Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Puritans: a revisionist view

Nathaniel Hawthorne, who came along a couple of centuries later [than the Puritans], bears some of the blame for the most repeated of the answers: that Puritans were self-righteous and authoritarian, bent on making everyone conform to a rigid set of rules and ostracizing everyone who disagreed with them. The colonists Hawthorne depicted in “The Scarlet Letter” lacked the human sympathies or “heart” he valued so highly. ...

But in Hawthorne’s day, some people realized that he had things wrong. Notably, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer who visited the United States in 1831. ...

[I]t was the Puritans who had introduced similar practices [to what Tocqueville admired] in colony governments — mandating annual elections, insisting that legislatures could meet even if a governor refused to summon a new session and declaring that no law was valid unless the people or their representatives had consented to it. ...

Contrary to Hawthorne’s assertions of self-righteousness, the colonists hungered to recreate the ethics of love and mutual obligation spelled out in the New Testament. Church members pledged to respect the common good and to care for one another. Celebrating the liberty they had gained by coming to the New World, they echoed St. Paul’s assertion that true liberty was inseparable from the obligation to serve others. ...

[A]mong the liberties they carefully guarded was the right to petition any government and to plead any grievance, a liberty that women as well as men acted on.

The most far-reaching of these Puritan reforms concerned the civil law and the workings of justice. In 1648, Massachusetts became the first place in the Anglo-American world to publish a code of laws — and make it accessible to everyone. ...

And although it’s tempting to envision the ministers as manipulating a “theocracy,” the opposite is true: they played no role in the distribution of land and were not allowed to hold political office. Nor could local congregations impose civil penalties on anyone who violated secular law. In these rules and values lay one root of the separation of church and state that eventually emerged in our society.
--David Hall, NYT, on the goodness of the Puritans

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