Puritan New England 2: Key Categories

We’ve set as a goal some attention to the development of “great ideas” as they relate to politics (specifically democracy), religion (monotheism), philosophy (rationalism), and science. So it make sense to do an occasional round-up along these lines.

I. Politics:

I’ve covered much of this already. Obviously, the state of government in the New England colonies was a far cry from modern notions of democracy, and very few of the basic rights we tend to take for granted were yet recognized. With a notion of liberty based on obedience to God and rightly-constituted authority, and a “model of charity” that begins with the assumption that social and economic inequality are there to glorify God, a society that believed that all are equal in God’s eyes could still manifest a tremendous amount of heirarchy without actually threatening its sense that all was arranged for the good of all concerned. But the contradictions would become increasingly hard to maintain, particularly as the population of New England swelled, and the personal reach of the colonies’ leaders became insufficient to enforce conformity. New England congregations appear to have been voluntary associations, and to have required general, popular agreement on extreme actions, such as the banishment of heretics, but the Anne Hutchinson case shows how, without a tight-knit commununity, the direction of the church teachers could drive popular opinion.

II. Philosophy:

It’s important to remember that the puritans believed strongly that religion was a matter for intellectual exploration. Emotions and imagination were mistrusted as areas open to evil influences. Enthusiasm, mysticism, and insistence on the continuing importance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit amounted to heresies in Puritan New England. There was certainly a good deal of superstition mixed in with the beliefs of colonial New Englanders, but, as often as not, we see them at least attempting to address the even most supernatural elements of their beliefs in a rational and orderly manner. It is this that lends an extra bit of macabre interest to the operations of the witch trials.

III. Religion:

We’ve had a great deal of exposure the details of puritan religious debate. In general, it’s important to remember of that the New England religious communities were a development away from established churches and the associated struggles over orthodoxy in England and Europe. They were a rather partial step, as the “antinomians” and Roger Williams learned, and some early charters, like that of the New England Confederation, certainly emphasized religious uniformity along with provisions for mutual aid. But the puritans, with their notion of “a shining city on a hill,” had a strong sense that they were starting something new in New England. The seriousness that came with that sense of divine mission inevitably contributed to the development of theological innovations and heresies, which would carry New England religious thought in new directions, breaking down the orthodoxies it initially propped up.

IV. Science:

Modern science is just getting rolling in the 17th century. The Royal Society forms in England, and counts nearly a dozen New Englanders among its early members, while the Inquisition is warring against Galileo and the like. As we might expect, science in this period is frequently tied up with religious questions. Astronomy, as a physical science of “the heavens,” and as a target of religious censorship elsewhere, is the locus of quasi-scientific writing in New England. For a taste of the literature of the period, puritan writings on comets and earthquakes are a good place to start.

As we move into the 18th century and the Revolutionary War period, we should expect to see increased secularization in the writings, along with a considerable interest in the political relationships between England and the colonies.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2691 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.