Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Puritans | American Literature


The Puritans were certainly not the first inhabitants, not even the first settlers from Europe in the American continent. A voyage of exploration and discovery starting with that of the Italian sailor Christopher Colombo (better known as Christopher Columbus) in 1491 found its way, by accident or intention, to the shores of what was later to be called America. These voyages extended for over a century, but till the 1580s none of them, or so records suggest, were manned by Englishmen. Englishmen were resolutely engrossed in their internecine conflicts through these decades, and it was as late as 1584 that Sir Walter Raleigh dispatched an English ship to investigate if it was possible to colonize other lands: Another attempt took off in 1606, and in this instance the energetic intruders decided to establish a settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, named after their Virgin Queen. The settlement however, suffered from many disasters. Homesickness, epidemics, deaths--the list of troubles encountered by the earliest English settlers in America were many.

The Chesapeake, the "Red Indians" of the region, instigated by their illustrious leader, Powhatan, resented the coming of the outsiders. They thought that the English, in not organizing any agricultural activities on English lands, needlessly exploited their resources and exertions. Skirmishes ensued soon. The English were especially savage in their assaults, especially because they were extremely dependent upon these people whom they despised and therefore determined to demonstrate an abs~ &lute superiority over them. In order to punish a haughty tribe, the English would I: sort to mass massacre of its members. Some Englishmen had a tendency to wander off to stay with the relatively affluent Indians, with their organized and abundant food supplies, or to trade with them. The Jamestown authorities burned, flayed and killed their own people. Meanwhile, thousands of settlers died from starvation and illnesses. To save the declining Virginia settlement, the Virginia Company, which had sponsored the settlement in the first place, soon realized that the colonists had to be given a personal interest in what they were doing. They would not work hard to raise food for the company itself the power of individual enterprise had to be put to work. In return for a small annual quit rent, settlers were allowed to take up size able tracts of land to farm for themselves. The time of hardships was soon at an end. Then, in 1619 a legislative body allowed the Virginia settlers, to own and cultivate the land which transformed them from unimportant employees of an old company to significant citizens of new country. The tobacco crop planted experimentally in 1612 yielded such high profits from London that by 1620 an amazing "gold rush" was under way for tobacco land. At last, Virginia appeared to be evolving into a prosperous settlement. Up north, towards the eastern edge of the American continent in the meanwhile, the first Puritan fleet, transporting its four hundred devout souls, sailed around the tip of Cape Cod and stationed itself finally at the Plymouth harbour off Massachusetts Bay.
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The first settlers who came to Massachusetts thus in 1620 to found a dedicated community were the Pilgrims. Fleeing from the hardened depravities of the Old World to the New World, they established their homesteads in an obscure stretch close to Plymouth. Ten years later came the Great Puritan Migration from England, followed by an astonishingly numerous rabble bringing thousands of settlers, the largest single expedition of English people in the seventeenth century. Puritan settlements sprang up at Dorchester, Boston, Watertown, Roxbury, Mystic and Lynn. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was now fully launched. By 1640, religious sectarianism surfaced, forcing renegades or rebels to abandon Massachusetts to develop Rhode Island, which was chartered in 1644. Others, enticed by fantasies of fabled affluence left for richer haunts southward to the west of the Connecticut River. In 1639 certain towns had already adopted the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut as the colony's constitution. By 1662 a royal charter had been issued that authenticated Connecticut's independent status. The earliest settlements emerged in New Hampshire in 1623. After endless debate between ambitious English agents and Massachusetts authorities, it became an autonomous. Territory of the Crown. The status of Maine, which had been settled in the 1630s, was troubled likewise until 1691, when it was made part of Massachusetts. At the end of the century, New England, as the entire region was named, was a flourishing new enclave within the English empire.


