By the Rivers of Babylon, where the Pilgrims Wept

Paul Harvey

In The Book, David Wallace-Wells has a nice review of a book that will interest some of you, especially you colonialists and economic history types: Nick Bunker, Make Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and their World. I haven't read this book, but the review is interesting, and ends with a nice passage:

The unfortunate emphasis in Making Haste on pilgrim entrepreneurship, and its pointed disinterest in Calvinist theology, is telling, and natural enough. Though the United States remains in some sense a Christian nation—churchgoing, evangelical, exceptionalist—the strange theology of our Puritan forebears is far more foreign to us, and far more difficult to reckon with, than their scuffling pre-market mercantilism. American religion was not really invented until the nineteenth century, and the expansive denominations that emerged, largely on the frontier, in that Second Great Awakening represent perhaps as profound and complete a repudiation of the Puritans' early modern Protestantism as that Protestantism had been a rejection of the establishment Catholicism that governed Europe in the centuries before Luther. In the severe Mayflower Calvinism of William Bradford and his Plymouth pilgrims, predestination was an inscrutable covenant, piety a gratuity from fear and trembling, and prayer an expression of desperate agnosticism. In the inviting creed of the new American religions, whose triumphal culture we still inhabit today, salvation was there for the taking. All one had to do was claim it.

Update: Some of you all were taking my intended joke about not being interested in the Pilgrims in the slightest a little too seriously, so have changed the above post accordingly. Sorry all you Pilgrim-heads, didn't mean to offend!

The scholarly Jeremy Bangs, who has made a career out of studying the Pilgrims, presents a contrasting view of this material in his book Strangers and Pilgrims, Travelers and Sojourners, which Randall referenced some time ago on the blog. That is the place to go for the most in-depth primary source research on the Pilgrims' origins in Leiden and sojourn to America.


Ryan J. Carey at: July 8, 2010 at 2:34 PM said...

Ever since I read both William Cronon's _Changes in the Land_ with Perry Miller's _Errand into the Wilderness_ for my comprehensive exams, and then assigned them in my historical method's classes (books you should read ... still, as well as a good historiographic exercise), I've been wondering if anyone has tried to reconcile the Puritans' economic "adventure" with their religious mission. Not being a colonialist myself, I'm not familiar with the latest scholarship, but I would be fascinated to read a monograph that didn't try to downplay the one in favor of the other.

Is there anything out there to help us through this historiographical thicket?

Michael J. Altman at: July 8, 2010 at 6:07 PM said...

@Ryan: I just finished the chapter on the colonial migrations in Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People and he goes back to the Reformation to try and link the two. Here's what he says:

"Yet the spirit of capitalism latent in so much of England's expansion was intensified by the way in which the Reformation accentuated certain motifs of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, motifs which for centuries had a dynamic effect on Western civilization. The Reformation, in the British Isles as elsewhere, was essentially a Christian revival in which the biblical understanding of man and history was forcefully proclaimed. This mean a renewal of concern for this , this world, and all their impinging problems, moral and social." (His emphasis)

I'd take that to mean that the Reformation began a process of channeling the economic and the religious flows into the same streams.

See, this exam reading is helpful!

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