The Puritans Are Alright

Do Puritans get a bad rap? Ed Simon reviews Michael P. Winship's "Hot Protestants."

By Ed SimonDecember 16, 2020

The Puritans Are Alright

Hot Protestants by Michael P. Winship. Yale University Press. 368 pages.

I do this penance for my naughty living and for fornication.

— John Griffith, forced to publicly declare his sins in a Gloucester market, 1552

A puritan is such a one as loves God with all his soul, but hates his neighbor with all his heart.

— John Manningham, 1602


H. L. MENCKEN, better known for his bon mots than the systemization of his thought, famously quipped that the essence of Puritanism was the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Classic Mencken — funny, cutting, memorable. The sort of joke that has Mencken elevated into the pantheon of a Mark Twain or an Oscar Wilde, even if it takes a bit of flatulence to reach such an apotheosis. It’s also the sort of witticism that tells you something about the man who phrased it. The Puritans were a particular bugaboo for Mencken, as he (anachronistically) identified them as the ancestors of contemporary fundamentalists, and they were a convenient cipher for everything he found priggish, uninspired, prosaic, mundane, and tyrannical about American culture. As an aphorism, Mencken’s contention about Puritanism is easily quotable, and helps to establish he who is using those words as being on the journalist’s side of rationalism, of good humor, of joie de vivre.

Mencken prided himself on his rationalism, materialism, secularism, and atheism — the sort of man who, despite writing for a newspaper in a mid-sized Mid-Atlantic city, could still declare himself to be the “American Nietzsche.” This was a gentleman who was to have no time for the archaic faith, superstition, or bunkum that he thought defined American life; the stalwart critic of our simple-minded “boobocracy,” the reporter dutifully filing copy from the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. “The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it,” wrote Mencken for the Baltimore Evening Sun, “but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous.” Who wouldn’t prefer to have martinis at the Maryland Club with Mencken rather than praying in a back-numbing pew with Cotton Mather? And yet Mencken has always had his own tyrannical side — he was the racist, elitist, antisemite opponent of the New Deal who claimed that “[l]iberty and democracy are eternal enemies,” and who said of Benito Mussolini that “he is probably the most perfect specimen […] on view in the world today.” Suddenly, one wonders if they haven’t given Mather short shrift by comparison, at least in considering the source of our distaste.

Duplicitous to claim that, because Mencken was a nasty piece of work — bigoted, intolerant, and overrated — his great straw-enemy of Puritanism can somehow by exonerated. Certainly, it’s possible to hold these as two separate truths — that Mencken was a bit of a tyrant and that the Puritans were an unpleasant influence on the American mind, weighing us down psychically like an anchor dropped in Boston Harbor. Worth making us take a bit of an extra look though, for like Ambrose Bierce before him and Christopher Hitchens after, Mencken had the not unadmirable ability to simply assert something and through sheer power of rhetoric and humor make you ignore the fact that whatever was said is at best completely unsubstantiated and at worst totally incorrect. “The great artists of the world are never Puritans,” Mencken confidently wrote, as if he’d never heard of Daniel Defoe, Thomas Nashe, or Anne Bradstreet. Of John Milton. “No virtuous man […] [has written] a book worth reading,” he claimed, though Paradise Lost certainly seems worth it. Yet the Puritans remain our embarrassing grandfathers, they of buckled black shoe and wide-brimmed hat, remembered once a year as part of the saccharine civil ceremony of Thanksgiving and otherwise shunted away as our button-upped ancestors freezing in distant New England. For all that we’re dimly aware of these serious men, authors of the Mayflower Compact and “A Model of Christian Charity,” founders of Harvard and Yale, we can’t quite shake the feeling that they’re the sort of people who’d have brief, uncomfortable sex on a knotty wooden board. “Let us thank God for having given us such ancestors,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne, “and let each successive generation thank Him […] for being one step farther from them.” Seems about right.

