Radical Capitalists, Radical Socialists, or Radical Nationalists?: A Look at the Historiography of the Puritans and their Errand into the Wilderness
By Christopher Price, MA
For nearly four hundred years, a wide variety of popular and academic authors have taken up their pens and spilt ink in an attempt to describe and understand the life and thought of a very amorphous group of people—the Puritans. When discussing these people, historians have had quite a bit of difficulty coming up with a unified definition of the terms Puritan and Puritanism. Christopher Hill pointed out a wide diversity of opinion in seventeenth-century England by quoting the wife of a colonel in the Parliamentary Army. This lady, referred to only as Mrs. Hutchinson, pointed out “the possible meanings of the word ‘Puritan.’
If any were grieved at the dishonour of the kingdom, or the griping of the poor, or the unjust oppressions of the subject by a thousand ways invented to maintain the riots of the courtiers and the swarms of needy Scots the King had brought in to devour like locusts the plenty of the land, he was a Puritan;…if any gentleman in his county maintained the good laws of the land, or stood up for any public interest, for good order or government, he was a Puritan. In short, all that crossed the views of the needy courtiers, the proud encroaching priests, the thievish projectors, the lewd nobility and gentry…all these were Puritans. Newcastle coal exporters referred to London merchants who opposed their monopoly as Puritans.
In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, groups as disparate as Low Church Anglicans, Independents, Presbyterians, and others could fall under the generalized rubric of Puritan. Religious and economic considerations could come into play in determining who was a Puritan.
One of the major difficulties in tracing the historiography of Puritanism is the transatlantic nature of the movement. Closely related to this problem is the fact that the Puritans who emigrated from England to New England were only one part of the numerous “Puritan” groups in England. In spite of these difficulties, an understanding of Puritanism is important for understanding contemporary Western society. Another problem in tracing Puritanism is the vast body of literature that historians (as well as authors from other disciplines) have written on the topic. In spite of this unmanageable wealth of literature, it is nevertheless possible to observe some trends in the study of Puritans.
The starting point for the historiography of many Anglo and/or American topics involves an understanding of the Whig view of history. Whig historians tended to view Puritans and Puritanism as a positive step on the road to greater wealth, freedom, and democracy, as contrasted by a benighted Catholicism that kept people in poverty, ignorance, and authoritarian submission. This largely polemical form was quite common through the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. An example of this caricatured understanding of Puritans is evident in a short 1851 essay by Noah Porter, who was at that time Professor of Moral Philosophy at Yale College. Porter would later ascend to the position of President at Yale. In The Educational Systems of the Puritans and Jesuits Compared, Porter contrasted “the freedom and independence of the individual man” which “characterized the Puritan” with the “obedience and dependence” that “distinguished the Jesuit.” This freedom and individualism could not even characterize Lutherans, Huguenots, or the Pilgrims, but only the Puritans, according to Porter. He continued by contending that for the Jesuits the “principle of dependence for salvation on a priestly work, and on priestly authority, had wrought its appropriate result in intellectual stagnation,” whereas “when Protestantism began then did [t]hought awake.” This belief in Puritan individualism in relation to thought is now understood as anachronistic. None need look further than the cases of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson to find the fallacy of this idea, but it was nonetheless a common argument for many years.
The American lawyer/historian Douglas Campbell emphasized the importance of the Puritans in “do[ing] so much for the modern world.” The Puritan “was born out of the uprising against the abuses of the church of Rome. He came to maturity in upholding liberty against the assaults of kingly power. In him was represented the principle of religious and civil freedom.” Whereas most writers saw Puritanism as largely an English phenomenon, Campbell credited the Dutch, arguing that many of the Pilgrim and Puritan leaders spent time in the Netherlands, imbibing heavily in Dutch thought before returning to England for either revolt or immigration to the New World. While many of these leaders such as Thomas Hooker spent time in the Netherlands, most found the liberality of Dutch society scandalous, so this link is questionable.
