“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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