Old Souls, New World

Marilynne Robinson

Illustration for Old Souls, New World

Illustration by Jörn Kaspuhl

This essay will appear in What Are We Doing Here?, forthcoming from Farrar, Staus and Giroux in February 2018. © 2017 Marilynne Robinson.


The long-prevalent belief that what is proposed as truth or reason can only be credited in the degree that it is consistent with the strata of physical reality by any means available to our experience is mistaken. It is mistaken in its conception of the nature of the physical, and, therefore, in the nature of everything else. It has insisted that what it offers as the sole model of reality is exhaustively pertinent to every meaningful question about reality, dismissing as not meaningful every question to which it is not pertinent. But, for some time now, science has been fetching back strange reports, about the radical apparent discontinuity between volatile reality at the subatomic level and the stolid lawfulness of reality at the scale of our experience, for example. The fathomless anomalies of the infinitesimal present as any ordinary day, any transient thought. We know now that physical being as we experience it is wildly untypical in cosmic terms. Reality as we know it now does not yield or legitimize a narrow or prejudicial vocabulary. Science has given us grounds for a liberating humility. We need not continue to encumber our thinking with strictures it has long since put aside.

We should instead be finding language that is capable, capacious, and responsive. The expectations induced by any fixed approach should be relaxed, in pondering history as surely as in considering human nature or the depths of physical reality. Ideology has been a terrible mistake, theory another one. Both mimic positivism in their stringencies and exclusions. There is no writer, and so on. Why should any given thing have happened? No theory, no convention or prejudice, should take precedence over the fact that, if it did happen, it arose out of the endless complexity of human life, human lives. The Puritan Thomas Shepard, generally credited with founding Harvard, remarked that a man with a wooden leg could trim his foot to fit his shoe, but in the case of a living limb this would not be advisable. Those who think about history should avoid such trimming, since they deal with living flesh, specifically those human swarms whose passage through the world is the sum and substance of history.

We have not yet absorbed the fact that history has fallen into our laps now. We hardly know what it is, let alone what we should do with it. We have been busy destroying the landmarks that might otherwise help us orient ourselves. We have impoverished ourselves of every sense of how, over time, a society emerged that we and most of the world have considered decent and fortunate. Could we save this good order from a present threat? If it collapsed, could we rebuild it? These are real questions.

The stringencies and inadequacies of positivism in all its forms have sent me to the literature of early modern, pre-positivist thought, where its attritions were not yet felt. I have been reading some old sermons and treatises by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English and Anglo-Americans. I have been reading the Puritans. I confess to being drawn to orphan figures, movements, and periods. My reward is in the discovery of their frequently remarkable value and significance. It was no doubt inevitable that I would come finally to the Puritans, among the most effectively dismissed of all historically consequential movements. They are seldom mentioned except as a pernicious influence on our civilization, both early and abiding. Few grounds are offered to support this view of them, and those that are offered are ill-informed. That name “Puritan,” affixed to them polemically, has singled them out for a particular dislike which we have learned to share. Arthur Golding, in the Epistle Dedicatorie to his translation of Calvin’s commentary on Galatians (1574), remarks wistfully that there are those who “are in the eyes of some persons not only to be despised but also blamed; verily as who should say it were a fault to endeavor to be faultless.” It is curious that the desire to live a scrupulous life should be anyone else’s business. And what were the transgressions of which Puritans were particularly aware? Errors in their own thinking. Hypocrisies and idolatries. They are supposed to have frowned upon the joys of life, to have had a special, dark obsession with sexuality, to have hated all things beautiful. None of this is true.

Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans.
US History Images.

There is a strong tradition of piety in Europe, reaching back to the twelfth century at least, that is always denounced in just these terms whenever it becomes visible enough to seem to authorities to pose a challenge. Notably, these groups were the Albigensians or Cathars and the Waldensians in southern France and northern Italy and Spain, the Lollards in England, and after them the English Puritans. The earlier groups were all seen as heretics. They were violently suppressed. The writings of the Cathars were burned, and what records we have of them are testimonies made under torture, so it is difficult to know much about them. We do know that they were the civilization of the troubadour poets and the courts of love. Oddly, they and the other groups were and are all associated with an aversion to sex. Considering the struggles the dominant traditions themselves have had with this aspect of human nature, it is strange that this notion about dissenter groups should serve as an aspersion against them. Nevertheless, it was and is employed consistently and effectively against supposed heresies, despite every change of moral climate. Where the aversion to sexuality is strong, the status of women is generally low, particularly in matters of religion. Albigensian teachers and clergy were male and female indifferently. Lollards denounced priestly celibacy as a disparagement of women. Puritans idealized marriage and educated their daughters. I have looked farther into the matter than most people, and I have found no evidence of special anxiety on this subject, in fact very little mention of it at all. Puritans had a serious interest in sin, and they also had their own definition of it. From what I have seen, the great sin in the Puritan understanding is religious hypocrisy within their own churches and within their own minds—evangelical hypocrisy, in the words of Thomas Shepard. Their rigors were felt inwardly, among themselves and within themselves. Self-scrutiny was mastered as a discipline.

