Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Puritan Intellectuals & Authors - Mostly Men, of course...

Probably no other North American European colonists were as intellectual as the Puritans. Between 1630 & 1690, there were as many university graduates in the northeastern section of the United States, known as New England, as in England itself. They wanted their intensive  education to understand & execute God's will as they established their colonies throughout New England.

Detail. Jan van Neck, Anatomische les van Dr. Ruysch, 1683

The Puritan definition of good writing was that which brought home a full awareness of the importance of worshiping God & of the spiritual dangers that the soul faced during life on Earth. Puritan writing genres varied from complex metaphysical poetry to homely journals & crushingly pedantic religious history. Whatever the chosen style certain themes remained constant. Life was seen as a test; failure led to eternal damnation & hellfire, & success leading to heavenly bliss. This world was an arena for the constant battle between the forces of God & the forces of Satan. Many Puritans excitedly anticipated the "millennium," when Jesus would return to Earth, end human misery, & initiate 1,000 years of peace & prosperity.

Detail. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp , Rembrandt, 1632 

Scholars have long pointed out the link between Puritanism & capitalism: Both rest on ambition, hard work, & an intense striving for success. Although individual Puritans could not know, in strict theological terms, whether they were "saved" & among the elect who would go to heaven, Puritans tended to feel that earthly success was a sign of election. Wealth & status were sought not only for themselves, but as welcome reassurances of spiritual health & promises of eternal life. Moreover, the concept of stewardship encouraged success. The Puritans interpreted all things & events as symbols with deeper spiritual meanings, & felt that in advancing their own profit & their community's well-being, they were also furthering God's plans. They did not draw lines of distinction between the secular & religious spheres. All of life was an expression of the divine will, a belief that later resurfaces in Transcendentalism.

In recording ordinary events to reveal their spiritual meaning, Puritan authors commonly cited the Bible, chapter & verse. History was a symbolic religious panorama leading to the Puritan triumph over the New World & to God's kingdom on Earth. The first Puritan colonists who settled New England exemplified the seriousness of Reformation Christianity. Known as the "Pilgrims," they were a small group of believers who had migrated from England to Holland, known for its religious tolerance, in 1608, during a time of persecutions. Like most Puritans, they interpreted the Bible literally. They read & acted on the text of the Second Book of Corinthians -- "Come out from among them & be ye separate, saith the Lord." Despairing of purifying the Church of England from within, "Separatists" formed underground "covenanted" churches that swore loyalty to the group instead of the king. Seen as traitors to the king as well as heretics damned to hell, they were often persecuted. Their separation took them ultimately to the New World.

The Enlightenment (1685-1815) was the growth of individualism in secular & intellectual forces in Western Europe. Secular Catholic intellectual, Robert Calef (1648–1719) described the Puritan worldview as “heretical” in More Wonders of the Invisible World. Enlightenment philosophy undermined the authority of the Church & called concepts of witchcraft as unbridled, "superstition."