Review- Miller, “The New England Mind”

Perry Miller, “The New England Mind” Vols I and II (1939-1953) – Someone on Perry Miller’s Wikipedia entry dug up a quote from an obscure essay about another topic altogether to claim that “the dark conflicts of the Puritan mind eroded his own mental stability.” Miller drank himself to death in 1963, not yet sixty years old, and the event was hailed as a major loss to American intellectual history. He produced many books but “The New England Mind,” his two volume work on the intellectual world of the Puritan settlers, probably stands as his magnum opus.

Miller’s work here has the thoroughgoingness of the Puritan, and his radicality, in the sense of getting to the root of things. He spends hundreds of pages on foundation work, most notably in the first volume, where he excavates the logical, scholastic framework of the thinking of the first generation of Puritan leaders in New England. We hear a lot about the medieval scholastic tradition, with which the Puritans tinkered but did not dispense with until everyone else did, and a whole lot about Peter Ramus, the French Huguenot logician who sought to displace Aristotle as king shit logician man. As you might be able to tell from my levity, these chapters took some digesting on my part, but the spadework was spectacular.

The picture of the Puritans that emerges from the first volume is that of a deeply dour kind of cosmic optimist. They finagled their way out of the terrible strictures of Calvinism through the establishment of the Covenant of Grace. This was the idea that God, despite being empowered to and justified in arbitrarily damning and saving whoever He pleases, condescends to make a pact with his believers in the same way men of business (as so many Puritans were) make pacts amongst themselves. Faith would bring salvation, not just for individuals but for the community — the new “city upon the hill” of New England — as a whole. The terms of the pact were to be regulated by the (Congregational) church- you couldn’t just go off and make the deal on your own. This way, Miller tells us, the Puritans navigated between the Scylla of Arminianism (the idea that good works could bring about salvation, more or less, a Calvinist no-no) and the Charybdis of Antinomianism, the idea that salvation was entirely interior, an inner light that redeemed the person totally without need of structures.

My image of the Puritan covenant-based social/theological/intellectual order as depicted by Miller is that of a powerful but delicate engine, capable of great feats of world-building but needing constant tinkering to keep from going off kilter. This helps explain why the Puritan fathers came down so hard on antinomians like Anne Hutchinson, who they saw as threatening the colony with spiritual and hence general anarchy (which some scholars of Puritanism, like Edmund Morgan, came to see as essentially correct in a way Miller avoids). Covenant theology ran into a generational problem- what happens when the children of “saints” i.e. full church members don’t have the right kind of conversion experience, the right kind of faith to become full church members themselves? This was tied in to the question of infant baptism, a serious issue in seventeenth century Protestantism.

Miller leads off the second book with the New England solution to this issue, the Half-Way Covenant. This allowed people to baptize their kids as partial members of the church but not recipients of the full communion. As the name implies, this didn’t really satisfy anybody. People either wanted to stick with the old system, babies be damned (literally?) or, as eventually came to pass on the Connecticut Valley frontier, simply let all adults who professed faith and weren’t notorious sinners take communion. Above and beyond the deeply felt theological issues here, there were political issues at work. The church was the center of the New England town (hence those pretty, plain white frame churches around so many New England town greens), everyone paid to maintain it and magistrates enforced its rules, even once the British government twisted the arms of Massachusetts and Connecticut to allow other sects to worship. At first, the likes of John Winthrop, Increase Mather, and other big names in Puritanism were perfectly fine with a minority of “saints” lording it over everyone else in town. Time eroded that system and their confidence.

Miller might have been the origin of the idea of the Half-Way Covenant as the beginning of the decline of Puritanism… and the beginning of New England looking like America, as he conceived it. The rest of Volume II is a long series of defeats for Puritan orthodoxy, but it’s not as simple as that. In many respects, these defeats — ranging from the loss of control over social hierarchies as capitalism developed to introductions of new models of physics — were encouraged by the beliefs of the Puritan fathers themselves, no strangers to deal-making or broad liberal educations that eventually led to acceptance of a recognizably “modern” economics and science. Miller, while protective of the Puritan genius from its many irreverent critics, doesn’t see the declension away from Puritanism as a bad or good thing in and of itself. It’s part of the construction of an American way that would include Puritan ideas in its DNA but would be its own thing.

For a long time, many Americans saw the Puritans as father figures. For the “filiopietistic” strand of American historiography in the nineteenth century, this meant enshrining them as demigods of wisdom. For the irreverent writers of the early twentieth century, ranging from progressive historians to H.L. Mencken, the Puritans were bad dads- “abusive” wasn’t the language they would’ve used, but certainly to be looked at with scorn. For Miller and the other American Studies writers in midcentury, they had a complex, conflicted — dare I say psychoanalytic — approach to the Puritans-as-father, an appreciation but also an ironic distance (which makes sense- this was the first generation of American university scholars to involve many Jews and other non-WASPs) that seems distant from our own sensibility… but made for some great scholarship. Thick, dense, at times exhausting along with being exhaustive (it reminded me of Pocock’s “The Machiavellian Moment,” both for good and for I’ll), “The New England Mind,” like the achievements of the Puritans, is an impressive piece of work from a perspective that can only now be approached from outside. *****

Review- Miller, “The New England Mind”

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