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When, a hundred years ago, Macaulay wrote his famous passage on the Puritans in the essay on Milton, he tried to do them justice; and he did brush aside the traditional charge of hypocrisy with the contempt which it deserves. But in place of the picture of the oily hypocrite, he set up another picture equally questionable. He painted the Puritan as a kind of religious superman of incredible fortitude and determination, who 'went through the world, like Sir Artegal's iron man Talus with his flail, crushing and trampling down oppressors, mingling with human beings, but having neither part nor lot in human infirmities, insensible to fatigue, to pleasure, and to pain, not to be pierced by any weapon, not to be withstood by any barrier.'
Now this portrait of Macaulay's is executed with far more respect for the Puritan character than Jonson exhibited in his portrait of Zeal-of-the-land Busy. But it is just as clearly a caricature. It violently exaggerates certain harsh traits of individual Puritans under persecution and at war; it suppresses all the mild and attractive traits; and Carlyle, with his hero-worship and his eye on Cromwell, continues the exaggeration in the same direction. It gives an historically false impression, because it conveys the idea that the Puritans were exceptionally harsh and intolerant as compared with other men in their own times.
For example, the supposedly harsh Puritan Cromwell stood for a wide latitude of religious opinion and toleration of sects at a time when the Catholic Inquisition had established a rigid censorship and was persecuting Huguenots and Mohammedans and Jews, and torturing and burning heretics wherever its power extended. It is customary now to point to the Salem witchcraft and the hanging of three Quakers in Boston who incidentally seem
have insisted on being hanged -as signal illustrations of the intolerance of Puritanism and its peculiar fanaticism. But, as a matter of fact, these things were merely instances of a comparatively mild infection of the Puritans by a madness that swept over the world. In Salem there were twenty victims, and the madness lasted one year. In Europe there were hundreds of thousands of victims; and there were witches burned in Catholic Spain, France, and South America a hundred years after the practice of executing witches had been condemned among the Puritans. Comparatively speaking, the Puritans were quick to discard and condemn the common harshness and intolerance of their times.
The Puritan leaders in the seventeenth century were, like all leaders, exceptional men; but if looked at closely, they exhibit the full complement of human qualities, and rather more than less than average respect for the rights and the personality of the individual, since their doctrines, political and religious, immensely emphasized the importance and sacredness of the individual life. They had iron enough in their blood to put duty before pleasure; but that does not imply that they banished pleasure. ished pleasure. They put goodness above beauty; but that does not mean that they despised beauty. It does not set them apart as a peculiar and abnormal people. In every age of the world, in every progressing society, there is, there has to be, a group, and a fairly large group, of leaders and toilers to whom their own personal pleasure is a secondary consideration — a consideration secondary to the social welfare and the social advance. On the long slow progress of the race out of Egypt into the Promised Land, they prepare the line of march, they look after the arms and munitions, they bring up the supplies, they scout out the land, they rise
up early in the morning, they watch at night, they bear the burdens of leadership, while the children, the careless young people, and the old people who have never grown up, are playing or fiddling or junketing on the fringes of the march. They are never popular among these who place pleasure first; for they are always rounding up stragglers, recalling loiterers, and preaching up the necessity of toil and courage and endurance. They are not popular; but they are not inhuman. The violet smells to them as it does to other men; and rest and recreation are sweet. I must illustrate a little the more intimately human aspect of our seventeenth-century group.
It is a part of the plot of our droll and dry young people to throw the opprobrium of the present drought upon the Puritans. These iron men, one infers from reading the discourses, for example, of Mr. Mencken, banished wine as a liquor inconsistent with Calvinistic theology, though, to be sure, Calvin himself placed it among 'matters indifferent.' And the Puritans, as a matter of fact, used both wine and tobacco
both men and women. If Puritanism means reaction in favor of obsolete standards, our contemporary Puritans will repeal the obnoxious amendment; and all who are thirsty should circulate the Puritan literature of the seventeenth century. Read your Pilgrim's Progress, and you will find that Christian's wife, on the way to salvation, sent her child back after her bottle of liquor. Read Winthrop's letters, and you will find that Winthrop's wife writes to him to thank him for the tobacco that he has sent to her mother. Read Mather's diary, and you will find that he suggests pious thoughts to be meditated upon by the members of his household while they are engaged in home-brew
ing. Read the records of the first Boston church, and you will find that one of the first teachers was a wine-seller. Read the essays of John Robinson, first pastor of the Pilgrims, and you will find that he ridicules Lycurgus, the Spartan law-giver, for ordering the vines cut down, merely 'because men were sometimes drunken with the grapes.' Speaking of celibacy, Robinson says, 'Abstinence from marriage is no more a virtue than abstinence from wine or other pleasing natural thing. Both marriage and wine are of God and good in themselves.'
