07 October 2014

Puritanism and Patriotism

I've just finished re-reading a relatively recent work on the Puritans and how they've impacted American history basically since the beginning of the earliest colonies. Puritans were for reform, and they tended to have a high view of America's covenantal destiny should they live up to their end of their relationship to God. I read this book to get some context for the revision of my dissertation, hopefully for publication. George McKenna noted that a nearly unbroken strain of American Puritanical thought has continued through to the present day, first through the areas the Puritans inhabited in the burned-over district in New York, the Western Reserve of Ohio, and Michigan, as they expanded to look for new lands to inhabit. The Puritan worldview then continued throughout the North during the Civil War and on through the reformers of the Progressive Movement. The Puritan thread then followed through the New Deal, after which it switched to the unlikely amalgam of Catholics and Southern Evangelical Protestants, both of whom took over the idea of the US as a chosen nation.
While McKenna drew upon a wide range of personalities, including such disparate characters as Jonathan Edwards, the Transcendentalist writers of the nineteenth century, Abraham Lincoln, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Ronald Reagan. The thing that tied these people together was the optimism that things could get better and their reforming impulse. They also tended to have a belief in a messianic destiny for the American nation that could be lost if the people of America did not follow this destiny. McKenna, although not the first to describe it, noted the importance of the political jeremiad in calling the people back to the straight and narrow from their wanderings off the righteous path. McKenna's book is well worth reading and will make the reader think about how much his or her ideas of America might reach way back into the past.
McKenna, George. The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.

1 comment:

  1. David Hackett Fischer's 'Albion's Seed' is also helpful in this regard. That Puritan impulse regarding 'ordered liberty' plays out even in the socio-political culture of New England. While it seems hard for many to grasp that New England liberalism is actually sociologically related to old Puritan impulses it is nevertheless true. The Libertarian streak of the modern Christian Right would be very foreign to the Puritans... let alone the modern Christian Right's adherence to laissez faire.

    As one who lives on the frontier of Appalachia and Yankeedom it's interesting to note the cultural distinctions between Western New York/NE Ohio and just an hour or so south in PA. You feel the cultural shift. Western NY is Yankee/Puritan and part of the Burned Over district. Northwest PA is part of Appalachia.

    Great stuff.