The following post is part of a series of drafts on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.
As I’ve indicated, the phrase “self-made man” has its problems in the twenty-first century United States. But even its critics know what it means (or is supposed to mean). In the seventeenth century, by contrast – the century in which the foundations for a distinctively American identity were laid – the concept would be superficially comprehensible, but nonsensical, to almost anyone who heard it, akin to suggesting that dogs are responsible for the economic welfare. (God makes men. Who else could?) If one were explain the idea behind the self-made man to a colonial American, particularly in seventeenth century New England, its implications would be so blasphemous as to merit possible criminal action by church and even government authorities. And yet, insofar as the phrase did eventually make sense in the centuries that followed, its intellectual contours took shape in the seventeenth century. And, notwithstanding its plurality of meanings – I’ll be looking a somewhat different version of the idea in colonial America in the next chapter – those origins are, in a fundamental sense, theological.
To understand why, we need to go back to that pivotal event in Western civilization, the Protestant Reformation. As we were all taught at one time or another, a precipitating grievance involved the use of papal indulgences, in which the severity of penance for confessed sin was mitigated by some form of payment charged by church officials. One reason why we were all taught this is that it rankles in a way even a child can understand: it’s unfair for the rich to buy their way out of punishment simply by virtue of their wealth. But the more specifically religious objection, one articulated by Protestant lights such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, focused on the idea that only God, not man, was in a position to decide upon and dispense salvation.
This was sixteenth century common sense, even if like, later forms of common sense (such as the proposition that bankers cannot really be trusted to regulate themselves), it had been overlooked or explained away. But now, for reasons that even after centuries of reasoned analysis remain a little mysterious, a relatively large number of people, with motives that varied from spiritual commitment to economic calculation, decided the offense would be ignored no longer. Of course, there were also a lot of people who, while not necessarily inclined to defend indulgences, did not feel such questionable practices justified a break with the Church of Rome. Sometimes that disinclination was passive. Other times it was so powerful as to trigger a counteroffensive (in the form of Jesuits, inquisitions, armies) that resulted in century of bloody conflict.
One person who decided to make a break with the Church, for reasons that were largely opportunistic, was King Henry VIII of England. As the story goes, he was angry over being denied his request for an annulment that would allow him to remarry and produce a legitimate male heir. (As his advisers pointed out, there were also the rents from church lands that would become his once he confiscated them.) In England, as elsewhere, this decision provoked widespread conflict, and there, as elsewhere, it aroused passions sufficient to lead people to kill each other in the name of Christ. When, after a protracted struggle, Henry’s (second) daughter Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, she shrewdly decided to steer a middle course. Yes, she affirmed, England would remain Protestant. But her interests in saying so were less religious than political: it was stability she cared about. As such, she was as tough, even tougher, on die-hard reformers as she was on closet Catholics, among them, it was widely believed, James I, the distant relative of Scotland’s Stuart family she chose to succeed her, which he did in 1603.
From a twenty-first century standpoint, the religious intensity of the Anglo-American world between 1600 and 1700 is truly astounding. (After coming across so many references to the Pope as “the whore of Babylon,” I’ve concluded this was not an act of hyperbole or sarcasm but a deeply ingrained reflex on the part of people who have done a very good job of refining their hatred.) Of course, there have been religious fanatics in all times and places, along with times and places where religion, while almost always important, has not really been at the center of social conflict or intellectual innovation. But in terms of sheer intensity, and a willingness to accept real-world consequences of allowing abstract theological ideas to shape everyday life, this epoch strikes me as pretty high up on an imagined scale.
One reason I say so is the sheer variety of religiosity at the time. Henry VIII created the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church, which we today know as the Episcopal Church, a name that refers to the way bishops are organized. But the Church of England was regarded by some as a cheap knock-off of the Catholic Church, a perception that can be traced back to the reasons for its creation. (To this day Anglicans and Catholics are doctrinally close, notwithstanding the liberal wing of the former’s acceptance of female clergy and homosexuality.) As a result, a series of now-obscure splinter groups proliferated: Brownists, Gortonists, Diggers, Barrowists, et. al. These factions had strong social, intellectual and personal connections with religious dissidents on the continent. Their doctrinal ideas have a tendency to make the casual reader’s eyes glaze over, much in the way that adolescent distinctions between specific sub-varieties of obscure music amount to the narcissism of small differences. But there’s no doubt that these dissidents took those differences seriously, to the point of willingness to risk arrest, imprisonment and execution for being real and perceived challenges to social order.
A second striking aspect of this religious culture is its ridiculously messianic quality: so many of these people believed that England – England! – was to be the site of a coming new world order. Why would a small, relatively insignificant island-state on the edge of Europe be God’s chosen vessel of redemption? Yes, England had been the home of the fourteenth century anticlerical writer John Wycliffe, a.k.a. “the morning star of the Reformation.” Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, a heretical act in an era when reading, much less interpreting, scripture was considered the exclusive Latin-educated experts. His followers were known as Lollards (a derogatory term suggesting idiocy or laziness). But to an outsider, then or since, such hardly seems the stuff of a sturdy foundation for England as the site of the next Zion.
