Every year, Americans remind themselves of the Pilgrims. Children in school don black costumes, buckled hats and shoes, or wampum and feathers to reenact that most national of American holidays. Yet, the rosy glow that once surrounded the telling of our first Thanksgiving has clouded as the legacy of these Puritan founders has been blamed for some of the worst in America’s history: our brutal treatment of the natives, the shortcomings of the Protestant work ethic, even America’s hypocritical attitudes towards sexuality (the latter a flaw more attributable to the Victorians than to 17th century Elizabethans).
My life changed dramatically when I discovered that my father’s family were descended from the Puritans who left England for religious reasons to settle in Massachusetts. As a Californian, I knew nothing of my father’s deeper ancestry or of anything that linked me to New England, so I was surprised to learn -- through a chance meeting with a 10th cousin -- that my ancestor was a Yorkshire shoemaker who left his native land along with his entire congregation in 1638. Inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots and the genealogical work of African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, I began to study “my” people more seriously and unwittingly became one of their staunchest defenders.
“Puritan” was originally a derisive term aimed at a group of reformers who wanted England’s church and society to further purify itself of idolatry and corruption subsequent to Henry VIII’s break-up with the Vatican. As the Puritans met resistance and scorn, they formed their own sects. Their charismatic preachers were hounded and tossed in jail and congregations took to hiding in secret. They were radicals. They wanted changes in how their church and government treated them. They were innately anti-authoritarian, communal, and visionary when many of their Old World countrymen just wanted calm after decades of strife and war. Only strong beliefs in their ability to recreate themselves and their society could have sustained them through subsequent years.
Their life-transforming mission, undertaken in devout seriousness, drew on principles of self-determination and resilience. Their sermons, letters, journals and poems attest to rigorous self-examination and an inherent optimism in their ability to create change. They came to America between 1620 and 1640 in order to establish ideal communities that would encourage every soul to bloom. But they encountered what it means to be both human and angel, flesh, blood and soul. It is an awesome thing to set high standards for oneself and one’s community.
In some ways, they were America’s first great failures – their experiment in New England only lasted 50 to 70 years. Intense fractures over theological interpretation and how to create “godly” communities resulted in heresies and expulsions; innocents were tried as “witches” and tensions between commercial, political, and religious interests led to further splintering and spiritual exhaustion. By the late 18th century, the Puritan movement survived mostly as a vestige in remnant churches and homesteads though many of their values continued to underpin a nascent American culture.
Perhaps it is only because I discovered my connection to these people that I came to be their rally girl. These were not the rugged individualists of America’s later frontier stories. These all-in founders insisted on civic participation, education, and strong local government; they were not above challenging their leaders. They believed in interdependence, cooperation, a relatively advanced egalitarianism, and resourcefulness. Marilyn Robinson, author of a study on Puritan thought in The Death of Adam, notes it was not in the aristocratic, deist culture of the South where the abolitionist movement first took root, but rather in the north where citizens felt an urgency of purpose about shaping society.