The leading nineteenth-century Whig historian of seventeenth-century England was Samuel Rawson Gardiner. He referred to the English Revolution as a Puritan revolution. Gardiner saw the proposed Spanish match between the man who would become Charles I and the Spanish Infanta as the event that “awoke again the old Protestant resistance, and gave new life to Puritanism.” Gardiner argued that if merely constitutional issues had been involved in 1640-1642, Charles I would have faced the same fate as James II. He saw religion as a major issue in the Revolution and identified Puritans with the Parliamentary forces. In looking at the Puritans who left England for Massachusetts, Gardiner argued that “it was not in search of liberty that these men had crossed the ocean…He who would not accept their interpretation would be banished from the colony. He who accepted it, but had sinned against the precepts which he acknowledged was punished.” He viewed “Puritanism not only” as “the strength of the opposition to Charles, but the strength of England itself.” The Puritans, in the Whig tradition, “struggle[d] onwards and upwards towards an ideal higher still.” Gardiner and other Whigs focused upon the increasing democracy and liberalism in English life, which ultimately led up to the Victorian era. In spite of the prominent Whig historian’s importance to the nineteenth-century historiography of Puritanism, Michael Finlayson criticized Gardiner for not attempting to define the term in spite of writing “more than twenty volumes on or around the subject.”
Many writers have attempted to depict Puritans as a sort of proto-capitalists. Authors such as Max Weber and R. H. Tawney popularized this motif. Weber, a nineteenth-century German sociologist, attempted to explain the rise of capitalism. He argued that a “Protestant ethic” was the impetus that allowed for the development of capitalism. This opposed Karl Marx’s view that class struggle led to the rise of capitalism. Weber defined the “spirit of capitalism” as “the earning of more and more money, combined with the avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life.” According to Weber, the Protestant idea of a calling in life (to a certain occupation or station) was crucial to the development of modern capitalism. He contrasted the worldview of European Catholics with that of Protestant ascetic sects, such as the Calvinists, Pietists, Methodists, and Baptists. Weber argued that medieval and early modern Catholics worked to live. They did enough to provide for themselves and the society in which they lived, with little concern for working harder. He then looked at the Calvinists, with their emphasis on predestination and the corresponding concern for an assurance of their salvation. While good works would not save them, the Calvinists believed that good works were a sign of one’s election and that they would bring the desired assurance of God’s favor. The Calvinists and other ascetic groups worked hard because of their belief that God had called them to a certain occupation. According to Weber, instead of working to live, the Calvinists lived to work so that they could obtain assurance of their salvation. Work in itself was done for the glory of God, and they viewed the failure to do one’s best as a sign of reprobation. Since the earning of money was a side benefit of work, the earning of money could then be viewed as a noble goal if done for the glory of God, rather than being done simply for the enrichment of the worker. Weber’s main point was that this ethic was responsible for the rise of capitalism. This Calvinist work ethic definitely applied to the Puritans. However, Weber’s thesis did not take into account the fact that Venice, Genoa, and other Italian city-states were the originators of much that makes up modern capitalism. These early Italian merchants did not shy away from making money, and they were definitely not Protestant, but rather Catholic.
British historian R. H. Tawney proposed a similar argument in his 1926 work Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. However, he did not focus upon Calvinism in general, but rather the English Puritans as the progenitors of capitalism. As a Christian socialist, Tawney actually bemoaned the individualism and loss of concern for the common good that he saw arising out of the Puritan movement. Like Weber, he saw Luther tied more to the medieval understanding of business. Unlike Weber, Tawney still viewed Calvin as more of a medievalist, although he allowed that Calvin gave a few concessions to the business class regarding the charging of interest. He also distinguished between the Puritans who left for the New World and those who remained in England. The former attempted to imitate Calvin’s Geneva with their concern for the commonwealth, while the latter became enamored with business and became a fairly sizeable proportion of the wealthy merchant class in the mother country. While he mentioned that the first Puritans who went to the New World were more communitarian in their dealings, he did not really discuss why they changed quite rapidly in their viewpoint toward business.
Before the 1930s, most historians tended to view the Puritans either as a group of persecuted liberal democrats who stood up to the backward, autocratic, and semi-Catholic monarchy of the early Stuarts or as the prototypical capitalists who had concern only for their pecuniary gain. Beginning in the 1930s, however, some historians began to question the established understanding of the Puritans. One of the leading historians who changed the general understanding of the Puritans was Harvard University professor Perry Miller. Miller wrote extensively between 1930 and his death in 1963 on the intellectual history of Puritan New England. While he wrote important works on The New England Mind, The Puritans, and Jonathan Edwards, perhaps his best-known work was Errand into the Wilderness, which was a collection of essays that traced New England (and to a lesser extent Virginia) thought from the settlement of Massachusetts in 1630 to the nineteenth-century transcendentalists.