Since I do not wish to incite a religious and Puritanical resistance to the Volstead Act, I must add that Robinson, in that tone of sweet reasonableness which characterizes all his essays, remarks further Yet may the abuse of a thing be so common and notorious and the use so small and needless as better want the small use than be in continual danger of the great abuse.' And this, I suppose, is exactly the ground taken by the sensible modern prohibitionist. It is not a matter of theological sin with him at all. It never was that. It is now a matter of economics and æsthetics, and of the greatest happiness and freedom to the greatest number.
These iron men are accused of being hostile to beauty, the charge being based upon the crash of a certain number of stained-glass windows and altar ornaments, which offended them, however, not as art, but as religious symbolism. Why fix upon the riot of soldiers in war-time and neglect to inquire: Who, after the death of Shakespeare, in all the seventeenth century, most eloquently praised music and the drama? Who most lavishly described and most exquisitely appreciated nature? Who had the richest literary culture and the most extensive acquaintance with poetry? Who published the most magnificent poems? The answer to all these
questions is, of course, that conspicuous Puritan, the Latin secretary to Oliver Cromwell, John Milton.
In a letter to an Italian friend, Milton writes: 'God has instilled into me, if into anyone, a vehement love of the beautiful. Not with so much labor is Ceres said to have sought her daughter Proserpine, as it is my habit day and night to seek for this idea of the beautiful... through all the forms and faces of things.' With some now nearly obsolete notions of precedence, Milton did place God before the arts. But was he hostile to the arts? The two most important sorts of people in the state, he declares, are, first, those who make the social existence of the citizens 'just and holy,' and, second, those who make it 'splendid and beautiful.' He insists that the very stability of the state depends upon the splendor and excellence of its public institutions and the splendid and excellent expression of its social life depends, in short, as, I have insisted, upon the coöperation of the Puritans and the artists, upon the integrity of the national genius.
These iron men are said to have been devoid of tenderness and sympathy in personal relations. But this does not agree with the testimony of Bradford, who records it in his history that, in the first winter at Plymouth, when half the colony had died and most of the rest were sick, Myles Standish and Brewster, and the four or five others who were well, watched over and waited on the rest with the loving tenderness and the unflinching fidelity of a mother.
These people had fortitude; but was it due to callousness? Were they really, as Macaulay intimates, insensible to their own sufferings and the sufferings of others? Hear the cry of John Bunyan when prison separates him from his family: "The parting with my wife and poor children hath often been to me in this place as the pulling the flesh
from my bone; and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great mercies, but also because I should have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries, and wants that my poor family was like to meet with, should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides. O the thought of the hardship I thought my blind one might go under, would break my heart to pieces.'
Finally, these iron men are grievously charged with a lack of romantic feeling and the daring necessary to act upon it. Much depends upon what you mean by romance. If you mean by romance, a life of excitement and perilous adventure, there are duller records than that of the English Puritans. Not without some risk to themselves, not without at least an occasional thrill, did these pious villagers decapitate the King of England, overturn the throne of the Archbishop of Canterbury, pull up stakes and settle in Holland, sail the uncharted Atlantic in a cockleshell, and set up a kingdom for Christ in the howling wilderness. I don't think that dwellers in Gopher Prairie or Greenwich Village have a right to call that life precisely humdrum.
Add to this the fact that the more fervent Puritans were daily engaged in a terrifically exciting adventure with Jehovah. Some women of to-day would think it tolerably interesting, I should suppose, to be married to a man like Cotton Mather, who rose every day after breakfast, went into his study, put, as he said, his sinful mouth in the dust of his study floor, and, while the tears streamed from his eyes, conversed directly with angels, with 'joy unspeakable and full of glory.' If a Puritan wife was pious, she was engaged in a true 'eternal triangle'; when Winthrop left home, his wife was committed by him to the arms of her heavenly
lover. If she were not pious, she stole the records of his conversation with angels, and went, like Mather's wife, into magnificent fits of jealousy against the Lord of Hosts. The resulting atmosphere may not have been ideal; but it is not to be described as 'sullen gloom'; it was not humdrum like a Dreiser novel; it was tense with the excitement of living on the perilous edge of Paradise.
