In which we see there are few things more powerful, or dangerous, than the force of an idea
—So what are we doing today, Mr. K?
I thought we’d spend some more time among the wackos of Massachusetts Bay, Chris.
—Them again? Why?
I find them interesting.
Sure there are. But I think the Puritans are important to what the United States eventually became. That’s not an especially fashionable view these days, but I still believe it’s true.
—But aren’t there other people we could talk about?
Again: sure there are. And we will talk about them, just as I’ve asked you to read about them. But I’m going to exercise my teacher’s prerogative here and go a little deeper with the Puritans not only because I believe they’re important, but also because I happen to like them.
—You like them?
Well, Chris, what I think it comes down to is that the Puritans really dramatize what it means to try to live a life grounded in ideas, which, you won’t be surprised, is a notion a guy like me would have a soft spot for.
—You? Ideas? Go figure.
I know, Emily: shocking. As we’ve discussed—as I think you would know even if we never did discuss it—most people live most of their lives most of the time based on their interests, as they understand them. We have to. Even people who want to live their lives by the force of an idea have to reckon with all kinds of realities; the Puritans certainly did, with often fascinating results. Take, for example, Roger Williams.
—He was in the reading, Jonah, you idiot.
As you know (or, should I say, as you know, Ethan) the Puritans were dissidents. But Williams was a dissident of the dissidents. Which, in a way, was probably inevitable—once you start telling people they don’t have to go along with the majority, they’re likely to splinter in different directions, as the history of the Reformation shows. Dissidents (and, especially, dissidents of dissents) tend to be disagreeable people, almost by definition. And yet even people who disagreed with Williams tended to admire him even as they worried about the implications of his ideas. For example, he Williams had a somewhat unpleasant opinion that New Englanders should not occupy territory without the permission of local Indians. Even more controversial was were his reservations about having to worship among those who whose souls he regarded as insufficiently committed to Christ. After generating arguments in Boston, Plymouth and the northern settlement of Salem, he fled—warned by the very governor whose job it was to prosecute him that he better get of of Massachusetts—Williams founded the new settlement of Rhode Island. You have a question, Kylie?
—I don’t really understand what the problem was with Williams.
—Isn’t it obvious? If they had to ask the Indians’ opinion they’d have to leave. They couldn’t afford to ask.
Well, there is something to that, Ethan. But asking for the Indians opinion was a notion that was probably considered a little too ridiculous to take seriously. The bigger problem with Williams was that he in effect was more Puritan than the Puritans. Actually, the word “Puritan” began as something of a slur: “We call you Puritans, not because you are purer, but because you think yourselves purer,” a critic once said of them. Which brings us to what is surely the greatest Puritan paradox of all: their strangely disciplined fervor, coupled with an insistent refusal to accept the notion that one could be an agent of one’s own salvation. The Puritans were one of a number of Protestant sects who believed individuals could not know if they were among the few souls who would be saved and go to heaven. They lived lives of existential doubt, hoping they would be among the elect. This uncertainty could cut two ways: the seemingly saintly minister could be damned, while the town drunk might in fact be among the Chosen. This is part of what worried Williams so much: he didn’t want to worship with people who might be contaminated. He belonged, in effect, to a congregation of one.
—We studied this a little last year. But it still seems crazy to me.
How so, Kylie?
—Well, if you don’t know whether you’re saved or damned, then why try at all? Why not just say, ‘I’ll do what I want, since it won’t make any difference?’
A fair question. The thing you have to understand is that very thought—“I’ll do what I want”—is not something you do want to think about yourself. You’re hoping you’re among the saved. Saying you don’t care is not what saved people typically think.
—Who knows what saved people think?
You’ve got a point there. But consider this as a matter of logic: if you’re fretting about your fate, does “Party Hearty” strike you as a hopeful life philosophy?
—I guess. But why did they ever make the trip? I understand not wanting to think bad thoughts, even if you have them. But why go through all this trouble when it might all be for nothing?
Another fair question, and the very reason why I say the Puritans were a people of paradoxes and that this is the greatest paradox of all. But in a sense, you’ve got nothing better to do. Here you are living your life in constant anxiety while you wait to learn your fate. Doing something feels better than doing nothing. It’s here we have the roots of what the German sociologist Max Weber later described as the Puritan Work Ethic. There’s an old saying: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
—Sounds pretty grim to me.
Well, a lot of people would agree with you. But the thing about the Puritans was that they were living by the force of an idea. It gave a drama to their lives.
Let me give you another example of a dissident among the dissidents—though she would say that the Puritans authorities were the real dissidents, the betrayers of the cause. Her name was Anne Hutchinson. Hutchinson was even more insistent that Williams, and she gathered people at her house on Sunday afternoons talking about how you couldn’t really trust authority figures, because for all you knew any one of them could be Satan himself. She was hauled into a hearing to talk about it, and amid some close questioning was asked why anyone should trust her. Hutchinson replied that God himself had spoken to her. A real no-no. Tried for her heretical views, she was banished from the colony.
—Probably because she was a woman.
Well, Emily, that surely had something to do with it. Williams got off more lightly than Hutchinson did. A of people have seen her as an early feminist martyr. But her theological doctrines were dangerously anarchic in a colony whose stability, even survival, was very much in question. Encouraging people to defy authority at a time when you’re a fragile colony surrounded by Indians who really wish you would just go away doesn’t seem like an especially good strategy for survival. After a sojourn in Rhode Island, Hutchinson ended up among the Dutch in New York, where she was killed by Indians near the site of a highway, built during the heritage-minded 1930s, that now bears her name. Some people surely thought she got her just desserts.
—I still think it was because she was a woman.
A reasonable conclusion. But here I’ll note that the majority of church members in New England—subject to an often intense vetting process—were women. Hutchinson may have been persecuted because she was a woman, but that persecution was also a function of her considerable following: where else were the opinions of women taken so seriously? Fifty-five years later, the Salem Witch Trials would be triggered because men actually listened to agitated girls.
—That does sound amazing.
Touché, Em. But allow me to now that while Hutchinson was a victim of Puritanism, but she was a product of it, too. And she also demonstrated its practical limits, frightening the authorities into tacking back toward their instinctive pragmatism. Ideas are great. But there are only so many you can take.
—I couldn’t agree more, Mr. K. Look at the clock.
Next: (Female) rebel with a clause