« ZurückWeiter »
be named for his favorite poet, George Herbert a rich endowment! By the time I was twelve, I knew by heart about half of all Herbert wrote, and that not to the prejudice of Chaucer, Pope, Wordsworth, and Tennyson. It should be remembered that among the English poets Puritanism had rather more than its fair share, Milton, Marvell, the Wesleys, Watts, Cowper, Montgomery, the two Brownings, sufficient to make poetry a natural inmate of most Puritan homes. Burns's poems were printed in America two years after they appeared in Scotland, and the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth but four years after they had been laughed at by Englishmen.
So far from any natural antagonism between the greatest of the arts and Puritanism, it may well be urged that the constant sense of the infinite in which the Puritan was nurtured was the very soil most favorable for developing the poetic spirit. Certainly, among the friends of my youth I came upon enjoyers of poetry twice as frequently as I do to-day. The number of great writers was smaller, but the study of those few was more serious and general.
And something similar may be said of music. Few indeed were the Puritan homes where music of a high order was not cultivated. As a rule, girls were expected to master the piano. Three of my four sisters played, and played well, Bach, Beethoven, and Mendelssohnthe last especially in his sacred settings
- being accounted sovereign. Mozart, Schubert, and others of a lyrical vein were, I suspect, counted somewhat too sportive and spontaneous.
In almost every family there were seasons of song in which all were expected to join. The meagre conditions of that primitive day could not afford the many concerts that we now enjoy. Populations were not large enough for
that. But it is worth noting that, in Puritan New England, the first scholarly Journal of Music, and the first carefully trained orchestras - the Musical Fund and the Germania - found strong support. My father was by no means rich, but he supplied us children with season tickets each winter to the symphony rehearsals of the Germania Society.
It is true that to several of the arts painting, sculpture, and the drama Puritanism was unfriendly. But the grounds of this aversion were historical and not to be explained by any supposed sourness of disposition. The first and the last pieces written by Milton were dramatic, and the eulogies of Shakespeare by him and by Marvell are among the warmest in our language.
But there came a change. By the time of the great migration, 1640 to 1650, the English stage had reached such a pitch of degradation that it became necessary to close the theatres; and when they were again opened, on the coming of Charles II, they exhibited an indecency unparalleled before or since. No wonder that the horror of that foulness became fixedly associated in Puritan minds with the theatre itself, and that, even as late as my childhood, self-respecting people pretty generally kept away from stage-plays. No doubt that absence encouraged the very vices against which it protested, and the Puritans lost an ingredient of character of utmost worth in training the imagination. But when an art has been so captured by the forces of evil, abstention from it becomes a necessity, and confidence in it is only slowly established.
In less degree a similar defense may be offered for the Puritan attitude toward painting and sculpture. Repre sentations of the saints in stone and glass did not then merely stir æsthetic emotions of beauty, such as we expe
rience to-day. They excited, and were intended to excite, feelings closely akin to idolatry. Mourn, as we must, over the image-breaking which, during the Civil War, damaged the loveliness of many cathedrals, it is only fair to recognize it as a stage, perhaps a necessary stage, in the emancipation of the English mind. Since sculpture was employed at that time almost exclusively to further superstitious ends, it naturally bred repulsion in men of clearer faith. They felt the dangers against which the Second Commandment warns. Personal busts were not counted objectionable, nor painted portraiture. Something like a dozen contemporary portraits of Milton are known, and ancestral' portraits were fairly common in Puritan homes. Except for these, Puritan walls were generally bare. Pictures were rare and expensive, and distasteful associations connected with their superstitious use did not readily pass away.
On the other hand, Puritans were strong in the arts of design. Their furniture, silver, china, and the many articles of comfort and beauty for the home, were admirable. They are sought to-day as superior in taste to those of later years. There is solidity in them, durability, freedom from caprice, and an expression of that sober rationality everywhere characteristic of the Puritan genius. On entering an old Puritan home, I have often wondered how a family of modest means could acquire furniture of such excellence. They apparently bought slowly, either went without or got the best, and provided for their children no less than for themselves. For temporary convenience to accept an article of inferior workmanship or design was reckoned a kind of moral obliquity. Standards of quality had been established in most things, from which individual fancy did not readily depart. Such standards
give quiet dignity to Puritan architecture, making the three or four types of Colonial house worth preserving. For adaptation to climate, wise use of accessible materials, inner convenience obtained at low cost, for modest stateliness and freedom from discordant lines, Puritan domestic architecture deserves high praise.