During the exact same decades that Mencken was using the Puritans as a signifier for everything stodgy, superstitious, and anti-intellectual about American culture, a Harvard University historian named Perry Miller was undermining precisely that stereotypical view, positing the Puritans as radical and innovative thinkers. In more than a dozen books, such as The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939) and Errand into the Wilderness (1956), Miller rescued the Puritans from their reputation for producing stern judgment and not much else. His view was that the Puritans, arguably the most highly educated generation of Americans, had molded qualities of thought that secularized into later movements from Transcendentalism to Pragmatism. The Puritans were, in Miller’s estimation, a veritable intellectual vanguard, prefiguring the richness of the national imagination. They “went into the eighteenth century well prepared in the terms of its own tradition to keep pace with the intellectual and emotional alterations of a new era.” Continuing in The New England Mind, Miller argues that, in their reasoning and rhetoric, the Puritans were suited to “both the emergence of an Age of Reason and the newer religious mood that was to arise in the reaction against reason.”

Along with figures like F. O. Matthiessen, whose American Renaissance championed writers like Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Hawthorne as literary exemplars, Miller was one of the founders of the nascent field of American Studies. And, like Matthiessen, the Chicago-born and trained Miller was a scion of the WASP establishment who saw his defense of early American thought as a patriotic necessity. Notably, Miller’s brief for the Puritans derived from no personal religious feeling — the historian was a staunch atheist. For the first generation of scholars working in American Studies, the excavation of a national mythology necessitated returning toward that earlier century, and offering encomium for the dry men who landed on Massachusetts’s shore. Miller’s overwhelming contribution to this discourse was the promotion of the 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” by the future governor of Massachusetts John Winthrop. From that hitherto forgotten text Miller would draw the phrase “city on a hill,” arguing that Winthrop envisioned the Puritan’s colony in both providential and utopian terms, and seeing that covenant as underscoring a sense of American destiny. At its most perceptive, Miller’s framework gave due credit to a group often unfairly dismissed or misinterpreted; at its most quixotic, it implied a teleology which led directly from Boston to Washington, DC, anachronistically reading the development of the United States as an inevitability.

Miller felt that the Puritans had not been acknowledged for their revolutionary significance, with scholarly opinion regarding them somewhere between Mencken’s cartoon and Hawthorne’s cringe. Representative of Miller’s approach is his Jonathan Edwards (1949), a rereading of the 18th-century theologian who reformulated Puritan orthodoxy for the vagaries of the First Great Awakening. Known for his terrifying sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards was interpreted by Miller as a consummate rhetorician who used religious imagery as an aesthetic tool, a Newtonian-minded Enlightenment figure excited by empirical science whose writing prefigures Romanticism. Not exactly unapprovingly, Michael Winship notes in his new overview, Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America, that Miller’s “brilliance sometimes outran his scrupulosity.”

Winship, and every scholar who has written about Puritanism since, works in the stead of the master. We’ve inherited Miller’s biases, his predilections, his positions, and in our reactions toward him we still acknowledge his preeminence, even if some have ostensibly come to bury him. Winship doesn’t necessarily dwell much on Miller in Hot Protestants, but his overview does provide perspective on the ways in which the field has changed over the past two or three generations. Miller interpreted the Massachusetts Puritans as particularly American, as indeed the inventors of America, and that nation was singularly of New England. Both of those contentions have been challenged in early American Studies in the past few decades: the mythic New England edifice has been chipped away by scholars like Alan Taylor who rightly point out that the nation has Spanish, French, and Dutch colonial origins as well (and of course indigenous and African ones too). Other early American scholars have pivoted their attention further south, particularly to the Mid-Atlantic, where cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity was much more marked, and where (with the exception of Baptist Rhode Island) traditions of pluralism as embodied in the First Amendment were apparent in a manner that they never were in dour Boston. There has been increasing interest in the Cavalier South as well, long buried as a source for national mythic origins after the end of the Civil War, for understandable reasons.