Miller attempted to understand the Puritans on their own terms, rather than through the economic determinism that many historians of the day employed. He agreed with Frederick Jackson Turner that “the frontier” was an important factor in shaping American life. However, his idea of what made the frontier important was very different. Whereas Turner argued that the frontier gave America its rugged individualism, Miller understood that the Puritans’ view of themselves as the elect of God sent on an errand drove them into the wilderness. The Puritans saw their errand in these terms: God intended them to move to the New World to be the example, “a shining city upon a hill,” that would show the Old World how a true Christian commonwealth would operate. These transatlantic immigrants focused upon the covenant relationships that they had with God and each other. An individualism that was uninterested in the good of the community was not a part of early Puritan thought. Miller disagreed with those who viewed the Puritans as early liberal democrats and did not rely upon the strict theocracy of John Winthrop as his only example. Miller argued against historians like “Vernon L. Parrington and James Truslow Adams” who “conspired to present Thomas Hooker as a sort of John the Baptist to Thomas Jefferson.” He quite ably emphasized that a desire for land, rather than a desire for greater democracy, led Hooker and those who followed him to the new settlement of Connecticut. Hooker set up a Massachusetts-like settlement with the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which resembled a church covenant. The founder of Connecticut and Massachusetts minister John Cotton collaborated in a synod that denounced presbyterianism. Miller emphasized the importance of the Puritans’ consistent thought and their belief that they were on a mission from God, while avoiding a fall into the trap of viewing them as forerunners of liberal democracy.
While Perry Miller was important in shaping early-to-mid-twentieth century understanding of the Puritans on the American side of the Atlantic, Christopher Hill was an important student of the long seventeenth century across the pond in Britain. Although he remained an active author into the 1990s, Hill produced his most influential work in the mid-twentieth century and wrote quite extensively on the Puritans. Hill was a leading British Marxist thinker, so class struggle figured prominently in his writing. However, he was also heavily interested in the history of ideas, and he viewed the Puritans as religious radicals. The Puritans held to a leveling idea of spiritual equality that troubled the established hierarchy in church and government.
Hill emphasized that there were two revolutions in seventeenth-century England:
There were, we may oversimplify, two revolutions in mid-seventeenth-century England. The one which succeeded established the sacred rights of property (abolition of feudal tenures, no arbitrary taxation), gave political power to the propertied (sovereignty of Parliament and common law, abolition of prerogative courts), and removed all impediments to the triumph of the ideology of the men of property – the protestant ethic. There was, however, another revolution which never happened, though from time to time it threatened. This might have established communal property, a far wider democracy in political and legal institutions, might have disestablished the state church and rejected the protestant ethic.
The Puritans are generally associated with those Parliamentary forces that won the first revolution against the forces of Charles II.
Although Hill understood the Puritans as religious radicals, he understood the difficulties their contemporaries had in defining them. He argued that Puritans could be defined in terms of religion, politics, and society. In one essay, meant in some ways to critique the theses of Weber and Tawney, Hill contemplated the relationship between capitalism and Protestantism. He argued that
there is nothing in protestantism which leads automatically to capitalism: its importance was rather that it undermined obstacles which the more rigid institutions and ceremonies of catholicism imposed…Where capitalism already existed, it had henceforth freer scope. But men did not become capitalists because they were protestant, nor protestants because they were capitalists. In a society already becoming capitalist, protestantism facilitated the triumph of the new values.
David Underdown rightly argued that for Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution were “inextricably connected” and that Puritanism provided the answer to Hill’s question at the beginning of his Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution as to what caused people to throw off the well-entrenched monarchy, aristocracy, and episcopacy in the 1640s.
As in most fields of historical inquiry, the likes of Perry Miller and Christopher Hill would not remain unchallenged. Nicholas Tyacke found the established historical orthodoxy problematic. He disagreed with the Whigs and the Marxists, both of whom viewed the Parliamentarians as progressive “because they won…and in some ways stood for the future.” He also disagreed with a view of Puritans as fifth column within the Church of England. Tyacke’s influential essay “Puritanism, Arminianism, and Counter-revolution” argued that it was the Puritans who were the traditionalists (at least since the Elizabethan age). Most of the clergy in England were Calvinists in the early seventeenth century; therefore, “Puritanism in this Calvinist sense was not then seen as a political threat.” In Tyacke’s view, the religious innovators were Archbishop William Laud and the “Arminians” who agreed with him. To prove his argument, he looked at some of the leading Puritan leaders in Parliament, most notably John Pym. These men did not raise major concerns until they perceived the religious innovations of the Arminians and their enforcement, which they viewed as a step toward Catholicism. Understood in this light, the Puritans appeared much more as traditional actors than they did in Hill’s interpretation. While Tyacke’s argument that religious concerns led Parliamentarians to revolt has some merit, they nonetheless had some relatively radical views for the seventeenth century in relation to hierarchy.
