So What’s a Puritan, anyway?
I’m ending the long dry spell on my blog (due to personal and professional insanity now abating!) by, unsurprisingly, explaining why I have a problem with a conservative columnist. George Will wrote a column December 3 blaming the Puritans for today’s materialist excess around the holidays. Now, I am prepared to admit that some portion of his argument (meaning, the portion purporting to be logical) was probably intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but this column really drove this early American historian NUTS. Why? The total misinterpretation of what the Puritans were about. Will often complains that today’s youth are insufficiently educated about the history of this country, yet here he is, contributing to the misinformation.
First of all, comments on Oliver Cromwell. Will writes, A Puritan scold and a killjoy, he thought Christmas had become too much fun….. Will goes on to describe Puritans in America as fans of Cromwell. Our friend Oliver can be described creditably as a Puritan, in so far as he experienced a conversion experience and supported the purification of England’s state church from popish rites. This hardly made him a “scold” or a “killjoy.” Puritans came by their beliefs honestly through feelings of intense piety, not because they thought holidays were too much fun. One would expect a conservative to understand and even approve of such motivated faith. Moreover, Oliver, once he found himself Lord Protector, realized England’s religious problems were more complicated than he had previously supposed. The result was a officially tolerated form of religious pluralism. This didn’t extend to Catholics and Quakers, of course, but presaged religious toleration (and I mean toleration in the broadest sense of the term) among Protestants. Things didn’t work out as OC planned, but who knows what might have happened had he lived longer. Mr. Will might like to read a short biography of Cromwell, maybe Barry Coward’s 1991 Oliver Cromwell. Short, sweet, but definitely nuanced.
Second, comments on New England’s Puritans. Will writes, Puritanism inculcated Scrooge-like asceticism, deferral of gratification, green-eyeshade parsimony and nose-to-the-grindstone industriousness. But those led to accumulation, investment of surplus capital and, in time, prodigious production and a subversive — to Puritanism — cornucopia of material delights. Puritans were hardly Scrooge-like; they were determined to build a godly community in which neighbors supported neighbors (isn’t that what conservatives claim they wish to return to?), and they enjoyed the remarkable abundance of the New World so much that within two generations they had deforested eastern Massachusetts, driven away much of the wild game, and exhausted the soil. (I don’t want to condemn them for this; naturally they had no understanding of how environments work, etc.) One can hardly call that delayed gratification. And, historian Edmund Morgan showed us in 1943 that the Puritans even enjoyed and encouraged sex, so long as it took place within marriage. One might point to the sumptuary laws of CT and MA as evidence of parsimony, but laws forbidding some women from wearing silks, for example, had much less to do with religion than with early modern ideas of dress being appropriate to status.
I suppose it’s popular still to take the old Weberian line that Protestant industriousness led to surplus capital and the economies of the modern world. But it is hard for me to see the connection betweem the small, insular, agrarian communities of Puritans in New England and the modern shopping mall. We have only ourselves to blame for our materialism. Connecting our troubles to Puritans is one way of preaching false history. How sinful.