The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
III. The Puritan Divines, 16201720
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 1. Puritans and Politics
NEW ENGLAND Puritanism—like the greater movement of which it was so characteristic an offshoot—is one of the fascinating puzzles in the history of the English people. It phrased its aspirations in so strange a dialect, and interpreted its programme in such esoteric terms, that it appears almost like an alien episode in the records of a practical race. No other phase of Anglo-Saxon civilization seems so singularly remote from every-day reality, so little leavened by natural human impulses and promptings. Certain generations of Englishmen, seemingly for no sufficient reason, yielded their intellects to a rigid system of dogmatic theology, and surrendered their freedom to the letter of the Hebrew Scriptures; and in endeavouring to conform their institutions as well as their daily actions to self-imposed authorities, they produced a social order that fills with amazement other generations of Englishmen who have broken with that order. Strange, perverted, scarce intelligible beings those old Puritans seem to us—mere crabbed theologians disputing endlessly over Calvinistic dogma, or chilling the marrow of honest men and women with their tales of hell-fire. And we should be inclined to dismiss them as curious eccentricities were it not for the amazing fact that those old preachers were not mere accidents or by-products, but the very heart and passion of the times. If they were listened to gladly, it was because they uttered what many were thinking; if they were followed through tribulation and sacrifice by multitudes, it was because the way which they pointed out seemed to the best intelligence of their hearers the divinely approved path, which, if faithfully followed, must lead society out of the present welter of sin and misery and misrule into a nobler state. For the moment religion and statecraft were merged in the thought of Englishmen; and it was because the Puritan ministers were statesmen as well as theologians—the political quite as much as the religious leaders—that the difficult task of social guidance rested for those generations with the divines. How they conducted themselves in that serious business, what account they rendered of their stewardship, becomes therefore a question which the historian may not neglect.