The Heirs of Puritanism: That's Us!

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Mr. McKenna is the author of The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (Yale University Press).

In 1630, as the Arbella lay at anchor off Southampton, England in preparation for its journey to the New World, John Winthrop proclaimed to his fellow passengers that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” By mid- century the notion of an exemplary New England, a light for nations of the world, had seized the imagination of New England’s cultural establishment. “And thou New England,” wrote Peter Bulkeley, one of its chief ministers, “which are exalted in privileges of the Gospel above many other people, know thou the time of thy visitation, and consider the great things the Lord hath done for thee.” There was a militant, even chiliastic strain in much of this rhetoric. Increase Mather (father of the famous Cotton Mather) was sure that the big battles with the Antichrist, the Roman Catholic Church, were not far off, and that New England was going to play a major role in vanquishing the enemy. We were sent here “not because the Lord hated us, but because he loved us.”

The demise of an independent Puritan Commonwealth and the rise of religious tolerance in the eighteenth century did not mean the demise of Puritan millennialism. On the contrary, the spirit of New England expanded. It moved across New York State and the Upper Midwest to Iowa and parts of Missouri, then it took the Oregon Trail to the Northwest. In the East, it moved down the coast in ships loaded with books and sermons written by Puritans and published in Boston. New England sent out preachers and missionaries and schoolmarms; it founded seminaries that became great universities, and it published primers teaching children spelling and Calvinism. It worshipped a sovereign and righteous God who demanded man’s best efforts but, more often than not, acted in ways that man could not comprehend. It was a God who was constantly on the move, never resting, always renewing and destroying, trampling down everything that blocked the path of His righteous march.

Southerners hated New England theology, the more so as it began to threaten their “peculiar institution.” They cursed the Puritans as “disturbers of the peace of the world,” identifying them with atheism and anarchy, and they sought to build dikes and levees to keep Puritanism out of their region. They “pickled” their culture, as one Southern journalist later noted, steeped it in myth and legend, inoculated it against change. They, the southern chivalry, stood for tradition and civilized manners against the barbarous Puritanism that had taken over so much of the North.

The other main group conspicuously unenthusiastic about Puritan millennialism were the Catholics. Many served valiantly in the Civil War, but most because they were drafted or because they were taking the place of rich draftees. The Catholics’ huge presence in America--almost a quarter of the population--was an embarrassment for anyone who adhered strictly to the first edition of the Puritan narrative. In that version Catholics were not even supposed to be here. Catholicism was the Antichrist, the hellbound Whore of Babylon, the thousand-year corrupter and perverter of Christianity.

Collectively, then, Southerners and Catholics were the two stones rejected by the builders of American patriotism. The first was rejected because the Southern narrative--a pastiche of legend, fancied genealogies, and the dreamy tales of Sir Walter Scott--ran counter to fiercely dynamic, progressive story which the sons and daughters of the Puritans had absorbed from childhood. The second stone, Catholicism, was rejected for the more obvious reason that it was the stone that had to be smashed, ground into powder, before the final trumpet could sound. Until then, the Catholic Church remained a constant obstacle; it was not a building-block but a stumbling-block

In the post-Civil War era, however, the heirs of the Puritans became uncomfortable with parts of their own story. The theology that held it together appeared to them to be excessively rigid and harsh. An inscrutable God who chastises those he loves and wreaks terrible changes that nobody can anticipate did not sit well with an activist generation that believed in “progress.” Biblical literalism began to be questioned by young Protestant clergymen who came back from German universities with all kinds of subversive new learning. Some theological revisions, it seemed, were required--a bit of trimming here, a bit of softening there--to modernize the message. But even in its increasingly secularized form, the Puritan story lived on. What the new reformers retained was its patriotic core, its belief that America had an exceptional role to play in the world. When, in 1909, Herbert Croly wrote that “the faith of Americans in their own country is religious, if not in its intensity, at any rate in its almost absolute and universal authority,” he could have also been describing his own faith and the faith of the other Progressive reformers.

Something else was going on in twentieth-century America, The American South and American Catholics were becoming “Americanized.” Despite the concerns of the Vatican at that time, most American Catholic laymen quietly made their own accommodations with other faiths in a country they had come to accept as their own. The South was also back in the Union, and glad to be back. Federal troops had departed in 1877, and by 1900 even the most partisan Republicans had stopped “waving the bloody shirt.” By 1913 one of the South’s own sons, a Virginian (by way of New Jersey) was in the White House.

And so the century went. In 1933, and still more enthusiastically after December 8, 1941, the outliers, the white Southerners and the Catholics, were invited in as full participants in the American story. And they rushed in with enthusiasm, becoming exemplary patriots during World War II. Afterwards they seemed to outdo everyone in supporting the new war against Communism. But it was just at that time, in the 1950s, that some of the insiders started to get uncomfortable with the Puritan story of national “election.” They worried that World War II-style patriotism was turning into Manichaeism, which was especially dangerous in an atomic age, and they worried about the threats to civil liberties posed by overzealous anti-Communists. Still, these concerns did not penetrate the core of American self-confidence, and during the brief Kennedy years patriotism enjoyed something of a renascence in high cultural circles. American history was viewed as an inspiring story of a people struggling to realize the ideals of freedom and democracy, and America was a force for good in the world.

All that changed with Vietnam, Watergate, and long national Lenten period that followed. The Northeast, the birthplace of the Puritan narrative of an American “mission,” was now the region most hospitable to doubters. It was all just a facade, they claimed, for American capitalism’s global ambitions. New England, the birthplace of American providentialism, was abandoning the whole idea of Providence in American life, while Southerners, the outsiders in the Puritan-told story of America, and the Roman Catholics, once considered un-American because of their allegiance to a “foreign prince,” were now the most fervent believers in the Puritans’ patriotic account of America’s glorious mission. The wild olives, the church-going Catholics and Southerners, were now grafted to the main stem of American patriotism.

In the preface to his biography of Increase Mather, historian Michael G. Hall remarks on the similarity between the beliefs of Mather and Pope John Paul II on the subject of angels. Hall considers this ironic, given the hostility of Mather and other Puritans toward the Catholic Church. But perhaps, by the 1980s, Increase Mather’s attitude toward Catholics might have softened. Not only on the subject of angels but on an extensive range of creedal questions, from the divinity of Jesus to the hope for life after death, the beliefs of the Puritans, evangelicals, and faithful Catholics are almost identical, and stand in sharp contrast to the allegorized, secularized approach of liberal Protestantism. Even more striking was the similarity of their positions on moral issues like gay marriage and abortion (which the Puritans would not have even considered debatable)--once again in contrast to the liberal position. To crown it all, the three of them -- the Catholics, the Southerners, and the Puritans of Mather’s day-- shared the view that America was divinely summoned to the task of Christianizing wilderness, a view now scornfully rejected in the cultural centers of Greater New England. If he were alive now, Increase Mather, one of the greatest champions of the New England Way, might find himself allied with Catholics and Southerners--and alienated from his own region.

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