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Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728
By Robert Middlekauff
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 1999 Robert Middlekauff
All rights reserved.
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The question "who am I?" is often in the mouths of men in the twentieth century. Uncertain of their values, men today feel rootless and lament their inability to locate themselves by fixed points in the world. A part of their plight, they recognize, lies within themselves: they distrust themselves, their ideas, their motives, and their impulses. But the world is suspect too: it offers no stability, only change, unthinking and, what is worse, unfeeling change. Ransack it for meaning as they will, they discover that the world will not answer the question of their identity. And so they continue to search and to suffer. At their most desperate, they resemble Saul Bellow's Gene Henderson, who listened to an unsuppressible voice in his heart saying only "I want, I want, I want!"
Puritans did not ask the question of the moderns, "who am I?" but they seem to have endured a similar anxiety. Like men today, they were fascinated by their own mental states; and this absorption with themselves yielded great uneasiness. But the resemblance is superficial. Modern men yearn to find themselves, they search for values, and they want to discover how to live. Puritans shared none of these concerns. They knew who they were; man, after all, was elaborately described in Scripture, and the scholastic psychology and Reformed theology also told them much about themselves. Nor were values unclear—the word in the modern connotation would have bewildered them—God's will shone in the Scriptures. In fact they had at hand in the body of belief we call Puritanism an explicit philosophy covering all aspects of human existence. This philosophy defined man's place in the world with absolute clarity: it told him who he was and what he might become; and it told him what God expected of him. But if man's fate was clear, the fate of individuals was not. In its doctrines of predestination and election, Puritanism offered a man the assurance that his future had been decided. But it gave him no infallible indication of the nature of the decision. All he could know with absolute certainty was that God in His justice had predestined some men for salvation and others for damnation.
Predestination summed up a set of ideas conventionally identified with the Christian inheritance. In the form of Calvinism that permeated New England's culture, predestination took its meaning in the context of the relationship of God and man. God was sovereign and omnipotent: man was dependent and helpless, sunk in original sin. The Puritan knew that it had not always been so: God created Adam in His image, endowed him with free will, and charged him to live within the covenant of works. With Adam's fall, free will was lost and man was left without power, his fate locked in an iron determinism: whether he would live eternally or burn forever was decided not by himself, by his own merit, or anything he did or could do, but rather by the pleasure of God—almost, Richard Mather once observed—"as if by lot."
And how was he, a totally helpless creature, expected to respond to this universe that took its decisions about his eternal state as easily as a man casts dice? With the most strenuous efforts to secure from God the grace that could save his soul. The paradox is obvious: the creed the community lived by, the ministers that preached to it, the books and tracts that came from its presses, all told the Puritan "you are helplessly and hopelessly sunk in sin, your will is corrupt, your understanding impaired, your emotions base, but though only God can save you, you must strive after the grace that will bring eternal peace, you must exert yourself to all your capacity." We have difficulty comprehending a creed that tells a man he is without power and then exhorts him to use all his power to save himself. We can refuse to consider such a situation as a description of reality; men in seventeenth-century New England could not. But some of them too found the doctrine paradoxical and responded by saying that they could do nothing for themselves. Their repetition of the doctrine of human depravity had a hopeless and desperate ring to it—yes, we admit our guilt, but we are helpless, they said, we cannot rescue ourselves; only God can give us saving grace.
The rejoinder to such plaints reveals remarkable—though limited—psychological insight: to be sure, Puritan ministers replied, you are helpless. But sinners always ignore the dreadful truths about themselves. "Sinners," Increase Mather once noted in a great sermon, are not only "wicked," they are "unreasonable. Ask them why they don't reform their Lives, why don't you Turn over a new leaf, and amend your ways and your doings, they will answer, God does not give me Grace. I can't Convert my self and God does not Convert me. Thus do they insinuate as if God were in fault, and the blame of their Unconversion to be imputed unto him." Increase Mather, as clearly as any Puritan preacher, saw the weakness in these protestations. Of course, he agreed, it is true that "Sinners cannot Convert themselves, [but] their Cannot is a wilful Cannot. They will not come. It is not said they could not (though they could not of themselves come to Christ) but that they would not come." This explanation which emphasizes the willfulness of the refusal is reminiscent of the Freudian theory of neurosis. The Freudian analogue holds that what makes it difficult to cure the neurotic of his sickness is his attachment to it, his willful (to use the seventeenth-century term) clinging to his neurosis and all its unhealthy gratifications. And why do men will not to convert? "If it were in the power of a Sinner to Convert himself, he would not do it: For he hates Conversion. It is an abomination to fools to depart from evil.... Their hearts are in Love, and in League with their Lusts, yea they hate to be turned from them."