Did these Puritan husbands lack charm, or devotion to their women? I find that theory hard to reconcile with the fact that so many of them had three wives. Most of us modern men feel that we have charm enough, if we can obtain and retain one, now that higher education of women has made them so exacting in their standards and so expensive to maintain. Now, Cotton Mather had three wives; and when he was forty or so, in the short interim between number two and number three, he received a proposal of marriage from a girl of twenty, who was, he thought, the wittiest and the prettiest girl in the colony. I conclude inevitably that there was something very attractive in Cotton Mather. Call it charm; call it what you will; he possessed that which the Ladies' Home Journal would describe as "What women admire in men.'
As a further illustration of the 'sullen gloom of their domestic habits,' take the case of John Winthrop, the pious Puritan governor of Massachusetts. After a truly religious courtship, he married his wife, about 1618, against the wishes of her friends. We have some letters of the early years of their life together, in which he addresses her as 'My dear wife,' 'My sweet wife,' and 'My dear wife, my chief joy in this world.' Well, that is nothing; at first, we all do that.
But ten years later Winthrop prepared to visit New England, without his family, to found a colony. While
waiting for his ship to sail, he writes still to his wife by every possible messenger, merely to tell her that she is his chief joy in all the world; and before he leaves England he arranges with her that, as long as he is away, every week on Tuesday and Friday at five o'clock he and she will think of each other wherever they are, and commune in spirit. When one has been married ten or twelve long years, that is more extraordinary. It shows, I think, romantic feeling equal to that in Miss Lulu Bett, or Poor White, or Moon-Calf.
Finally, I will present an extract from a letter of this same John Winthrop to this same wife, written in 1637, when they had been married twenty years. It is an informal note, written hurriedly, in the rush of business:
I was unwillingly hindered from coming to thee, nor am I like to see thee before the last day of this weeke: therefore I shall want a band or two: and cuffs. I pray thee also send me six or seven leaves of tobacco dried and powdered. Have care of thyself this cold weather, and speak to the folks to keep the goats well out of the garden. If any letters be come for me, send them by this bearer. I will trouble thee no further. The Lord bless and keep thee, my sweet wife, and all our family; and send us a comfortable meeting. So I kiss thee and love thee ever and rest Thy faithful husband,
If, three hundred years after my death, it is proved by documentary evidence that twenty years after my marriage I still, in a familiar note, mixed up love and kisses with my collars and tobacco if this is proved, I say, I shall feel very much surprised if the historian of that day speaks of the 'sullen gloom of my domestic habits.'
The first, held by a small apologetic group of historians and Mayflower descendants, is, that the Puritan was a misguided man of good intentions. Since he was a forefather and has long been dead, he should be spoken of respectfully; and it is proper from time to time to drop upon his grave a few dried immortelles. The second opinion is, that the Puritan was an unqualified pest, but that he is dead and well dead, and will trouble us no more forever. The third, and by far the most prevalent, is, that the Puritan was once a pest, but has now become a menace; that he is more alive than ever, more baleful, more dangerous.
This opinion is propagated in part by old New Englanders like Mr. Brooks Adams, who have turned upon their ancestors with a vengeful fury, crying, "Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.' And I noticed only the other day that Mr. Robert Herrick was speaking remorsefully of Puritanism as an ‘ancestral blight' in his veins. But the opinion is still more actively propagated by a literary group which comes out flatfootedly against the living Puritan as the enemy of freedom, of science, of beauty, of romance; as a being with unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views; a Philistine, a hypocrite, a tyrant, of savage cruelty of attack, with a lust for barbarous persecution, and of intolerable dirty-mindedness.
Despite the 'plank' of universal sympathy in the rather hastily constructed literary platform of these young people, it is manifest that they are out to destroy the credit of the Puritan in America. We are not exceptionally rich in spiritual traditions. It would be a pity, by a persistent campaign of abuse, to ruin the credit of any good ones. One of the primary functions, indeed, of scholarship and letters is to connect us with the great traditions and to inspire us with the confidence and power which result from such a connection. Puritanism, rightly understood, is one of the vital, progressive, and enriching human traditions. It is a tradition peculiarly necessary to the health and the stability and the safe forward movement of a democratic society. When I consider from what antiquity it has come down to us and what vicissitudes it has survived, I do not fear its extermination; but I resent the misapprehension of its character and the aspersion of its name. Perhaps our insight into its true nature may be strengthened and our respect renewed, if we revisit its source and review its operations at some periods a little remote from the dust and diatribes of contemporary journalism.
A good many ages before Rome was founded, or Athens, or ancient Troy, or Babylon, or Nineveh, there was an umbrageous banyan tree in India, in whose wide-spreading top and populous branches red and blue baboons, chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-outangs, and a missing group of anthropoid apes had chattered and fought and flirted and feasted and intoxicated themselves on cocoanut wine for a thousand years. At some date which I can't fix with accuracy, the clatter and mess and wrangling of arboreal simian society began to