Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Puritan Democrats?

When a group of pioneers writes down charters and laws for their new government, they inadvertently set down for all time their understanding of human nature, of how society works, and of their own values. The New England puritans did the same thing when they set up shop (governmentally speaking) in 1630. Though they were still technically under the authority of the King of England, they didn't have any royal authorities tagging along with them on the voyage -- no surprise there, given how often colonies failed -- so they could run things pretty much as they pleased.

The government of Massachusetts Bay is often described as a "theocracy" -- literally, "rule by God," but practically, rule by the ministers, or rule according to religious standards. This is because only male church members could vote and hold office, and ministers were among the most influential men in the colony. But if we take another look at this system and judge it by seventeenth-century standards, another picture begins to emerge. Far from some kind of religious dictatorship, the puritans set up what was likely the most representative government in the world at that time.

We have to deal with some of our biases first. First of all, the male-only voting thing: women could not vote or hold office anywhere. They could not vote in England or in any of the colonies. So we don't want to hold the puritans to standards that did not yet exist by criticizing them for not enfranchising their women. But the suffrage picture in this era was even bleaker than that. In England (or anywhere), not even all men could vote or hold office. These were privileges, not rights. You had to attain to a certain standing in society -- usually, you had to own a certain amount of land or have a certain income -- in order to participate politically in society. This made perfect sense in a society that believed that government should come from the Best Men -- the men of superior social standing, or at the very least the ones who had shown they had the smarts and talent to succeed financially. No one believed in democracy, except maybe a few crackpots.

The puritans chose a different standard by which to determine who could hold political power. Ever distrustful of human nature, ever aware that anyone with political power could be tempted to use it corruptly, they put their trust in the place where God dwelled -- the hearts and minds of His chosen people. Christians, in other words. Church members. Could they be corrupted? Sure. Would some be? Of course. Puritans had no illusions about the potential darkness of the human heart. But it was the best of the available choices.

So how many men in Massachusetts Bay were church members? In those early years, almost all of them. They came to escape an aggressive king and maybe coming judgment from God on England, and passion for God was high. We don't know for sure, but likely over 80% of men who were of age were church members and therefore eligible to vote and hold office. This was a far higher percentage than back home in England, or in Virginia, their colonial neighbor to the south.

And those early puritan leaders did not have to do this. The charter on which they based their government -- the charter they got from the king, that they had to have before they could leave -- gave the ruling committee authority to retain the power in their own hands. They chose not to do so. Instead, they opened it up to everyone.

It was a smart move, as well. They were a long way from royal authority, and settlers always are more cooperative with the local strongmen if they have a stake in the system. Even worldly Virginia, which was motivated by profits and not Protestantism, found that out.

The puritans also kept a political rein on their ministers. If you were an ordained minister, you could not hold political office. Back in England, these people had suffered at the hands of bishops with political power who used it against them. That was not going to happen in New England.

We don't want to go too far with this line of reasoning and say, "And from thence sprang American democracy!" It sprang not from thence. The story is a little more complicated than that. The puritans were not democrats. They were themselves: ardent 17th-century Christians, seeking to live out the Bible, and struggling to determine how to do that on the template of laws and charters.

For the above insights I am indebted to Edmund Morgan's fine book, The Puritan Dilemma. And thank you, Dr. Breen, for assigning it way back in that colonial history class. As a brief, well-written history of the puritan migration, there is no better.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

How Pure Were the Puritans?

How pure did you have to be to be a puritan? Just how did they practice their faith?

I pointed out in my last post that "puritan" referred to their desire to "purify" the Anglican Church of all Catholic influence. It did not mean that they were ascetics or kill-joys. HL Mencken once defined puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." No, no, no, people. Puritans definitely took a more serious view on life, but they -- well, they had their jolly side, too.

Take partying. Puritans loved good food and good drink. They were not teetotalers; Prohibition came via crusades in the nineteenth century, not the seventeenth. These guys were not Victorians -- they were Elizabethans (plus a generation) and had no ethical problems with tipping a mug. They lived in a hard-drinking age, too; the bar bills for events like weddings and even ordinations is impressive. Now, they were firmly opposed to drunkenness; that would bring you to the attention of the authorities. But drinking itself? It would not have occurred to a puritan to not drink.

It would have also been almost impossible to abstain, as well. Beer was the standard drink for all meals, for all members of the family, since the water was often contaminated. Rum was more of a man's drink, but everyone drank beer, even at breakfast. Coffee and tea did not make their appearance until around the 1660s.

But it was the food that they really loved. Puritans were always cautious about enjoying the pleasures of the world -- they knew how easily they could go from enjoyment to an excess that pulled their heart's devotion from God. But it seems that they worried less about the dangers of really enjoying food. Some of the most voluminous diarists of the New England puritans devoted pages to describing feasts. They observed days of fasting and prayer, but they also involved days of giving thanks -- and like our Thanksgiving, those days involved lots of food.

Now, if we picture a group of puritans at a party, with a plate in one hand and a rum punch in the other, can you really imagine they would be solemn and stern? Of course not; such things don't go together. I would guess that a puritan party never got to "raucous." Standards of behavior still applied. But was it fun? Did they laugh and relax? Sure.

