Monday, November 22, 2010

In Defence of the Puritans

The Puritans were of course the English Calvinists, similar to the Scots Presbyterians and the French Huguenots. The Puritans had a lasting influence on history: they produced the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is still one of the great statements of the Reformed faith and one of the members of the Westminster Assembly was Samuel Rutherford, whose treatise Lex Rex did so much to dispel the idea of the divine right of kings. Even today, we owe many of our rights and liberties to the Puritans.
Were the Puritans really as dour, repressive, and awful as they are so often depicted? The short answer is no. Much of what we have been told about the Puritans comes from the people they annoyed, or from the twilight of Puritanism when cranks were a little more plentiful. But at the beginning, Puritans were the radical youth. You know the annoying hipsters at your university, the ones that wear skinny jeans, read Sartre on public transport, and ache after 'authenticity'? Well, in the 1500s all the insufferably cool kids were Calvinists. "Reading The Bondage of the Will in class again, the show-offs." As CS Lewis has said,
The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists. When hard rocks of Predestination outcrop in the flowery of the Arcadia or the Faerie Queen, we are apt to think them anomalous, but we are wrong. The Calvinism is as modish as the shepherds and goddesses (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, p. 43).
So here I shall attempt to answer some of the many specific charges put upon the Puritans in the hope of showing how, if their name has become a byword for “forbidding innocent pleasures in the name of temperance,” it has become so undeservedly.

Sex
This kind of has to come right at the beginning, because so much effort has gone into mudslinging the Puritans on this topic. On the other hand, it's so patently untrue that fortunately the truth is slowly reasserting itself. I shall keep this brief. Probably you've heard about the way church discipline was handed out to a man who refused to sleep with his wife. That was quite normal. Lewis again:
To be sure, there are standards by which the early Protestants could be called 'puritanical'; they held adultery, fornication, and perversion for deadly sins. But then so did the Pope. If that is puritanism, all Christendom was then puritanical together. So far as there was any difference about sexual morality, the Old Religion was the more austere. The exaltation of virginity is a Roman, that of marriage, a Protestant, trait (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, p. 35).

But there is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side. On many questions, and specially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, p. 116).

Don't stop there: read the great singer of English Puritanism, Edmund Spenser. Read his glorious, lyrical Epithalamion, his love sonnets, his Faerie Queene which is hot stuff even by today's standards. And acknowledge that whatever else the Puritans were, they were definitely not prudes.


General killjoy-ism
To [Cardinal Allen], as to all the Roman writers, Protestants were the very reverse of 'puritans': they were 'soft physitions' . . . against whom he must assert a doctrine admittedly sterner and darker, 'the behoulding whereof must neades ingender som sorowe and sadnesse of minde' and even (such is our 'frailetie') 'a certaine bitter taediousnesse' (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 439).

Relief and buoyancy are the characteristic notes . . . It follows that nearly every association which now clings to the word puritan has to be eliminated when we are thinking of the early Protestants. Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them . . . Fore More, a Protestant was one 'dronke of the new must of lewd lightnes of minde and vayne gladness of harte' . . . Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad, to be true . . . Protestants are not ascetics but sensualists (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, p. 34).

The holy community which Calvin sought to set up in Geneva represents in some ways a completer integration of Christianity with civilization than anything Europe had yet seen. It is true that there emerges within Calvinism, especially in its later Puritan developments, a more negative attitude toward the cultural amenities than had been present in Medievalism, but just because this spirit of renunciation was not sealed off in separate monastic communities (John Baillie, What Is Christian Civilization?, pp. 22-23).

I wish I could here quote an account of a feast in Plymouth to celebrate the ordainment of a new minister, at which one young minister put his jaw out of joint laughing too hard, and had to be hit in the jaw by “Mr Rogers, who knoweth somewhat of anatomy” to relocate it. The feast being held in a barn, the partiers defended themselves against annoyed roosters with thrown apples and nuts, and it all ended with “maudlin songs and much roistering laughter”, as Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, quote it.


