Archive for July, 2009

“The Puritan Experience” on YouTube

Posted on July 28, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America, Historians, Truth v. Myth | Tags: |

Here is another video about the Puritans that I found by typing “New England Puritans” into YouTube. It is called “The Puritan Experience: Making of a New World” and it is an episode in a continuing story:

It is an interesting mixture of truth and myth. Apparently the protagonists are a family with an 18 year-old daughter who is deemed rebellious. In this episode, her parents are confronted by their minister because their daughter hasn’t married yet. But the Puritans did not generally marry in their teens; the average man was 26 at his marriage, the average woman 22. So the unnamed daughter is not pushing any limits here.

The minister rebukes the father for saying he will trust his own judgment on the issue; God will judge, the minister reminds him, and this is an accurate depiction of the Puritan attitude. Having too much confidence in your own judgment was a sign of pride.

Next, the father is confronted by a friend who says his daughter should have officially joined the church by now. “She is past the age,” he says. The father responds that the girl is not sure she is ready to join yet, to which the friend replies they must make “a truce upon their doubts” because they can’t build a civilization in the wilderness unless they are all united in their religious practice.

This is all inaccurate. It was very rare for a teenager to become a full member of a Puritan church; you could only do that once you had spent many hard years searching your soul, studying the Bible, and generally going through the complicated and thorough discernment process of the Puritan faith. Most adults never became full members of their church. They were never certain that they had received God’s grace. Indeed, many times when someone did try to become a full member they were rejected because the congregation felt they were not yet ready. So an 18 year-old is not nearly too old to become a full member of her church.

There also could be nothing further from the Puritan mind than to “make a truce with our doubts.” They relished religious debate and gave every questioning voice a full hearing. To doubt oneself, one’s faith and goodness, was to realize that one could never earn God’s grace. Those who were certain of their virtue were dangerously deluded, led by pride to deny their complete reliance on God’s grace. Building a new civilization was based on this kind of doubt, not threatened by it.

The friend closes this episode by reminding the father that loving a child too much, taking too much delight in her, is dangerous, and this is a true depiction of Puritan thinking. They were always worried about loving someone too much, more than they loved God; such love could lead one to do things for the loved one regardless of the spiritual consequences. It could also keep a child from realizing her precarious state; her parents’ unconditional love might lead her to think she was fine as she was, and to question God’s possible damning of her soul. Puritans tried to temper their love with objective correction as often as they could, but you get the feeling they preached it more than they could practice it.

So while this video is wrong on some key issues, it’s still intriguing. It does nail the lack of privacy amongst Puritans when it came to one’s spiritual life. Your friends, congregation, and neighbors were duty-bound to instruct you and to receive your instruction on matters large and small. It was a kind of neighborhood watch of the soul. If your neighbor was in error and you did not try to help, he might die in his sin and then how would that look for you? Rather than resenting it as intrusion, most Puritans seem to have welcomed constant meddling, as it kept them on the straight and narrow.

Just a note–the minister is called Mr. Endecott; is he perhaps meant to be the famous John Endecott of Salem?

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Puritans on YouTube

Posted on July 21, 2009. Filed under: American history, Puritans | Tags: |

I thought I’d do a search for Puritans on YouTube and see what’s out there. There’s a lot, it turns out, of varying purpose and quality.

Today, I’ll share a video simply called “Puritans”:

This video states that it wants to clear up the negative myths about the Puritans, and counter their bad image in popular culture, by explaining all the wonderful things the Puritans did, their legacy to modern Americans. You know I’m on board with that! But this video fails, however, to give those explanations, constantly telling us that the Puritans were amazing but never telling us why. “There are few more misunderstood people in America,” it claims, but does little to provide understanding.

My favorite moments are:

The video uses images from the 18 and 19th centuries at will. Some of those images don’t even pretend to show Puritans, but they are marshalled for the cause. At 1:36 you see a Victorian drawing of a Puritan woman, tightly corseted, wearing blush, and sporting a fashionable beauty mark.

At 2:15 an image that looks like a representation of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe is used to illustrate the Puritans’ “in-dome-itable” spirit.

At 2:21 an 18th century image is slowly scanned as the narrator says, “By the end of the 17th century, the Puritans forever altered the world in which they had arrived, finding success where others found only death and desolation.” This odd claim must apply to English colonists, since Americans had been successfully living in North America for thousands of years. But many colonies were thriving by the end of the 17th centuries; Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland were paradises of plenty that put Massachusetts to shame. The odd claim is made odder by the painting being scanned, which includes a Native American on his knees as if crawling toward busy 18th-century Puritans gathering firewood and cooking out in the middle of a wintry forest.

At 2:55 Puritan ministers are claimed as some of the earliest, most outspoken opponents of slavery, which is untrue if one means slavery of Native Americans or Africans. The claim is then quickly made that the Puritans wrote the first diaries and the first love letters, which isn’t even debatably plausible if restricted to New England, let alone British North America or, perhaps, the world.

The video ends tantalizingly with this: “Who were the Puritans, and what did they actually believe? How did one of the most influential societies in America turn itself inside out? Enter the world of those who called themselves the godly…” I don’t know what they mean by turning itself inside out. I would have liked to hear that theory, because it sounds interesting. One might hope that the video itself would explain what they actually believed and how they were influential. As this narration rolls, a painting of Pocahontas’ wedding in London is scanned.

So this video has a good idea—truth v. myth—but doesn’t deliver. Surely my next visit to YouTube – Puritans will uncover something more promising.

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Are re-enactors real historians?

Posted on July 13, 2009. Filed under: American history | Tags: , |

This is a question I first encountered two years ago at a conference, where the answer was emphatically no. But as I think about it, it seems like people who re-enact historical battles are almost uncannily similar to the historical people they are pretending to be.

Think of the Civil War re-enactors. Why do people like to re-enact its battles? For a number of reasons: a friend of theirs is doing it, and they get interested and start themselves; they are military buffs; they have an ancestor who fought; it’s exciting and involves travel and audiences; they become an established part of state and local celebrations; it’s an expression of their patriotism; they want to try to understand how those long-ago men felt, fought, lived, and died.

Now think of the actual Civil War. Why did men fight in its battles? For a number of reasons: friends were enlisting and they wanted to go with them; they had ancestors who had fought in earlier wars; it was exciting and involved travel; it was an expression of their patriotism; they wanted to take part in the most important event in American history since the Revolutionary War.

In each case, men have multiple reasons for going into battle, some personal and some political, some deep and some a little more shallow. Both groups are motivated by the same spirit of joining in something larger than themselves. Just as re-enactors try to live the experience of real soldiers, so those men who enlisted during the Civil War tried to be real soldiers, since the vast majority of them were farmers who had no experience of soldiering or war. There’s a steep learning curve regarding uniforms, weapons, drilling, camp life, and battle for both groups.

So I say re-enactors are as much historians as anyone else who comes to know a period in time intimately, and they come closer to really living as their subjects did than most of the rest of us who work strictly in our own time from our own computers.  Somehow it is seen as dreadfully amateurish to dress up and re-enact history, while reading and writing about it is respectable. Re-enactment is seen as pop culture, publishing articles and books as “real” history. But I side with the re-enactors here. It may be very hard to translate their experience into scholarly writing, but we should all have to walk an actual mile in our subjects’ shoes before we write one more word about them.

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