Friday, May 18, 2012

The Big Picture of Puritan History

What follows is not a critical book review of Stephen Foster's, The Long Argument. At the beginning, I do say a few things about the content and significance of the book. But for the most part, I'm simply writing about some of my reflections and curiosities as I was reading.

Foster, Stephen. The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Foster begins this fine, influential survey of Puritan history with a general observation: American historians have written as though they assumed that English migration to America represented a brand new beginning, something separate from everything else before. Whenever these historians have acknowledged transatlantic connections, invariably these have been connections to England. Along this line, the author reminds us that the Spanish established settlements in America at least as early as the English. Yet, American historians have normally called those earliest Spanish settlements “borderlands,” which are “peripheral by definition” (2).

Foster notes that Puritan studies have not avoided this common feature of American historiography. Thus, the American chapter of Puritan history has usually been isolated from its English parentage. This, says Foster, has resulted in a number of misunderstandings and poor reconstructions of the past. He observes:

Without some longer view that fuses the American and English histories of the Puritans and thereby locates enduring commitments and points of accord in decade after decade of reverses, internal divisions, and lamentations of decline the inevitable temptation has been to single out as definitive some one characteristic or another of a much broader movement and to tie the fate of a protean phenomenon to purely temporary arrangements (4).

Given that set of circumstances, Foster issues the following prescription and expectation: "Reassemble the English and American halves, examine the result over time, and with a proper regard to its settings, and the rough outline of the beast becomes visible enough" (5). With that, the author takes the reader on a masterful tour that begins during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and ends with the First Great Awakening whose events so ruptured Puritanism that by 1800 “there was no longer a movement” (290). In telling this longer version of the story, Foster demonstrates the validity of what stands behind the main title of his book. Near the end, he explains that The Long Argument does not refer so much to disputes or even to a particular dispute, “but to the continuing narrative” of at least 130 years of Puritan history (287).

Along the way, the author provides a good number of important insights on his topic, as well as some significant additions and corrections to the secondary literature. In what follows, I will report a few of these (the ones that really struck me), and will also mention some of the daydreams and questions that occurred to me as I was reading this book.

In Chapter 1, “The Elizabethan Contribution,” Foster says that one of the early hallmarks of Puritanism was a tension according to which (a) an individual must not live a life that is random. You cannot live as you want nor do as you please. To state it positively, there must be a better, greater purpose to a person’s life than simply pursuing one's own desires. But (b), said the Puritans, the church and the secular powers are failing in their duties to promote and enforce this ideal (9). I was especially interested in a related section where Foster describes how English Puritans had a stock literary character: the decent person who is really not engaged in religious matters. He is disinterested and ignorant. Yet he assumes he has nothing to worry about. After all, he’s really not much worse than anyone else (38-39).

I was intrigued by this because, looking back from the time of the Puritans, the impulse just described appears to be a theme among the followers of John Wyclif. I am aware that having studied a little about the Lollards, I am susceptible to seeing their influence everywhere. Still, we have the following statement from Foster himself:

The Lollards do merit a place in the prehistory of Puritanism because they persisted as an exclusively popular heresy for several generations after the authorities had frightened off the movement's original university-based leadership and its knightly supporters and because in some undetermined and perhaps indeterminable way they contributed to the Reformation itself (7).

So I wonder: in the Puritan trope identified above, are we looking at something that is at least in part a vestige of Lollardy? In his informal heresy trial before Archbishop Thomas Arundel, for example, the Lollard priest William Thorpe laments what “a great pity and sorrow” it is “that many men and women do their own wayward will; nor busy them not to know nor to do the pleasant will of God” (103). Later, Thorpe complains to Arundel that religion in England is so confused that those regarded to be out of the faith are really in, and vice versa. Remarkably, at least in this part of the examination, Thorpe does not distinguish the two groups along the lines of propositional truth. Instead, his accusation against people who are wrongly considered true members of Christ’s Church has more to do with their neglect of the things that matter most. According to Thorpe, these people “neither know nor have will to know nor to occupy their wits truly and effectuously in the right faith of Holy Church” (122). [The text used here is found in Alfred W. Pollard, FifteenthCentury Prose and Verse (New York: Cooper Square, 1964), 101-67]. Of course, it would take much more than this to demonstrate a line of historical influence. But to my ears, Foster’s description and Thorpe’s accusation sound very similar.