Christmas
Puritans were not so much the kind of people who would ban the public (not private) celebration of Christmas, as they were the kind of people who would debate, at great length, whether it should be banned. The greater majority decided that banning Christmas was for the birds. Calvin was one of these, saying “I have pursued the moderate course of keeping Christ's birth-day” and “I declare that a church is not to be despised or condemned, because it observes more festival days than the others”. Nevertheless the Genevan authorities—to whom he was a counsellor not a leader—decided against him in this and fixed his name to yet another bit of folly for which he wasn't responsible; typically for poor Calvin, he's been blamed for it ever since.
Even those Puritans who did seriously reconsider the validity of Christmas (such as the English Rump Parliament, which banned the public observance of Christmas and even sat on Christmas Day) did so fully within the spirit of the times. Sola Scriptura was their rallying cry; it had already overturned the Eucharist itself (as then understood) and the Bishop of Rome. A drastic re-evaluation of religion as then understood was underway and it was only to be expected that Christmas, not actually ordained or commanded in the Bible, would come under the same scrutiny.
It is also worth mentioning that the Roman Church made observance of holy days—including Christmas—compulsory for salvation. The 'banning of public observance' may simply have been the easiest way to let people know they wouldn't go to hell if they failed to attend church at Christmas. (I would give you a citation for this information but I read it on a blog some time ago and though I made a note of what I read there, I cannot find a link).
Be that as it may, the official majority position of the Reformed and Calvinist churches seems to have been aptly summed up by the Second Helvetic Confession, which says,
Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly.

The emphasis was upon Christian liberty, liberty of conscience, while avoiding the multitude of holy-days cluttering up the calendar.


Iconoclasm
According to Wikipedia—and, tellingly, I can't find much on the subject anywhere else on the 'net, so you'll have to bear with me—many Reformed leaders encouraged the removal of the images in churches. This led, somewhat predictably, to the destruction of many.
As I mentioned above in the Christmas section, the Reformation led great amounts of people to drastically overhaul what they and their forbears for a thousand years had been taught. Here, however, there was a great deal more consensus than on the Christmas question: graven images in places of worship were against the Second Commandment. I can't fault them there; in fact today many Reformed types still aren't quite sure about the film The Passion of the Christ because it goes so far as to have some poor mortal dress up and ape the Lord of Life.
So I agree with their reasoning. Wikipedia goes on to say that “As a result, statues and images were damaged in spontaneous individual attacks as well as unauthorised iconoclastic riots. However, in most cases images were removed in an orderly manner by civil authorities in the newly reformed cities and territories of Europe.” The riots being lamentable but not the norm and not encouraged by the Protestant leaders, I think we can absolve the Puritans of that.
The English Civil War is a much more serious matter, and it is said that the War resulted in wholesale destruction of churches; yet I believe that this wanton destruction of beauty, from what else I know of the Puritans, is completely against type. Their great men and poets were admirers of, and creators of, beauty. Their fervour led them to be rational and sober rather than ferocious destroyers. I'm not trying to deny that the Civil War iconoclasm happened, but that it's possible it wasn't as bad as it is painted: “A good deal of what we know, or what we think we know, about Puritan iconoclasm derives from royalist and Anglican sources, whether contemporary or scholarly.” (Nicholas McDowell in a review of Puritan Iconoclasm in the English Civil War, found here). It is not to be forgotten that the War was bloody and fierce and that at the Restoration supporters of the Stuarts indulged in a fierce vengeance. If they dug up Cromwell's body, burned it and scattered the ashes on the wind, just to get even, it's probably not a giant step to say that they indulged in a bit of anti-Puritan propaganda.


The theatre
At least from the Reformation (and possibly even before) the church has had a history of distrusting the theatre. Apart from the Second Commandment, which did for morality plays, I can see why--I would hardly like to be married to an actor who played Romeo every night opposite someone else as Juliet.
Even so the Puritans never completely outlawed plays of any kind, even when in power. Although public performances were prohibited, this was more a reaction to the dismal quality of the plays than to playacting per se. To quote McDowell again:
Thanks to scholarship over the last decade we now know that the theatre did not vanish for eighteen years but assumed new forms in play pamphlets and closet drama; we know that an English republican culture developed in the seventeenth century shaped by classical education and scholarship; we know that the Cromwellian government continued to patronize literature, music and the visual arts, and we know that a range of architecturally significant buildings were erected under Commonwealth and Protectorate.

