The Winthrop Covenant

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Puritanism, that development of Calvinist doctrine which inspired the early settlers of New England, has left an indelible mark on American culture. It has been, perhaps more than any other single factor, responsible for those strange contradictions in our behavior that have come to be called hypocrisy, and we hold to many of its principles even as we struggle to escape its influence. A majority of the faults we decry today—intolerance, bigotry, prudery, inhibition, repression, censorship—have been identified by social critics with this integral part of our national heritage.

For the individual Puritan, life was no easy matter. The two basic doctrines were original sin and predestination. This meant, first, that the individual’s waking hours must be dedicated to acts of atonement for not being born in a state of grace; and second, that whether the individual would be saved or damned had been decided long before he was born. Thus he lived in fear, hoping for salvation and at the same time convinced that in spite of his best efforts he was most unlikely to be numbered among the fortunate few. He was informed that a life dedicated to good works would not redeem him if his damnation had been foreordained. This led to an odd combination of fatalism and fanaticism: obviously, if the individual’s ultimate fate had been predetermined, it mattered little what sort of life he led. But there was always the secret hope that a godly existence might nonetheless weight the scales in his favor. It is easy in this context to feel a certain pity for such people; but they exhibited little of it themselves, particularly toward those whose behavior was, or might conceivably be, indicative of sin as they defined it. And their definition of sin was very broad indeed. Fantacism always begets ignorance and extremism, and the extremes to which Puritanism could go are best memorialized by the Salem witch trials.

However repellent inflexible dedication and stern discipline may be to the more tolerant among us, it is obvious that they strengthen any movement which employs them. That Puritanism has declined is due, in the final analysis, less to its narrow structure than to its rejection of human warmth. A smile was the mark of frivolity under most circumstances; laughter was a serious impropriety; an outward display of affection was the sign of unchastity, the worst of all sins. A sober simplicity was cultivated to the point of ugliness, and time not spent in honest labor was reserved for prayer and meditation. This was not entirely true of everyone, for human nature will not be denied altogether; but it can be suppressed, and was, to the greatest extent possible. There is a marked contrast between Puritan austerity and the feeling of joyful happiness that permeates the four Gospels, as there is between a narrowly restricted kind of salvation and the message preached by Jesus. But Puritanism leaned more heavily on the Old Testament than the New, and God was characterized always by vengeance rather than love. A cold, bleak, aggressively intolerant faith, Puritanism often crushed the human spirit it professed to save.

Paradoxically enough, the Puritans were responsible for a number of our cherished freedoms and for many of the principles that have made Americans a sturdy and self-reliant people. It is to them that we owe the concepts of religious freedom, separation of Church and state, and the right to dissent—although, like most dissenters, they were harshly repressive toward anyone who disagreed with them. Much of the English Bill of Rights, adopted in the late seventeenth century and later incorporated into our own Constitution and Bill of Rights, originated with the Puritans. Their conviction that they had nothing to fear but God made them formidable adversaries; their self-discipline made them well-adapted to survive in hostile environments, enforced as it was by ideals of sobriety, honesty, and industry. These characteristics played an important role in America’s phenomenal growth as an industrial nation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the expression “Yankee ingenuity” became a byword. Puritanism was thus an important factor in the rise of American capitalism, and this explains in part why so many empire builders of that era were both pious and ruthless. Their contradictory behavior is reconcilable in terms of the Puritan ethic; it was a code to which most of...

(The entire section is 1802 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Atlantic. CCXXXVII, April, 1976, p. 112.

Book World. March 21, 1976, p. 1.

Critic. XXXV, Fall, 1976, p. 96.

National Observer. XV, May 15, 1976, p. 21.

New York Times. March 22, 1976, p. 23.

Publisher’s Weekly. CIX, January 26, 1976, p. 280.