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BOOKS NOVEMBER 23, 2011

Puritan Inc.

Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History
by Nick Bunker
Knopf, 512 pp., $30

IN OUR DAYS we have a new scene of superstitious impostors and heretics,” declared the scholastic Robert Burton, about the fierce English Calvinists skeptical of the Anglican compromise and known by a series of sobriquets in the unruly Englands of Elizabeth and James. They referred to themselves as “the Godly,” but were called by others less charitable “the precise;” another epithet was “Brownist,” after Robert “Troublechurch” Browne, an early charismatic leader. They were known also as Separatists, for their sporadic opposition to the Anglican church, became known as Puritans, for their theological severity, and later still as Pilgrims, in recognition of the Atlantic journey that their theology seemed to require of them, and that brought to the fertile soil of mercantilist America the ascetic seedlings of our vast middle-classness. “Of those men I may conclude generally,” Burton wrote in 1621, a year after the sailing of the Mayflower, “that howsoever they may seem to be discreet, and men of understanding in other matters…they are like comets, round in all places but where they blaze.”

As Burton observed in his vast and eclectic The Anatomy of Melancholy, a chapter of which was devoted to spiritual despair, “We may say of these peculiar sects, their religion takes away not spirits only, but wit and judgment. They are certainly far gone with melancholy, if not quite mad, and have more need of physic than many a man that keeps his bed, more need of hellebore than those that are in Bedlam.” 

King James was no more sympathetic, Nick Bunker reports in his lively book, a kind of amateur historical picaresque. He called the Puritans, in Bunker’s words, “rash, brainsick, and heady, vain, proud, and pharisaical, ungrateful, fanatical, seditious, and conceited”—worse, he said, than cattle thieves, they were “very pestes in the Churche & common-weale.” He wanted them out.

Bunker’s book is haphazard history, and among its many diverting asides is an engaging disquisition on the political science of early modern Europe, which owed perhaps less to the political thought of pragmatists such as Machiavelli than to the “science” of esotericists such as Burton, and Paracelsians such as Joseph du Chesne of France and the Swiss-born English physician Theodore Turqet de Mayerne, whose role at court involved advising their monarchs as much on the body politic as on the body itself. Their Paracelsian worldview—which emphasized the harmony between the individual and his natural environment, and the balance within him of the “essences” salt, sulfur, and mercury—prospered in the early modern court, in which monarchy was understood to be a form of natural order extending from the body of the king. It would have had particular appeal to King James, whose ragged history of poor health Bunker relates in an especially riveting passage—from a childhood sickness that prevented him from walking before age six to arthritis and kidney disease in adulthood.

For the monarch, sickness was not simply a private or a personal concern, it was a  royal one—an affair of state. James described himself in at least one impassioned tract as “the proper Phisician” of his kingdom, “with a duty to cure it from disease.” And he wasn’t just talking about the things we now know as public health, as Bunker makes clear. To James, “Puritans were sediments, dregs, or dross, by-products of an alembic malfunction in the organs of the body-politic,” Bunker writes, and the king disdained them “because he wished to defend the hygiene of the realm.”

And yet the dissident Puritans were anything but foreign bodies in the unruly Britain of the long and often bloody English reformation. Religious tumult was more or less their natural habitat, and compared with the remaining English Catholics they were in fact quite closely aligned with the established church. The far bigger problem for the Anglican kingdom was not Calvinist agitation but Catholic resistance. As recently as the “Northern Rising” of 1569, Catholic insurgents had taken up arms against the monarchy, and the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate the king had been staged—and bungled—in 1605. The royal response was quite clear: as the British historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has shown, between 1581 and 1590, seventy-eight priests and twenty-five Catholic laypeople were executed for treason; between 1590 and 1603, it was eighty-eight Catholics; between 1601 and 1680, it was at least seventy more priests.

The agitation by Puritans was perhaps no less visible, and though their disputes with the Anglican establishment occasionally turned violent—in 1593 three Separatists were executed for sedition, and in the decade that followed some eighty clergymen were dismissed for refusing to embrace the Book of Common Prayer—these were violent bursts in a sibling rivalry conducted largely under one roof. Under Elizabeth, the Archbishop of Canterbury had been a vocal Puritan, opposed by the “Romish” queen, and in 1611 James would appoint a similarly fierce Calvinist to the same preeminent diocese. In the England of James and his successor Charles, religious dissent was not a splinter concern but a general condition. When John Winthrop sailed for America in 1630, confirming New England as a religious refuge for disaffected Calvinists, Parliament was only a single session away from delivering a Puritan fanatic to the throne.

