Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Perry Miller's "Errand into the Wilderness"

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

This post provides an overview of the "Preface" and of the leading chapter, "Errand into the Wilderness," in this classic collection by the great Perry Miller.


Miller says that while in central Africa he had an “epiphany” that revealed to him what he ought to do with his life. The task was thrust upon him. Since that time, he had spent 25 years studying “the innermost propulsion of the United States” (viii).

He tell us that, after all of that work, he and his generation of scholars have still not achieved anything like “the comprehensive understanding we presumptuously proposed” (ix), which is one reason he is so glad to see young scholars like Edmund S. Morgan and Bernard Bailyn coming along.

While acknowledging that "social" history can and does contribute to our understanding of the past, Miller is compelled to say that these sorts of probes really don't get at the essence of his subject. He seems to be saying that the most important facet in human history is intellectual history, and that the intellectual history of colonial America is essentially theological. Furthermore, people who think otherwise haven't examined the facts.

He describes the chapters of his book as “pieces,” not “essays.” The first word suggests a piece of work submitted by a deadline. The second word sounds like something much more definitive and timeless. Miller goes out of his way to mention that his pieces are incomplete. They are approximations. And since that’s the case, he’s glad to have had the opportunity to revise them. He comes across as a serious worker who does not take himself too seriously.

"Errand into the Wilderness"

In this fascinating piece, Miller begins with the seeming despair of the second- and third-generation preachers in New England. They seem to assume that their forebears, the first generation, were more devoted and much more capable than they were, and that the present generation had failed because they had not run as well as their predecessors. What, Miller wonders, was the source of this anxiety, and even dread?

He distinguishes between two connotations of the word "errand." These two meanings certainly would have been in the back of the mind of Samuel Danforth, the Puritan preacher who, in 1670, titled his election sermon "A Brief Recognition of New England's Errand into the Wilderness.": On the one hand, someone might be "an errand boy," merely doing someone else's bidding. On the other hand, one might be running errands for himself or herself. In the first scenario, the one running errands is not responsible for the list of things to do, only for the doing of them. In the second scenario, the one running errands is responsible for both. In which of these two had New England failed (or so it seemed to them)?

Plymouth was simple in that the Pilgrims were driven there by their convictions. Plymouth was more or less a forced migration. The only way that the Separatists could have had it otherwise would be if they ceased being Separatists.

The Great Migration of 1630 was completely different. Those people chose to go. The "Massachusetts Bay Colony come on an errand in the second and later sense of the word: it was, so to speak, on its own business" (5). Later, again: "These Puritans did not flee to America; they went in order to work out that complete reformation which was not yet accomplished in England and Europe, but which would quickly be accomplished if only the saints back there had a working model to guide them" (11).

A great section on the experience of change (economic and social) among the first generations of the Bay Colony, and how the jeremiad sermons of the preachers were a sort of ritualistic public venting, which took for granted that such change would continue and accelerate, and that sort of encouraged them, actually. Having grown up in little England, where no more land was to be had, Winthrop could never have imagined how the physical realities of the American experience would change everything for the residents of Massachusetts and their descendants. Expansion, which was impossible in England, was guaranteed in America (9).

Miller sets out to show that the migration connected with John Winthrop was intended “to vindicate the most rigorous ideal of the Reformation, so that ultimately all Europe would imitate New England” (12). In the words of Winthrop, the eyes of the whole world were upon them. The whole world would be watching to see whether or not a purified Christianity would emerge in the New World. And, because they were doing this for the Lord's honor and glory, there is a real sense in which their "errand" was being carried out in the first sense, i.e., at the behest of the Lord whose Word compelled them (11).

Miller says that this is precisely the reason why the second and third generations seem so dejected. What were the sources of this perception and problem?

1. Winthrop and his group had set the bar so incredibly high. To get the whole world to look on and to emulate New England as New England did everything right?

2. Not only that, there were many in England who took an interest in the American project, but who did not appreciate or approve of the policies and actions of the leaders in New England, namely the banishment of the likes of Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Anabaptists, and Antinomians. Any one of these types would have been welcomed into Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army. And, upon winning, Cromwell would insist on all these being able to enjoy liberty of conscience (13).

3. And, the Civil Wars in England during the 1640s distracted the English and took away the “audience” of those in New England.

People in New England in the mid-1600s were having what Miller describes as a crisis of identity, which was even more troublesome to them than all of the natural hardships. Miller suggests that these events were a real turning point in America. His last few sentences read, “Their errand having failed in the first sense of the term, they were left with the second, and required to fill it with meaning by themselves and out of themselves. Having failed to rivet the eyes of the world upon their city on the hill, they were left alone with America” (15).

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