Trying to learn more about the Puritans and received wisdom about them.
January 28, 2021 11:13 AM   Subscribe

What are some resources--articles and books--that will help me learn more about the Puritans in North America, in the context of their time, their legacy, popular conceptions of their culture, etc?

My understanding of the Puritans is very one dimensional: I think in grade school I was literally taught that Puritans and Pilgrims are a totally overlapping Venn Diagram, in high school I learned a bit about Oliver Cromwell, and maybe was taught that The Scarlet Letter is more or less an ethnography of Puritan cultural practice and thought, and throughout life I received the conventional wisdom that Puritans only cared about sexual mores and that American culture somehow bears the permanent stamp of this obsession. I assume there's more to the story?

I'm a big Marilynne Robinson fan, and it seems like her singular purpose is to rehabilitate the reputation of Calvinists, including the Puritans in North America. Sort of an idiosyncratic project, and it got me to wanting to learn a bit more for myself. I'd like to read more about this--happy to read things that are neutral, critical, or favorable toward Puritanism, as long as they lend to a better historical understanding. Some things I'm interested in specifically:

* To what extent did American Puritanism develop a parallel tradition to British Puritanism?

* What is the relationship between Puritan/Calvinist traditions and the traditions and institutions of early American democracy?

* Were the Puritans really that fixated on sexual behavior, compared to their contemporaries?

* What was the role / position of women in Puritan society? (Happy to read abou the Witch Trials, but also interested in other subjects related to this question.)

* Attitudes toward, relationship to Native Americans over time and across the geography

* Did they really hate the Quakers that much?

* I have a vague grasp of figures like Cotton Mather and, later, Jonathan Edwards, but if there are good biographies or passages about them I'd be interested.

* When and how did the conventional wisdom about America being a "puritanical culture" come to be? (i.e. did the Deists bemoan this in the 18th century the way we do now? did we just get this from HL Mencken? Less concerned here with how true it is, and more concerned with when it became so much a part of America's self-concept.)

I have a decent grasp of the distinct Protestant traditions and the basics of Calvinist theology and figures, but less of an understanding of how the history played out in North America, what aspects of civic culture came from the Puritans, etc.

posted by kensington314 to Religion & Philosophy (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, I guess I'd also add to this how they arranged their local economies.
posted by kensington314 at 11:15 AM on January 28, 2021

Best answer: Someone on here once recommended Albion's Seed to me. I bought it, and while I haven't yet finished, I do think it would be of interest to you. It won't answer every question you have but it'll probably be a nice complement to some of the other answers you'll get.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:39 AM on January 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: For sort of a pop (highly readable!) primer on Massachusetts Bay vs. Plymouth Colony Puritans, you should check out Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates. IIRC she does talk some about Anne Hutchinson, a woman who really pushed her role/position in Puritan society to the breaking point. The book stops before the witch trials, I believe.
posted by mskyle at 11:42 AM on January 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Check out Good Wives by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She's famous for the line, "Well-behaved women seldom make history," and part of her project is to recover the lives of these women. Scholarly but not dry, and tons of engaging detail about, for example, pockets and what they say about domestic labor. David D. Hall's Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment is also a good read about the range of beliefs among the Puritans.
posted by dapati at 12:01 PM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The book American Nations by Colin Woodard does a great job explaining the Puritans' origins in the US and impact on US governance and history. Also, the Quaker beef.
posted by sockshaveholes at 12:25 PM on January 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The Puritans were serious diarists so perhaps the writings of William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth Colony, or Samuel Sewell, one of the Salem Witch Trial judges, may be a good place to start?
I don't have any recommendations for specific versions other than to say that we read some Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewell in my early American Lit course and it stuck with me all these years. There's nothing like primary sources for history I think.
posted by fiercekitten at 9:20 PM on January 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is a very interesting study of Dedham, Massachusetts, which was founded by English Puritans and was intended to be a model community. It's a good look at how religion influenced how they organized their local economy - and how it (eventually) failed because it turns out that piety is not genetic (aka their kids were not as religiously committed as they were).
posted by jb at 7:50 AM on January 29, 2021

Note: while it's a study on one town, it's not a local history - it's linked thematically to issues of how puritainism influenced American culture.
posted by jb at 7:50 AM on January 29, 2021

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