No, I didn't have to quote all that, but I wanted to.


Grim mercilessness
Tryal Pore, a young girl arraigned before the Middlesex County Court in 1656, confessed that 'by...my sin I have not only done what I can to pull down judgement from the Lord on myself but also upon the place where I live.' But Tryal Pore's tearful confession convinced the magistrates of her repentance, and they were more than ready to forgive her...The Puritan magistrates, whose law book was the Bible, were generally far more anxious to see a sinner come to repentance than to mete out punishment. In case after case, the mercy, forgiveness, and pastoral concern for the defendant stand out (Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, pp 172-173).


Great stories
Puritans were behind most of the great English literature of the 1500s and 1600s. There are echoes of it in the poetry of Donne; Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser were great Puritan poets and Milton, if not strictly theologically correct, was also in name at least a Puritan. John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe, later, were also both Puritans. This means Puritans were behind all the greatest literature of their time (with, of course, some exceptions—it's possible that Shakespeare was not a Puritan, although the Earl of Oxford was definitely a Protestant) and even invented the modern novel. Puritans were poets, too, and remarkable ones; Douglas Wilson has a whole archive dedicated to Puritan poetics over at his blog.
Nor was all this done by ignoramuses. That the Puritans rejected sin and error with new-found vigour and turned back to the Scriptures for their sustenance did not mean that they also rejected the great stories and ideas of previous generations. Granted, not all of them could afford the best education; but those who, like Spenser and Sidney, had money and standing were educated to the highest level and well familiar with the classics. For all the accusations against them, I have never heard it said that the Puritans burned books.


Worldly belongings, wine, and other innocent pleasures
Richard Sibbes: “Worldly things are good in themselves and given to sweeten our passage to Heaven” quoted in The Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken (p. 59).
In this amazingly well-researched book, Daniels analyzed how reading (the ideal recreational activity in Puritan America), music, church related activities, public gatherings (such as public hangings or military training days), dancing, eating, sex, bars, gambling, and sports (among others) fit into both the Puritan ideal and the Puritan reality (Amazon review of Puritans at Play by Bruce C Daniels).

Increase Mather, Puritan and father of Cotton Mather, on liquor: “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan; the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.” Indeed the Pilgrims, on arrival in America, built a brewery before anything else. They weren't precisely Puritans, but no doubt you can find out more about both in Drinking with Calvin and Luther! A History of Alcohol in the Church by Jim West.


To conclude
HL Mencken once defined a Puritan as someone who lies awake at nights fretting that someone, somewhere, was having a good time. That is par for the course when it comes to Puritans in popular culture. It was also not the truth. Good times were had. Great poetry and literature was written. And making fun of them for being serious about their religion is not really fair to them.
Yes, the caricature came from somewhere. Douglas Wilson's theory is quite simple:
What is caricatured as the "Puritan" mentality is actually a mentality that can be found in the church of all ages. You can find this mindset in some of the early fathers, you can find it with Syrian aescetics, you can find it in medieval monasteries, and you can find it (after the first generation or so) among the Puritans (link).
There you have them--the Puritans. It's impossible that they were perfect people, but as for their faults, those were much the same as anyone else's. They weren't unfeeling psychopaths, or even religious crazies. Generally they were normal people, interested in worshipping God in spirit and in truth, who generally had a lot of fun doing it and wrote some pretty awesome poetry along the way. May the odour of their name soon fade into something a whole lot more pleasant.
I have not referred often in this post to the book Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were by Leland Ryken, because when I first drafted this post I had not read the book. I highly recommend it--it is as inspiring as the people it speaks about.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Forgive me for not commenting directly about the Puritans (although I enjoyed the read) because I've only just found your blog and the thing that really struck me was that the heading (I assume that's you) had you holding an O. Douglas book! There aren't a lot of O. Douglas readers out there - or so it seems to me. I live in a household of men, so I can't really expect to find them here. I'm something of an invalid and really enjoy the gentle works of Anna, although I truly wish I could get them in audible form (with all the correct Scottish accents!). My son is trying to extend my comfort zone and I'm currently listening to 'Westward Ho'. I think I'll enjoy coming back to your site. Cheers.