In the 1970s, a new group of historians arose to challenge the established interpretations of the seventeenth century. These revisionists, as they came to be called, disputed both the Whig and Marxist metanarratives. One historian, Glenn Burgess even quipped, “Was marxism ever anything more than whig history with statistics?” One of the leading triggers of this revisionism was Lawrence Stone’s Causes of the English Revolution. Paul Christianson disputed against Stone’s conclusion that “parliamentary sovereignty and a decline in the power of the Crown and nobility were consequences of the Civil War instead of preconditions.” Stone argued that the structural causes of the English Revolution went back to the reign of Henry VIII. He also saw Puritanism as “an essential element in the Revolution, the feeling of certainty in the rectitude of the opposition cause, and of moral indignation at the wickedness of the established authorities” that also “helped to construct the theoretical justification for a challenge to the existing order.” Contributing to this challenge to the existing order was an “element of chiliasm” that produced a “powerful stimulus to radical change” because of their “eager anticipation of the creation of a City upon a Hill, a New Jerusalem.” While Stone provided little novel in the understanding of Puritans and Puritanism, his arousal of revisionism in the study of the seventeenth century provided an impetus for new interpretations of both religion and revolution in the coming years.
During this revisionist period in the seventeenth-century historiography, Michael Finlayson came out with a different question regarding Puritans and Puritanism in his work Historians, Puritanism, and the English Revolution, itself a historiographical work: What happened to Puritanism between 1640 and 1660? He pointed out that historians such as Gardiner called the English Revolution a “Puritan Revolution.” However, in most of the same histories that referred to the Puritan Revolution, Puritans were nowhere to be found after the Restoration. Finlayson’s work emphasized the two terms: Puritan and Puritanism. He conceded that Puritan was a common term in the century leading up to the English Revolution. However, while people used the term frequently, the uses were so disparate that coming up with a clear definition of the title Puritan is difficult. Regarding the term “Puritan,” Finlayson wrote:
Clearly there are problems in our use of the term “Puritan.” First we must distinguish between those whom contemporaries labelled “Puritan” and those whom later historians have so designated, for the two groups are far from identical. This problem is aggravated by the fact that to most contemporaries “Puritan” was derisory and was rarely a label that was voluntarily accepted by individuals. Second, even when we discard the blatantly political usages of “Puritan” and focus upon those individuals between 1560 and 1660 who seem to have had a particular and demonstrable concern for religious reform, the range is extreme.
Finlayson pointed out that historians such as Clarendon, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume had trouble defining exactly who qualified as a Puritan. A group that is difficult to define can be difficult to track through history.
Finlayson came up with a couple of conclusions when dealing with Puritans and Puritanism. He largely agreed with Tyacke’s assessment by stating that even men like John Pym were essentially conservative in matters of religion: “So far from being ‘Puritan,’ so far from being driven by a passionate zeal to complete the reformation of the church begun by Elizabeth, it is much more accurate to say they were impelled by the opposite urge to protect it from subversive change.” He also saw continuity between the perceived problems in religion in the years leading up to the English Revolution and the generation that followed it. Finlayson argued that the concern by many in both eras was a perceived subversion by popish instigators. Protestants felt that they must do all in their power to reject this subversion. He concluded that “nothing cataclysmic occurred to ‘Puritanism’ between the Interregnum and the Restoration” because most of the establishment were not Puritans.
Shortly after Finlayson’s work that questioned the importance attached to Puritanism, a work by Margo Todd appeared that questioned both Finlayson and writers on the other end of the spectrum like Weber and Hill, who ascribed to the Puritans a great deal of innovative and original thought. Todd found this excessive attribution of original thought “rarely assigned to and almost never deserved by any intellectual movement.” Instead of tying the Puritans to the reformers, she tied their thought to the Christian humanists. These Christian humanists were contemporaries of the reformers, but they tended to stay within the Catholic tradition while pointing out the problems that they perceived in Catholicism. The most famous of the Christian humanists was Desiderius Erasmus, a contemporary of Luther who translated the Greek New Testament and who engaged in a literary battle with Luther over issues of election and free will.