The association of Puritanism with sexual repression in Anglo-American cultural history has significant effects. Any writer who is a little salacious now and then, or who translated Ovid, say, could not have been a Puritan, even though that translator, Arthur Golding, also put many of the Latin and French works of John Calvin into English. In fact, in his preface to Calvin’s commentary on the book of Daniel, Golding says of him: “As I do profess myselfe to be one of his scholers, and do prayse God for the same more than any earthly matter: so do I not of arrogance alter or change any thing in his writings.” Golding was making his translations in the 1570s and 1580s. Since his translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a major source for his plays, there is no reason to assume Shakespeare would not have picked up others of Golding’s books. The commentary on Daniel deals at length with a question of great interest to Shakespeare and his period: what a ruler’s legitimacy consists in, and why and how it can be lost. The imposing of an inappropriate test on the vast literary output of the English Renaissance, which was also the English Reformation and which encompassed the rise of Puritanism, very effectively minimizes the influence of the movement and mischaracterizes its focus, its temper and worldview.

There is a stigma attached to this influential strain of early modern thought that generally forecloses the possibility of interest in it or respectful attention to it. It is no help at all to say Puritans were Calvinists, since every aspersion cast on them is cast on him as well, on no better grounds. These stigmas have created dead zones in British and American historical thought—around Geneva, around the English Civil Wars, around early New England, and even around the English Renaissance, a period celebrated and pondered endlessly—within limits that seem unaccountably narrow unless the power of stigma is taken into account. The influence of Geneva as a republic governed by elected councils, the importance of the English Civil Wars, which, in crucial respects, were a model for the French Revolution, and the formative first century and more of our own civilization all tend to be badly dealt with or effectively ignored. Even great Shakespeare has been caught in these snares.

English Civil War woodcut

“A dialogue, or, Rather a parley betweene Prince Ruperts dogge whose name is Puddle, and Tobies dog whose name is Pepper.” Woodcut from a pamphlet published in early 1643, one year into the English Civil Wars (1642–1651). The image portrays the feather-capped, long-haired, spur-wearing cavaliers (the Royalist supporters of King Charles I and his son Charles II) contrasted with the plain-hatted roundheads (supporters of the Parliament of England). A detailed description of the pamphlet can be found on Nick Poyntz’s blog Mercurius Politicus.


I have been using the word “Puritan” without defining it. There was no church or institution by that name, no membership in any formal sense. The word in England was applied to nonconformist or dissenting Protestants—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and anyone else—who did not accept the legitimacy, or the claims to exclusive legitimacy, of the newly created Church of England. The affinity of these groups is demonstrated in their years of military effectiveness and in their sustaining a parliamentary government for a decade, more or less, until Oliver Cromwell died, leaving no competent successor. Before battle, or when there were important decisions to be made, their soldiers would separate according to their various sects to pray, then come together again to plan or to debate. The unity among them was not untroubled—the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists fought two major battles against each other around the issue of monarchy, which was less acceptable to Congregationalists than to Presbyterians. But over the course of years of warfare, the population did divide along the lines of Puritan or Parliamentarian and Anglican or Royalist. This division justifies the use of terms that by themselves do not do justice to the complexity of either side. The best of the Puritan writers are now claimed for the Anglicans, which can be confusing. But if they were forbidden to preach, jailed, forbidden to come within five miles of a city, or inclined to making long stays in Rotterdam, or if they emigrated to New England or thought about it, it’s safe to say they were Puritans.

The stream of Puritanism that landed in New England and flourished here, and was greatly supplemented by the arrival of refugees fleeing the consequences of the collapse of the revolutionary government and the restoration of monarchy in England, had a highly characteristic intellectual culture. Its theological stronghold was Cambridge University. It was based on the paramount authority of scripture, for them understood as an ancient text in three ancient languages, counting Aramaic. Their clergy were trained in these languages, as well as in Latin, so that they would be competent interpreters of a text that was never definitively rendered in any translation. This by itself marks a great difference between their religious consciousness and that of all our modern supposed literalists. There was a great, treasured difficulty at the center of Puritan culture that enlisted them in the study of history, of antiquity in general, and of the natural sciences, which by their lights gave insight into the nature of God as Creator and as Presence. For all these reasons they needed a Harvard, and a Yale, a Princeton and Dartmouth, a Grinnell and Oberlin and Mount Holyoke, and, while their influence lasted, scores of other schools, private and public. We can and do dismiss this intellectualism as elitist, congratulating ourselves for the distinct modesty of our own aspirations. But the American Puritans maintained a historically high level of literacy in their population. In England and Europe their immediate forebears had struggled and died to create a Bible in English, which could be understood by the unlearned. This became the basis of all later Bibles in English, including the Authorized (King James) Version.