Actually, by the early seventeenth century some of the most committed Protestant dissidents had also come to the conclusion that England was not likely to be Zion, particularly because they were subject to political pressure from James I, who famously vowed to “harry them out of the land.” That’s why a group of them left England altogether and settled first in Amsterdam and then the Dutch city of Leiden, neither of which they found satisfactory. They were looking for the freedom to worship God as they saw fit, which, among other things, meant rejecting the self-evident corruptions they saw around them, whether in the form of crypto-Catholic practices of the Anglican Church – which they formally abandoned, and were thus known as “Separatists” – or what they considered the turpitude of the Dutch, whose tolerance of religious diversity was less a matter of moral principle than appalling indifference. These Pilgrims, as they were also known, made there way across the ocean to the place they named after their hometown of Plymouth in 1620. They were followed a decade later by another group of dissidents – albeit dissidents who did not renounce their ties to the Church of England, which they still hoped to reform – who founded Massachusetts Bay.
Which brings us to the third, and most striking, thing about these dissidents: how far, literally and figuratively, they were willing to go for their beliefs. The word used to describe them, once fairly broad, but which gradually focused on the founders of Massachusetts Bay, was “Puritan.” It was not meant to be flattering. “We call you Puritans, not because you are purer than other men . . . but because you think yourselves to be purer,” wrote an English clergyman early in the century. Ever since, Puritanism has been considered a byword for sanctimony.
There are many reasons why this was true in the context of their world, but the most important for our purposes goes back to this crucial notion that God, and God alone, shapes the destiny of humankind. Even the Pope himself – officially designated the Antichrist with the ratification of the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1646* – would assent to this as a general proposition. But like the signatories of Westminster Confession (mostly Anglican and Presbyterian, a Scottish branch of Puritanism), the Pilgrims and Puritans were Calvinists. At the core of John Calvin’s theology was a special insistence that the salvation or damnation of an individual soul was known to God, but unknown to that individual, from birth, and that such people were powerless to affect their fate beyond acknowledging the force of the irresistible grace that might be conferred upon them. It’s why, for example, they did not celebrate Christmas, or rejected papist ornamentation in their churches. Such affections were symptomatic of a pagan notion that men could in any way replicate a reality whose prerogative was God’s alone.
These practices were indeed radical when compared with most of their contemporaries on either side of the ocean. But – and this is a crucial point, especially when considering the eventual emergence of the self-made man – these early settlers of the region that became known as New England had a strong pragmatic streak that governed their behavior. God alone knows, and God alone decides. The man you think of as a saint may really be a sinner; the woman you consider a sinner may really be a saint. But someone has to be in charge, if for no other reason than sheer survival in a forbidding wilderness in which they were surrounded by any number of natural and supernatural forces of evil. Their necessarily communitarian enterprise relied on leadership, both religious and civic, to execute one of the more daring resettlement projects of human history.
You may wonder: Why did they do it? If they had no control over their fate, if they could never know if their efforts would matter, then what was the point of going through all that trouble? The characteristic reaction of most modern-day people when presented with Calvinistic logic is: Well, hell, then – let’s party hard. But that’s not the way Calvinists thought about it. Simply put, it was hard to believe that such an approach was going to get you into heaven. Sure, it might, but in the meantime you’ve got to live with yourself. And it’s easier to live with yourself thinking that your inclinations are those of God, and insofar as you have to guess what they are, a life of dissipation seems like the least plausible scenario. It’s possible to view the entire colossal enterprise of founding a new society in a forbidding wilderness on the other side of the world as a collective attempt to escape the distracting question of whether or not you’re among the damned or not. (And, once you’ve done that, to establish a modern economy, as Max Weber persuasively theorized in his 1918 book The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.)
In any event, the Pilgrims and Puritans had made some loopholes for themselves, as human beings tend to do whenever they impose rules on themselves. One was the doctrine of preparationism, whereby a spirit of humility, a desire to confess one’s sins, and a willingness to listen hard to the yearnings of conscience might – might – indicate sanctification, allowing one to experience the joy of incipient salvation (and, if convincing enough in one’s testimony, to be accepted as a member of a church). There was also the so-called Halfway Covenant, in which the children and grandchildren of church members could be provisionally accepted into the church pending later persuasive testimony of an authentic conversion experience. Through such strategies, the Pilgrims and Puritans found ways to grapple with the profoundly challenging tenets of their faith over the course of multiple generations.
Here’s the rub: a number of Puritans vocally opposed such measures. There were, for example, many critics of the Halfway Covenant; Yale College was founded in 1701 as an alternative to Harvard by explicitly rejecting it the training of its ministers. But long before that ever happened, a series of opponents to any compromise in Pilgrim and Puritan theology insisted on taking their doctrines to their logical conclusion. In the process of doing so, they revealed the individualism at the heart of the New England enterprise and pointed the way toward the emergence of a recognizable self-made man.
Next: Roger Williams, orthodox rebel
*Other Anglo-American denominations signed on the Westminister Confession later in the century. The Pope lost his Antichrist status in the United States – officially, anyway – with revisions to the document in 1789. He would reacquire it – unofficially, anyway – with the rising tide of Irish immigration a half-century later.