Stacy Schiff does not know anything about the Puritans

Posted on January 11, 2016. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’ve complained about this before, and we hate to start the New Year on a bashing note, but it’s been forced upon us by Schiff’s December 18 op-ed in the New York Times.

“Anger: An American History” is an attempt to contextualize the current anti-immigrant, “we are at war” environment Americans find themselves in now. This sort of contextualization is a good idea. But you can’t make up a context, and that is what Schiff does, once again, by demonizing the Puritans.

Let’s do a close-read:

From that earlier set of founding fathers — the men who settled 17th century Massachusetts — came the first dark words about dark powers. No matter that they sailed to these shores in search of religious freedom. Once established, they pulled up the gangplank behind them.

—The Puritans did not come to America “in search of religious freedom.” As we have pointed out, in The Puritans and Freedom of Religion, they came here so they could practice their own religion freely. That is a very different thing than “religious freedom”. They were persecuted in England for criticizing the Anglican church, so they came here specifically to create a new state where their own religion was the state religion. There was no “gangplank” to pull up behind them. No one in the western world that we know of was offering religious freedom at that time. To set the Puritans up as the only ones who didn’t, and as terrible hypocrites who denied others the liberty they sought, is ridiculous.

The city on a hill was an exclusively Puritan sanctuary. The sense of exceptionalism — “we are surely the Lord’s firstborn in this wilderness,” the Massachusetts minister William Stoughton observed in an influential 1668 address — bound itself up from the start with prejudice. If you are the pure, someone else needs to be impure.

—Yes, we’ve established that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was created by Puritans for Puritans. Just like Virginia was created by Anglicans for Anglicans. Schiff’s attempt to peg a start date for the concept of American Exceptionalism by tying it to the Puritans is again misguided. First, the Stoughton quote is (like almost all quotes from Puritan clergy) referring to religion and religion only: Stoughton is saying that because their parents came to America to set up a reformed Anglican state, the people listening to him are the first-born citizens of a state blessed by God with pure religion. This has nothing to do with American exceptionalism, which is a political theory that says America’s political founding as the United States was a unique—and uniquely good—event in human history because it created representative democracy for the first time and led other nations to adopt it.

Schiff does not understand either Puritan theology or American exceptionalism, and so she conflates the two. Then she makes an awkward leap to her next topic, which is:

Quakers fared badly. In Boston, Cotton Mather compared them not only to dogs, but to serpents, dragons and vipers. The great young hope of the New England ministry, he sounds as if he would have started a Quaker database if he could have. Banned, exiled, imprisoned, whipped, Quakers were a “leprous” people, their teachings as wholesome as the “juice of toads.”

Baptists and Anglicans fared little better. In 1689, Boston’s Anglicans discovered the windows of their church smashed, “the doors and walls daubed and defiled with dung, and other filth, in the rudest and basest manner imaginable.” The most moderate of Massachusetts men believed in Papist cabals; priests qualified as the radical Muslim clerics of the day. From the pulpit came regular warnings that boatloads of nefarious Irishmen were set to disembark in Boston harbor, to establish Roman Catholicism in New England.

—As so many people do, Schiff takes things that every other group in Europe did in the 17th century and pretends that only the Puritans did them. Only Puritans persecuted people who did not practice their version of Anglicanism (which evolved into Congregationalism in America). Only Puritans hated and feared Catholics. But anyone who casts even a passing glance over the history of the Reformation knows that hating anyone who did not practice your religion was the rule, not the exception. Catholics hated Protestants, Lutherans hated Calvinists, Calvinists hated Arminians, etc. etc. That’s what religious wars do: they create impermeable boundaries between sects or faiths. The Quakers were no better: they came into Massachusetts hell-bent on stripping away the Puritans’ religion and forcing their own onto the colony.

If she understood Congregational practice, Schiff would know just how much of a threat Baptists posed: they did not believe in infant baptism, which was key to the Puritans, who believed babies should be baptized as quickly as possible to bring them into the fold of believers, in case they died in infancy or childhood.

And if she read any history, Schiff would know that in 1689, the Dominion of New England was in place in all of today’s New England and in New York and today’s New Jersey. This was a government imposed by the new Catholic king of England, James II, and it stripped Massachusetts residents of their lands, their political representation, and their religious majority: everyone was forced to pay taxes to support the unreformed Anglican church at the expense of both Congregational and Baptist churches. The royally imposed governor forced Christmas and other religious celebrations that both Baptist and Congregational citizens rejected, and turned some churches into Anglican churches. This is the background to the desecration of the main Anglican church in Boston, which was part of a popular uprising against the governor that led to the overthrow of the Dominion.

