A window to the world: the Puritans and the Hebrew republic

Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale University, smiled as he quoted journalist Jim Sleeper, who described the Puritans as “America’s very first serious people.”

February 20, 2019 20:45
A window to the world: the Puritans and the Hebrew republic

Visitors look at painter Pieter Claesz’s ‘Vanitas’ still life in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands; snuffed-out candles, skulls and hourglasses were how the Old Masters portrayed the vanity of greed. (photo credit: ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN / UNITED PHOTOS / REUTERS)


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Puritans! These somber men in black hats inhabit such a unique mythical space in the American imagination they rarely avoid an accusing finger or two. Americans are said to have sexual hang-ups? It’s because of the Puritans. Americans, on average, tend to be more religious than other Western people? Puritans, that’s why. Americans read the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, which depicts a post-rapture world, and consider this the end time? Why here, too, stand the Puritans, holding their William Tyndale-inspired Geneva Bibles close as they prepare to hand out a scarlet letter to a young woman or, even better, burn her as a witch.

The problem with this lively understanding of the American mind is not that it isn’t interesting – simplistic, pop history with it’s clear parceling of good, evil and action scenes usually is. It’s just untrue, which makes it a stumbling block to understanding. If the Puritans really did plough such a deep burrow in the soil of the new world to shape the future harvests of generations, making fun of farming chores won’t help us understand it.


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