28 September 2011

What I'm Reading--Errand into the Wilderness

My current class on the British Empire requires a series of book reviews and a historiographical paper on some aspect of the British Empire from the 15th century to about 1800.  In an attempt to tie this assignment to my interests, I am reading and writing on the Puritans.  The Puritans, although mostly recognized in their American context, had English origins.  Therefore, the group relates to the mother country and the colonies.  The first book that I chose to review is Perry Miller's Errand into the Wilderness, first published in 1956.  Here is my preliminary review of the book:

Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University
Press, 1956.

One of the most studied and perhaps most misunderstood groups in American religious history are the Puritans.  The history of the Puritans (defined broadly) reaches back into sixteenth-century England, and the persecution of this group led large numbers to emigrate to the New World beginning in the 1630s.  Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness, first published in 1956, is not a traditional historical monograph, but rather a collection of essays that “add up to a rank of spotlights on the massive narrative of the movement of European culture into the vacant wilderness of America.”[1]  While twenty-first century historians would question the characterization of America as a vacant wilderness, Miller used the understanding that the earliest European immigrants to North America would have had.  They considered land that no one owned personally as empty. 
These essays appeared in various formats during the 1930s to 1950s, a tumultuous period in American history bookended by the Great Depression and the early Cold War, with World War II taking up the middle of the period.  Miller was primarily an intellectual historian.  Some have argued that his work attempted to counter a reductionist view that relied on a strictly economic determinist understanding of the world, such as that championed by Charles Beard.  Although Miller was an atheist, it is evident that he attempted to understand the Puritans on their own terms by arguing that their worldview impacted the way activities that they behaved.  In speaking of his method, Miller wrote:
The beginning I sought was inevitably—being located in the seventeenth century—theological.  This was not a fact of my choosing: had the origin been purely economic or imperial, I should have been no less committed to reporting. Since the first articulate body of expression upon which I could get a leverage happened to be a body of Protestant doctrine, I set myself to explore that doctrine in its own terms.
This stance brought him not only into conflict with those who followed Beard, but also those who had an interest in the historical understanding of Sigmund Freud.[2]    
            Errand into the Wilderness took its name from an election sermon preached by Samuel Danforth in 1670.  The title refers not only to the book, but also the first essay, which Miller insisted has no connection to Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis.[3]  As a collection of essays written over a relatively long period of time, the book as a whole did not have a central defining thesis as would a traditional historical monograph.  The essays do have the common thread of intellectual history, which Miller attempted to tie through New England from the earliest Puritan settlers to the Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century by utilizing a variety of primary sources appropriate to his study, such as colonial records, sermons, and theological works.
            The title essay emphasized the idea of the word “errand,” which in the Puritan era had two meanings—a journey of which a superior sends an inferior to take care of some business, or “the actual business on which the actor goes, the purpose itself, the conscious intention in his mind.”  Miller argued that the Puritan settlers came on an errand of the second type, “on [their] own business.”  They came to set up the perfect Christian commonwealth, the proverbial city on a hill that would show Europeans what such a community looked like.  The decline of morality and fights against Indians such as King Philip’s War caused the Massachusetts Puritans to question their standing.  They viewed themselves as a “sink of iniquity” that had failed in the first meaning of the errand and were left with the second.[4]
            One important theme that Miller frequently emphasized in the essays dealing with the Puritans and their immediate descendants like Jonathan Edwards was the lack of a democratic impulse in New England Puritan society.  In “Errand into the Wilderness” one of the big complaints in ministerial jeremiads were the “insubordination of inferiors toward superiors, particularly of those inferiors who had, unaccountably, acquired more wealth than their betters, and, astonishingly, a shocking extravagance in attire, especially on the part of the meaner sort, who persisted in dressing beyond their means.” In the essay “Thomas Hooker and the Democracy of Connecticut,” the author argued that a desire for greater democracy was not really the reason for the emigration of Hooker and his cohort to the Connecticut Valley.  Rather, a lack of land was the main reason.  The later correspondence of Hooker and John Winthrop indicates a nearly complete agreement on all matters of doctrine and practice between the two.  Winthrop is not exactly remembered as a great democrat.  Hooker even sat on a Synod with John Cotton that denounced Presbyterianism.  Miller argued that even the Fundamental Orders generally resembled a church covenant that would be common in Massachusetts.  Furthermore, he emphasized the Puritan fusing of church and state by the idea of “a uniform church supported by civil society,” which differs greatly from current American ideology. [5]
            In looking at early American history, it is generally argued that the Jamestown colony was an economic endeavor.  While this is to some degree an accurate statement, Miller was able to show through examples of recruitment literature that a major impetus of colonization was evangelism.  Commerce and evangelism were not were not necessarily mutually exclusive to the seventeenth century English mind.  Miller took the literature to mean what it said and argued that it “exhibited a set of principles for guiding…a medieval pilgrimage.”[6]  While the Anglican Church controlled Virginia, the rhetoric of this colony largely mirrored that of its more puritanical neighbor to the north. 
            Miller dedicated much of this work to the thought of Jonathan Edwards.  Errand into the Wilderness disagreed with some common understandings of Edwards in arguing that he was actually somewhat of a radical.  In one way he was traditionalist in turning from Puritan covenant theology to an older Calvinistic view that emphasized God’s infinite transcendence against a view in which God promised to act in a sort of quid pro quo covenant.  In the Great Awakening, however, Miller argued that Edwards and his fellow revivalists differed from his forbears in arguing for a government based upon its utility to the community, rather than on absolutism.  While these arguments were plausible as presented, Miller made a bit of a stretch in postulating that in some ways Edwards’ thought was an intellectual step toward the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  While Emerson viewed Nature in pantheistic terms, Edwards viewed nature as merely revealing God to the world.  The wilderness, nonetheless figured in the thought of both men.
            The final essay on “The End of the World” was curious, not because of Miller’s analysis, but because of the questions that theologians had.  The theologians attempted to reconcile Newtonian physics and eschatological doctrine.  This was interesting, because theologians, including Edwards, believed in an all-powerful God.  The very idea of omnipotence should have precluded concern over the breaking of the laws of motion required for a final judgment.  The author pointed out that something very similar to the explosion that these divines expected occurred in August 1945 with the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. “Not for this was the errand run into a wilderness, and not for this will it be run. Catastrophe…is not enough.”[7]

[1]Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956), vii.
[2] Murray G. Murphey, “Perry Miller and American Studies,” American Studies 42, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 5-18; Miller, ix.

[3] Miller, 1-2.  

[4] Miller, 3, 5-6, 15.
[5] Miller, 8, 29, 148.

[6] Miller, 101.

[7] Miller, 239.

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