Forcing the sinner to recognize his complicity in his inability to act had the effect of subduing the will, robbing it of its arrogance and power. You cannot act, the minister says, because you will not; your inability, your sin is deliberately chosen. The intention of this preaching was achieved when humility was induced; the sinner was in despair; he looked at himself honestly and saw only depravity. In this state of diminished will, he was at last ripe for conversion. He, or his heart, that is, his psyche or will, was now an empty vessel; its corruption had been drained away; and once emptied, the vessel of the heart might be filled with the saving grace of the Lord. He had endured, in modern terms, a crisis of identity. When his ego loss had reached the point where he was reduced to desperation, he experienced the new birth and became a new man as his personality attained a fresh integration, the components of the new birth being implied, of course, by the Calvinist version of Christianity.
This experience, and the explanations of it offered by theology, reinforced a bent towards self-awareness in men eager to determine whether or not they were of the elect. Puritanism achieved the same result in yet another way—by explicitly demanding a self-consciousness that made a man aware of his emotions and sensitive to his attitudes towards his own behavior. It accomplished this by describing in elaborate detail the disposition of a godly mind. Sin, it taught, might be incurred as surely by attitudes as by actions. In the process of performing his religious duties a man might sin if his feelings were not properly engaged. Prayer, for example, was commanded of every Christian; but prayer without inward strain, even agony, is mere "lip-labour," a formality that offends God. Prayer for spiritual blessings without faith that those blessings will be granted implies a doubt of God's power and is equivalent to unbelief. Ordinary life, too, must be lived in a Christian habit of mind. A man getting his living in a lawful calling, though staying within the limits imposed by the State, might nevertheless violate divine imperatives by overvaluing the creatures, as Puritans termed excessive esteem for the things of this world. The "manner of performances," Increase Mather once said, was the crucial thing in fulfilling the duties imposed by God.
Puritanism thus bred a deep concern about a state of mind. The norms of good thought and feeling were clear, and every Puritan felt the need for effort to bring his consciousness into harmony with these norms. Doing what he must was another matter and much of his anxiety arose in the attempt to live according to God's stringent requirements. The most familiar figure among Puritans is the tormented soul, constantly examining his every thought and action, now convinced that hell awaits him, now lunging after the straw of hope that he is saved, and then once more falling into despair. He wants to believe, he tries, he fails, he succeeds, he fails—always on the cycle of alternating moods.
The sources of Puritan anxiety then were vastly different from those of modern anxiety. Puritan anxiety in a peculiar sense was a conscious uneasiness, deliberately imposed or at least clearly seen and accepted by its sufferers. It rose from the objective world; it was, paradoxically, reasoned anxiety, and there lay its difference from modern anxiety which is neurotic and which has its sources in the irrational and the abnormal.
What surprises one is that this anxiety did not often produce morbidity among the Puritans. Children who had been taught, almost as soon as they left their mothers' breasts, that they reeked of sin, continued in this belief and tormented themselves over their inner condition but still grew into adults who worked productively, married, reared childen and lived useful lives by any standard. As a young man, Michael Wigglesworth, who earned fame through the apocalyptical poem The Day of Doom, not only worried constantly over his own but over his neighbors' souls. As a tutor at Harvard, the innocent play of students reminded him of the torments of Hell, and he resolved to suppress their Sabbath evening activities, which he saw as "mad mirth." Wigglesworth did not shed these concerns with his youth, as far as one can tell. Rather he obtained a forum for expressing his opinions of them when he became a minister. But no one minded; his prying into his neighbors' lives was not resented; and his preoccupation with sin seemed—and was—perfectly normal in the seventeenth century. His life contained spheres other than the pastoral: he married—not once—but three times. The last time at age seventy-four he took his servant-girl to be his wife; she gave him his last child.
The records of these lives suggest that morbidity did not occur more often because of what seemed the restrictive side of Puritanism generated tremendous energy and compelled its release. Beyond any question man was depraved. By nature he loved only himself; he should try to love his fellows and to love God. He lusted after the things of this world, but he should love the world with weaned affections and concentrate on God. His model for living existed in his sinful makeup, but he should seek to conform to Christ. The imperative which Puritans most insisted upon was that as helpless as man was, he should act, and act according to divine prescriptions. The total self had to be enlisted in God's cause. Every life must be lived with this requirement in mind; inwardly and outwardly men were to conform to Christ in "our soules, our bodies, our understanding, will, memorie, affections, and all we have to the service of God, in the generall calling of a Christian, and in the particular callings in which hee hath placed us."
