DECLENSION IN PURITAN SCHOLARSHIP?
This is a guest post from Craig Gallagher. Craig is a PhD candidate at Boston College whose work focuses on religion in the seventeenth and eighteenth century Atlantic world.
Any scholar of Early American history who has earned their Ph.D. in the last half-decade has had to contend at some point with Perry’s Miller’s declension model for New England Puritans. Miller’s model held that Puritanism hit its intellectual height in the mid-seventeenth century in the Massachusetts Bay colony, before entering into inevitable decline as New England modernized in the eighteenth century, even as they left a lasting philosophical legacy that laid the foundations of the American nation. Despite the first of his seminal works that put forth this model – The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Harvard UP, 1939) – having been published in the first half of the twentieth century, most graduate students still find themselves debating its merits in historiography classes today, even when discussing religion in colonial American regions outside of New England.
In general, most historians who have since engaged with Miller’s declension model regarding Puritans have done so in order to set his conclusions about their cultural and intellectual decline aside. They have also downplayed their foundational contribution to American philosophical life as well. This revision to Miller’s work has been so thorough that it has created the sense that the Puritan scholarship itself is experiencing its own declension, because once scholars have moved beyond them and recognized the intellectual and religious ferment happening elsewhere in the New World, what is left to say about Puritans? In the era of Atlantic History, when scholars are exploring new and complex religious ideas and relationships throughout the Americas, does more Puritan scholarship represent a backward step towards a people we already understand?
To judge by recent historiography, there is, in fact, quite a lot left to say about New England Puritans. As many readers of this blog will likely know, Puritans are experiencing something of a revival among Early American historians, who now approach their subjects not as progenitors of the American founding but on their own terms, as an exiled people seeking to create a world apart for themselves in the Americas, even as they remained connected to the Atlantic World in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By acknowledging Puritan peculiarity, rather than trying to establish their place in the American pantheon, scholars such as Mark Peterson, Mark Valeri, Sarah Rivett, and Michael Winship have recast them as instructive, but not determinative examples in Early American religious history.
Mark Peterson’s The Price of Redemption (Stanford UP, 1997) set the tone for this recent wave of Puritan revisionism by arguing that Puritans, far from giving way to the relentless commercialization that defined New England in the eighteenth century, instead embraced economic development as intrinsic to their ecclesiastical growth and survival. Mark Valeri’s Heavenly Merchandise (Princeton UP: 2010) took Peterson’s conclusion and demonstrated that Puritans also embraced international trade, which they conducted according to their religious sensibilities but which also reshaped Puritan morality in turn. This turn away from seeing New England Puritans as isolated and in decline helped make possible Sarah Rivett’s marvelous book, The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (UNC Press: 2011), in which she argued that Puritans embraced scientific method in the eighteenth century because it provided them tools with which to divine and measure the soul, which lay at the heart of their theology of conversion. Finally, Michael Winship’s Godly Republicanism (Harvard UP: 2012) re-examined the place of New Englanders in the American pantheon and argued that their Congregationalism inspired a republican worldview that placed God’s law above the Crown and made them deviants in the eyes of even their fellow Reformed Protestants in the British Atlantic World (with the notable exception, as my own research demonstrates, of the Scottish Covenanters).
Taken together, these works have helped to inspire new interest in Puritan commerce, science, and politics that has drawn on the scholarly acknowledgement that Puritans were exceptional (in the literal sense) rather than normative in Early American history. New England has emerged – especially in the recent work of Mark Peterson – as a place apart, as its founders intended, but one intimately connected to the Atlantic World and changed by its interactions with the wide variety of creeds and cultures its famously self-reflective inhabitants encountered there. As younger scholars seek to uncover these connections, New England itself has become a valuable point of comparison against which to study Anglicans, Baptists, Evangelicals, Huguenots, Moravians, Quakers, and Presbyterians in colonial America, in order to explore how they shaped colonial society. Perhaps going forward, we can even divine in their interactions and cultural and theological compromises with one another their collective contribution to the American founding that Perry Miller so studiously sought to establish in the first half of the twentieth century.
NB: this post was inspired by a session at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture’s 22nd Annual Conference in Worcester, MA from June 23rd-26th in which I participated. I presented alongside Kristen Beales, a Ph.D. candidate in History at the College of William and Mary, and Jason de Stefano, a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley. Our esteemed commenter and chair were Prof. Mark Valeri of the Danforth Center at Washington University in St. Louis, and Prof. Barry Levy of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The post does not recap the session but I am indebted to the insights of my fellow panelists, Profs. Levy and Valeri, and our incredibly thoughtful and generous audience for the conclusions I reach here.