For many years, one of the things I have most liked to do is stick up for Puritans. If there is ever a contest for “most misrepresented” groups within the history of Christendom, the Puritans will certainly be in the final four, and would probably win the championship. Caricatured as stuffy, priggish, censorious, prim, prudish and more, the Puritans have long been type-cast as the sour brethren. I have written a great deal on how wrong this stereotype is, particularly when we are considering the early Elizabethan Puritans. At the same time, the caricature was not manufactured out of whole cloth—from Shakespeare’s Malvolio to Hawthorne’s Rev. Dimmesdale, the caricature was aimed at something. What was that something?
Here is a tentative suggestion for those who are willing to work with me for a bit. There are many parallels between the Puritans and the Pharisees, even down to what their names meant. The Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England of its remaining popish tendencies. The word Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word that means to “set apart” or to “separate.” Even to this day, strict evangelical churches teach and insist on a “separated life.” The names of both groups therefore indicated their deep desire for holiness.
Both started as reform movements that were desperately needed in their time. The first Pharisee was probably Ezra, and, if so, this means that they had a long and honored history before they got themselves all tangled up in their scruples. The Puritans were the same—at the beginning, their work was liberating, a breath of fresh air. But after a century or so, something bad began to happen. That “bad” development was seized on by the Puritan’s enemies to provide material to taunt them with, along with over-emphasizing those traits, and those same traits were seized by certain members within the Puritan party who decided for various reasons to embrace the caricature.
This is related to a third point, which is that one of the central aims of the Pharisees was the goal of getting all Israelites to live in accordance with the requirements of the law for priests. One of the central aims of the Puritans was to take the consecration of the monastery and extend it to the entire commonwealth. The Pharisees wanted every Israelite to be as holy as the priests. The Puritans wanted every Englishman to be as holy as the monks . . . much holier than the monks, in fact.
Think of the Puritan settlements in America as attempts to build monastic communities where marital sex was encouraged and permitted. But the problem is that where there is sex, there are children, and where there are children, there are subsequent generations. The old style monastery perpetuated itself by means of recruits, which mean that there was much slower organic development over time. But children accelerate the process of change. The Puritan project here was audacious, and for my money, they got farther with this ambitious aim than any other group in church history. But still, something bad did happen.
What is commonly caricatured as the “puritanical” mentality is actually a mentality that can be found in the church of all ages. You can find this mindset in some of the early fathers, you can find it with Syrian ascetics, you can find it in medieval monasteries, and you can find it (after the first generations) among the Puritans. This religious type translates every serious call to holiness into terms it can understand, which is that of being stuffy, priggish, thin-lipped, censorious, prim, prudish and more.
Not only does it translate every serious call to holiness into this legalistic straitjacket, but it is attracted to every serious call to holiness—with the intention of burying it under a rock pile of rules. If God raises up someone to call the Church back to serious devotion to Him in a particular area, and this call is characterized by all those things that ought always to characterize such a call—joy, peace, love, contentment, laughter, feasting, and more joy—then it can be guaranteed that the joy, peace, love books will be published and distributed, and within a very short period of time, the mirthless will show up prepared to take the whole thing to what they honestly believe to be the next level.
This is what happened to some of the Puritans, and to the reputation of all of them. The first Puritans really were liberated. They were seriously joyful, which is a form of being serious, I suppose. And because they wanted their whole nation to experience this joy, and they were total Christians, they brought the words of Christ to bear on everything. Their joy was infectious, their talents prodigious, and their logic unanswerable. At the center of their greatness was a greatness with words, prose and poetry both.
They carried everything before them, but before you could blink, they found themselves being represented by other “Puritans” who were recognizable in the popular caricature. By the middle of the 17th century, there were two kinds of Puritans, a mixed multitude. There were the free men and there were the gnat-stranglers. But the gnat-stranglers were not the Puritans’ unique contribution to the history of religious pathologies—rather, they were a garden variety religious weed that eventually began growing in the Puritans’ garden, just as they had grown in every Christian garden up to that point.
I have said that the Puritans were great, and that their greatness included a greatness with words. This kind of claim is easily dismissed by those who those who have been entirely persuaded by the caricatures, but it cannot be dismissed by anyone who is willing to consider the historical facts. It is true that the poetaster Michael Wigglesworth was a best-selling poet among the New England Puritans, but do we really want to judge the literary merits of any group or any age by means of the popular fads and bestsellers? What would become of us as judges in such a case, we who exalt books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, and who have not even had a bestselling poet since the time of Kipling?
If we were to take Puritan poets from the front rank, we not only have wonderful representatives for the Puritans, we also find that we are looking at some of the finest poets our culture has ever produced. I am thinking of men like Spenser, Milton, Herbert, and more.