The Christian humanists questioned several aspects of established Roman Catholic practice. The ideal of celibacy came under attack from the humanists, and their Puritan intellectual progeny encouraged marriage and family life for their adherents. The humanists criticized the monastic orders for their supposed poverty because they viewed these holy men and women as lazy people who refused to be productive members of society through their interaction and work. They held back their most severe criticism for the mendicant orders who begged for their living. Finally, the Christian humanists provided a critique regarding a belief in the hierarchical Great Chain of Being. They encouraged, on some levels, a meritocracy rather than an aristocracy.
Through her use of evidence from Oxford and Cambridge, Todd was able to show that humanism was en vogue at these schools for a time in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. These schools trained the ministers who then passed on the new ideas to their parishioners. Puritan sermons emphasized these humanist ideas and it is generally accepted that Puritans emphasized hard work and family life as opposed to mendacity and celibacy. However, as happens most of the time when new ideas question established authority, Trent and Lambeth brought great scrutiny against Erasmian ideas. Todd argued that by the time of the English Revolution, “the Erasmian social consensus no longer existed. Only puritans were left holding the banner of reformation.” Instead of describing these ideas as a unique Puritan social theory, she posited (quite successfully) that they derived from Christian humanism. In Todd’s assessment, the Puritans were very communitarian and wanted to help those they deemed deserving poor. Where Tawney saw individualism, Todd saw a spirit of charity for the good of the commonwealth.
In addition to all of the historiography on the British side of Puritanism, which largely centered on its impact or lack thereof on the English Revolution, many authors have also investigated the American Puritans. As already mentioned, Perry Miller took Puritan ideas very seriously and demonstrated that they saw themselves as on a mission from God to show European nations how a genuine Christian community could operate. While the godly society largely failed, it could also be argued quite easily that the Puritan influence continues into the present. In the 1630s, many Puritans began to leave the personal rule of Charles I for both North America and the Caribbean.
Continuing Miller’s inquiry into the Puritan mind was Andrew Delbanco’s The Puritan Ideal, which attempted to understand the unique immigrant experience of the Puritans in America. Like Miller, Delbanco relied on the writings of the Puritans themselves, emphasizing especially the first generation of immigrants. Some of these early arrivals, such as Anne Hutchinson and Anne Bradstreet, viewed the new land as a wasteland and bemoaned their arrival. Delbanco changed Miller’s main argument a bit in looking at the migration as an errand out of the wilderness of England, rather than as an errand into the wilderness of America. He believed that it was impossible to understand the Puritans while thinking that their journey left them unchanged. The Puritan Ideal investigated the way that American Puritans, who were involved in the process of becoming acculturated to their new home, dealt with the problem of evil. Delbanco argued that the understanding of evil shifted from an absence of good into a stain on the person. This idea of sin as a stain became transmitted to American culture through literature such as The Scarlet Letter.
Another work that emphasized the Puritan mind, albeit in a very different way, was John Putnam Demos’ Entertaining Satan. In this work, Demos investigated the suspicion and prosecution of witchcraft in early New England that mainly died out after the Salem witch trials of 1692. In one way this was a very interesting social history that investigated demographics and the court cases of accused witches. Entertaining Satan maintained that the Puritans in seventeenth-century Massachusetts were a very litigious bunch, and Demos in many ways did a good job of describing the folk culture of early New England. However, in attempting to get at the root of the strange behaviors that those bewitched exhibited, he utilized a method that many historians questioned. Demos attempted to use Freudian psychoanalysis to understand the causation of the witchcraft trials. Peter Gay, a supporter of Freudian psychohistory, discussed the reception that Demos’ book received from critics:
The response to John Demos’s book of 1982 on witchcraft in seventeenth-century Massachusetts may serve as an instructive instance of all this triumphant defensiveness. An ambitious and well-thought-out study that attempts to surround its fascinating subject by calling on the resources of traditional biography, sociology, social history, and psychoanalysis, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England had a highly appreciative reception—except for the psychoanalytic section, an integral, indispensable element in Demos’s argument, which the reviewers found either bewildering or unfortunate.
While the life of the Puritan mind has traditionally aroused great interest, this attempt to psychoanalyze it was not overly welcomed by historians.
