Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
What and Who were the Puritans?
By Leonard Bacon (18021881)
[Born in Detroit, Mich., 1802. Died in New Haven, Conn., 1881. Thirteen Historical Discourses. 1839.]
THERE are those whose ideas of the Puritans are derived only from such authorities as Butlers Hudibras, Scotts romances, and similar fictions. There are those, still more unfortunate, who form their opinion of the character of the Puritans from what they read in such works as that most unscrupulous and malicious of lying narratives, Peters History of Connecticut. With persons whose historical knowledge is of this description, it would be a waste of time to argue. But those who know anything of the history of England may easily disabuse themselves of vulgar prejudices against the Puritans.
What were the Puritans? The prejudices which have been infused into so many minds from the light, popular literature of England since the restoration, are ready to answer. The Puritans!everybody knows what they were;an enthusiastic religious sect, distinguished by peculiarities of dress and language, enemies of learning, haters of refinement and all social enjoyments, low-bred fanatics, crop-eared rebels, a rabble of roundheads, whose preachers were cobblers and tinkers, ever turning their optics in upon their own inward light, and waging fierce war upon mince pies and plum puddings. It was easy for the courtiers of King Charles II., when the men of what they called the Grand Rebellion had gone from the scene of action, thus to make themselves merry with misrepresentations of the Puritans, and to laugh at the wit of Butler and of South; but their fathers laughed not, when, in many a field of conflict, the chivalry of England skipped like lambs, and proud banners rich with Norman heraldry, and emblazoned with bearings that had been stars of victory at Cressy and at Poictiers, were trailed in dust before the roundhead regiments of Cromwell.
What were the Puritans? Let sober history answer. They were a great religious and political party, in a country and in an age in which every mans religion was a matter of political regulation. They were in their day the reforming party in the church and state of England. They were a party including, like all other great parties, religious or political, a great variety of character, and men of all conditions in society. There were noblemen among them, and there were peasants; but the bulk of the party was in the middling classes, the classes which the progress of commerce and civilization, and free thought, had created between the degraded peasantry and the corrupt aristocracy. The strong holds of the party were in the great commercial towns, and especially among the merchants and tradesmen of the metropolis. There were doubtless some hypocrites among them, and some men of unsettled opinions, and some of loose morals, and some actuated by no higher sentiment than party spirit; but the party as a whole was characterized by a devoted love of country, by strict and stern morality, by hearty, fervent piety, and by the strongest attachment to sound, evangelical doctrines. There were ignorant men among them, and weak men; but comparing the two parties as masses, theirs was the intelligent and thinking party. There were among them some men of low ambition, some of a restless, envious, levelling temper, some of narrow views; but the party as a whole was the patriotic party, it stood for popular rights, for the liberties of England, for law against prerogative, for the doctrine that kings and magistrates were made for the people, and not the people for kingsministers for the Church, and not the Church for ministers.
Who were the Puritans? Enemies of learning did you say? You have heard of Lightfoot, second in scholarship to no other man, whose researches into all sorts of lore are even at this day the great storehouse from which the most learned and renowned commentators, not of England and America only, but of Germany, derive no insignificant portion of their learning. Lightfoot was a Puritan. You may have heard of Theophilus Gale, whose works have never yet been surpassed for minute and laborious investigation into the sources of all the wisdom of the Gentiles. Gale was a Puritan. You may have heard of Owen, the fame of whose learning, not less than of his genius and his skill, filled all Europe, and constrained the most determined enemies of him, and of his party, to pay him the profoundest deference. Owen was, among divines, the very head and captain of the Puritans. You may have heard of Selden, the jurist, the universal scholar, whose learning was in his day, and is even at this day, the glory of the English nation. Selden was a Puritan. Strange that such men should have been identified with the enemies of learning.
The Puritans triumphed for a while. They beat down not only the prelacy, but the peerage, and the throne. And what did they do with the universities? The universities were indeed revolutionized by commissioners from the Puritan Parliament; and all who were enemies to the Commonwealth of England, as then established, were turned out of the seats of instruction and government. But were the revenues of the universities confiscated?their halls given up to pillage?their libraries scattered and destroyed? Never were the universities of England better regulated, never did they better answer the legitimate ends of such institutions, than when they were under the control of the Puritans.
Who were the Puritans? Enemies, did you say, of literature and refinement? What is the most resplendent name in the literature of England? Name that most illustrious of poets, who for magnificence of imagination, for grandeur of thought, for purity, beauty, and tenderness of sentiment, for harmony of numbers, for power and felicity of language, stands without a rival. Milton was a Puritan.
Who were the low-bred fanatics, the crop-eared rebels, the rabble of roundheads? Name that purest patriot whose name stands brightest and most honored in the history of English liberty, and whose example is ever the star of guidance and of hope, to all who resist usurped authority. Hampden was a Puritan,associate with Pym in the eloquence that swayed the Parliament and fulmind over England, comrade in arms with Cromwell, and shedding his blood upon the battlefield.
But their preachers were cobblers and tinkers! Were they indeed? Well, and what were Christs apostles? One tinker I remember, among the preachers of that age, and of that great partythough not, in the most proper meaning of the word, a Puritan; and what name is more worthy of a place among the names of the elected fishermen of Galilee, than the name of Bunyan? That tinker, shut up in Bedford jail for the crime of preaching, saw there with the eye of faith and genius visions only less divine than those which were revealed to his namesake in Patmos. His Pilgrims Progress lives in all the languages of Christendom, among the most immortal of the works of human genius. Would that all preachers were gifted like that tinker Bunyan!
But the Puritan preachers cannot be characterized as illiterate, or as men who had been trained to mechanical employments. They were men from the universities, skilled in the learning of the age, and well equipped for the work of preaching. Never has England seen a more illustrious company of preachers than when Baxter, Owen, Bates, Charnock, Howe, and two thousand others of inferior attainments indeed, but of kindred spirit, labored in the pulpits of the establishment. Never has any ministry in the Church of England done more, in the same time, and under similar disadvantages, for the advancement of the people in the knowledge of Christian truth, and in the practice of Christian piety, than was done by the ministry of the Puritans. Whence came the best and most famous of those books of devotion, and of experimental and practical piety, which have so enriched our language, and by which the authors preach to all generations. The Saints Rest, the Call to the Unconverted, the Blessedness of the Righteous, the Living Temple, these, and other works like these, which have been the means of leading thousands to God the eternal fountain, are the works of Puritan preachers.
Let me not be considered as maintaining that the Puritans were faultless or infallible. I know they had faults, great faults. I know they fell into serious errors. By their errors and faults, the great cause which their virtue so earnestly espoused, and their valor so strongly defended, was wrecked and almost ruined. But dearly did they pay. in disappointment, in persecution, in many sufferings, in the contempt which was heaped upon them by the infatuated people they had vainly struggled to emancipate, the penalty of their faults and errors. And richly have their posterity, inhabiting both hemispheres, enjoyed, in well-ordered liberty, in the diffusion of knowledge, and in the saving influences of pure Christianity, the purchase of their sufferings, the reward of their virtues and their valor.