But before mentioning any other names, I have to say a word about terminology. In the 16th century, the term Calvinism likely referred to your doctrine of the sacraments, while today it refers to your views of predestination. Thus Hooker was not a Calvinist in their sense, but he was in ours. Herbert was a churchman, happily established in the Elizabethan settlement, but he was a Calvinist in our sense. In a similar fashion, the word Puritan referred in their time to those who wanted to reform the liturgy, getting rid of all popish rags, but today it can be aptly applied to anyone who was robustly Protestant and Calvinistic (our sense).
Such literary lights that can be thrown into the mix are those who are acknowledged as great cultural voices (Tyndale, Spenser, Milton, Herbert, Donne, Marvell, Sidney, et al.), others who are seen as representative and good but not that famous (Taylor, Bradstreet), and those who are (in my view) unjustly disparaged (Bunyan). Then there are others whose theological underpinnings are ambiguous, thus enabling Protestants and Catholics to fight over the body of Shakespeare. But however you examine it, the Protestant Reformation in the English speaking world was the location, the context, the setting, of a literary supernova.
There are those who argue that when Calvinism produces works of literary genius, it is “in spite of” the theology, and when it doesn’t, it is “because of” that theology, are operating in the comfortable zone of “heads I win, tails you lose.”
If I might, I would like to spend the rest of my time citing others who have observed some of these same realities, making a few comments of my own as we go. For some this might seem like a rock pile of quotations, but given the delightful and surprising nature of what is being said, I have no trouble asking you to bear with me.
What were some of the first indications that a literary storm was brewing?
“But on almost any view, Tyndale who inaugurated, and the Genevan translators who first seriously advance, our tradition, tower head and shoulders above all others whom I have yet mentioned” (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, p. 211).
This was not something that was occurring in a separated realm from the foment caused by the Reformation.
“Many surrendered to, all were influenced by, the dazzling figure of Calvin . . . The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists. When hard rocks of Predestination outcrop in the flowery of the Arcadia or the Faerie Queen, we are apt to think them anomalous, but we are wrong. The Calvinism is as modish as the shepherds and goddesses” (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, p. 43).
The nature of the Protestant literary outpouring came from the fact that the gospel (understood in the ancient sense of good news) had broken loose, and was out in the streets.
“But there is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side. On many questions, and specially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries” (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, p. 116).
The theological currents were not just consistent with the literary production, but were incorporated into it.
“Similarly, William H. Halewood argues that the pervasive Augustinianism of the period—Augustine as interpreted by the Reformation—led Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Marvell, and Milton to develop a poetic mode exploring man’s radical sinfulness and God’s overpowering grace” (Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, p. 14).
Not only so, but we can shatter several caricatures at once. The Puritans are not only thought of by moderns as cultural Philistines, but also as sexually repressed. This is not only “inadequately true,” it is a resounding lie. Speaking of Edmund Spenser, Osgood says this:
“The point is that in those particular sonnets which all agree were addressed to Elizabeth Boyle, and supremely in his Epithalamion, the greatest wedding song in the world, he sings with the same full-throated ease, the same happy assurance that we hear in the contemporary and mature Hymn of Heavenly Love and Hymn of Heavenly Beauty” (Osgood, Poetry as a Means of Grace, pp. 61-62).
Lewis makes the same or a very similar point:
“This antithesis, if once understood, explains many things in the history of sentiment, and many differences, noticeable to the present day, between the Protestant and the Catholic parts of Europe. It explains why the conversion of courtly love into romantic monogamous love was so largely the work of English, and even of Puritan, poets” (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, p. 117).
The Puritans were not only good poets, they were also sensual poets. In his book, God’s Altar, Daly makes a similar point.
“We can, however, examine Puritan appeals to both the sensuous and the sensual in man. Such an examination reveals that one who believes that Puritans avoided sensuous and even erotic imagery in expressing religious doctrine or describing spiritual states does so in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary” (Daly, p. 22).
“Relief and buoyancy are the characteristic notes . . . It follows that nearly every association which now clings to the word puritan has to be eliminated when we are thinking of the early Protestants. Whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe; nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them . . . For More, a Protestant was one ‘dronke of the new must of lewd lightnes of minde and vayne gladness of harte’ . . . Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad, to be true . . . Protestants are not ascetics but sensualists” (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, p. 34).
But we are still not done. Another caricature is that the Puritans were stodgy, didactic, pedestrian. But no—they were sophisticated in their use of symbolism and imagery.
“For the Puritan, however, the world in which he lived was symbolic. Things meant . . . Puritan poets saw symbols in the Bible and the world. From these sources they derived not only most of their symbols, but the symbolic method itself, the lens through which they perceived and expressed their own experience. Not ornaments retrospectively imposed upon a simple narration, the Puritan’s symbols were central to their writings because they were central to their lives” (Daly, pp. 30-31).
“Puritan poets . . . knew that part of their work in this world was to wean their affections from the unmixed love of it. But they also knew that this world was God’s metaphor for His communicable glories and that another part of their duty was to see and utter that metaphor, to use the figural value of this world to turn their attentions and affections to the next” (Daly, p. 81).