Engraving of Puritans

Hand-colored engraving depicting Puritans about to emigrate from England, 14th century. World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

From the time of Wycliffe forward, England had a population they called the unlearned, who were literate in English or knew someone who was. Learnedness meant competence in Latin and French, later perhaps in Greek and Hebrew. When the press made books relatively cheap, translators made history and theological and classical literature accessible to readers of English, removing an important cultural barrier. Golding omitted Calvin’s occasional brooding over a word in Greek or Hebrew out of consideration for what he called the unlearned reader, assuming at the same time that the reader would be interested in a work of theology. Writers in this period often quote passages in Latin, and then, unfailingly, they translate them. This was the period of the chronicle histories, a narrative of national life which could be read by the literate unlearned. Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s use of translated classics and of histories written in English might be thought of as a part of all this, offering Aeneas and Antony, Edward II and Richard II to audiences avid for a kind of aesthetic and intellectual experience that had always before been closed to them.

The lessons and sermons of Puritan preachers propagated the kind of learning required of their clergy and were printed and circulated in Britain and America. Again, their learnedness might have been welcomed because it was also a breaking down of these same exclusions. Perry Miller describes a Puritan sermon as a “closely knit, carefully reasoned, and solidly organized disquisition.” The preacher “argues his way step by step, inexorably disposing of point after point, quoting Biblical verses, citing authorities, watching for fallacies in logic, drawing upon the sciences for analogies, utilizing any information that seems pertinent.” Miller says, writing in 1939, “[The Puritan preacher] demands a degree of close attention that would seem staggering to modern audiences and is not to be paralleled in modern churches.”1 Or, I would say, in modern universities. The rigor the preacher demanded of himself, like the brilliance Shakespeare allowed himself, reflected confidence in his hearers, and deep respect for them. The pious would take away a meaningful education from their hours in church. There were no women in the universities, but there were women in the pews. In the Wycliffite manner, the Puritan elite worked to close the gap between themselves and people at large.

Woodcut of first worship in New Haven

Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration of Puritans, led by John Davenport, as they celebrate their first Sunday at New Haven, Connecticut, 1630s. North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy Stock Photo.

Let us say that their early culture in America assumed the appropriateness of educating the general population ambitiously. Granted, their instruction was always fundamentally religious, as it would have been anywhere in the Western world. I know that early New England is very usually described as “theocratic.” So is Calvin’s Geneva. What this can have meant at the time, when rulers in England and throughout Europe felt justified in imposing religious conformity by means of the most extreme violence, I have never understood. The norms of the West then certainly made New Englanders liable to practices that we might consider oppressive, though at the moment we seem to be tending away from enlightenment ourselves. Still, the word “theocratic” is applied to them as if tolerance flourished elsewhere and they alone resisted its sweet influence. This is profoundly at odds with history.

Meaningful comparisons are available. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 is largely a list of protections, of citizens of the colony, notably those who are accused or convicted of crimes. It forbids double jeopardy, provides for representation and appeal, and forbids “bodily punishments” that are “inhumane, barbarous or cruel.” It includes protections of women, children, servants, foreigners and strangers, and animals, forbidding “any tyranny or cruelty toward any brute creatures which are usually kept for man’s use.” And it concludes with a list of twelve capital crimes, with the biblical verses cited that permit and/or require this punishment. This code is attributed to the American Puritan minister Nathaniel Ward. It was revised seven years later, in 1648, in the somewhat more pedestrian and punitive Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts.