Suzannah said...

You are forgiven!

Yes, that's me and one of my O Douglas books. To be perfectly honest, I have only read that one (although I adore the cover--it's beautiful). But I have several friends who do read and enjoy them!

I hope you enjoy my reviews. If you like O Douglas, you may also enjoy The Enchanted April which was the second review I ever posted here!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for 'The Enchanted April' review. I just happen to have the DVD of said book waiting for me at the library. I've never read the book (which is probably a good thing if I'm going to watch the movie), but I shall now have to go hunting for it.

I've got all Anna Buchan's books, and I read them each year as a sort of soothing holiday. Did you know that 'Olivia' was her first effort, based so closely on her own trip to India that she didn't even bother to change some of the people's names? It apparently upset a few souls.

Enjoyed 'The Black Arrow' review too - we all like RLS in this house.

Suzannah said...

I've been trying to get that movie! I hear there are differences with the book, but I think the book will be different enough that it will stand on its own.

Yes, I realised how autobiographical "Olivia" was upon all the references to John and to her own childhood! I wasn't expecting that, and I liked it.

Anonymous said...

I was questioning the historical accuracy of The Scarlet Letter's portrayal of puritans while reading Paradise Lost by Milton (who from what I recall, was a puritan himself). It was mostly in regards to my discerning literature that is wholesome and inspired on spiritual matters. I liked the general theme of The Scarlet Letter, but I too acknowledge its many flaws as I have read the same things about the puritans being misrepresented. Even Classic literature can be bigoted. A lot of ancient Greek literature is very savage and fleshly. King Arthur was actually more respectable as a legendary hero especially after the Christianization of the story, which I don't think dilutes the texts in any way, IMHO. The Song of Roland is much more flawed in comparison, as it basically glorifies and approves of forced conversions during the Crusades and casts ignorant portrayals of the Church's enemies at the time, which from what I remember was not as prevalent in Arthur's stories if mentioned at all. There is a lot of wholesome classic literature to be read, but just because it's classic doesn't mean it's historically accurate by any means.

Suzannah said...

Yes, there's a lot of excellent lit out there that doesn't hew particularly close to historical fact. I think you can get around that by reading lots of different points of view and not taking anyone's word for it. However, I would encourage you not to discount books because of a few flaws. I've never read Hawthorne, but I'm guessing the reason people keep reading him is because of a genuine literary skill which can be appreciated and learned from even as you take exception to some of the content. No one disputes the fact that THE SONG OF ROLAND is almost completely fictional, in the history it depicts let alone the depiction of Muslims! but what it does tell us about is the attitudes of the society that produced it.

Basically, at a certain point, literature is more valuable as a window into the minds and beliefs of those who produced it, than it is as a historically accurate picture of the setting. For the serious historian, that's how these writings can be valuable.

Anonymous said...

The Tale of Genji is a good example for instance of what you're talking about in providing some insight during a period where little information about that time exists elsewhere. I also, like you, understand the idea of books still having tremendous value despite their flaws. Huck Finn is one that gets slammed a lot here in the US because of how Huck uses racial language of the time period in regards to the blacks. But here's the thing: people in the postmodernist world criticize portrayals of good and evil being too black and white, and that we need more ambiguous characters, even the anti-hero type with major flaws, saying humans are more paradoxical in this respect. Yet, Huck would fit this bill in the wake of their political correctness because he respects and protects Jim in spite of using such language that we'd regard as racist and even other ideas about blacks. But heck, even some black people use those words like it's no big deal in an attempt to 'reclaim' it, but there's a common defense that goes 'If you're black and you say it, then it's OK.' That's not to say that all blacks are fine with it even in that instance. The arguments against Huck Finn that persist even now are largely unfounded by most critics who want to argue whether we should even be defining or making accusations about what is or isn't evil at all. In today's world, you'd have to be hesitant to openly praise a work like Moll Flanders, as the concept could be written off as shameful. In other words, it would be considered 'prudish' to call prostitution wrong, since it is about a prostitute being redeemed. Some of the stuff our media promotes in the US and much of western societies today is really mindless trash.

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