A related revisionism comes not in pivoting away from the Puritans, but rather placing them within a far wider transatlantic understanding, one which sees Boston not as a singular New Jerusalem, but as another Calvinist city with connections to Westminster, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, and Geneva. For scholars of the British 17th century, the Puritans were another non-conformist group who had spectacular success and then a dizzying decline during and after the English civil wars. For American scholars post-Miller, the Puritans were the genesis myth of the United States. The transatlantic approach rather continues with other trends in historical scholarship, analyzing Puritanism as an estimably international phenomenon, while avoiding backreading them into providential account of American progress (as a cruder interpretation of Miller could posit). Winship’s summary of this scholarship marks Hot Protestants as the first general-interest, single volume account of Puritanism giving equal weight to Somerset and Massachusetts, Oliver Cromwell and Increase Mather. He is indebted to not just Miller, but also to historians of British Puritanism like Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson.

Even while Puritans aren’t uniquely or singularly American, there is little doubt as to their significance. Winship explains that the “puritans executed a king, helped remove another one, founded a short-lived republic in England, and established quasi-republics in New England,” and, furthermore, they “reshaped England’s religious culture, destroyed much of its great medieval artistic legacy, wrote creeds and catechisms with worldwide impact, and created a lasting body of religious literature.” Unlike a Miller or a Sacvan Bercovitch, Winship spends little on those longer legacies of Puritanism, an endurance which is more implied than elaborated on (to the detriment of what is otherwise a good book). Perhaps it is the literary scholar in me always chafing against the strange customs of my cousin historians, but the lack of deeper critical analysis of culture is a lost opportunity in Hot Protestants. Winship namechecks the Puritan character Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy in the Jacobean play Bartholomew Faire without mentioning that he was the creation of the great playwright Ben Jonson, and he briefly passes over the fascinating anti-Episcopal tracts written under the pen name of “Martin Marprelate,” while ignoring that there is credible evidence that they were by Thomas Nashe, author of The Unfortunate Traveler, the first English-language novel. Those strike me as not incidental things.

Regardless, Hot Protestants conveniently provides an overview of the movement in both its English and American incarnations, while avoiding the taint of exceptionality which curses some of Miller’s work, as brilliant as it is. Winship also emphasizes just how foreign the sheer religiosity of the Puritans would be to us. If Miller helped to correct one misapprehension, Winship swings the pendulum back just a bit. Miller may have argued that the Puritans were alright, but Winship reminds us that they weren’t always alright. The Puritan reputation for sternness was deserved, as several examples from Hot Protestants evidence. Winship references a “pair of fornicators” in late 16th-century Somerset who were “whipped in public until they bled, while two fiddlers played before them to remind onlookers that their sin was the consequence of their earlier sin of dancing on the Sabbath,” and of a “Jesuit passing through Geneva in 1580 [who] marveled that in three days there, he heard no blasphemy, swearing, or indecent language.” Where Calvinists controlled the reins of state, they instituted harsh theocratic reforms ranging from the banning of cards, dices, and smoking, to the death penalty for adultery. Puritans enforced rigid uniformity regarding the Sabbath, and a day that was a genuine time for rest and reflection in Catholic countries and among Magisterial Protestants was a dreary exercise in obligatory church attendance for the most extreme of the Reformation. Folk culture from Maypoles and bell-ringing, to the entirely more familiar domain of Christmas and sports, were forbidden. This isn’t just a Menckenesque libel upon the Puritans, you can take their word for it — the English minister John Dod (also known as “Decalogue Dod”) described dancing as “nothing but a profession of an unchaste heart,” and said that the theater “serve[s] for nothing but to nourish filthiness.” Sleeping in was the “mother of soul lusts,” according to Dod. Across the Atlantic, the minister Thomas Welde would brag in 1632 that “[w]e have few that are drunk and here there is no swearing,” and should somebody slip in either regard they “are punished.” These are the people from whom the 16th-century martyr John Hooper derived, a man Winship described as having a countenance “so fierce that a man seeking spiritual consolation once knocked on his door only to go away on Hooper’s opening it.” Suddenly, Hawthorne’s estimation of his ancestors seems more than generous.