Some have been misled by the fact that there was an iconoclastic element to the Reformation, which there certainly was. But it was not a case of banishing images, and replacing it all with nothing. It was a case of banishing certain kinds of images, and replacing them with images that many people are not sophisticated enough to understanding.
“We are quite rightly impressed by the iconoclastic dimensions of the Reformation, the pruning of the liturgies and the decimation of the saints’ days, the removal of statues, paintings and even stained glass from the churches. But such iconoclasm may be eclipsed by what we can call the iconopoaic energies of the Reformation, its creativity in producing new allegories and metaphors for the divine and the human which, by their novel connections and collocations, bedded together the hitherto incompatible and subverted one cosmos while paving the way for another . . . When your metaphors change, your world changes with them” (Matheson, pp. 6-7).
Given the high view of Scripture, it is natural that the Protestant aesthetic gravitated toward the written word. This partly explains why many moderns think that a Protestant aesthetic never happened at all.
“We should, however, approach Augustinian aesthetics not in medieval but in Reformation terms, taking account of the important new factor introduced by the Reformation—an overwhelming emphasis on the written word as the embodiment of divine truth. In this milieu the Christian poet is led to relate his work not to ineffable and intuited divine revelation, but rather to its written formulation in scripture. The Bible affords him a literary model which he can imitate in such literary matters as genre, language, and symbolism, confident that in this model at least the difficult problems of art and truth are perfectly resolved. My proposition is, then, that far from eschewing aesthetics for a rhetoric of silence or a deliberate anti-aesthetic strategy, these poets committed themselves to forging and employing a Protestant poetics, grounded upon scripture, for the making of Protestant devotional lyrics” (Lewalski, Protestant Poetics, pp. 6-7).
I mentioned earlier that it is de rigueur to think contemptuously of Bunyan, a man of true literary genius, and someone who was Protestant to his back teeth. So allow me to finish with a few observations from Lewis, and then from Chesterton.
“But this fault is rare in Bunyan — far rarer than in Piers Plowman. If such dead wood were removed from The Pilgrim’s Progress the book would not be very much shorter than it is. The greater part of it is enthralling narrative or genuinely dramatic dialogue. Bunyan stands with Malory and Trollope as a master of perfect naturalness in the mimesis of ordinary conversation” (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, p. 146).
“We must attribute Bunyan’s style to a perfect natural ear, a great sensibility for the idiom and cadence of popular speech, a long experience in addressing unlettered audiences, and a freedom from bad models” (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, p. 150).
The high view that Lewis takes of Bunyan’s abilities is perhaps well known. Perhaps a little more surprising would be these tributes from Chesterton.
“The Pilgrim’s Progress certainly exhibits all the marks of such a revival of primitive power and mystery . . . Nowhere, perhaps except in Homer, is there such a perfect description conveyed by the use of merely plain words” (Quoted in Belmonte, p. 205).
“Before the Puritans were swept off the scene for ever, they had done two extraordinary things. They had broken to pieces in plain battle on an English meadow the chivalry of a great nation, bred from its youth to arms. And they had brought forth from the agony a small book, called The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was greater literature than the whole contemporary culture of the great Renaissance, founded on three generations of the worship of learning and art” (Belmonte, p. 206).
To reapply Chesterton from another context, there are certain things a man might want to oppose, but honesty would constrain him to do it without patronizing. And I would argue that the monuments to Puritan literary achievements should be, at the very least, in that category.
“Reformation was less a shopping-list of demands than the choreography for a new dance” (Matheson, p. 9).
All of this has applications for our own time.
“The new vogue for dialogue, satire and narrative history gave priority to story-telling, to the via rhetorica over the via dialectica; conversation, intuition and empathetic imagination took over from logic, paradox from syllogism, open disputations in the ‘public square’ from magisterial pronouncements behind closed doors. These are not just matters of style and form. They point to a fundamentally new way of perceiving and presenting the truth” (Matheson, The Imaginative World of the Reformation, p. 28).
When the Reformation broke out, as Matheson argues persuasively, it was a revolution of the imagination. It was not a matter of one dusty scholastic replacing another, but rather scholastic bores being replaced by the poets and prophets. This state of affairs describes wonderfully the first century (more or less) of the Reformation. Elizabethan Puritans, Tyndale, Luther, and countless others—these men were alive to the grace of God in everything; they were holy, and mischievous. Read over Matheson’s description of the Reformation again. Dialogue. Satire. Narrative. Story-telling. Imagination.
Whatever would we do if the spirit of the reformation broke out once again in our Reformed churches of today. I suspect that the curators would do everything in their power to get it all back into the museum cases. If there were to be another Reformation today, who would be the dialecticians resisting it? Who would be the imaginative poets promoting it? What would they be called? What would they be called three centuries after the fact?