It has seemed worth while to examine thus minutely the artistic attitude of the Puritans because it has generally been so grossly misrepresented. Since these lovers of purity and righteousness held themselves aloof from the debauched representative arts of painting, sculpture, and the drama, they are charged with an indiscriminate hostility to all beauty, their exceptional devotion to the nobler arts of poetry, music, and the home being quite overlooked.
It is true that, even in these regions, Puritan taste was severe. Whatever a Puritan loved must be rational, thorough, and marked with deliberate purpose. These are fundamental qualities in all the arts. But they are best attended by a light touch, spontaneous gayety, and superficial grace. Hence arise two types of beauty: the one intellectual, where the beautiful object is an embodiment of law and is stripped of all that is not called for by its purpose; the other, exuberant, expressing freedom, play, ornament. In the former Puritan art is strong. On the latter it looks askance. Because the latter, the easier and prettier, is at present in favor, Puritans are apt to be denied all sense of beauty.
Such, then, was the constitution of the Puritan home, such its central religious ideal, and such its three supporting influences-education, family affection, and the nobler Fine Arts. In
dealing with so controversial a subject, I have thought it safest to record the actual facts of a personal experience. The subject is one which readily lends itself to picturesque treatment, whether of eulogy or scorn. Both of these I would avoid. On the basis of sifted fact I would ask a dispassionate estimate of the training which fashioned New England's character during three centuries. My experience, I think, is fairly representative, though late. My life began in 1842, when the Puritan régime was drawing to its close. But on both sides my ancestry was purely Puritan and American for nine generations, my father a deacon of an Orthodox church, four of my uncles Orthodox ministers.
Living, too, as I did throughout my boyhood, as much in the country as the city, I caught the Puritan traditions of creed and practice where they lingered longest. The habits of the many other Puritan homes familiar to my boyhood did not differ materially from mine, except in the matter of temperament. Wherever the head of the house was sombre, disappointed, or unapproachable, I have found an atmosphere far removed from that of my cheerful surroundings. A bad temper will spread gloom anywhere, and spread it the more readily when life is regarded as a serious business. I would not assert that Puritanism is an antidote for every infelicity of temper. I merely maintain that it provides ample room for men of good-will, and I think it unjust to hold a special faith responsible for evils incident to all mankind. Out of a happy experience I am certain that Puritanism was no check on well-made parents, but that it helped them to lead an honorable, richly fed, and lovable life, with great contentment and blessing to all around them. Yet while acknowledging myself fortunate in the well-governed temper of my companions, I cannot fail to see how that companionship was fos
tered by the desire on their part to imitate the patient bounty of the Father of us all.
In turning from this description of the Puritan home to emphasize its worth, I would put forward prominently the literary power its training gave. Puritan children, we have seen, were likely to read or hear six passages of the English Bible every day. That book, without regard to its religious value, is acknowledged to be the consummate masterpiece of our language. Here are primitive folk-lore, national history, personal anecdote, racy portraiture, incisive reflection, rapturous poetry, weighty argument, individual appeal, the whole presenting a wider range of interests than any other book affords. Throughout our version, too, runs a style of matchless simplicity, precision, animation, and dignity - a style exquisitely changing color to match its diverse subject-matter. What schooltraining in English can compare with the year-long reading of this volume?
Literary taste cannot well be directly taught. It comes best unconsciously, while the attention is given to something else. The Puritan child went through his many Bible-readings with a religious aim, the extraordinary beauty of the literature affecting him incidentally as something which could not well be otherwise. In that holy hush it was most naturally incorporated into his structure.
I understate the case, however, in saying that the matchless English was daily read. Almost every week considerable portions were committed to memory. Before I was fifteen I had learned half the Psalms, the whole Gospel of John, three of Paul's Epistles, and large sections of Job and Isaiah. And this personal study was undertaken, not in obedience to commands,
but because frequent contact with noble thought begets of itself a desire for more intimate acquaintance. Any man with half an ear, living in the company of musicians, is sure to think music beautiful and important. Just so the Puritan youth was drawn, not driven, to the study of the Bible through association with the biblically minded. Before he was aware what processes were going on, he found himself in possession of something priceless. He understood good English, and pretty generally spoke it.
Of the doctrines which the Puritans derived from their sacred volume, or read into it, I have no need to write at any length. Their general tenor is well known, and this paper is not a treatise on theology, but an exhibit of Puritan methods of domestic training. Still, since that training was based on certain religious conceptions, I must briefly summarize these. But it should be borne in mind that there was much diversity among the Puritans, and never any such thing as a Puritan Church or creed. Each little group of believers had an independent existence, and formulated for itself its understanding or creed about things divine and human, changing this whenever it could be brought into closer conformity to the mind of the majority. During my life my country church has rewritten its entire creed three times.