What Winship does well, and what becomes crucial once we trace the ways in which the Puritans remain influential, is convey how much of their concerns weren’t only theological but fundamentally political. He described one such Puritan campaign involving a royal petition for “vetting of prospective parish ministers […] better discipline, with selected clergymen authorized to assist their bishops […] and tolerance of puritan nonconformity.” That so many of the issues which the Puritans battled more orthodox opponents over strike us as arcane — from rejection of the Book of Common Prayer and the wearing of the surplice to proper church organization — is irrelevant. Are we so smug as to assume that 400 years hence all of our carping about supply-side economics or the differences between democratic socialism and social democracy aren’t as hermetic as parsing the intricacies of the antinomian controversy or the halfway covenant? What Hot Protestants verifies is that in the past religion was politics, as today politics is religion. Nothing is really partisan, only sectarian.

Which raises the question of what exactly Puritan politics was. The answer to that issue becomes crucial in how much we’re willing to forgive them. For the economist Max Weber, in his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the Puritans were responsible for enshrining “acquisition as the purpose of life,” while by contrast Christopher Hill, an English Marxist, would claim in The World Turned Upside Down that some currents of non-conformist thought could have allowed for the “rejection of private property for communism, religion for rationalistic […] pantheism, [and] the mechanical philosophy for dialectical science” (admittedly he had in mind groups that horrified or were oppressed by most Puritans). What is always integral to any fair accounting of Puritanism is an understanding that they were complex, multifaceted, contradictory, and very well read. Mencken may have identified them with the rural Tennessee rabble hooting at Scopes, but the New England Puritans come from entirely different intellectual strands than do the fundamentalists of the 20th century, and for better and for worse it’s the good readers (and writers) of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and our fellow-travelers, who are the result.

Erroneous to see Pat Robertson as the son of Cotton Mather, Oral Roberts as the patrimony of John Cotton, Jim Bakker as the descendant of Richard Danforth. The evangelicals so roundly mocked by Mencken (few of whom were probably Calvinists) can trace their intellectual family tree back through the low church revivals of the Second Great Awakening, in both Scots-Irish (largely Calvinist) Presbyterianism and later (largely Arminian) English Methodism, with an injection of Pentecostalism in the previous century. While all are Protestants, the concerns of Mencken’s straw-ministers are not the same as that of the Puritans, their perspective is different, and so are their worldview, their concerns, and their way of being-in-the-world. That the Puritans were influential is stated by Winship as a given (which I agree with), but the question still has to be answered: why should we still care? For that answer we must gesture back to Miller, reading, writing, and teaching in dusty rooms overlooking the brown grass of Harvard Yard, founded by Puritans. From Miller we consider that we still care about the Puritans because they molded the American mind in a very exact way, and that there are certain political ramifications in that.

As their intellectual descendants, we must both condemn and exonerate the Puritans in equal measure. For sure, the Puritans have children on the right, though it’s not necessarily the Bible-thumpers and teetotalers whom Mencken had in mind. Rather, we see in the positivist techno-utopians of Silicon Valley or the libertarian idolaters of the Golden Calf of Wall Street the conservative progeny of the “Protestant ethic.” The cold rationalism of a Peter Thiel and an Elon Musk are what derives when one strain of Puritanism secularizes; they’ve held on to the obsessive individualism, the ceaseless fetishizing of work, the joyless need to accumulate, while at the same time they’ve left God at the wayside. This was Weber’s pessimistic conclusion that while the “Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so,” so that “asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality,” which if you’ve ever encountered the corporate-spiritual fusions of dieting or SoulCycle you might agree with. The city on a hill isn’t Boston — it’s Palo Alto.

But on the left, we’re also Winthrop’s children. The 16th-century minister John Bale enthused that the nascent movement was composed of “brethren of the purity,” and if you’ve ever been witness to the internecine debates among the Twitter left, parsing privilege and intersectionality, dividing into ever more arcane jargon as surely as if they were a divine explicating double-predestination, you might assent to the similarity between modern liberals and those forefathers. There are, to be sure, uncomfortable similarities between the excesses of “wokeness” and some of the intensity of the Puritans. Winship writes that, in the 17th century, “rebuke sinners you must, or the guilt of the sin, whatever it might be, fell on your head,” and it’s easy to see the liberal circular firing squad which too often defines a progressive politics more concerned with policing thought than with direct confrontation. The Scottish Presbyterian John Knox said that the role of the Christian was to continually be engaged in “admonishing and instructing one another,” and it’s hard not to cynically think that that sounds like lots of people we know.