Puritans were also huge supporters of marriage. It was the medieval Catholics, not the Protestant puritans, who glorified celibacy. Like all Protestants of their century; puritans defined themselves away from Catholics sharply on this subject. Marriage was ordained by God, they said; that is clear in the very first chapters of the Bible. It was meant to provide children, but it was also for the comfort and support of both husband and wife. Married sex was not simply for procreation; it was one of God's good gifts to humanity. Now, I suspect that even in the bounds of marriage, there were certain boundaries that puritan couples observed. But in affectionate, loving marriages -- and there were many of them in New England -- likely the bed was not cold.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Those Puritanical Puritans

Yessirree, folks, it's time to talk about just what a "puritan" is. As you see above, Anne Bradstreet was a "puritan poet," but what does that mean? She was super-religious? She never drank and thought sex was icky?

Would she have been someone you'd want to go out to coffee with, or was she one of those people who would spend the whole time obliquely critiquing your every word?

Puritanism was a religious movement in seventeenth-century England, so a "puritan" was a variety of English Christian, like a Pentecostal would be today. Puritanism came about as a result of the rather unsatisfactory way in which the English Reformation unfolded.

King Henry VIII wanted a divorce, and the Catholic Church would not grant it, so he divorced his nation from the Catholic Church instead. And so England became a Protestant nation, following in the steps of other nations in northern Europe. Now: the Reformation in those other European nations -- in places like Germany and Switzerland -- was at its heart a deep evaluation what Christianity was really all about, and how it should be properly practiced. It resulted in churches that operated much differently than the Catholic church. But Henry VIII wan't that into church reform. He just wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, and have some sons -- and maybe get ahold of some of that prime church land, and make some reform-minded (but powerful) clergy happy. The church he founded -- the Anglican Church -- was very Catholic in its services and structure. And some folk in England thought that was a problem.

It was too Catholic. It was full of practices that had no basis in the Bible. The cry of the Reformation was "sola scriptura" -- Scripture alone. Many in England called for the "purification" of the English church of all Catholic influences, of all practices and doctrine that do not have their source in the Bible. In time, those who set themselves to that task were given the name "puritan." It was a derogatory name even then, given by their critics. Puritans called themselves "nonconformists."

So this was not a geezer's movement, not a movement of geriatric church-goers railing against modern life. This was a young man's movement, and a young woman's movement. It was full of zeal and passion. It was an educated person's movement. Certain universities were hotbeds of puritanism. You would send your son to college he might come home a white-hot puritan, and you'd be about as thrilled as more modern parents were when their college kids came home anarchists, or flower children, or Packers' fans.

None of this answers our question about Anne's drinking habits, but we'll get there. One last note, though: I intentionally do not capitalize the word, "puritan" for a reason: it was a movement, not a denomination or a statement of doctrine. Within its borders was a general agreement on certain important issues, but there was disagreement and variety in the ranks as well. Hopefully you're getting that from my clever use of the lower-case.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I take it all back

I take it all back.

Awhile ago, I posted something to the tune of, a historical novelist's job is so cool because, where a regular historian has to just shrug and say, "we don't know the details about this or that," a novelist can gleefully fill in the blanks about events or people in the past. And so -- here I am. Pen in hand, I prepare to fill in the blanks on Anne Bradstreet -- her marriage, perhaps, or her opinion about the other women around her. But then my inner historian starts screaming.


Historians record history -- sort of. We assemble whatever is left over from a life or a place or an era, and try to make a coherent whole out of it. We don't like to consider the possibility that much, too much, has been lost -- hidden, destroyed, or deemed not worth saving, Instead we build with what we have, hoping (but never sure) that it gives us a true picture. We make leaps to connect the dots, connect the spaces between firm evidence, but we try to leap cautiously. We back our extrapolations as well as we can -- with material evidence, logic, science, the cultural background -- so there is reason to suspect that This Is How It Was.

But we would never invent a girl's birthday. We'd never say her smallpox scars were on her cheeks and chin but not her forehead unless we knew. But if I'm going to write a novel about Anne, I have to do that, and it really bothers me -- or at least, it bothers my Inner Historian. And I have to go further. I have to (for instance) invent out of whole cloth her mother's personality, because we know almost nothing about her, except that she was a model wife and mother (yawn).

And I have to decide what her relationship with her father was. Likely he was one of her mentors in her craft as a poet, but Thomas Dudley was an irascible, difficult man as well. Was his relationship with his daughter a great exception in his life -- here he was nurturing? Or was their relationship more tumultuous? It's my call.

Folks, this is going to be hard for me. It's going to take grit to override my Inner Historian and fill in these blanks in ways that simply please, or that tell a better story. I feel like I'm not being true to History, or to Anne. But if I want to tell a story, instead of write a biography -- this is the task.


My work on Anne Bradstreet has slowed recently. I have been trying to get very familiar with Stuart England (or Early Modern England, as it is so poetically called), so I understand Anne's context. I've plowed through a couple of tomes, but wonder if I've learned anything useful to my purposes. My kids are home for the summer, and I'm teaching a couple of courses at a local university, which limits my time. My students don't realize that if they post a comment to this blog, I'll give them a few extra credit points.