The distinctive feature of Puritan religion is the stress that it lays on personality, the duty of preserving it and keeping it clean. A person is the one sacred being in the universe to whom all else is subservient. God Himself is a person, having intelligence, will, love and aversion, communicability and, above all, righteousness, or respect for other persons. He is no mere abstract mind, force, love, or law. Behind all
these there is a He, their possessor and director. We too are persons, made in God's likeness and therefore able to have thoughts about Him which are true, however inadequate. Human relationships are our best clue to an understanding of Him and his government. Indeed, so near is God to man, that a finite person, perfect within his human limits, would be the fullest possible revelation of God and a fit object of worship. Loyalty to such a being saves us from sin and vicariously redeems the sinner. Vicariousness is a principle throughout the personal universe. The modern Socialist finds that my wrongdoing afflicts my group and by it must be healed. Individualistic Puritanism puts perfect manhood, the suffering Christ, in the place of the redeeming group.
Puritan religion is thus essentially personal religion. The Spaniard is highly religious. So is the Russian, the Hindu, the very English people from whom the Puritans came out. But the religion of all these is preeminently social, embodying a group-consciousness and largely concerned with the performance of sacred ceremonies. Puritan religion is experienced, not performed. It needs no church, no ritual, no priest. Each believer stands face to face before God, responsible to Him alone, and through his witnesses his witnesses-conscience, right reason, the Bible 'as spiritually discerned' is directly instructed what to do. Obligation is minute and perpetual. All things are full of duty. Each situation in life presents a best way of acting, expressive of God's will, and a worse way, expressive of our childish and temporary will. We are incessantly tempted to some partial good through stupor, slackness, caprice, or bodily allurement.
following any other will than that of our exacting Father. The restrictions, the disappointments, the sufferings of our existence here become comprehensible when viewed as preliminary education for a perfected existence hereafter. A wise father sets his child tasks somewhat beyond his powers. Our athletic trainers fill our sports with difficulties and dangers, and forbid us to shrink from bodily harm. Just so God plans his world. He makes it a preparatory school for those destined ever to remain individual persons, unmerged in anything so meaningless as universal being. The consequences of such discipline, either in enlargement or shrinkage, go on forever.
I hope the brevity of this statement still does sufficient justice to the Puritan faith. Possibly I have over-rationalized it through the attempt to give unity to a complex body of doctrine. Wise beliefs are seldom free from incongruities. At almost every point, too, the utterance of some eminent divine can be quoted, giving to this or that doctrine a coloring different from that given here. I have said that Puritanism held no authoritative creed. Its fellowship was based on general consent, with room left for individual divergence. A faith that included Princeton and Andover, Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Hopkins, permits no exact formulation. But I believe my sketch will be sufficient to show where lay the strength of Puritanism and to make plain its hold on the realities of life. It fitted its followers to fight Indians, endure the hardships of New England, found a democracy, and send forth throughout the land a sturdier folk than any other single stock can boast.
But, if Puritan religion was able to give weight to character, dignity to
speech and bearing, promptitude to duty, and such excellence to educational and political institutions that the world has taken pattern from them ever since, why did it decay, and why, even in the days of its power, did it awaken animosity? Because each human excellence involves some special limitation, danger at least, and the unavoidable limitations of Puritanism are peculiarly obnoxious to the common man. They stifle him and make him after a time clamor for ampler air. One needs to be already strong before he can draw strength from Puritanism. For it looks on all things sub specie æternitatis, and takes altogether seriously the saying that in God we live and move and have our being. In the disorderly and changing world, the Puritan is ill at ease. Things of earth are of slender consequence compared with those of Heaven, and are to be dealt with only as they prepare us for the divine life. In this extreme idealism there is danger for weak natures. They are apt to grow morbid about themselves, about others, and even about God.
The miseries attending too great selfconsciousness are widely felt and are peculiarly difficult to cure. To be constantly analyzing our motives, in order to be sure that they are not the promptings of a temporary impulse but the veritable voice of God, is safe for not many men, for still fewer women. Of course, we should know what we are doing. Blind action is as disastrous as excessive introspection; but not being painful, it escapes with less censure. The wise man keeps control of himself while still looking without more than within. So long as we inhabit this complicated planet, we must give it a large share of our attention and enjoyment. How large that share shall be and what proportion it should bear to spiritual interests can, fortunately, never be determined. The difficult task of keeping