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Book Review: The Puritans, Reconsidered

Before he was executed in 1662 for his part in the insurrection against England’s King Charles I, Hugh Peter, a Puritan who was born in Cornwall but immigrated to Massachusetts in 1635 before returning to England, wrote a pamphlet to his American-born daughter Elizabeth.

Calling it A Dying Father’s Legacy, the 64-year-old Peter described to Elizabeth his vision of the Heaven where he hoped to find refuge. There, happiness was eternal and universal, while “all things here below are but partial.”

Evil had no place in Heaven, and any sin and sorrow were overcome by holiness and joy. “No more fading riches, dying friends, changing honors, perishing beauties; no more aching heads, languishing diseases; no more hearing the chain of the prisoner, nor anger of the oppressor,” Peter wrote. Heaven looked and felt much like someone’s idea of domestic contentment: comfortable beds and all rooms “paved with love.”

Such rich, literary language might strike the modern reader as being at odds with our common notions of what it meant to be a Puritan in the England and New England of the 17th century. The Puritans have come down to us as stern, unyielding Spartans dressed only in black, drawn to the New World in pursuit of religious liberty denied them at home, but once here dispensers of an arbitrary, oppressive justice.

The historian Francis J. Bremer seeks to dispel these incomplete pictures of the first English settlers in New England in First Founders: American Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World (University Press of New England). Hugh Peter is one of the Puritans he depicts in a series of portraits of women and men whose names may resonate with us vaguely, if at all: John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, Ann Hutchinson, John Leverett, Samuel Sewall, Hugh Peter, Sarah Keaynes.

Although the sources Bremer has to work with are sometimes sketchy, particularly with the women, who left behind little in the way of writing (poet Bradstreet excepted) and have to be reconstructed through reports about them, there is still enough material to give us a remarkably full account of their lives.

Stereotype has it that they were ascetics insensible to the sensual pleasures of life, and joyless banishers of Christmas who were steeped in intolerance. In Bremer’s history, they were not as chilly or implacable as we think they were and as their settlements in the Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Connecticut grew, their lives were as filled with the mundane pleasures and irritations as ours are.

They loved their children and worried about the effects of corporal punishment on them, were as susceptible to lust as anyone else, placed great value on an intimate physical and spiritual bond between husband and wife, drank in moderation, were not averse to divorce if the situation seemed to call for it and wore the same kind of colorful clothing that any other English person would wear.

But what sets them apart from the earliest settlers in Virginia, New York and the Middle Atlantic states, and the more secular immigrants who sailed with them to Massachusetts in 1620, is their great yearning for the consolation of God’s love and an abhorrence of earthly corruption and vainglory, which they had seen around them in English life and its institutions.

They very much had a sense of themselves as a people called to a greater mission, who strived to live apart from the noisy crowd. Their lives were about spiritual submission, a continual struggle to perfect their unruly souls and bodies because while life on Earth mattered, eternal life in Heaven mattered more.

On the one hand, we admire their valiance in eking out a grim existence in their first months, scratching out a toehold in the snow and cold of winter New England, a period when the settlement and its people clung, just barely, to life. We credit them for establishing a government of the people, not one led by a monarch and an aristocracy. In their writing, they framed the language we still use to describe this country, the shining city on a hill.

But we also think of the scourge of war and disease that Puritans brought to the indigenous populations (although they suffered the same); and of the Salem witch trials which, although they were an anomaly, have long characterized the worst of Puritan New England, throwing out legal precedent and common sense to follow the imps of superstition. They could be harsh and unforgiving when it came to religious dissent, banishing (Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams) or executing dissenters (Quakers) where they saw fit.

What makes Bremer’s history valuable is that he gives us the details of the lives of these women and men, who were, of course, complex creatures but also beset by war, disease and high mortality rates in ways most Americans simply don’t understand now. Perhaps because their physical lives were so vulnerable, it was even more essential that they labor toward spiritual perfection.

Hutchinson’s case is particularly fascinating, and Bremer argues that to interpret her wholly through a modern lens of gender and individual liberty is to misread both her temperament and the temperament of the times.

Hutchinson wasn’t put on civil trial, excommunicated and then banished from the Bay Colony because she spoke out for the freedom to worship as an individual saw fit, Bremer states, but because she, in the view of some church elders, sowed division when she attacked them for being insufficiently principled in religious doctrine.

While some religious leaders thought humans could be saved through a lifetime of good works, Hutchinson, along with others, stoutly maintained that only God had the ability to redeem us. Those leaders who disagreed with her were not true Christians, and God would pass judgment on them.

Called on to recant by people sympathetic to her, including John Winthrop, she initially did, but then retracted her retraction. While it’s impossible to say that her gender didn’t play a role in her banishment (she was called a “dangerous woman”) her insistence that a majority of judges and religious leaders were, in fact, unfit for heaven, was something the orthodoxy couldn’t countenance.

Bremer offers some useful correctives to our dusty images of the Puritans, and he has marshaled an impressive array of facts. But some of the writing is dry, a recitation of events that sucks the life out of people he’s trying to enliven. And because the book is written as a series of portraits, there are instances where the same information is repeated again and again in different chapters, or information is given without context, leaving the reader at sea.

In the introduction, we’re told that John Winthrop had been in the Stour Valley in the 1630s but we’re not told where the Stour Valley is (southeastern England). We learn that in the next chapter, but that’s something an editor should have caught. More frustrating, discussion of religious doctrine and the schisms within the Puritan church, which is at the heart of their experience, is sometimes unclear. It’s clear to Bremer, of course, but that hasn’t quite made it onto the page.

Still, there’s something moving about reading about the determination of these Puritan men and women, and the immense struggles they underwent. Towards the end of

A Dying Father’s Legacy, Hugh Peter reflected on his time in New England, and his sorrow that he hadn’t been able to return there. He had fought not out of hatred of his fellow Englishmen but from the desire to make earthly institutions better and in so doing, to serve God.

He’d labored, Peter wrote, “for a good government, where men may be as good as they can, not as bad as they would,” a distinction that some in our current Congress might do well to observe.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.