Review- Winship, “Hot Protestants”

Michael Winship, “Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America” (2019) (narrated by Paul Boehmer) – I listened to this book less out of interest in the Puritans themselves and more out of interest in where the historiography on them has gone lately. Michael Winship is a professor who has been widely published in Puritan history and this appears to be his attempt at a book for a wider audience, so it’s probably not the best way to get at the cutting edge of the questions involved, if there still is one. But at the same time, mid-twentieth century and earlier writers on Puritans, who I’ve read more of, directed themselves or at least tried to at a mass audience while maintaining high academic standards, getting reviews in newspapers and the like and not just academic journals. This led to such amusing remarks as a newspaper reviewer warning readers that Perry Miller’s “The New England Mind” “requires cooperation from the reader.” Indeed!

The early American Studies scholars wrote for a broad educated audience because they had what amounted to a civilizing mission in mind: show the American people the greatness of their own culture (as defined by the canonizing project the American Studies scholars themselves undertook) and simultaneously steer them away from political radicalism. Perry Miller’s Puritans were meant to be not ancestors to Americans, as earlier scholars held them — if nothing else, in an increasingly diverse America, that wouldn’t fly — but as progenitors of their political and social project. Scholars like Miller were too sophisticated to make this claim in any easy, straightforward way, and given to an ironic, sometimes tragic outlook on life and the achievability of great dreams, so a one-to-one Puritans-to-contemporary-Americans thing wasn’t what they went for, at least outside of what might get taught to primary school children. Even if you disagree with their take on the Puritans or others they construed as constitutive of the American cultural canon (I often do) or with their larger pedagogical project (which I’m definitely not on board with- not that any of my teachers were, either, by the time I came of age), works like “The New England Mind” endure as scholarship for a reason.

Again, “Hot Protestants” from the title on down is meant for popular consumption, in this age where scholars seem convinced that no one wants their most advanced work, unfortunately. So I don’t know what Winship’s larger project might be. In the world of “Hot Protestants,” it appears to be “humanizing” the Puritans, as well as deprovincializing them, re-rendering them into the trans-Atlantic actors they were. The narrative often moves forward through representative stories of given Puritan experiences to illustrate changes in the relationship between Puritanism and the established Church of England, in New England’s ecclesiastical governance policies, and so on. There’s less emphasis on theology here than I am used to seeing in work on Puritans, and more on what today would be called the “wedge issues” which so violently rent society in Britain in the seventeenth century: regulations on amusements, specific forms of ritual, church governance, and so on. Perhaps Winship felt that this would hold a modern reader’s attention more than the points of theology which so moved the Puritans- he is probably right, if so.

Winship is less thesis-heavy than Miller and his ilk. This is probably good as far as accurately conveying information about the Puritans goes; Winship takes a swipe at Miller specifically for blowing John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech out of proportion and decontextualizing it until it became a cliche of twentieth-century American rhetoric. But it raises some questions as to what the stakes are for “Hot Protestants.” The stakes for Miller and the American Studies cohort were high- arguably as high as that of the Cold War they imagined themselves helping to fight. “Hot Protestants” is no defense of Puritanism, even if contextualizing them in any meaningful way helps show them as something other than the simple tyrannical martinets they’re often portrayed as being. Implicitly, the book might be able to sustain a reading as a warning of the dangers of ideological purity, which Puritans (both of Presbyterian and Congregationalist stripe), Anglicans, and everyone in between pursued violently and at great cost to New England and especially English society.

Still… not to harp on the comparison, but I did read Miller recently, and he made the Puritans seem both alien and kin to the society in which I live, in a number of illustrative ways. There was a power and subtlety in “The New England Mind” which “Hot Protestants” simply doesn’t have. It’s admirable to try to make the strange familiar, as Winship tries to do. I think it’s another thing entirely, an uncanny and wonderful thing, to suspend the reader between the strange and the familiar, to make the reader dig a little deeper into the structure of what they find familiar and see that it’s pretty strange, too. I guess to put it more simply, Winship familiarizes the strange but does not make familiar strange, in this book anyway. Doing both is more interesting, to me, anyway. ***’

Review- Winship, “Hot Protestants”

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