The declension model of early New England has a long tradition in the historiography. Mark Peterson in his The Price of Redemption pointed out that even the separatist William Bradford bemoaned the decline in spiritual values in his writings on Plymouth Plantation. Peterson believed that this belief in a slow and steady decline to a materialist community was an inaccurate paradigm for viewing the early American Puritans. He argued that the communal tendencies of the first generation in New England resulted more from the necessity of building a new society in a new world and pointed out that John Cotton was not averse to his stately church building in England. The impressive church buildings did not lead Puritans to leave England; rather, they left because of forced conformity to a religious order with which they disagreed. Instead of viewing commerce as a sign of declension in the second generation, Peterson maintained that successful merchants were able to support the religious community financially and actually led to the building of new churches in new communities as the population of New England expanded. Churches were expensive operations with buildings to build and pastors (often multiple pastors per congregation) to pay. Instead of focusing on the biographies of important ministers or laymen in his study, Peterson undertook biographies of two churches, one in wealthy Boston, and the other in backwoods and relatively poor Westfield. He argued that money allowed the Boston’s Third Church to be more evangelical, while the lack of funds led to conflict in Westfield, which contributed to a split during the Great Awakening. While this questioning of the declension model is interesting, the evidence for a communalism back in England before the Great Migration weakens the argument that such concern for the commonweal was a result of the deprivations of early life in Massachusetts.
A recent award-winning book that discussed mercantile interests and the Puritan social ethic was Mark Valeri’s Heavenly Merchandize. In this study, Valeri attempted to show the impact that commercial and religious practices had on each other from the first generation of Boston settlers to the Great Awakening. To show change over time, Valeri utilized four individual merchants that represented four eras in the development of New England society. In contrast to Peterson’s argument against a unique communitarianism, Valeri quite convincingly pointed out the sermons of first-generation ministers such as John Cotton as examples that emphasized a Christian social ethic that focused upon the good of the commonwealth, even at the expense of merchants. These sermons, as well as church disciplinary actions, decried the practices of charging usury and selling at more than a just profit. There was a great deal of tension between the ministers and the merchants, although the latter (Robert Keayne was Valeri’s specific example) viewed themselves as good Christians in spite of these arguments to the contrary. Over time, however, this antagonism between New England merchants and their ministers became less intense. After the Glorious Revolution, ministers such as Cotton Mather and his contemporaries could view merchants like Samuel Sewall as a positive good in society. In a mercantilist economy, those who brought more money into the coffers of the English state strengthened the nation at the expense of its enemies such as Spain, which were Catholic. Over time, the view of ministers regarding merchants changed from their being a necessary evil to their being a positive good engaged in the Lord’s work of defeating the backward and superstitious Catholics. Valeri also maintained that Newtonian science and the emphasis on natural law led to the view that merchants reacted to an impersonal market established by God. Previously, ministers viewed excessive profiteering by merchants as a moral failure, rather than as a scientific necessity. Heavenly Merchandize focused only on Boston, and it would be interesting to see if and how similar changes took place in other important North American mercantile cities.
A recent book by David Hall questioned whether historians should consider the Puritans as radical liberals or radical conservatives. Did they intend to have a democratic or an arbitrary society? Hall concluded that neither was a completely accurate assessment of the Puritans. One relatively unique aspect of Hall’s work was his attempt to bridge the Atlantic with his account. Although the main emphasis of his work A Reforming People was American Puritanism, he also attempted to understand these Puritans in light of their distinctly English background. Hall emphasized the Puritans’ concern with equity. Often, land distribution in New England failed to adhere to English class distinctions. Land grants provided an opportunity for the poor to support themselves. In assessing taxes, the Puritans emphasized equity. Freemen obtained the right to vote, although the slate was generally set before the election, so the voters merely provided their assent. Puritans set up the legal system to provide equality for all members of the society. Although the Puritans have inherited a reputation for harsh justice, Hall pointed out from his perusal of court records that, excepting witchcraft, a mere confession of sinfulness often sufficed in the matter of capital crimes like adultery, and execution was a rare penalty. In many ways, Hall followed Miller’s lead in attempting to understand the Puritans on their own terms.