The alerts naturally served an evangelical purpose. The common enemy encouraged cohesion, appealing to a tribal instinct. In the words of Owen Stanwood, a Boston College historian, the trumped-up fears neatly packaged the Massachusetts settlers’ “desire for security, their Protestant heritage, and their nascent sense of racial privilege.”

—Name the group in America at the time that did not seek to build cohesion by creating a common enemy. There isn’t one. Whites organized an identity against blacks in slaveholding regions; whites and sometimes blacks identified against American Indians; English colonists identified against the Catholic French in Canada. The list goes on. Again, something everyone did is presented as something only the Puritans did.

The enemies did not need actually to be in New England’s midst. As an Anglican official snorted from a Boston prison in 1689: “There were not two Roman Catholics betwixt this and New York.” New England was nonetheless sacrificed over and over to its heathen adversaries, according to the ministry, that era’s Department of Homeland Security.

—Schiff of course hates all Congregationalist ministers, and so connects them to the modern-day government organization she hates. In an NPR interview she did about this piece, she claimed that the ministers were the only source of information in Massachusetts because “there was no press.”

The first printing press was up and running in Boston in 1639. Pamphlets and broadsides published in London were always made available in New England. What she means perhaps is that there were no newspapers, but Publick Occurrences hit the presses in 1690. She just doesn’t know what she is talking about. People respected their ministers, but they got news from many sources.

Now Schiff moves to her favorite topic, the 1692 witch mania:

So great was the terror that year that grown men watched neighbors fly through the streets; they kicked at gleaming balls of fire in their beds. They saw hundreds celebrate a satanic Sabbath as clearly as some of us saw thousands of Muslims dancing in the Jersey City streets after 9/11. Stoughton would preside over the witchcraft trials, securing a 100 percent conviction rate. A Baptist minister who objected that the court risked executing innocents found himself charged with sedition. He was offered the choice between a jail sentence and a crushing fine. He was not heard from again. One problem with decency: It can be maddeningly quiet, at least until it explodes and asks if anyone has noticed it has been sitting, squirming, in the room all along.

—That second sentence should give everyone who reads it great pause. How many of “us” saw Muslims celebrate on September 11th? How “clear” was that for “us”? If you find yourself arguing back that very few Americans entertained such a bizarre conspiracy theory in 2001, you have an idea how most people in Massachusetts in 1692 would feel if they heard Schiff saying “they” saw people fly through the streets. Hey, they would respond; some people had witch-mania, but the vast majority of us did not, and did not support the trials, and were glad when they were over.

And it was Giles Corey, a farmer, who was killed by pressing (stones placed on his chest in an attempt to get him to confess). He was not a Baptist minister, and he had actually accused his wife Martha of witchcraft before he decided the trials were wrong, and he recanted his testimony.

The last sentence makes absolutely no sense in the context, but we are indeed squirming and squirming from reading this article.

Having firmly established that all bad things in America come from the Puritans and nowhere else, Schiff moves on to show how later generations used their inherited Puritan evil to create “toxic brush fires” of bigotry. But they only get one short paragraph, and the essay ends with the Puritans once again:

Anxiety produces specters; sensing ourselves lost, disenfranchised, dwarfed, we take reckless aim. “We have to be much smarter, or it’s never, ever going to end,” Donald J. Trump has warned of the war on terror. Amen. At least we can savor the irony that today’s zealots share a playbook with the Puritans, a people who — finding the holiday too pagan — waged the original war on Christmas.

—Christmas was not mentioned anywhere in this, but she just can’t resist adding it in. The Puritans did not think Christmas was “too pagan”. They thought God made all days equally holy, and that humans shouldn’t decide that certain days were better than others. Again, many other Protestant reformers in the 17th century  joined them in this, including Baptists and Quakers.

Creating false history does not help Americans see their way more clearly in the present. Creating a bogeyman to blame all our bigotry on is ridiculous–as if a group of people who held sway for under 60 years in one part of the country in the earliest settlement period, who if not for the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving were about to fade permanently from the public mind in the early/ mid-1800s, created all bigotry and hatred in this country and maybe the world. What does this line of “reasoning” do for the people who pursue it? What does it satisfy in them? How does abhorring a group most Americans, especially Stacy Schiff, know nothing about make present-day America a better place? How does it end hatred?

It doesn’t. Keep this in mind the next time you read about those hateful Puritans.

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One Response to “Stacy Schiff does not know anything about the Puritans”

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Puritanism has a very complex history

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