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Review: The Puritan Dilemma

Published onMay 06, 2020
Review: The Puritan Dilemma

Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (1958)

By Peter Berard

I read this book due to two of my less popular interests: Puritanism and the American Studies/Consensus School scholars. In many respects, my picture of the former is a product of the latter, and they had some important structural elements in common. Both were institution-builders; both have had oversized impacts on the baseline of American thought and cultural life. Both projected a sort of high-mindedness they meant to catch on with a larger mass of non-intellectuals but were motivated at least in part by the same base motives as everyone else. Neither are particularly cool to talk about these days. With the Puritans, everyone knows (or thinks they do) who they are and disapprove; the Consensus School of American history and the founders of American Studies are best known as foils to more current trends in their fields, to the extent they’re known at all.

I feel stuck with them, in some strange ways. I guess as a New Englander and a student of American history, culture and institutions, I feel a kinship with them. This, despite belonging to groups that can be seen as the opposite of both: the descendant of Catholic and Jewish immigrants on the one hand and an engaged leftist scholar who places conflict, not consensus, at the center of American history on the other. What can I say? You don’t pick your ancestors, and the imprint the Puritans left on New England and that the American Studies founders left on their subject are profound, and I think they influence more than just me – I’m just willing to cop to it.

Edmund Morgan, one of the great American historians, is a cusp case, as far as the Consensus School/American Studies gestalt is concerned. His flagship book, American Freedom, American Slavery, broke with the school (in the mid-seventies, when it was in decline anyway) by placing slavery at the center of early American history. But in the fifties, he seems to have resided pretty soundly in the Consensus school of his mentor Perry Miller, if The Puritan Dilemma is any evidence.

For those unfamiliar (are any still hanging around reading this?), the Consensus school of American history held that, as the name suggests, consensus over liberal values (as understood by midcentury white upper-middle-class Americans) defined American history, and specifically not conflict over ideology, power or anything else. It was a reaction against both the youthful leftism many of its founders dabbled in during the 1930s and a school of thought exemplified by Charles Beard and others who placed a populism-inflected vision of class conflict at the center of American history. This movement reached its peak during and was mutually influenced by and influential on the founding of American Studies as a field, with American Studies’ stated goal of advancing a unitary American civilization to protect against the threat of right- but mostly left-wing extremism. There’s a reason they’re not cool anymore.

Morgan’s The Puritan Dilemma hits a lot of the Consensus school buttons. It’s wrong to say that the Consensus historians saw no conflict in American history — just that most of it was over ownership of a few key ideological constants, like what constitutes freedom. So Morgan illustrates numerous conflicts that his subject, first Governor of Puritan Massachusetts John Winthrop, managed during his time. In keeping with the Consensus school, Winthrop, who represents a future for America and the values of its founding, wins most of these conflicts, though he makes the occasional tragic misstep. Another Consensus school flag is the use of biography (another uncool thing in contemporary historiography). The big Consensus school work that’s still read sometimes is Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition, in which a series of pocket biographies of American political figures who either did or would have hated each other’s guts are brought into harmony over the key aspects of liberalism. The Puritan Dilemma, written ten years later, projects much the same dynamic backwards into the far colonial past. Winthrop’s foils and opponents in this biography — mainly Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams — represent not so much opposition to Winthrop and Puritanism’s central project but it’s being taken too far in assorted directions. This emphasis on a personal character that prizes practicality and compromise over vision and consistency is very Consensus school.

This can make The Puritan Dilemma something of a just-so story, which, if it were less well-executed and consistent, would have ruined the book and might still ruin it for some readers. Winthrop was born into comfortable countryside circumstances in England in the 1580s (he died well before the Salem witch trials — he and Morgan both dodged a reputational bullet there). The dilemma he and the Puritans were constantly faced with was how to make a good society in a world they saw as fundamentally bad. Maybe that’s why I relate to them: unlike a lot of other leftists, I don’t see the world as fundamentally good. I see it as fundamentally indifferent . . . anyway. Especially given the Puritan fixation on the afterlife — and unlike other Christians, they couldn’t influence which afterlife they got — the quandaries of worldly action presented themselves in stark terms. This was intensified by the degree of education and theological sophistication at work, to say nothing of the blank social slate with which the Puritans found themselves presented.

At every stage, Morgan shows Winthrop as being faced with a choice between retreat from and engagement with the world. At every stage, Winthrop makes the right choice. This pretty much always means engagement. The one exception was a biggie: his retreat from England to Massachusetts, where he was sorely tempted to stay and fight for Puritan values at home. But this was an out-of-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation — a retreat to an even more intensive variety of engagement in problems ranging from the immediately practical (food) to the theological.

In Massachusetts, Winthrop depicts Morgan as a bulwark of stolid good sense, a George Washington (as Washington was then conceived) figure, a practical unifier who is surrounded, more than Washington was, by crazed ideologues. Winthrop recognized when to push and when to pull back – he made the Massachusetts covenant considerably more democratic (involving freeman suffrage, that is, suffrage for ordinary church — which was the same as community — members) than he had to according to his orders from the Massachusetts Bay Company, Morgan argues. This is also an ingenious way to explain away what looks a lot like oppression and abuse of power on the part of Winthrop and the power structure he represented. He knew the way to go — others did not. Winthrop giveth, Winthrop taketh away (the sort of remark that’d get my tongue pulled out in 17th century Massachusetts).

“History is written by the winners,” they say, but by the twentieth century the winners in early Massachusetts’s theological-cum-political conflicts, like Winthrop, weren’t that popular, and figures of opposition like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams had been made over into patron saints of freedom of religion. To support their exile is a bold move, one Morgan makes with aplomb (which isn’t to say I agree with him). He depicts — reasonably persuasively, but fanaticism in Puritan Massachusetts sounds like speeding at the Indianapolis 500 — Hutchinson and Williams as fanatics whose beliefs were dangerous to the commonwealth. Antinomianism, a la Hutchinson, was corrosive to public welfare in its dismissal of all good works and implication that law had no bearing on those imbued with the Holy Spirit. Separatism, a la Roger Williams, threatened the political unity of the commonwealth, threatening to split every congregation from every other, as exemplified by Williams eventually refusing to believe in the grace of anyone other than himself and his wife.

There’s a lot to debate here. Separatism did prove a boon to religious liberty, and the collapse predicted didn’t seem to strike Rhode Island. Antinomianism wasn’t threatening the social order so much as Hutchinson’s position as a woman questioning men, and even Morgan grants that Hutchinson ran intellectual rings around Winthrop. But still — Winthrop won, he founded the New England way of reconciling faith and world, and this was all for the best in this best of all possible Americas, Morgan heavily implies.

Needless to say, I don’t agree with much of this. But Morgan wielded a beautiful pen, a real sense for the storytelling behind the subject matter, and the book held my interest the way few recently have. At this point, my review threatens to be longer than the book — this is no hefty life-and-times biography, it makes its point in fewer than two hundred pages. In all, between my weird interests, Morgan’s capabilities as a writer and a historian, and my determination not to make my rating system an ideological test, I can’t but give this book my highest rating, for holding my attention rapt and making me think a lot. Your mileage may vary — but I still think both the Puritans and the Consensus School might have more to do with you than you might think.


Peter Berard is a historian, writer and organizer. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts. Read more of Peter’s book reviews on his blog, Too Much Berard.

_Image: “Chinese Lion Guarding Korean Tea Cupboard_,” photograph by Rebecca Pyle

Rebecca Pyle’s work is available in William and Mary Review, The New School’s LIT magazine, JuxtaProse, National Poetry Review, Belletrist and Chattahoochee Review.

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