Indian History that many sects like Buddhism and Jainism sprang up as a protest against the abuses of Brahminicsal rituals and ceremonies which they found were devoid of true spiritual change. Similarly Puritanism, as Perry Miller has remarked in his classic study on the subject, began as an agitation within the Church of England in the latter half of the sixteenth century. It was a movement for reform of that institution, and as such hardly an alternative denomination to Anglicanism, which was the dominant theology. In the 1530's the Church of England had broken with the Roman Catholic Church. By the inception of Elizabeth 1's reign in 1558, it had proceeded a certain distance in this revolt, had become Protestant, had disestablished the monasteries and rectified many Papist abuses. Puritanism was the belief that the reform should be continued, that more abuses remained to be corrected, that practices still survived from the days of Papacy which should be renounced, that the Church of England should be restored to the "purity" of the first-century Church as established by Christ Himself.
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In the 1560s, when the advocates of purification first acquired the name of Puritans, no one, not even the most radical, knew exactly how far the process was to go or just what the ultimate goal would be. Down to the days of the so-called Puritan Revolution there was never any agreement on this point, and in the end this failure of unanimity proved to be the undoing of English Puritanism. Many Puritans desired that only certain ceremonies be abolished or changed. Others wanted ministers to preach more sermons, make up their own prayers on the inspiration of the moment rather than read set forms out of a book. Others went proposed a revision of the whole form of ecclesiastical government. But whatever the shade or complexion of their Puritanism, Puritans were those who wanted to continue a movement which was already underway. Their opponents, the Anglicans, were those who felt that with the enthronement of Elizabeth I and with the "Elizabethan Compromise" within the Church, things had gone far enough.

The Elizabethan Compromise
The Elizabethan Compromise, according to the Anglicans, had adequately eliminated the excesses of Roman Catholicism. They wanted to call a halt, just where they were, and stabilize at that point. Thus the issue between the two views, though large enough, still involved only a limited number of questions. On everything except matters upon which the Puritans wanted further reform, there was essential agreement. The Puritans who opted to go to New England were among the more extreme--though by no means the most extreme that the movement produced. Even before their departure in 1620 they had gone to the lengths of formulating a concrete platform of church organization which they wished to see instituted in England in lieu of the episcopal system.
By the 1620, the Puritans had moved the Church of England a long way toward their way of thinking, but then a startling reversal occurred. The new king, Charles I working with those who disagreed with the Puritans, initiated a determined counteroffensive.
  • First, the Anglicans, supported by the monarch, managed to maintain the episcopal system.
  • Second, ,they sustained the existing infrastructure for devotional services--elegant attire for the priest, glorious objects of gold and coloured glass in use during worship, the altar itself treated as a site of almost miraculous significance.
  • Third, the prayers of the Prayer Book, and the sacraments, were venerated by the The Puritan Context Anglicans as the centre of all worship--especially communion, for it represented the Body of Christ.

The Puritans
The Puritans were shocked to witness these, what they thought to be, retrogressive tendencies within the church, and even more appalled when hundreds of priests who resisted them were dismissed from their pulpits. Like everyone else, Puritans believed that the Church of England was the driving force, the very centre of national life. If it were corrupted, chaos itself would descend upon the country. England, the Puritans asserted, was in an anarchic condition. There was disorder and discord all over: gambling, whoring, thievery, rape and murder were routine occurrences. Excessive self-indulgence and self-gratification seemed to have become the norms of social conduct.

 The Puritans articulated the emergent bourgeois ethos which celebrated temperance, caution, thrift and hard work. They held that God the Father, who must punish even as he protects, would surely not tolerate the sins of his children and would chastise them by sending down plagues and other disasters. Only when England possessed a fully purified church, the Puritans said, would God cease punishing the English for their sins. The Anglicans pointed out that by law the king and his officers of the Church of England were entitled to take all decisions in religious matters and insisted that everyone's duty was to obey them, not to grumble and grimace. All agitation ought to halt. The Puritans, tenacious and stubborn, refused to oblige. To listen to humans masquerading as God's ministers would be tantamount to bringing back to the Church of England that "vast suffocating fog" of Papist superstition and irrationality that the Protestant Reformation was supposed to have swept away. Across the English Channel on the European continent this was the period when the powerful armies of Roman Catholic monarchs were sweeping from victory to victory as the Counter Reformation against Protestantism launched by the Roman Catholic Church mounted in enthusiasm. Suspicious Puritans then alleged that what the Anglicans were doing was part of a covert Roman Catholic conspiracy, working through the king and his followers, to destroy Protestantism in England. But still more fundamental to their differences was the Anglican and the Puritan argument over the nature of mankind. To the Puritans, human beings in their "natural" condition are totally depraved, their reason effectively impaired by their passion. If any are "saved"--forgiven their sins and going to heaven--it is entirely because God has willed it so, not because of anything that individual persons may have done on their own.