Dale’s Laws, named for the governor of Virginia in 1611, when the code was approved by the colonial council in England and enacted in that colony, is a very different thing. It begins with a list of infractions to be punished by death, beyond those commanded by Moses, which are there also. These capital offenses include: speaking impiously or maliciously against the Holy Trinity or any of its Persons, blaspheming the name of God a third time, speaking traitorous words against the king’s person or authority, speaking derisively of God’s holy word, being absent three times from twice-daily divine service, stealing from a church, speaking derisively a third time of the king’s council that governed this “pious and Christian plantation,” taking food from a garden, or, surely the most understandable of crimes, running off to the Indians. Newcomers were to present themselves to a minister to give an account of their faith, to be instructed if necessary, and to be flogged each time they failed to submit to instruction. Notably missing from the Virginia laws is the slightest legal protection for people vulnerable to even extreme punishments. Notably missing from the Massachusetts laws are compulsory church attendance and compulsory religious instruction, or laws against disrespect of clergy or of scripture. In other words, these ungodly and unbiblical laws imposed on the Virginians from London were “theocratic” as the word is usually understood. The laws of the Puritans, with their insistence on two or three witnesses in capital cases, their restraints on the severity of punishments, their protections of servants and widows, derive very largely from the Old Testament. The verses that authorize them could as well be cited, as are those that authorize capital punishment. So I suppose these laws might appropriately be called theocratic, if the word were ever used with a little precision.

1641 woodcut

A 1641 woodcut in a tract which shows the godliness of the Puritan, at left, holding his Bible, contrasting with the superstitions preached by William Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury) and his fellow bishops.World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

Severity is so utterly associated with Puritanism that I feel compelled to emphasize my point here. Dale’s Laws are Anglican. The church whose doctrines are enforced in them by flogging is the Church of England. The Puritans and the Church of England were adversaries, within years of engaging as adversaries in two wars that would destroy a larger percentage of the British population than any other war the British have engaged in. So it is with civil wars. In any case, I have learned from my attempts to do them a little historical justice that when I so much as mention harshness or oppression, people will hear the word Puritan, or, possibly, Calvinist. Those who comment on the Massachusetts codes always remark on how closely they anticipate the American Bill of Rights, how modern they are. I’ve gone looking for that English common law they are often supposed to have been based on. Fortescue, More, Coke—no luck at all. Advice would be appreciated. Oddly, there seems never to be any mention of Moses.

Be that as it may. There are problems with the comparison of these two codes. Dale’s Laws is older by a crucial generation or two, pre-Revolutionary, while the Massachusetts laws were formulated during the period of the Commonwealth and rule by Parliament. This fact would have meant both that England was engrossed in its own struggles, giving the colonies new latitude, and that the tendency of society away from the monarchical order would encourage a more local, communitarian ethos. The Laws and Liberties begins: “To our Beloved Brethren and Neighbors the Inhabitants of the Massachusetts.” The preface to Dale’s Laws says that they reflect the king’s interest in advancing “true religion” and “the glory of God.” There is a stated intent to bring the light of the Gospel to those barbarous Indians.

The Virginia colony struggled bitterly, though it was considered to be in a much more favorable location than Massachusetts. It approached starvation and anarchy. This would account in some part for the seemingly desperate severity of these laws. At the same time, the severity of the laws might have stood in the way of any sense of a common interest. Winthrop’s speech on the importance of mutual charity to the survival and success of his settlement appears to have been borne out. Also, there was an unusual degree of consensus among the Massachusetts colonists to support civic order, while Virginia had the advantage and misfortune of a military presence to enforce submission.

Certain peculiarities in the long moment of American Puritanism must be considered. It was, so to speak, a branch that fell from the trunk of Anglo-European civilization during the storms of religious contention and societal disruption. That is to say, it was a culture already formed around certain ideals and practices, and already preoccupied by matters meaningful in the context of the old civilization. The conflicts that severed them were longstanding, a fact which accounts for the maturity and stability of Puritan institutions. New Englanders did not grope for a new social ethos or order. They knew who they were. American Puritanism did not simply come into being ex nihilo, or as if spontaneously generated by the contact of certain somber English persons with a remarkably frigid shore, though history tends to treat it this way. It was in its general outlines an old presence in English life, long suppressed, briefly dominant, then suppressed again. Under Queen Mary particularly, dissenters had fled to Europe, where there were cities, in Germany, France, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Bohemia, and elsewhere, which had already organized themselves in accordance with Reformed social thought and which Reformed English saw as models. Puritanism is an English name for the local expression of a movement that was in fact actively international. The term has been effective in creating the impression that people to whom it was applied were narrow, eccentric, and naïve, though they printed and translated each other’s books, studied and taught in each other’s universities, afforded each other shelter in times of persecution, and fought in each other’s wars, as many English did on behalf of the Dutch Republic. Colonial Puritans traveled to Britain and involved themselves deeply in British affairs, including the Civil War and the Commonwealth government.

Woodcut - burning at stake
“The Burning of Katherine Cawches and her two Daughters in the Isle of Garnsey,” etching from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Circa 1710–67. The British Museum.

The English Puritans were so prone to writing and printing that there is no special difficulty in reconstructing their forgotten history, once one is aware of their forgotten literature. One vast work, highly popular in England and America, is sufficient by itself to demonstrate their understanding of themselves and their origins. This is The Acts and Monuments of the Martyrs, by John Foxe, which covers, in truly incredible detail, the history of the church—in his view the true church—from its earliest origins in the beginning of the Christian era to the time in which Foxe wrote. The true and primitive church, for him, is the dissenting tradition.

