Puritans v. Quakers in the battle for our sympathy
I just finished my Delbanco book and it strikes me that most historians who write about the Puritans just don’t like them, deep down inside, and this colors their history.
Of course, it’s not as if liking a group makes your history better than disliking a group. Ideally, you try to be as objective as possible.
But that objectivity is hard to come by when you’re reading about the Puritans. A schadenfreude creeps in and eventually sets the overall tone fast in a kind of head-shaking ruing of the Puritans and their crazy ways. Almost any book you read about the Massachusetts Bay Colony gives you the feeling that it was an immediate failure, that the moment those people set foot on shore in America they started betraying their own values. Blame is laid at the door of their religion, inevitably; a religion that crazy was just bound to fail.
It’s funny, because MBC was very successful. It established dominance over all New England, Boston was the major American port for decades, and overpopulation was almost immediately a problem. The MBC Puritans finally codified their religion in writing (the New England Way), something that had eluded or been deemed impossible by English Puritans, they settled two strong challenges to their Way (Antinomianism and the Halfway Covenant), created a representative legislature and judiciary, and wrote down a code of civil law (something the English Parliament tried to force the king to do to no avail).
But in most religious histories of the Puritans of the MBC, they are portrayed as psychologically tortured, religiously intolerant, crippled by self-doubt, paralyzed by uncertainty and fear of eternal punishment. You’d never know this was the place that invented flip, the fun rum drink with sizzling cream.
Meanwhile, the other crazy zealots in America, the Quakers, come off as lovely and wonderful, and full of success, when in fact their single colony immediately and completely betrayed its founder’s principles as soon as he died, and the Quaker faith henceforth had nothing to do with the government of Pennsylvania.
Because the later, 18th and especially 19th century Quakers were antislavery pacifists, we like them. We’re in sympathy with them. We ignore that fact that in the 17th century, they were as unpleasant and dictatorial about religion as any Puritan might be. I am greatly indebted to Tom Van Dyke at American Creation for this description of 17th-century Quakers in America:
[Roger] Williams spent much of his final decades in protracted debates with Quaker missionaries and refugees to Rhode Island, and what caused him to be so exasperated with his Quaker opponents was primarily their violation of [the] aspect of civility, the need to conduct public conversation respectfully. …Williams was taken aback by his Quaker opponents’ boisterous behavior and abandonment of common courtesy during the debates. He vehemently objected to their habit of interrupting his arguments, shouting him down, attempting to humiliate him personally with name-calling and ridicule, misrepresenting his convictions, and displaying a noted lack of truthfulness in their own arguments. …[To Williams] this behavior was not, as the Quakers insisted, an acceptable exercise of free conscience. Instead it was a moral violation of the basic requirements of civility, a signal of deep disrespect and a transgression of the procedural rules for public deliberation that Williams held with the highest esteem, so much so that he was willing to entertain the possibility that violators of civility like the Quakers should be subject to legal restrictions.
If you could get Roger Williams so far on your bad side that he was willing to restrict your liberties, you know you’re pretty extreme.
So while of course you can never completely erase your own biases when studying anything, including history, we need to at least be upfront about them. If only Puritan historians would just include a Foreword saying, “Look, I hate these people, but they’re an important part of American history, so we need to study them, but frankly I’m glad they got what they deserved in the long run–oblivion.”
My foreword would be different… as you can guess!
(For more on the battle between Puritans and Quakers, see The Puritans and Freedom of Religion.)