Puritanism: The Shaping of America

As part of the iconography and symbology by which a sense of the American past is constructed, the entry of the Puritans into 17th century New England has been interpreted and re-interpreted as a shaping force of what has been recurrently described as that peculiar and essential figure, the being somehow common to every component of a nevertheless immeasurably diverse culture, the “American” itself. Never mind if this shared self seems to blur under scrutiny; the past out of which it is made is just as elusive, just as dependent upon the plasticity of its popular conception. It is easier and perhaps in its way necessary to do what has often been done with the waves of emigrants that fixed the European presence in New England in 1620 and 1630, to jumble two groups into, depending upon one’s mood, either a stern but strong figure of religious freedom and peaceful coexistence, or a stark, superstitious, grim-faced symbol of oppression and fatalism. On one side, we have the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock, the blunderbuss and the turkey–a good-natured and benign collage of historical images that help fill the nation’s collective past with reassuring facts, help establish one’s sense of tradition by allowing it key moments of adherence. But then the commonly-held ‘dark side,’ the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans: witch-hunts, elitism, intolerance, narrow-minded zealotry; a paradigm used to understand and explain perceived moments of its recurrence within our society, such as in both the 1850’s and the 1950’s, the fervor of morally-crusading Abolitionism, and the fever of Communist-purging McCarthyism.

There to help explain just what America means, the art adorning the Rotunda of the United States Capitol still does not evoke, of the two, the culture whose influence had the greater effect and which indeed swallowed the other not long after either of their establishment. Instead, one finds in painting, the embarkation of the Pilgrims, and in both a fresco and frieze, the landing of the Pilgrims. In each image one finds the correlative to the conception most readily available to Americans, the one fixed in a National holiday, Thanksgiving. But again, that the Pilgrims seem to be offered as representative of our ‘Forefathers,’ does not necessarily mean that the Puritans are forgotten; paradoxically, in name at least, the opposite may be true. As Michael Kammen points out in his overarching treatment on the role of memory in formulating American culture, Mystic Chords of Memory, the first group is more often than not conflated with the second.

If the symbolism of the Pilgrims occupy the foreground of popular memory, it does so in a relatively fixed, institutional sense–that of its enshrinement in the Rotunda, and its memorialization through a National holiday. The idea of Puritanism has nevertheless served as a kind of frame for the Pilgrims, allowing a title and a context which, when taken notice of, may be safely understood as something not essential, and so, not a danger, to the meaning of the tradition seen. But it is then Puritanism whose meaning has proved the more dynamic, the more vital to the discourse of public memory. It is Puritanism which has been seen as both good and bad, and has served as a site of contention for differing ideological uses and perspectives. It is the “paper trail” that the Puritans left behind, along with their strong strain of ideology, which Kammen notes as the distinguishing features of their role in popular memory (Kammen, 64). The Pilgrims, because of their lack of these traits, have had a plasticity of meaning, have provided a useful malleability to the fashioning of ‘American’ tradition. The Puritans have provided a more consistent interpretive challenge, simply because there is so much more to interpret. Documents do not necessarily ‘prove’ a whole lot; rather they must be compared in relation to others, judged within a spectrum of representativeness, gauged as an expression of intent. Within them one searches for the what seems must be there, the ‘Puritan Mind’, even as one realizes simply from the differing historical interpretations– ‘scientific’, revisionist, ‘new-historical’, and otherwise–that such a thing, if it could and did exist, will always be but inadequately known.

The underlying assumption of the project will be primarily that of Michael Kammen, who traces two major features of American understanding of its place in time: the first, “to historicize the present”; the second, to “depoliticize the past” (Kammen, 704). That is, as alternate modes of “hope” and “memory,” progress and tradition, inform the collective understanding of what the nation has come from and where it is headed, its conception of cultural and social identity is transformed in the process. The approach here then will be not to establish an absolute understanding of Pilgrims and Puritans, but rather to fix some ground of stability based largely upon original writings and what seem to be more or less undisputed interpretations about what those writings suggest. What will follow from that will be a view of subsequent historical fashionings of both Pilgrim and Puritan, as they have been converted into both myth and ideological argument. From the Revolution to the Civil War, to the period following World War I, both Pilgrims and Puritans have served as part of a rationale for national progress and cultural identity. This perspective of historical utility in turn provides a way to read and explain an institutional America evinced in the speeches of politicians, and perhaps most clearly seen in the art of the Rotunda.

Scott Atkins

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This entry was posted in A Level History, American History, MODERN CHURCH HISTORY, Puritan, Puritan Theology, Puritanism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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