I’ve read only one of Marilynne Robinson’s novels (Gilead) and didn’t warm up to it, but I enormously respect her work at the intersection of art and spiritual longing. Her recent essay in the New York Review of Books, “Which Way to the City on a Hill?” is a defense of Puritanism, and has forced me to confront how little I know of seventeenth century American history. (English history too, for that matter.)
My junior high and high school American history lessons started with the colonies at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown. Except for whistle stops at the Salem witch trials and the French and Indian War, we then skipped 140 years, to the stirrings of rebellion against King George. “The first third of our national life is a virtual blank,” Robinson laconically observes.
Yet that first third of our national life shaped our national identity.
On July 2, 1630, the Puritan leader John Winthrop gave an electrifying sermon outlining his vision for America. It was shorter than this blog post. He titled it “A Model of Christian Charity,” and it begins (archaic spellings and punctuation eliminated):
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities . . .
The expectation that those with more would ungrudgingly give to those with less, called liberality, was based in both the Old and New Testaments. See, for example, Leviticus 25:35, Deuteronomy 15:7–11, Acts 4:32–35, and 1 John 3:17, along with Jesus’s reminder that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” in Matthew 25:40.
Yet this principle, essential to Puritanism from its earliest roots in fourteenth-century Lollardism, has been forgotten thanks to the prevailing perception of Puritans as mirthless sexual prudes — and to modern politicians’ emphasis on the self-flattering “City on a Hill” metaphor in Winthrop’s sermon.
The Puritan commitment to liberality lasted well into the eighteenth century. In high school I had to read Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which established him as America’s first fire-and-brimstone preacher. But Edwards also wrote “Christian Charity, or The Duty of Charity to the Poor, Explained and Enforced.” Its point is that “‘Tis the most absolute and indispensable duty of a people of God to give bountifully and willingly for the supply of the wants of the needy.”
Think about that. It would be like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and Joel Osteen (theological pipsqueaks compared to Edwards) reminding their colossal flocks that “even a heathen like Karl Marx understood that each gives according to his ability to each according to his needs, so why do we let billionaires float around on hundred-foot yachts while so many of you can’t pay your rent?”
The answer, sadly, is that the property rights fundamentalists prevailed and co-opted Christianity. When the Royalists (“Cavaliers”) defeated Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans (“Roundheads”) after the English Civil War of the mid-1600s, they revived not just the monarchy, but Britain’s repressive Poor Laws. Although many British Puritans fled to America, they eventually lost here too, as evidenced by Mike Pence’s clenched jaw through his recent visit to holding pens for migrants — and my own ignorance of the Puritans’ economic values until now.
I read tons of insightful essays, but only rarely do I come across one that changes my long-settled views of a subject. I am deeply grateful to Robinson for showing that “Puritanism was a reformist political movement, not merely militant impatience with the popish practices of the Anglican Church.” I look forward to reading more of her work.