In Defense Of The Puritans

Andrew Sullivan —  Nov 28 2013 @ 3:02pm

Embarkation_of_the_Pilgrims

Marilynne Robinson has long argued against the stereotypical understanding of the Puritans as brooding killjoys who dressed in black. Here’s a passage from Robinson’s great essay, “Puritans and Prigs,” from her book The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought:

My reading of Puritan texts is neither inconsiderable nor exhaustive, so while I cannot say they yield no evidence of Puritanism as we understand the word, I can say they are by no means characterized by, for example, fear or hatred of the body, anxiety about sex, or denigration of women. This cannot by said of Christian tradition in general, yet for some reason Puritanism is uniquely regarded as synonymous with these preoccupations. Puritans are thought to have taken a lurid pleasure in the notion of hell, and certainly hell seems to have been much in their thoughts, though not more than it was in the thoughts of Dante, for example. We speak as though John Calvin invented the Fall of Man, when that was an article of faith universal in Christian culture…

Yet the way we speak and think about the Puritans seems to me a serviceable model for important aspects of the phenomenon we call Puritanism.

Very simply, it is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved. And it demonstrates how effectively such consensus can close off a subject from inquiry. I know from experience that if one says the Puritans were a more impressive and ingratiating culture than they are assumed to have been, one will be heard to say that one finds repressiveness and intolerance ingratiating. Unauthorized views are in effect punished by incomprehension, not intentionally and not to anyone’s benefit, but simply as a consequence of a hypertrophic instinct for consensus. This instinct is so powerful that I would suspect it had a survival value, if history or current events gave me the least encouragement to believe we are equipped to survive.

(Image of Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert W. Weir, commissioned in 1837 for the United States Capitol Rotunda, via Wikimedia Commons)