Once we hold to the contention that Puritanism is all about feeling and not action, we’ve decided to play with the blunt instrument of archetype rather than the nuance of historical accuracy. The Puritans, after all, cut a king’s head off. How’s that for action? But if we’re to play with archetype, it’s hard not to see a bit of creedalism in the yard signs that used to populate my suburban Boston neighborhood which, with unimpeachable politics, declared that “In this house, we believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Water is Life, in Religious Freedom, Love is Love, Kindness is Everything.” I believe all those things too, but the Catholic in me wants to ask what should we do about it. For I affirm that salvation is in works, not in grace. Belief is the purview of the Puritan examining their soul for blemish; the Italian, or Spanish, or French leftist hasn’t been cursed with such guilt. They’ve rather known that to believe is fine, but sometimes that necessitates a brick through the window, something which the protestors in Washington, DC, less than a mile from where I now write are aptly, admirably, justly, and righteously demonstrating for all of us.

But here’s the thing — if some of modern liberalism is derived from a secularized Puritanism, that’s not always a problem, because in some sense the Puritans were alright. If they bear some superficial similarity in the castigation, the judgment, the tone-policing, something which makes orthodox and conservative alike break out in hives at the “prideful, holier-than thou attitude of a self-selected” elite, as Winship writes, that’s not necessarily all bad. An argument could be made that, if American liberalism has a deficiency in its descent from New England Puritanism, it’s that the latter imparted an anemic sense of individualism, an obsession over faith rather than works, and an ignorance of the materialist concerns embraced by the vibrant European left which (mostly) didn’t develop under Puritanism’s long shadow. That’s notably different from saying that the problem with American liberalism is that it sits in judgment of Tucker Carlson for saying racist things. It’s always noble and good to try and make Tucker Carlson feel bad about himself (although incredibly difficult).

Because the rigorous self-examination, the tabulation of inner sins, the desire to rectify that which was wrong within the human soul, is as admirable in Puritanism as it is in contemporary liberalism. When Puritanism secularized, it gave us a tremendous legacy of which to be proud. Abolitionism, suffragism, and environmentalism all emerged in New England for a reason, and Winship notes that it’s “not a coincidence that the first law criminalizing cruelty to animals was passed in puritan Massachusetts, in 1641.” Ironically, even secularism, religious pluralism, and toleration had a roundabout origin from New England Puritanism, albeit from persecuted Roger Williams, whose policy was that “[c]oercive power had no place in true Christianity, whether that power was wielded by the pope, by the king of England, or even by Massachusetts’s godly magistrates.” Such toleration was just as much the logical conclusion of the Reformation as was theocracy, and this novelty of religious freedom is the movement’s greatest legacy. Puritanism’s most telling contribution was that it was self-defeating, that it unraveled itself, and that within its strictness there was paradoxically the intimations of a better world born through such disestablishment. When you come to John Calvin in the road, you must kill him.

Mencken, with chilly abandon and cool sneer, once wrote that “democratic society […] puts burdens upon intelligence and reduce[s] it to impotence.” Winthrop, by contrast, exclaimed that we “must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community.” Now ask me this — would you rather count yourself the party of Mencken or of Winthrop? Because I’m fine putting on my buckled shoes and my broad black hat. Winship notes the innate radicalism of the Puritans, of a movement extolling the equality and dignity of servants being always “one step away from rebellion.” I’ll take that over the rectilinear conservatism of a smug, elitist pseudo-aristocrat like Mencken any day.

At the end of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night his character of Malvolio, a beleaguered, tortured, and put-upon Puritan, the only of his denomination in the entire folio, offers up a curse to those who’ve mocked and belittled him for the entire play, their defense being that they were just joking sounding all too familiar to us today. “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” he says. Maybe Malvolio’s closing line shouldn’t be read as ominous curse, but rather as hopeful promise.


Ed Simon is a staff writer at The Millions.

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine, a staff writer for Lit Hub, and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Killing the Buddha, Salon, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. He is also the author of several books, including Devil’s Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, which will be released in July 2024. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.


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