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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Stacy Schiff and The Witches of Salem—skip it

Posted on September 8, 2015. Filed under: Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

As readers of the HP know, the 1692 witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony, were an anomaly; as we put it in the first post of our series on the Salem witch trials,

…the Salem event is actually an anomaly in the history of their colony. Here are some points that are often overlooked:

–There was only ever one “witch scare” in the Puritan colonies. For the roughly 60 years that Puritan theology and law dominated New England, only one time were dozens of people persecuted and some executed as witches.

–The scare did not spread. It stayed local to the Salem area, and did not create a prairie fire of persecution across New England.

–It generated almost no positive reaction in New England at the time. It was generally not celebrated as a victory of God over Satan, despite the strenuous efforts of Cotton Mather. It almost seems as if all New England wanted to forget about it as soon as possible.

–The scare itself was set in the midst of violent political upheaval in New England and especially Massachusetts, and cannot be separated from it.

–There is no one single cause we can pinpoint for the scare; just as there is never just one cause for any major event, there were multiple factors leading to murder in Salem.

The research into what really happened in Salem in 1692 and why has been prolific for the past 10 years, as scholars recruit modern science to try to answer some questions.

If you go to that series, you’ll see that we offer an interesting round-up of scholarly theories about why the outbreak of accusations happened and how/why they were allowed to get so out of hand.

Here, we address an article that appeared in the September 7, 2015 New Yorker magazine. We think it’s an article; the author, Stacy Schiff, is a novelist whose novel on the Salem witch trials is due out in October, but the item in question does not seem to be an excerpt from a novel. Instead, it is a queasy mix of fact and fiction whose purpose is very hard to discern. We will give it a shot.

The piece begins with a series of stark fallacies: that in 1692, “the population of New England would fit into Yankee Stadium today. Nearly to a person, they were Puritans. Having suffered for their faith, they had sailed to North America to worship ‘with more purity and less peril than they could do in the country where they were’… On a providential mission, they hoped to begin history anew; they had the advantage of building a civilization from scratch. Like any oppressed people, they defined themselves by what offended them, which would give New England its gritty flavor and, it has been argued, America its independence.”

This is astounding; where to begin?

First, by 1692 the population of New England was not majority Puritan; by that time, Massachusetts was at the end of a long process of losing its independence. In 1684, its independent charter had been revoked by the Lords of Trade; the practical outcome of this was that Massachusetts would lose its popularly elected legislation and governor (they would be replaced by royal appointees answerable only to England). Before this could fully take place, James II created the Dominion of New England, which we describe in depth here; suffice it to say that this basically removed local government in each of the affected colonies, threw all land titles into question, and enforced religious toleration.

In 1689, this Dominion was overthrown by local American colonists once they heard that the Glorious Revolution had taken place and removed James II from the throne. Between 1689 and 1692 the colonists were caught in the middle of the new King William III’s wars with France, as northern New England experienced attacks from French Canada that destroyed settlements and sent refugees fleeing south. In 1694, a new royal charter arrived at last in Boston, and the colony had a royally appointed governor and a popularly elected legislature.

That’s a lot of change, and what it adds up to is that by 1692 when the witch trials happened, Massachusetts was light years from the days of its founding generation in the 1630s. Its religious hegemony had been broken, and even within the original Congregational church there were sharp theological debates and a general drift away from traditional Puritan religion. The bar for joining a Congregational church as a full member (taking common) was lowered substantially, and in some churches removed altogether. Non-traditional Congregationalists were a strong minority throughout the colony, and a majority in the capital of Boston. Aside from that, there were growing Baptist and unreformed Anglican populations. Old social rules against things like public drunkenness were abruptly discontinued under the rule of the royally appointed governor.

So by 1692, the old Puritan colony was long-gone. No one felt they were on a providential mission anymore, and people in Boston only became more and more connected with London, enjoying the commerce and fashions and relaxed, luxury-appreciative lifestyle brought over by army officers, rich merchants, and others.

Next, no Puritan even in the 1630s ever thought they were “building a civilization from scratch”; it was the exact opposite. They were building on continental reformed Protestant traditions from Geneva and Holland and elsewhere to bring the Reformation to its logical conclusion, to act it out in a way that was not possible in a non-homogenous population. The Puritan founders hewed to English law and custom—clung to it, really, as a lifeline to the old country in an alien world.

Next, the Puritan founders hardly “defined themselves by what offended them” in America. America was their golden, God-sent opportunity to create a religious and political settlement that was everything they ever wanted, the glorious culmination of continental Reformation. In America, Puritans defined themselves by what they wanted, and what they believed was completely, wonderfully achievable.

Finally, the old, corny stereotype of “gritty” Yankees is laughable, and the idea that there is a straight line from the Massachusetts Bay to American independence has long been thoroughly debunked.

If all these errors are in the second paragraph of a piece that goes on for nine pages, that doesn’t bode well for the innocent reader. We tried to read it but gave up, as the piece veered between topics and people and times as if they were all one, and treated all with that condescending disgust that is so familiar to anyone who studies the Puritans. Clearly Schiff, like most people, sees the Salem massacre as typical of, rather than anomalous to, Puritans. She glides over topics to preserve that point of view: for instance, she goes on about how Puritans absolutely believed in witches (which they did) but elides (or does not know) that accusations of witch craft were a) relatively few, b) thoroughly investigated, c) usually thrown out of court, and d) when they weren’t thrown out, sent back to towns for mediation rather than criminal sentencing. All the reader of Schiff gets is a picture of ignorant, awful people who had no compunction about killing people as witches, perhaps on a daily basis.

She completely misunderstands Increase Mather’s warning to children that they would be horribly punished for disobedience to parents, takes on the putative “voice of the [ignorant] people” by saying things like “By the end of July, it was clear that …the Devil intended to topple the church and subvert the country”, lingers over descriptions of deaths by hanging and one by pressing, and mentions Governor William Phips putting an end to the court without saying that the prod to this action was that his own wife, in Boston, was accused!

It all ends with a lyrical description of Cotton Mather having a home-made bomb thrown through his window… but without any explanation of how 98% of the public were against the trials, this is meaningless.

Rather than allow Schiff to get free advertising for her novel, the New Yorker should have made it clear that this is a hybrid fiction-article piece meant to generate readership before anyone seeking real information on the witch hysteria made the mistake of reading it.

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