Those same years were crucial ones in the early life of the Plymouth colony, and it is in his close study of the commercial fortunes of the pilgrims that Bunker, a former investment banker and financial journalist, here following the lead of Bernard Bailyn, means to distinguish himself as an economic historian. (He is considerably less incisive about Puritan theology, and though he devotes many florid pages to the natural landscapes of sixteenth-century England and seventeenth-century America, those passages serve ultimately as reminders that the Romantic mode in narrative history is perhaps less a product of Victorian style than of missing archival material.)

“This condition of New England society in 1630,” Bailyn wrote in his great early study of the colonial merchants, “was the result not of the will and intentions of successful colonizers but of a series of failures that stemmed from misconceptions of the economic possibilities of the region.” The central misconception, Bailyn argued, was that the natural wealth of the American interior could be extracted at the shoreline, as it could in Asia, where trading forts sufficed to quickly exploit whole empires. The men who made up the earliest settlements in New England, including a failed outpost of the Virginia Company at Popham in present-day Maine, were not expected or trained to cultivate the land or penetrate the interior—and so they did not do so. A full century after the establishment of New Spain, New England was hardly more than a small fleet of fishing ships that trawled the north Atlantic coast, and a full decade after its founding the Plymouth colony remained a “tiny corn-growing settlement wedged between the forest and the sea.” Half of the early migrants “simply faded and died.”

The New Plymouth colony was not a commune, Bunker reminds us, but a common stock company—and one that accumulated heavy losses over its first decade, disappointing the London investors who had funded the voyage and the colony, with a financial contract called an “adventure.” “Adventure” is a gentle word for the experience of those who had made the Mayflower journey in 1620. By 1623, the Pilgrims were selling their clothes and bedding for food, and some of them were abandoning their cluster of huts to forage along the seashore for clams and groundnuts. Others hired themselves as servants to local Indians. In his enduring account of those years, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, compared the struggling settlers “to the sinful Israelites who ignored the law of Moses and turned to idolatry and fornication, suffering death as a result.” The situation was desperate; the settlement had become what Bunker calls a “squalid failure”—but success lay just around the corner, or more precisely inland and upriver, in the form of the North American beaver.

First seen in Paris in 1577, beaver hats from the New World reached London in the early 1580s and became very quickly objects of a commodity fetishism unseen elsewhere in the age of Elizabeth—“an item as essential to the dignity of rank as a crown and scepter were to medieval monarchs.” (Hats made from beavers native to Europe and particularly Russia had been terrifically desirable among the European royalty of the late medieval world, but by 1450 the continental population had been entirely eradicated.) Beaver fur was smooth, soft, and naturally waterproof, thanks to a creamy lubrication excreted from the animal’s anus, and “no other colonial product fetched so high a price, in Paris, in London, or in Holland.”

“From the very first they fascinated those who saw them,” Bunker writes, and “in an age obsessed with rank and degree, the beaver hat’s adaptability gave it a special appeal.” As prince, Charles bought sixty-four beaver hats in 1618, fifty-seven in 1619, forty-six in 1623, and forty-three in 1624.  “Half the history of England in this period can be found written on the surface of felt hats,” Bunker remarks, with typical enthusiasm. During the 1620s the price of a beaver pelt quadrupled, reaching a peak of forty shillings—enough to rent nine acres of English farmland for a full year. By the mid-1630s, a single beaver hat cost five pounds, more than double the price of fifteen years before. In 1628, more than thirteen hundred pelts from North American beavers arrived in England, and at the peak of the trade in the 1630s, the pilgrims were delivering more than two thousand skins annually. A corner had been turned: the Pilgrims were rich.

But how had that happened? The turnaround in colonial fortunes was quick and decisive—especially quick in Bunker’s excited telling—but it was far from inevitable. What distinguished the Mayflower pilgrims from their Virginia cousins, and what explains their special willingness to penetrate the new continent in search of game, Bunker writes, was not theology so much as genealogy. To be sure, the Puritans possessed what Bunker calls an “evangelical superego,” but they also possessed an unusual and unacknowledged degree of comfort with precisely the kinds of problems, and precisely the kinds of possibilities, posed by the untamed landscape of the New World—comfort that had developed on the other side of the Atlantic. When Miles Standish led an early beaver expedition up the Mystic River, he “already knew a kind of terrain that he saw in replica along the shores of Massachusetts Bay.” The New England wilderness was familiar to the Pilgrims, Bunker says—“a game-filled land that echoed on a vastly larger scale the semi-wilderness they knew in the land of their birth.”

