The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 2. Puritanism as Jacobean Radicalism
It was to set up a Kingdom of God on earth that the Puritan leaders came to America; and the phrase should enlighten us concerning their deeper purpose. But no sooner was their work well under way than the conception of a kingdom of God tended to merge in the newer conception of a commonwealth of Christ, and this in turn found itself confronted by the still newer conception of a commonwealth of free citizens; and it is the painful wrestling with these changing ideals, with all that was implied in each to the several classes and institutions of society, that gives historical significance to the crabbed writings of the New England divines. As political thinkers they inherited a wealth of political speculation, accumulated during more than a hundred years of extraordinary intellectual activity; and if we would understand the matter as well as the manner of their disputations, we must put ourselves to the trouble of translating the obsolute phraseology into modern equivalents, and conceive of Puritanism as the expression of current English radicalism. It was the English beginning of the great modern social readjustment which goes under the name of the democratic revolution; and its total history, covering a long period of a hundred and forty years, constitutes a noble chapter in the struggle for human freedom. If the evolution of modern society falls into two broad phases, the disintegration of the old caste society into free citizens, and the regrouping the free citizens into a new social democracy, the significance of Puritanism becomes clear—it was a disruptive force that served to destroy the cohension of the ancient caste solidarity resolving society into its individual members. It was the rebellion of the many against the overlordship of the few; a rebellion that proposed to coerce the freedom of men by the law of God alone; a challenge of existing institutions and regnant philosophies, which if successful could not fail to bring about profound social changes.