Most historians of the Puritans have focused upon the English and North American variants. Karen Ordahl Kupperman focused on the short-lived Puritan colony on Providence Island, which English merchants established just off the coast of modern-day Nicaragua. She pointed out that the founders of the colony in Massachusetts questioned whether the cold climate would ever be able to produce enough in the way of commodities to help England. The founders, who included leading Puritans such as John Pym and Lord Saye and Sele, wanted to see a colony that would accomplish the purpose of “enriching themselves, protecting England, and striking at Spain.” The founders of the colony hoped to have a foothold from which they could colonize the mainland of Central America. The investors hoped to draw the better sort of people and some of the better Puritan ministers. In this they failed. The colony required migrants to work as tenant farmers, rather than as landholders, and slaves were also common, making up over half of the island’s population. The colony’s position near Spanish territory led to its rise as a station for privateering action. In the end, however, the problems that the colony faced led to its demise, and the Massachusetts colony prospered where the Providence Island colony failed.
Kupperman’s work on Providence Island showed that the Puritans had few qualms with slavery. Much of the work on the Puritans has dealt with economic or class issues, as the work of Tawney and Hill, among others, indicates. Some authors, however, have ventured into the Puritan sea with a gendered approach. One recent example of applying gender theory to the Puritans is Monica Fitzgerald’s recent article in Church History titled “Drunkards, Fornicators, and a Great Hen Squabble: Censure Practices and the Gendering of Puritanism.” Fitzgerald’s article pointed out differences in the types of charges brought against men and women in early New England churches. Men tended to be charged and censured for “public behavior and business dealings” that included fighting, drunkenness, and usurious business practices, while women tended to receive censures for sins of personal character like lying. While personal conversion narratives written by men could exhibit language considered feminine (i.e. professing love for Christ), men rarely utilized this verbiage in public confessions. Congregations, however, expected women to use very contrite, repentant language in their confessions of sin to the church body.
While these works shed much light on the actual lives of Puritans and the ideas they held, laymen may still wonder about the importance of the Puritans to current life. George McKenna attempted to answer this question in his 2007 work The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism. McKenna’s work tied a thread throughout American history that went back into early days of the Puritan experiment in New England. He used Miller’s errand into the wilderness to show that Americans still believe that they have a certain mission in the world, which is tied to the idea of Americanism. McKenna argued:
The very definition of America is thus bound up with the biblical paradigm of a people, like the ancient Hebrews, given a holy mission in a new land. It runs through the rhetoric of America’s presidents, and we can find it almost at random in their speeches, whether it was Lincoln depicting Americans as an “almost chosen people,” Franklin Roosevelt talking about an American generation’s “rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan calling America “a shining city on a hill,” or George W. Bush declaring that “America is a nation with a mission, and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs.” We can trace this providentialism directly back to the Puritans of the seventeenth century. They managed to envisage an America long before there was a United States of America. America is a work of the imagination as much as it is a juridical entity, and it was their imagination that played the seminal role in creating it. “The myth of America,” writes Sacvan Bercovitch, “is the creation of the New England Way.”
McKenna then went on to tie this thread together from New England through various reform movements or calls back to American values. For example, when dealing with the Populists and Progressives, he pointed out that some of the reforms (like prohibition) that these groups encouraged are now considered conservative, while others (such as encouragement of labor reform) fall under the liberal rubric. McKenna maintained that these reforms were a part of the social gospel, and that the same people supported these progressive reforms with a mainly religious purpose.
From a historiographical standpoint, authors have given the Puritans more coverage than most historical subjects. George Selement noted that over 1,000 works on Puritans appeared between the writing of Perry Miller’s The New England Mind in 1939 and his own Keepers of the Vineyard in 1984. Whether the studies involved English Puritans or their later American successors, their impact upon British and American history cannot be denied. Their tradition has passed down to America in the form of a morality and reformism that has been closely tied to the idea of American exceptionalism, which is a belief that America as a nation has a particular mission in some sense to save the world, be it from a superstitious Romanism or from a Russian communism that threatened all that was good in the world. Miller’s errand into the wilderness is not complete in the popular mind. For this reason, the study of the Puritans will no doubt continue into the foreseeable future.
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and the Gendering of Puritanism,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 80, no. 1 (March 2011): 40-75.
Fisher, F. J. Essays in the Economic and Social History of Tudor and Stuart England. Cambridge
and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961.
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_______. History of the Great Civil War, 1642-1649, Volume 1. London, Longmans, Green, and
_______. History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War,
1603-1642, Volume X. London, New York, and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1904.