Moving forward from the time of the Puritans, I think about some of my own experiences growing up going to church. A minor theme in the sermons I heard back then was, if you’re going to be God’s person, then you must necessarily rise above the ordinary. The world being what it is, to be average is to be displeasing to God. More frequently, I heard that sincerity is not enough. One can be sincerely wrong. And, balancing bad deeds with good will not work. Good deeds are not the antidote to sin.

In Chapter 2, “Continuity and Ambiguity, ‘The Gospel Doing,’ 1590-1630” Foster tells us about Robert Cawdry, a radical Puritan of the late sixteenth century. Cawdry produced and refined “the first monolingual English dictionary” as a means of helping the common people to learn more from the sermons they heard (66). Clear definition, he believed, was basic to growing in knowledge. There is a lot of truth to that, of course. But here’s what really struck me as I read about Cawdry’s project: In the sermons I heard growing up, the dictionary was almost as likely to be quoted as the Bible. Not as often, of course. Usually, if the dictionary (almost always, Webster’s) was cited in a sermon, then that citation came at the beginning (much in the way of debates, where defining terms was a basic part of the first speech). In my experience, some theological definitions were mentioned so often, we came to memorize them. The first mention of “grace” almost always came with the reminder that this word means “unmerited favor ” (a definition that, strangely, is true enough while not really getting to the heart of the Christian message, which offers forgiveness in spite of demerits). And then there were these sort of folksy definitions that weren’t really accurate. But because they were so memorable, so preachable, ministers found them irresistible. For example, “justified” meant “just as if I’d” never sinned. Break up the word “atonement” and you get “at one ment,” and so on.

When reading about Cawdry and his dictionary, I also thought about Sherman, Texas, during the first half of 1904. That was the scene of T. B. Larimore’s gospel meeting that lasted six months. Larimore preached at two services every day, and three times on Sunday: fifteen sermons a week. David Lipscomb, then editor of the Gospel Advocate in Nashville, took an interest in the extraordinary meeting and wrote to Larimore asking him to report. Larimore’s reply includes this tidbit: “What books do I consult? The Bible, Webster's Dictionary, and the Bible--these three, and no more.” For more about this famous Churches of Christ episode, see an earlier blog post of mine.

In Chapter 5, Foster describes the circumstances in New England which led to the so-called Halfway Covenant. This is an example of where a longer treatment can be significantly more revealing. I say this because, although Edmund Morgan discusses the same episode in his book Visible Saints, he does not describe the particulars, at least not to the extent that Foster does.

Foster makes the case that at least two things led to the development of the Halfway Covenant: First, in New England, the descendants of the Puritans who migrated to New England did not have the same volume and quality of religious sources that their forefathers had had in England; not as many pamphlets, books, sermons, etc.

Second, as the population in New England grew larger, it grew younger. The percentage of very young people, all of them born in America, and all of them without the benefit of the religious “means” known in England, was remarkably high. To their parents and grandparents, they seemed hopelessly irreligious.

Foster explains that the Halfway Covenant,developed in 1656-57, essentially said that these young people who had come of age (16 or older) were still members of the church. However, until they could convince their congregations that they had had the experience of saving grace, they were not considered in communion with the church. Therefore, they could not participate in the Lord’s Supper and were not permitted to vote. And he makes it a special point to say that “all of the seventeen clergymen at the assembly were English-born; all but two were English-educated and had come to America as adults” (187-88). Foster’s description went a long way in helping me to get a feel for what was to Puritans of the time a situation that had to be dealt with.

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