Monday, June 18, 2012

Two Sorts of Puritans?

Knight, Janice. Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

In this carefully-researched, beautifully-written book, Janice Knight argues that the standard scholarly portrait of American Puritanism stands to be corrected and supplemented. She begins by observing that from Cotton Mather to Perry Miller, historians have portrayed American Puritans as a unified group that upheld a coherent orthodoxy. Knight, on the other hand, hears what she calls “significant differences and alternative voices within Puritan culture” (2). In fact, she identifies two distinct groups with well-known leaders in each one. Knight distinguishes between what she terms the “Intellectual Fathers,” roughly equivalent to Miller’s orthodoxy, and the “Spiritual Brethren.” In contrast to the first group, the “Spiritual Brethren” embraced a “mystical strain of piety” that was “associated with Augustinianism.” Another distinction was that, contrasted with the first group, the second emphasized “divine benevolence over power” and “converted biblical metaphors of kingship into ones of kinship” (3).

Knight says that the “Intellectual Fathers” were represented in England by William Perkins and, above all, William Ames. In America, the Amesian tradition was carried forward by Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, Peter Bulkeley, John Winthrop and most of the ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The “Spiritual Brethren,” on the other hand, were led in England by John Preston and, above all, Richard Sibbes. In America, the Sibbesian tradition was upheld most prominently by John Cotton, John Davenport, and Henry Vane.

Assuming for the moment that Knight’s distinction is valid, someone might ask how it could have been so consistently overlooked in the past. In response, Knight observes that in England, in spite of their differences, Puritans were held to together by common enemies like Catholicism and High Anglicanism. In America, following the Antinomian Controversy (1636-1638), the apologies written by Shepard and Winthrop actually began the process of establishing what Perry Miller would eventually identify as a univocal Puritanism. That is to say, from very early times, differences among American Puritans were white washed and suppressed. From the time of Miller forward, scholarship on the Puritans has tended to simply reinforce his reigning interpretation, while investigating some aspect or another. Even those historians who have identified something different in John Cotton have typically seen him as exceptional. But, again, Knight interprets Cotton as representative of a dissenting tradition that originated in England and of which several other popular leaders were a part.

For the remainder of the book, Knight explains and illustrates how her thesis is no mere academic distinction, but that it actually serves as a sort of interpretive master key. Her basic insight, she says, is vital to a full understanding of historic episodes like the Antinomian Controversy and Henry Vane’s loss of the governorship in 1637. But more than anything else, Knight’s distinction shines a light on significantly different ideas, beliefs, and practices within Puritanism. These include the following: the attributes of God, theological anthropology, the nature of sin, the process of conversion, preaching styles, love for God, self, and neighbor, and pastoral roles and responsibilities. From beginning to end, Knight attempts to show that on each of these points, we can readily perceive what she identifies as two different and coherent traditions.

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