Confusion of Origins: Notes on Historical Approaches to Puritanism

by ericaeller


What makes a writer attach themselves to a subject, particularly a historical subject? Is it a way to frame contemporary experience, in light of the experience, words, and actions of others who are somehow perceived as part of a lineage? Or is it a way to seek redemption, inspire the future, isolate the past from the contemporary moment, or enrich our flattened understanding? Is it a desire to find a missing part of ourselves?

I have thought about this question a lot, since whenever people ask me about my literary thesis project – what made me drawn to the topic of my thesis on Susan Howe’s interest in Antinomianism (the radical use of evangelizing rhetoric by Anne Hutchinson of the Boston Massachusetts Colony to resist judgement by her community before being ousted by the elders of the Puritan community to the wilderness) – or what makes me currently drawn to Frances Fuller Victor – a historian of Oregon writing in the mid-nineteenth century who cast doubt on the “predestination” of westward expansion – I cannot come up with a clear, or personally viable answer. There is a bit of confusion about my decision to concentrate on certain material and the nature of my approach.

Today, I will shift my attention away from personal inquiry to question the motivations of several authors whose work attaches itself to Protestant religious belief systems as origins for any number of contemporary phenomena including capitalism, American mainstream identity, or racism.

For instance, Max Weber’s famous thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism suggests that a “spirit” of capitalism is inherent to protestant values, specifically of the English Calvinist tradition (the precursor to Puritanism) based on the notions of a “calling” and “predestination” which could suggest that material wealth was a sign of salvation. This topic is still questioned, as the American business class (see this article in Forbes) may find an ideological use for asserting Puritanism as its original ideological guide. Weber’s work was particularly influential for the thinkers of the Frankfurt School.

Without further investigation, this could make anyone skeptical at a glance, since it suggests that capitalism has an eternal “spirit” lacking breaks, fractures, or permutations. Likewise, it seats the origins of the capitalist mechanism in European territory, since Max Weber claims that Buddhism and other religious groups were less capable of fully adopting individual material gain as a virtue independent of social systems. It is easy to feel skeptical towards these ideas in our current era of vast globalization in which many belief systems are capable of molding their values to embrace capitalism, granting it the appearance of a performed, rather than essential practice. It is interesting to note that Max Weber’s work contradicted Marx, who described the motor of history as the material, economic base. Weber suggests that ideology, or belief systems likewise produce an effect.

R.H. Tawney responded to Max Weber in the essay, “Puritanism and Capitalism,” in 1926, unwilling to accept his clean-cut description of Calvinism:   

Weber, in a celebrated essay, expounded the thesis that Calvanism, in its English version, was the parent of capitalism, and Troeltsch, Shulze-Gaevernitz and Cunningham have lent to the same interpretation the weight of their considerable authority. But the heart of man holds mysteries of contradiction which live in vigorous incompatibility together. When the shriveled tissues lie in our hand, the spiritual bond still eludes us.

In every human soul there is a socialist and an individualist, an authoritarian and a fanatic for liberty, as in each there is a Catholic and a Protestant.

Thus, in Tawney, Puritanism itself becomes an example not of separation, but of an inherent complicity with the things its tenets both accept and reject.

Puritanism itself involved a constant questioning of acceptance as the quest for finding evidence of “grace” the proof of God’s salvation reveals; and rejection marked by violent determinations, as the Pequot War exemplifies. Overall, such close attention to the mystical aspects of Puritan “grace” theology and its many perplexing internal contradictions and effects always stand in relief to a relative inattention to native interpretations of Puritan violence.


Later, Perry Miller, a Historian of Harvard University, wrote his famous book entitled, Errand into the Wilderness (1964), which questioned whether the reason the Puritans came to America was considered self-determined, or pre-determined, in which case, the higher power (a potentially capricious power) could change its mind and drop support for the social experiment. This project distinctly proposes justifications for considering the Puritan-American mind as something distinctly different from the European mind, due to Puritan isolation and uncertainty. Once more, this effort to detach Puritanism from its sources as part of an effort to establish an American essence gives the work an air of nationalism. However, Perry also took up a contemplation of irresolvable contradictions, namely to which extent do idealism (the errand) and material realities (the wilderness) shape history. Earlier, in his work entitled, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1961) Perry contemplates the role of the mind as a factor in shaping human history, through the study of rhetoric and Puritan language and texts. Yet, notably, Perry treats the realities of the social and mental spheres as independent as a means of defining their relationship.

