The Puritan Tradition

by Kenneth White | March 11, 1931

The Puritan Mind
by Herbert Wallace Schneider,
New York: Henry Holt and Company. 301 pages. $4.

The most positive indigenous tradition we have to contemplate in America is the Puritan tradition. It was never a pure, newly sprung tradition even in its early glory; for European religious and political problems bulked too large in its inheritance. In the later and middle periods what uniqueness it had acquired on American soil was lost through contact with business growth and the pioneer tradition. To speak of the pioneer tradition is, of course, to speak an inaccuracy: the pioneer mode of life was an inarticulated, non-critical, forced habit. The relics left us by the pioneer—the tall tales, the hearty vocabulary, the elaborately rude manners—were by-products; they expressed merely; they did not solidify. The other intangible results—the supposed individualism, the derring-do—have had their positive effects on the legal, even the economic, history of this country. But there is only a vague trace of them in our actualized intellectual history. If the pioneer had vanished instead of settling, we should no more consider him a portion of our history, apart from ordinary detail, than we do the Indian. The same would never have been true of the Puritan tradition.

When that tradition congealed, there remained an enormous literature. And when the tradition was alive, the literature of Puritanism was the soul of its ecclesiastical body and the blood of its political veins. As literature, it was primely critical; it was, almost painfully, intellectual and self-conscious. Even the Puritan novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Mr. Schneider in his excellent study considers under the head of "Ungodly Puritans," was a critical novelist. His best novels do not stand as monuments which can be considered apart from the age, as the more magnificent literatures of other countries can be considered apart from the ages they only occasionally commemorate; his novels are instead the specific explication of a rigorous mental and emotional attitude toward life, of a hierarchical positive tradition.

It is to Mr. Schneider's credit that he makes clear Benjamin Franklin's position in relation to Puritanism. Perhaps he oversimplifies the urbane utilitarian; but at least he shows that Franklin was not simply a copy-book moralist, and that his code of ethics, though profoundly shifting the emphasis, is at once a direct criticism and a reestablishment of the Puritan ethic. Franklin is open to the accusation that he justified the virtues and morals of the market place. But the market place was full of Puritans and had been for some time. The Puritan dedication of his soul to God and of his mind and body to the counting house may seem to us a contradiction. This, however, is a romanticizing of our free-thinking and of our failure to understand the deep-reaching theological sense of history which informed his life.

For, first of all, a religion is a theory of history. It may be as erroneous as any other. All the controversies, political and ecdesiastic, that are so well and so thoroughly related in Mr. Schneider's study were interpretations for the Puritans not of mere dogmas, but of man's actual concrete history and function in this world, in Boston, in South Hadley. If their historical conception had not been so vigorous, the Great Awakening would never have taken place; sin and damnation were as much a part of history as the discovery of America. These matters seem remote from us only because religion is no longer, whatever else it may be, an inclusive, valid theory of history.

For a mind like Jonathan Edwards', religion was the warp and woof of all events. His emphasis upon damnation was not the emphasis of the present raving evangelist; it was the emphasis a statesman might give to an imminent national catastrophe. His intellect dealt with pressing events; and his preoccupation was no more strange than that of St. Jerome or Nicholas of Cusa. They happened to be greater men and lived in an atmosphere which was not so completely preoccupied with them as New England was with Edward's attention to it.

Edwards was no mental dwarf. He read Locke and, without reading Berkeley, derived Berkeley's conclusions from Locke's premises. He reversed Plato's notion and discovered that "Space is God." He wrote, in his later years, a treatise on the Beautiful which, in its firm neo-Platonic strain, demonstrates incidentally that Puritanism was more rigorous, more pervasive as a doctrine than Plotinus', only because the atmosphere into which it was projected was thinner, more select, and soaked up Puritanism's color more readily. It was a thin time in a way, and monotonous; it congealed the more quickly because of this.

If events had been such that the pioneer activity and business had not eventually sapped and drained the energy of Puritanism and emphasized another course of history, the tradition might have gone on developing; and so admirably planned a book as Mr. Schneider's could not have been written. What he has demonstrated, in his readable, sometimes witty and always impartial account of the intellectual times of the Puritans, is that their critical intensity laid the first foundations of intellectual life in this country.

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