This might seem a naïve undertaking. But Foxe’s book is in fact heavily documented, with early treatises in Greek and Latin and their translations, letters to and from popes, disputations on theological subjects which are long dialogues in Latin and then English. Golding, in translating Calvin, uses the word “historiography,” which otherwise I might have considered an anachronism in this context. Foxe’s work, which grew to three huge volumes, is by far the most sophisticated historiography I have encountered—ever, I suppose. Obviously it is not without bias. Nothing of the kind could be. I am in no position to authenticate the hundreds of documents the volumes contain, though I have seen nothing—in the letters of Mary Tudor to her half-brother Edward VI, for example—that is at odds with what I have seen elsewhere. The theological disputations stand on their own, without tendentious interpretations. There is careful attention to the reigns of kings, including those who figure in Shakespeare’s plays. The chronicle histories draw on Foxe. Where in the world all this material could have come from I have no idea. The books were printed, meticulously, by John Day, an important publisher of dissenting works. They are illustrated with engravings famous for their depictions of martyrdoms, and more appropriately famous for their quality. I have read that Foxe’s adherence to the truth has been questioned in some particulars. Clearly, I am the last person in the world to believe in the infallibility of any history. But, granting that there surely are errors in such an enormous work, not to mention questionable assumptions and interpretations, and that it was produced to champion one side in a passionate debate, it can nevertheless tell us a great deal about who the Puritans believed they were and about the legacy they embraced.

Illustration from Foxes Book of Martyrs

“Death of [Archbishop Thomas] Cranmer,” by Joseph Martin Kronheim, a German-born lithographer and wood engraver, 1887, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Puritans felt they were in a line of descent of defenders of an original Christianity, by which they meant those who lived before, or rejected what they took to be historical accretions: the papacy, the Sacrifice of the Mass, transubstantiation and communion in one kind, priestly celibacy and celibacy of women religious, auricular confession, purgatory and prayers for the dead, pilgrimages and crusades, and the use of icons, among them. From what we can know about earlier suppressed movements in England, in all these things they did anticipate the Reformation. Over years and generations there was a furtive traffic in forbidden texts that is demonstrated by the punishments of those found in possession of them.

I will argue that Puritanism in Anglo-American tradition took a distinctive character from a particular constellation of events of the fourteenth century—the brief flourishing of a high literature in English, the Black Death, John Wycliffe’s career as a professor at Oxford, the translation by him or under his influence of the whole Bible from Latin into English, and the rise of Lollardy. I know I am entering contested territory here. It is usual to say that English Protestants retrojected Protestantism onto this moment opportunistically. Protestantism is an inexact word here. Puritanism would be much better. In any case, ideas have origins, and influences are real and constitute a lineage of true legitimacy and importance. Historical figures are historical because they set in motion change they themselves could not anticipate and might not endorse in every particular. These writers whom it is supposedly wrong to regard as Proto-Puritan articulated ideas that could only have shaped Puritanism in the very fact of their appropriation, even if it were granted that there is no more direct relationship among them. I will note here that stigma is again a factor in all this. “Lollard” is usually said to refer to slurred speech, associating this movement with the lower classes. According to the OED, its first meaning is: “A name of contempt given in the 14th c. to certain heretics, who were either followers of Wyclif or held opinions similar to his.” A great part of the work of bad history is done by these terms of contempt. In light of this scorn, it might seem odd that Puritans’ claim to this “heretical” movement should be rejected. But, as it happened, the first great period in English literature was somehow associated with it. Geoffrey Chaucer was, like Wycliffe, a friend of John of Gaunt, uncle to King Richard the Second. William Langland may have been a Lollard himself. John Gower, a friend of Chaucer, was active at the time, writing his odd, didactic poetry. Wycliffe is ranked among these great early writers in English, for his prose. So there is enormous prestige attached to it all, however uneasily.

