The Puritans and their ridiculous beliefs… in 1776

Posted on December 6, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, The Founders | Tags: , , , , |

I’m reading The Puritan Ordeal by Andrew Delbanco, and while the book is focused on the Puritan religious beliefs in the 17th century, one can’t help reading it as a treatise on American political beliefs in the 18th century.

–The Puritans “impute all faults and corruptions, wherewith the world aboundeth, unto the kind of ecclesiastical government established.” And in 1776, all faults and corruptions would be imputed to the kind of political government established.

–“[The Puritans] had a deep desire to believe in human moral capability. …Virtue, like a muscle or a limb, required continual strengthening through exercise.” Just as the Founders believed in the ability of humans to improve themselves and their condition, and believed fervently in the need for regular exercise of democratic virtue.

–“[Some contemporaries of the Puritans felt] they were fanatics who held out the fantastic promise of renovating human nature by effecting institutional change [within the church].” In 1776, it was institutional change in government that offered the ridiculous promise of utterly changing mankind.

In short, the Puritan conviction that the right religious practice could perfect the human soul, end poverty, curtail crime, alter human nature, and change the course of human history, putting it on a teleological path to utopian paradise on Earth, is almost indistinguishable from what the Founding generation believed the right form of government, in this case representative democracy, could do.

It is natural for us today to feel the Puritan reliance on religion was personal and uninformed, while we honor the Founders’ identical beliefs because the Founders transferred the process of perfecting humankind from religion to politics.

But Puritan religion was political, in the sense that the original New England Puritans developed their own social and political structures based on their religion. The small town, unified around one church, representing its people at regular intervals in town meeting, which was adopted across the nation over the course of centuries is the legacy of the Puritans. The New England Puritans also created a chief legislature in Boston (the General Court), to which towns elected representatives.

This social and political structure reflected the Puritan religious belief in the independence of the individual, and the right of people to associate and represent themselves freely, which had been denied them in England.

It is no great leap to see that these religious beliefs in New England morphed slowly into political ones. It’s a quick and easy step to go from Puritan fervor for a religion that upholds individual liberty and self-representation to Founding fervor for a form of government that does the same.

Everything that can be said slightingly about the Puritans’ wacky religious beliefs, then, can be said admiringly about the Founders’ inspiring political beliefs. You just become fully aware of how the lens of religion affects your opinion. Primed to dislike people who were religious fanatics, and who have gained a reputation for intolerance and violence, we find the Puritans’ beliefs that the religious practice they invented could change the very nature of humans to be ridiculous, typical of religious zealots. Primed to admire people who founded this nation and introduced representative democracy to the modern world, we find the Founders’ beliefs that the political system they invented could change the very nature of humans to be thrilling, and self-evident.

I have to believe that thousands of New Englanders living in the Founding period, who came from Puritan stock, inherited their ancestors’ passion for perfectablility, expressing it through politics rather than religion. As we know from our own experience, politics can be a powerful religion.

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