Probably no Puritan understood these injunctions in exactly the way any other Puritan did.
From these differences in understanding came differences in styles of life. The more literally the command "live with the self fixed on God" was taken, the greater religious intensity life had.
The three distinguished Mathers of the seventeenth century—Richard, his son Increase, and his, Cotton—all took this injunction to heart as a standard of life. And none confined intensity to inner experience. Their general callings as Christians affected everything they did and thought and felt, but their particular callings as ministers were hardly less important. In fact the two cannot be separated, for the voice of God was clearly heard in both.
These three men lived passionate lives, but their determination to get the best out of themselves for the glory of God did not rest on untutored enthusiasm. All three respected ideas and knowledge; all three proved themselves as scholars as well as ministers. Perhaps in the long history of their service to New England, their ideas about the conduct of life influenced their society more than anything they did. Yet, most of their contemporaries seem to have been as impressed by the sustained example of their religious devotion. And a few sensed what was significant in all three Mathers—their desire to fuse piety and intellect, to pursue ideas with the heart as well as with the mind, and to bring their thinking constantly to bear on their love of God.
Inevitably they did not all love God in the same way and inevitably they chose, or were forced to choose, different ways of expressing their love of God's glory. Inevitably they differed in their abilities to sustain the union of mind and spirit. And inevitably because their faith was deep and because they strove so mightily in God's service, their differences reflected in most ways the intellectual development of three generations of clerical intellectuals in New England.
This development, which includes much of the intellectual history of Puritanism, is usually taken to parallel the transformation of Puritan into Yankee, a process that sees piety replaced by secular values. Surely the process of secularization of society began in the seventeenth century as business and the market, farms and fields, and styles of life separated from the meetinghouse, assumed an increasing importance. The State gave ground, too, as internal diversity and external imperatives forced the abandonment of an official policy of intolerance. And while these changes occurred, children were born and reared who experienced distress, incomprehension, and indifference at their inability to recapitulate in their lives the religious psychology of their fathers.
But just as surely as it began, this process was not completed. Standing apart from it, though not unaffected by it, were Puritan laymen and divines, who continued to maintain that life must be shaped by the necessity of advancing God's glory and who persisted in measuring every alteration in society against what they could conceive of as its effects on the true religion. These men did not—as much of the written history of Puritanism has it—accommodate or rationalize the gradual decline of religious faith. Those who hold that they did describe them as unself-conscious Arminians, subtle exponents of the free will of man, who encouraged the drift from the Calvinist creed by preaching a covenant legalism. Such preaching did occur within the Congregational churches of New England, though it is significant that the group commonly taken to be the most worldly in New England, the merchants trading overseas, found their way into the Church of England, an institution far more committed than the Congregational churches to the power of human abilities. A more prevalent preaching upheld the old creed, however. This preaching represented a largely clerical culture increasingly at variance with the chief dispositions of society in New England.
The Mathers—particularly Increase and Cotton—felt the gradual divergence of religious and secular life with great acuteness. Their responses came out of their hearts and minds. As they watched their society move from what they considered the true road to God's glory, they suffered and resisted and sought the means to bring it back. They were not reactionaries or even conservatives—the words have no value in this context—for they attempted to contain within their thought what they considered the best in the new science and social organization. They proved remarkably resourceful in discovering "unessentials" in religion and Church polity which, they said, ought to be sacrificed to rally men to the Lord's cause. And in the end they both compromised and still held fast.
All this cost Increase and Cotton much. Yet their piety, which was only slightly more intense than most of their ministerial colleagues', had probably increased over that of the founders. Certainly it had assumed more extravagant forms and had carried them into rapturous dreams of the next world. These changes reached their highest expression in the mind and heart of Cotton Mather. Within him the old balance had collapsed in favor of the spirit. The society in which he died, the society of the Franklins, the Courant, the Hell-Fire Club, and much more that he despised, may have been as "reasonable" as it claimed and as he for a brief time acknowledged. But that sort of reasonableness he learned could not be incorporated into the spirit to which he finally gave himself. At the end of his life then, he had given over the synthesis of piety and intellect which had so distinguished his grandfather's era. And in the process he had transformed the life of passionate commitment, and contributed to the alteration of Puritanism itself.
Excerpted from The Mathers by Robert Middlekauff. Copyright © 1999 Robert Middlekauff. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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