An interesting and remarkable thing about Lollardy, or Wycliffism, is that the movement had impeccable intellectual origins and, in its early phase, attracted the support of people of rank. This is true at the same time that it was essentially a movement meant to liberate and elevate the impoverished and oppressed by giving them a Bible in their own language as well as sending out poor priests to instruct them in understanding it. John Wycliffe was a man of good family, a scholar, philosopher, and preacher of very high standing, known and admired by the powerful figures of the period, enjoying the loyalty of his colleagues. According to the article about him in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the essence of his teaching was “the immediate dependence of the individual Christian upon God, a relation which needs no mediation of any priest, and to which the very sacraments of the Church, however desirable, are not essentially necessary. . . . [He] divorces the idea of the Church from any connexion with its official or formal constitution, and conceives it as consisting exclusively of the righteous.”2 Radical as all this was at the time, Wycliffe is most remarkable for his having sponsored, at least, the creation of his Bible in English, its first version completed in 1382. To that time, of course, Latin and French were the languages of the upper classes, universities, government, and church. Sigmund Freud called Americans Lollards, intending no compliment. Still, he might have had a point. There was, in New England, a virtual aristocracy of learning and at the same time a commitment to making learning general that structured their institutions—churches, schools, and press. This looks more like Lollardy than like other social order of its time. By comparison, neither public education nor printing were characteristic of the Anglican South, in the colonial period or after it. The high populism of the Wycliffites, who after 1400 were burned for their efforts, their writings burned as well, put knowledge, and therefore autonomy of a kind, into the hands of ordinary people, the peasant, the plowman.

John Wycliffe portrait

Portrait of John Wycliffe by Thomas Kirby, 1827. Balliol College, University Of Oxford.

In 1348 the Black Death had struck England, diminishing the population of laborers so abruptly and severely that those who remained were able to negotiate for better wages or to travel to find better employment. Their standard of living rose, landowners took harsh steps to reverse these gains, and finally, in 1381, a powerful insurrection broke out called the Peasants’ War. Wycliffe and his teachings were blamed for this uprising. That he did inspire it in some degree is not unlikely. He provided a vivid instance of that intuition broadly shared by religions, and at times even by the religious, that human beings are sacred by nature. In this case as in many others, human sanctity is taken to imply basic human equality, or at least a basic right to fairness and respect.

Wycliffe wrote his thoughts on social conditions in language that could be understood by those who suffered under them. And he was furious. He said lords “should know God’s law and study and maintain it, and destroy wrong and maintain poor men in their right to live in rest, peace and charity, and suffer no men [under their authority] to do extortions, beat men, and hold poor men out of right by strength of lordships.” Instead, lords, prelates, and rich men “despise [poor men] and sometime beat them when they ask their pay. And thus lords devour poor mens goods in gluttony and waste and pride, and they perish for [hardship], and hunger and thirst and cold, and their children also; and if their rent be not readily paid . . . they [are] pursued without mercy, though they be never so poor and needy and overcharged with age, feebleness and loss of [possessions] and with many children.” These lords do not help a poor man to his right, “but rather withhold poor men their hire, for which they have spent their flesh and their blood. And so in a manner they eat poor men’s flesh and blood and are man killers. . . . Wherefore God says by the Prophet Isaiah, that such lords are the fellows of thieves and their hands are full of blood.”3

Wycliffe’s writings were seized and burned for more than two centuries, and yet I can read to you from a stout volume of his English works. His tradition never was successfully suppressed. In 1523, when Luther’s writings had begun to appear in England, Bishop Tunstall wrote to Erasmus that “It is no question of pernicious novelty, it is only that new arms are being added to the great band of Wycliffite heretics.”4 The similarity is more than coincidence, since Wycliffe’s Latin writings circulated widely in Europe. If Lollardy was indeed a part of the identity and memory the Puritans brought with them to America, the evidence is clearest in the nature of their spirituality—Lollards said, “Lord, our belief is that thine house is man’s soul.”5

Types of London Tradesmen

These tradesman are preachers in the city of London, 1647.” Broadside in British Museum. Timewatch Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

Another piece of evidence is again a difference between colonial Massachusetts and the colonial South. Even after the Restoration, London seems to have had relatively little interest in New England. The South was another matter. The king, Charles II, commissioned John Locke, of all people, to produce a document called The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, at the time a general name for the South. “Out of his grace and bounty” the king granted these laws so that “we may avoid erecting a numerous democracy.” Presumably this is a comment on the recently ended Commonwealth period, New England, or both. The Constitutions are meant to erect instead a land-based aristocracy with descending ranks of narrowing privilege, a hereditary nobility owning by inheritance land they cannot divide among heirs or otherwise alienate, so that the ranks and orders will remain as they are forever. These ranks have fanciful names: the palatine; beneath him landgraves, from the German; beneath him caziques, from the Haitian. Baronies figure somehow. Seldom mentioned are the leet-men, but conclusions can be drawn. Item 22 specifies that leet-men are subject to their particular lord without appeal, “Nor shall any leet-man or leet-woman have liberty to go off from the land of their particular lord and live anywhere else, without license obtained from their said lord, under hand and seal.” Here is item 23: “All the children of leet-men shall be leet-men, and so to all generations.” This model was not realized, but the fact that the royal government would have been supportive of a colonial neo-feudalism through all the years that passed between Charles II and George III, from 1669 to 1775, can be assumed to have had an effect. In light of this, the distinctiveness, indeed the radicalism, of the Massachusetts codes and social order can be seen as highly intentional. Item 110 of the Carolina Constitutions says, “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever”—in other words, Christian or not. The Massachusetts Liberties says: “There shall never be any bond slavery, villienage, or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawful Captives taken in just warres,” or people who are indentured. These are regrettable exceptions, but the code specifies that “these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require.” Again we see the liberalizing influence of Moses.