That country was Robin Hood country: ninety square miles of reluctant land just north of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, which Bunker provocatively calls the “Pilgrim Quadrilateral.” Many of the Mayflower pilgrims came, in fact, from East Anglia, but the leaders of the expedition—and several significant Separatist leaders who did not make the voyage—hailed from dissident Nottinghamshire, and it is a central contention of Making Haste that the nature of that landscape and its people was imprinted on the character and outcome of the New England experiment.

The Quadrilateral was a vestige of “old, feral England,” Bunker observes, not yet domesticated and very far from urbane—dotted with small villages and beset by familiar episodes of rural turmoil. Poaching was endemic, and farmers and landowners competed with bands of hunters and gatherers, and quarreled themselves over rank and status in what Bunker calls, memorably, “the foggy mezzanine between the lower reaches of the gentry and the upper ranks of the yeomanry.” Personal vendettas were common, and often grew into elaborate provincial feuds, including a pitched 1593 battle between rivals armed with swords and pikes on the banks of the Trent. The region was “a frontier of sort,” Bunker writes, “where life was arduous and the rewards were small.”

Income was indeed erratic, and prosperity seemed insecure even when attained. (Between 1500 and 1620—the long century that contained the entire history of Calvinist separatism in England—the income of the average English laborer fell by more than half, while in the Quadrilateral farm rents increased by a third in the single decade after 1594.) Sickness was a constant scourge, and in the parishes of the Quadrilateral, the Separatist John Smythe wrote, were found “infinite sorts of sinners…adulterers, Theeves, Murtherers, Witches, Conjurers, Usurers, Atheists, Swaggerers, Drunkards, Blasphemers.” It was indeed an ungodly community, Bunker agrees, suggesting that the Puritans left perhaps less because they felt persecuted by a hostile monarchy than because they were disgusted by the behavior of their neighbors—and their countrymen. They weren’t fleeing England, they were repudiating it.

And yet they carried with them, Bunker points out, a very British sense of merchant superiority. Those who led the Mayflower expedition were not the lowly farmers of shabby Nottinghamshire, scratching out a meager living from unforgiving land, but those who looked down on them with newfound disdain—the “self-employed craftsmen and shopkeepers,” the small landowners and proto-industrialists, “the nouveaux riches of rural England.” They did not thrive in wide-open America because their theology implied entrepreneurial acumen, but because they arrived there as entrepreneurs already. Though Bunker acknowledges that “Calvinist zeal was far more important than any other single factor in bringing about the creation of New England,” the success of the colony once established, he argues, was the result of more terrestrial factors. By the time the Puritans reached American shores, their theology was much less important than their enterprising character.

Bunker’s book is devoted to the premise that we distort the Pilgrims in our conventional historical accounts, which presents them as embryonic Americans rather than as expatriate British. But in emphasizing their rugged entrepreneurship, Bunker makes the same mistake himself, reading a capitalistic American afterlife into the chaotic experience at Plymouth—and indeed all the way back into the “frontier” of the Pilgrim quadrilateral. The fur trade may have secured the fate of the colony--a story told more authoritatively in Eric Jay Dolin's "Fur, Fortune, and Empire"--but, as Bunker himself allows, the Puritan success with pelts was improvised and inadvertent, and the beaver boom that buoyed Plymouth fortunes lasted only ten years. When it ended, the original Pilgrims and the “Great Migration” greenhorns who had followed them “blundered” into cattle ranching, and found themselves already settled on land — the salt marsh wetlands of coastal Massachusetts—remarkably well-suited to the undertaking. The Pilgrims may have been entrepreneurs—in Scrooby, at Boston—but the success of their colony was not entirely an entrepreneurial one. They got a little help from providence, too.

The unfortunate emphasis in Making Haste on pilgrim entrepreneurship, and its pointed disinterest in Calvinist theology, is telling, and natural enough. Though the United States remains in some sense a Christian nation—churchgoing, evangelical, exceptionalist—the strange theology of our Puritan forebears is far more foreign to us, and far more difficult to reckon with, than their scuffling pre-market mercantilism. American religion was not really invented until the nineteenth century, and the expansive denominations that emerged, largely on the frontier, in that Second Great Awakening represent perhaps as profound and complete a repudiation of the Puritans' early modern Protestantism as that Protestantism had been a rejection of the establishment Catholicism that governed Europe in the centuries before Luther. In the severe Mayflower Calvinism of William Bradford and his Plymouth pilgrims, predestination was an inscrutable covenant, piety a gratuity from fear and trembling, and prayer an expression of desperate agnosticism. In the inviting creed of the new American religions, whose triumphal culture we still inhabit today, salvation was there for the taking. All one had to do was claim it.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we are running some previous reviews about American history. This piece originally ran on July 8, 2010.

David Wallace-Wells is the literary editor of New York.

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