Gay, Peter. Freud for Historians. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Hall, David D. A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New
England. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Hill, Christopher. The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714. London and Edinburgh: Thomas
Nelson and Sons, LTD, 1961.
_______. Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution. London: Oxford University Press,
_______. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. New
York: Penguin Books, 1991.
_______. Society and Puritanism in Pre-revolutionary England. New York: St. Martin’s 1997.
Hutton, Ronald. Debates in Stuart History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Kupperman,Karen Ordahl. “Errand to the Indies: Puritan Colonization from Providence Island
through the Western Design.” The William and Mary Quarterly 45, no. 1 (January 1988): 70-99.
_______. Providence Island, 1630-1641: The Other Puritan Colony. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1993.
McKenna, George. The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism. New Haven: Yale University
Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University
Peterson, Mark A. The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.
Porter, Noah. The Educational Systems of the Puritans and Jesuits Compared. New York: M. W.
Stone, Lawrence. Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642. Rreprint. London and New
York: Routledge, 2005.
Tawney, R. H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. London: John Murray, 1926.
Todd, Margo. Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order. Cambridge and New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Tyacke, Nicholas. Aspects of English Protestantism, c. 1530-1700. Manchester, UK, and New
York: Manchester University Press, 2001.
Underdown, David. “Puritanism, Revolution, and Christopher Hill.” The History Teacher 22, no.
1 (Nov. 1988): 67-75.
Valeri, Mark. Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s
 Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 (London and Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, LTD, 1961), 105-106.
 For one of the most famous discussions of the Whig interpretation, see Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1965). Butterfield points out that the Whig historians have tended to understand history from a Protestant viewpoint that “divide[s] the world into the friends and enemies of progress.” From this standpoint, Puritans are friends of progress, and contributed to the rise of capitalism, freedom, and democracy.
 Noah Porter, The Educational Systems of the Puritans and Jesuits Compared (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1851), 15-16, 19
 Douglas Campbell, The Puritan in Holland, England, and America: An Introduction to American History, Volume I (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892), xxvi-xxvii. William Gladstone wrote a letter to Campbell in praise of this work in 1892. “Gladstone and the Puritans,” New York Times, December 28, 1892.
 Samuel Rawson Gardiner, The First Two Stuarts and the Puritan Revolution, 1603-1660 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1886), 45, 87; Samuel Rawson Gardiner, History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War, 1603-1642, Volume X (London, New York, and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1904), 11-13; Samuel Rawson Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War, 1642-1649, Volume 1 (London, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1886), 11.
 Michael Finlayson, Historians, Puritans, and the English Revolution: the Religious Factor in English Politics before and after the Interregnum (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983), 62.
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 53.
 R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London: John Murray, 1926).
 Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956), 16.
 Christopher Hill, Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 (London and Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd, 1961), 81.
 Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 15.
 Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-revolutionary England (New York: St. Martin’s 1997), chapter 1.
 Christopher Hill, “Protestantism and the Rise of Capitalism” in F. J. Fisher, Essays in the Economic and Social History of Tudor and Stuart England (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 36.
 David Underdown, “Puritanism, Revolution, and Christopher Hill,” The History Teacher 22, no. 1 (Nov. 1988): 67-75; Christopher Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).
 Nicholas Tyacke, Aspects of English Protestantism, c. 1530-1700 (Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), 6, 132.
 Glenn Burgess, “On Revisionism: An Analysis of Early Stuart Historiography in the 1970s and 1980s,” The Historical Journal 33, no. 3 (1990): 609-627.
 Ronald Hutton, Debates in Stuart History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 6-31.
 Lawrence Stone, Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642 (reprint, London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 100-101.
 Finlayson, 4.
 Ibid., 159-162.
 Margo Todd, Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 4.
 Ibid., 21.
 Andrew Delbanco, The Puritan Ordeal (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).
 John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
 Peter Gay, Freud for Historians (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 16.
 Mark A. Peterson, The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997) 1-22.
 Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
 David D. Hall, A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).
 Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “Errand to the Indies: Puritan Colonization from Providence Island through the Western Design,” The William and Mary Quarterly 45, no. 1 (January 1988): 70-99; Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Providence Island, 1630-1641: The Other Puritan Colony (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
 Monica D. Fitzgerald, “Drunkards, Fornicators, and a Great Hen Squabble: Censure Practices and the Gendering of Puritanism,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 80, no. 1 (March 2011): 40-75.
 George McKenna, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 7, 218-221.
 Fitzgerald, 41n.