Title page of Johbn Eliot's Bible in Algonquin
Eliot Bible, in the Algonquin language, 1663.

With all respect to the great Southerners who contributed so much wisdom and eloquence to independent America, New England had already made a long experiment with liberty and equality—by the standards of the world at the time. The impositions of the royal government being limited in their case, they were relatively free to honor the old Lollard passion for ordinary people—first of all, as any good Wycliffites would do, by providing for their education. When John Eliot made his translation of the Bible into the Algonquin language, published in 1663, he was attempting to do what Wycliffe did when he put it into English.

I have not addressed every accusation made against the Puritans. Many have no basis in fact, or they fail to take into account English and European standards of the time, which very often make their severities seem mild. And the polemic against the Puritans has simply been done to death, a cultural tic which is mindless yet full of consequence because it leaves us without any sense of the origins of elements of our culture that we should be aware of, so that they can be valued and perpetuated, and so that the impetus behind them can be understood. It is true that the laws passed in the Southern colonial assemblies—when they were allowed to meet—were more rational and humane than those imposed on them from London. Still, they are no model for a free society. We need to give the Puritans their due.

New England was a long moment, an accident of history. The earliest immigrants meant to land in Virginia. If they had succeeded, no doubt many things would have been different, for them and for us. That some of them did make it through the first winter in New England and the disasters that followed seems again almost accidental. But they did, and they became a small but growing society. They were very strongly shaped by events, past and present, on the other side of the ocean—the Thirty Years’ War and then the English Civil War and the Commonwealth, and its collapse, which brought a flood of refugees of just the kind to reinforce an identity already formed. This is a singular history. If New England in the nineteenth century did not rise to what we considered—just a few months ago—to be civilized standards in its response to immigration, it is fair to consider the standards of those times, and our own vulnerability to the appeal of nativism—for which, as an exercise in honesty, we should shoulder the blame ourselves. In any case, the influx of people with very different histories, together with the pull of the opening continent, brought the Puritan moment to an end.

This does not mean that its influence has ended. There is still some point in speaking about this country in terms of its Puritan origins. They originated an understanding of law that made it a system of liberties rather than of prohibitions. They educated one another and themselves fervently and wrote and printed with a passion to be expected of people whose ancestors might once have been accused of heresy for knowing the Ten Commandments. We still educate very broadly, though we seem to be forgetting where this impulse came from, that it was at its source a sharing out of the riches of civilization, prompted by that old belief that the mind was meant to be God’s dwelling place. Education was, and I would say it still is, by far the most generous approach that can be made to the mysteries of mind, self, and soul, all of which know themselves as they create themselves. I approach tautology here, but this seems to be in the nature of the subject.

George Whitfield preaching

George Whitefield preaching in Moorfields, London, 1742. North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy Stock Photo.


Recently, I wrote an essay on Jonathan Edwards’s Treatise on the Religious Affections, that is, on the inward experience of religion. I was struck by how suspicious he was of these affections, how prone the religious were—in his opinion, and no doubt in his own experience as well—to self-deception, arrogance, and hypocrisy. By itself, this treatise might read as profound alienation from or disillusionment with his tradition and community. But Edwards provides lengthy footnotes, which cite great Puritan writers of the previous century, most of them English. They and he take the same view of the matter. The discipline of the mind to avoid presumption or any other abuse of the capacity to enjoy the knowledge of God is a great subject among them, before, during, and after their Revolution. So far from expressing alienation, Edwards was invoking classic Puritanism and also carrying the tradition forward. No doubt, his cautionary severity was called up by the passions of the Great Awakening, but he had major authorities ready to hand to second him in his warnings, which address tendencies in the human mind toward self-deception, hypocrisy, and the rest. It would be a crude reading of all this to assume that Puritans must have been more inclined to these faults than the generality of Christians. Since these faults were for them a primary sin, and a cause of sins, they may have managed to be a little less guilty of them than others. In any case, this is an important consequence of their exaltation of the mind and its processes, which had to be used well and scrupulously.