Perhaps granting such a deep psychological aura to Puritanism itself is problematic, as it grants undue attention to the interior social constructs of one particular group of historical agents during the “origins” of America, without considering the numerous factions of other influential agents, and the division within the Puritan’s community itself. Ann Kibbey, a leftist-feminist scholar continued to question the rhetorical uniqueness of Puritan doubt and uncertainty, while she attempted to link this rhetoric to what she considers an inherent tendency for violence and prejudice towards natives and women alike within the Puritan colonies in her book The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism: A Study of Rhetoric, Prejudice, and Violence first published in 1986. This work grants special attention to Anne Hutchinson, a woman who was scapegoated from the Puritan community before the rash of witch trials swept through the Puritan communities. However, I feel it is in our interest to consider the Puritan’s development of violence a performed act, rather than a necessity, since even though it invoked imagery, language and forms as the associated rhetoric of violence, this does not mean that these forms literally caused violence: people’s actions did. From my perspective, people may act or embrace ideology with cruel intentions, and they should be duly reckoned for these intentions, but ideology in a vacuum has no conscience, no power. Ideology itself becomes an excuse.


Another sea of inquiry that highlights the unique role of women and natives as agents shaping the “uncertainty” of Puritan society were the wildly popular captivity narratives of women such as Mary Rowlandson who described their experiences as having been abducted and then returned safely from life with the natives. Poet Susan Howe writes about Mary Rowlandson in her essay “Captivity and Restoration” found within her book entitled The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. The narratives produced by Rowlandson (and her male congregational ministerial scribes) are deeply steeped in religious rhetoric and typology producing an effect that function follows predetermined form. Howe writes, “Early New England rhetoric claimed for every single Christian a particular evangelical and secular use and progress. Individual identity was prophetic and corporate. In the hermeneutics of the Bay Colony every member of the Elect was a figural type on the way of federal eschatology. The break with the Old World was a rupture into contraries.” She reveals that the dilemma of form involved the extremities produced by the pressure of isolation.

Combined, the quest for some innate Euro-American origins using religious explanations of the Puritan mind, rhetoric, profit motive, or any other simplistic framework is not complete without a consideration of natives, women, material realities as well as emotional, mystical, or rational frameworks. The study of Puritans has accommodated such diverse fields of discourse for different ideological frames of inquiry yet, a recurring theme within the study of Puritanism itself is contradiction and what do we do with it? How can we reconcile the simultaneous rupture and continuity of European traditions in the New World, symbolized by the Puritans? The crisis of identity at the core of their history is notable and it resembles narratives of immigration to America from diverse communities as well: coming to seek opportunity, but never feeling a sense of belonging. Deeply consuming life with a quest for transcendence, salvation, and belonging. Yet, understanding that nothing is guaranteed, so we must consume ourselves with work, industry, production as a means to defy uncertainty, etc…

Furthermore, the imperative for economic freedom through markets via rupture (discussed in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine) perhaps makes Puritan contradiction a convenient parallel for our own contemporary forms of brutality. However, Klein herself would attribute this not to one particular doctrine, but any that embraces fundamentalism at its core. She reminds us that any effort to cleanse a system of impurity and eliminate all co-existent ideologies is inherently dangerous and filled with risk, yet such extremism continues to shape and influence our political and economic spheres.

So what draws me to my own autodidactic historical research? The condition of my immigrant heritage to America and the complicit violence and prejudice it suggests? My uprootedness? Perhaps questioning itself, as my method, may be the only identifiable material of my existence.

What marks off the “self” is method; it has no other source than ourselves: it is when we really employ method that we really begin to exist. As long as one employs method only on symbols one remains within the limits of a sort of game. In action that has method about it, we ourselves act, since it is we ourselves who found the method; we really act because what is unforeseen presents itself to us.

— Simone Weil, ibid.