The Anglicans recoiled from all this. They believed, of course, that human beings are all sinners, but also that God has made them discriminating creatures. Ethical choice, they said, is "the candle of the Lord." Thus, to some degree we have a free will; that is, we do have a role in deciding our personal destinies. The Anglicans believed that lf we choose to live In God's way, take the sacraments regularly, and accept the salvation that a benign God has offered to all, we are saved. The important thing was not so much what faith we had, but how we treated each other. Certainly we must love God, as the First Table of the Ten Commandments decreed, but equally important were some other questions. These were what the last six of the Ten Commandments--the Second Table-- called for, and it was here that Anglicans laid their stress. The Puritans emphasized upon the first four of the Ten Commandants--the First Table--which ordered humanity to revere God and to glorify Him and to have no other thing or person in their lives before Him. The dilemma was that human beings were so naturally rotten, their passion so predominant upon their reason, that every instinct and inclination turned them away from God. They chose evil knowingly.


The historian Francis Jennings has rightly written about the Puritan migration into America that the "so-called settlement of America was a resettlement, a reoccupation of a land made waste by the diseases and demoralization introduced by the newcomers." The obliteration of the Old cultures of the New World by the new entrants from the Old World only partially explains however the emergence of Puritanism as the hegemonic American ideology. The Puritans were extremely self-conscious who made a fetish of recording their experiences in the New World even as they were undergoing the experiences. John Winthrop was certainly not the only Puritan to write a journal noting in detail the day-to-day episodes of his adventures on alien shores. The ability to write, indeed, was supposed to be the mark of the civilization of the European traveler. Correspondingly, (from the European point of view) the unlettered aboriginals, the Indians, and slaves, the Africans brought in as chattel labor a little later, were either written down in or written out of the Puritan narratives.
The first motif is that America was utterly savage, in the state the Puritans encountered it. It was virtually uninhabitable and by extension uninhabited. The second is that whatever it was and whatever it was to become, America had nothing to do with Europe. America, in other words, was to become what the Puritans wished it to become. Before the Puritans, writes Bradford, lay a wild landscape such as no civilized people had ever encountered, and "if they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they passed and [which] was now a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world." Not even the ship lying at anchor qualifies this absolute separation,' for the captain daily threatens to leave. The Puritans are certainly in need of the Lord's support as their plight is worse than that of "the Apostle and his shipwrecked company" to whom "the barbarians showed, no small kindness in refreshing them."

The savages the Puritans met, Bradford's chronicle distinguishes itself from other early American texts by featuring natives who are ferociously against the whites of Plymouth Plantation, as Bradford's call to the children of the fathers makes explicit, consciously invents a historical tradition. The most important of these terms are re-definitions of wilderness and civilization and the opposition between them. On the one hand, the wilderness is without trace of any cultivation. On the other hand, precisely in its untouched character, it is the site of a potentially exceptional construction.

Simultaneously, civilization, in Bradford's account, acquires a strange ambiguity. The civilization left forever by the Puritans is suggestive of great accomplishments no doubt. But it is also an abode of destructive viciousness. The final impression that Bradford's book leaves on the reader about the apparent polarities of civilization and wilderness is not one of contrast; the situations curiously resemble one another. They are like mirror images rather than like antithetical

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