This is not a teaching of popular religion now. It has become commonplace to see those who pose as moralists and as exemplary Christians exposed in some particularly squalid act or practice, and to see them driven back, not by conscience but by exposure, upon the mercy of Jesus, who, it would seem, died to neutralize the consequences of scurrilous behavior. So far as their coreligionists are concerned, they demonstrate the benefits of having been saved, which include using Christ as a strategy of concealment in the first place, with that great mercy always up their sleeves, in case things sometimes get embarrassing. Jonathan Edwards says this about a style of piety flourishing among us now:

As the love and joy of hypocrites, are all from the source of self-love; so it is with their other affections, their sorrow for sin, their humiliation and submission, their religious desires and zeal: everything is as it were paid for beforehand, in God’s highly gratifying their self-love, and their lusts, by making so much of them, and exalting them so highly, as things are in their imagination. ’Tis easy for nature, as corrupt as it is, under a notion of being already some of the highest favorites of heaven, and having a God who does so protect ’em and favor ’em in their sins, to love this imaginary God that suits ’em so well, and to extol him, and submit to him, and to be fierce and zealous for him.6

Far better to have a lively fear of hypocrisy, granting that it is a subtle adversary, an endless temptation, as all those old divines agree, and given the fact that Jesus himself denounced it. From Wycliffe forward, the dignity of the individual was assumed to involve his or her being capable of responsibility for his or her thought and understanding, which meant a serious familiarity with the Bible, and the kind of self-awareness the powerful pious in his time and others so utterly lacked. Faith is as close to, and different from, presumption as virtue is close to, and different from, hypocrisy. These subtleties fascinated the New Englanders, who seem never to have doubted that they were an issue for any mind in any moment.


Rockwell Kent illustration for Moby Dick

Woodcut illustration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick by artist and printmaker Rockwell Kent, 1930.
It has been usual to treat the great school of writers who emerged from American Puritan culture in the nineteenth century as having put aside the constraints of the old faith and stepped into a larger conceptual world. But in fact, the striking kinship among them suggests they found source and stimulus nearer home. Whatever else might be part of a Puritan worldview, the exalted mind is central for them. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson share a fascination with the commonest elements of life as they are mediated and entertained by perception and reflection. The Puritans spoke of their religion as experimental, that is, experiential. Sacredness is realized in the act of attention because reality is communicative and the mind is made—grace assisting exquisite effort—to experience its meaning. Dickinson and Melville propose minds brilliantly critical of their own perceptions, opening a vastness of suggestion in every shortfall, like a Puritan sermon. Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman see through all convenient or dismissive categories to the actual, the vital and essential. In every case their protagonist is the perceiver. The beauty they achieve has the character of acuity rather than refinement. It equalizes. The absence of shrines and rituals and processions that interpreted the world and guided understanding of it in England and Europe reflected a sense of immanence that gave theological meaning to any thing in itself in the moment of perception—a buzzing fly, a blade of grass. The exalted mind could understand the ordinary as visionary, given discipline and desire.

The seventeenth-century English Puritan John Flavel wrote that “the soul of the poorest child is of equal dignity with the soul of Adam.” He said this about a human being: “It is a most astonishing mystery to see heaven and earth married together in one person; the dust of the ground, and an immortal spirit clasping each other with such dear embraces and tender love; such a noble and divine guest to take up its residence within the mean walls of flesh and blood. Alas, how little affinity, and yet what dear affection is found betwixt them!” while breath “sweetly links” them.7 Whitman’s addresses to his soul might have had thought like this behind them. Whitman and any of his contemporaries might have read Flavel. He, or someone of similar mind, might well have come up in a sermon.

Perhaps we have given ourselves lives and expectations that are too small to sustain the customs and institutions the Puritans left to us. Or perhaps we will recover languages that can acknowledge the great mystery and dignity of humankind, which is essential to the best they left us. Harvard Divinity School is the perfect place for such work to be done.



  1. Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (reprint, Belknap Press, 1983; The Macmillan Company, 1939), 67–68.
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., s.v. “Wycliffe, John.”
  3. The English Works of Wyclif Hitherto Unprinted, ed. F. D. Matthew (reprint, Adamant Media Corporation, 2005; published for the Early English Text Society by Trübner & Co., 1880), 234.
  4. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., s.v. “Lollards.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, Religious Affectations, ed. John E. Smith (Yale University Press, 1959), 253.
  7. John Flavel, Pneumatogia: A Treatise of the Soul of Man (1685; Legacy Publications [n.d.]), 38, 18.

Marilynne Robinson is the recipient of a 2012 National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama for “her grace and intelligence in writing.” Her most recent book is The Givenness of Things: Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). She is also the author of Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; Home, winner of the Orange Prize; and Lila, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her first novel, Housekeeping, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

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