Mortals that would follow me,
Love Virtue, she alone is free;
She can teach ye how to clime
Higher than the Spheary chime.
John Milton, “Lydidas”
What do you mean, “Pilgrim art”? There wasn’t any.
Precisely. There was none as we moderns understand it: a product of leisure and affluence enjoyed largely by spectators. The concept had no hold on their attention. They did not conceive of culture as we do, as a kind of sauce spread like Bechamel over the nexus of values that animate a civilization. That is a point to keep in mind when we read, as inescapably we do, breathy encomiums to the miracle of art. Or, as crooned in a recent New York Times theatre column, its power to render the world more beautiful, thereby making it a finer, better place to live.
They begged to differ, those men and women who left the arts behind when they risked everything for the ordeal of establishing themselves in a harsh and alien wilderness. Puritans valued learning highly; their leaders were cultivated men. They were not, as commonly caricatured, anti-aesthetic kill-joys blind to beauty. (They dressed in every color of the rainbow.) Yet they jeopardized their lives and livelihood for something higher, more vital than art: freedom of conscience. Our nation was forged by a muscular-minded, vigorous people, lively in thought and character, who sought the Puritan dream: a New Jerusalem ordered on the word of God.
We are not nostalgic for the theocratic aspects of that dream. At the same time, there was also much in it to respect, much in its code of values to regret having lost. Perry Miller’s words ring more true to me today than when I first read them: “We cannot resist a slight fear that much of what has taken the place of Puritanism in our philosophies is just so much failure of nerve.”
I became endeared to the Puritans in graduate school. Like any well-chosen love, mine has deepened over the years. In modern usage, the words Puritanism and puritanical are wielded as weapons. That they are slurs serves as an index of popular ignorance of or hostility to our own foundational history. While we are still within the octave of Thanksgiving, there is time for a brief visit to a people who were our spiritual next of kin in more ways than the received wisdom acknowledges.
The creed and cause of Puritanism as a reform movement within the Church of England of its time is too broad a topic for a blog post. Nevertheless, the Puritan sense of beauty essentially theological is appropriate here. But first, let Governor William Bradford describe the emotions of a people departing for a new world where they sought freedom to grow in godliness:
So they lefte the goodly and pleasante citie, which had been their resting place near 12. Years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest cuntrie; and quieted their spirits.
Today we are left to wonder, along with William Haller, historian of Puritanism, “how many of the pilgrim fathers’ countrymen this side of heaven and the Atlantic still understand.” Haller, who arrived at study of the Puritans by way of Milton’s poetry, offers astute introduction to the Puritan imagination and its adjustment to earthly realities as these were reflected in Governor William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation :
Their departure from the Old World and their arrival in the New are invested by Bradford with all the exaltation of the Puritan sermon and the Puritan epic. But once arrived in America, they must plant corn, build houses, treat with savages, govern the unruly, chaffer with the company in England. Bradford finds himself compelled to become a pioneer, a man of business, a lawmaker, a ruler, a realist. The energetic, executive, alert, practical, shrewd American in a word, the Yankee begins to emerge out of the Puritan saint. He becomes in time less and less occupied with the war on Satan, more and more with the practical problems of making a life for himself and his people, saints and sinners alike, in the new environment.
Haller follows with a witty appraisal of Bradford as a writer:
He writes as he goes on, less and less like a Puritan preacher and more and more like the author of Robinson Crusoe .
Reference to Defoe, a Dissenter himself and forefather to the modern novelist, is a reminder of the boundless influence the Puritan sermon exerted on seventeenth century literary culture, literary history and traditions of popular taste. Milton would be unthinkable without it. So would John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress , a Christian allegory continuously in print since it first appeared in 1678. Puritans were a people of the word; their art was literary. Prose was their favored medium, a vehicle for the gift of utterance. They left ample commentary, including several detailed essays, on the art of writing. The sermon, aimed at the perfection of human understanding, was the crown of all the arts.
- Mihaly Munkacsy. Blind Milton Dictating “Paradise Lost” to His Daughters (1877). New York Public Library.
While they formulated no systematic aesthetic theory, Puritans were fond of analogies between sensible beauty and the mind of God that any Scholastic might applaud. Here is William Hubbard, in his sermon The Happiness of a People , preached in Boston, May 3, 1676:
In a curious piece of Architecture, that which first offers it self to the view of the beholder, is the beauty of the structure, the proportion that one piece bears to another, wherein the skill of the Architect most shews it self. But that which is most admirable in sensitive and rational beings, is that inward principle, seated in some one part, able to guid [e] the whole, and influence all the rest of the parts, with an apt and regular motion, for their mutual good and safety.
That inward principle was understood to be, in Hubbard’s phrase, the “remains of God’s Image” a vestige of the original perfection of the governing powers granted man before the Fall. Beauty, then, resides in that God-ordained harmony and decorum which art serves only to the extent that it furthers man’s grasp of divine purpose. Perry Miller, in The Puritans , explains in terms amenable to our own Christian apostles of beauty:
The Puritan conceived of beauty as order, the order of things as they are, not as they appear, as they are in pure and abstract conception, as they are in the mind of God . . . . His [the Puritan’s] conception of the beautiful was, like Plato’s, the efficient order of things; in that sense, he held indeed that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, though he did not think that was quite all he needed to know in life.
Not quite all he needed to know in life. Pregnant with implication, the phrase signals a fork in the road that leads away from our own deepening devotion to art. Miller follows the detour:
In such a scheme beauty is postulated as reason and faith conjoined; therefore to single out music, statuary, painting, drama, and the dance as subjects for considered appraisal to assign such purely sensuous phenomena more than a negligible rank in the teleological scheme, would have been grossly unbecoming.
I do love that grossly unbecoming. To the Puritan mind, today’s fixation on the arts’ reverence for and adulation of it would be suspect as cousin to idolatry.
Below, in no particular sequence, are essentials that can be read at table every Thanksgivingtide. Other times, too:
William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (1938).
Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson (Eds.), The Puritans, revised edition (1963).
John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970).
Edward S. Morgan, The Puritan Family (1965).
This article first appeared on First Things.