Mississippi River by Tom and Eliza's crossing the "Jordan" (Ohio) River from slavery to freedom, all are present in this book-length Puritan sermon against slavery.
The rhetoric of New England Puritanism is present throughout Stowe's critique, and its popularity and influence in political and social affairs attest to the significant cultural work that texts often can do. Abraham Lincoln allegedly greeted her at the White House with the remark: "So you are the little lady who started this great big war." Lincoln also observed near the war's end, "I am only an instrument. The Abolitionists and the Union Army have done it all." Because Stowe's work and that of most abolitionists are so immersed in Puritan theology and the sense of a divine mission against slavery, it is clear that the seventeenth-century New England Puritans had a powerful influence not only on the literature of the nineteenth century, but also on its ideology in politics and social policy. The turbulent nineteenth century saw the newly minted United States, just a few decades old, desperately seeking an identity for itself. For all its carnage, the Civil War and the crusade against slavery assisted mightily in this quest, supported by the ideology of New England Puritanism, in all of its contemporary manifestations, from Emersonian self-reliance to John Brown's militant terrorism to Harriet Beecher Stowe's apocalyptic visions for America's future.
See also The Blithedale Romance; Calvinism; "Hawthorne and His Mosses"; The Liberator; Manifest Destiny; Moby-Dick; Protestantism; Religion; The Scarlet Letter; "Self-Reliance"; Transcendentalism; Uncle Tom's Cabin; Unitarianism
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