Power of the Puritans

This week is Thanksgiving in the United States, and it is also the 400th anniversary of the event that is largely responsible for the holiday. On Nov. 2, 1620, the English ship Mayflower dropped anchor at the tip of what is now Cape Cod. After a ten-week voyage, a crew of thirty and 102 passengers landed in “the promised land” to found what would become the Plymouth colony.

In the context of the times, it was a trivial event. The passengers, who would become known as Pilgrims in American mythology, were mostly a nuisance in the Old World, so their decision to head off to the wilderness was unremarked at the time. The most likely outcome was that they would be killed by the locals or starve to death. Instead it turned out to be one of the most important events in history.

Those Puritans, as we also call them, went on to create one of the greatest empires the world has known. No one thinks of it like that, because no one goes around calling themselves a Puritan these days. Ironically, the Puritans are often held up as a cartoon example of the sorts of people the ruling class opposes. The word “puritanical” is used as an epithet to tar the enemies of the status quo as narrow and stupid.

The truth is, the Puritans were not much like the popular telling. They were not the narrow-minded, sexually repressed tyrants portrayed in popular culture. Instead they were highly intelligent, educated people with a clear idea of the world they wished to create for themselves and their posterity. At great risk to themselves and their families, they created that world and changed the trajectory of history.

“Those 100-plus souls and those who followed built a culture that still influences the ruling class of the American empire to this day.”

To understand this, one must first grasp the real nature of the country that came into being in the 18th century. The people who revolted against the British were actually several nations, not a single one. The five big ones were Yankee New England, the Midlands, the Tidewater, the Deep South, and Appalachia. The great book American Nations has some wonderful maps illustrating this.

These nations did not spring from nothing. They were the product of the people who migrated from the mother country. Yankee New Englanders, for example, were descendants of those who sided with Parliament in the English Civil War. Tidewater and the Deep South, on the other hand, were founded by those on the side of the king. The Cavalier is the mascot of Jefferson’s university for a reason.

That old divide would quickly become important. Not long after the founding, Yankee New England sought to leave the Union. Forgotten out of necessity, the Hartford Convention was an effort by the Northern states to leave the Union. Couched in grievances about the War of 1812 and the three-fifths compromise, the real motivation was resentment at playing second fiddle to their old enemy.

One has only to look at the list of presidents from the founding to the Civil War to understand the problem. Seven of the fifteen presidents prior to Lincoln were from Virginia and two were from Appalachia. The Yankees managed just five. The only two worth remembering are John Adams and John Quincy Adams, neither of whom represented the more radical side of Yankeedom.

This unequal relationship—from the perspective of Yankee New England—with their old nemesis led to the abolitionist movement, political confrontations over slavery, and eventually the Civil War. Just as the Roundheads defeated the Cavaliers in the 17th century, the Yankee North conquered the South. Unlike the English Civil War, the winners made sure they held their power and have done so ever since.

That power has primarily manifested as cultural power, which is what brings us back to those Puritans who landed in the New World 400 years ago. While primarily a religious movement, the Puritans were influential not just in early America—their influence is with us today. As a minority in early America, even within New England, their sensibilities shaped what would become Yankee society and culture.

It is that Yankee society and culture that shaped the American ruling elite. For example, the Puritans believed that life is a great struggle between good and evil. The great Puritan theologian Richard Sibbes wrote, “There are two grand sides in the world, to which all belong; there is God’s side and those that are his, and there is the other side that is Satan’s, and those that are his.”

This turns up today in all progressive causes. They imagine themselves as the plucky underdog facing off against powerful enemies, even when they are pushing through changes as the sole holder of power in the most important institutions. This sense of being David against Goliath is unshakable. Of course, their proposed changes are always assumed to be in the best interest of everyone.

This communitarian outlook is probably the most underappreciated aspect of the Puritans. They had a sense of commitment to their community rooted in the doctrine of common grace. God has endowed everyone, believers and unbelievers, with a capacity for truth, goodness, and beauty. No man is born outside the grace of God, and every man, no matter how he has lived, can return to the fold.

Listen to the current radicals demanding reform and the thing they keep repeating is how their project is about the community. They believe not only that they are on the side of the angels, which today is expressed as the right side of history, but that their struggle is for the good of everyone in the community. In fact, there can be no authentic community until everyone is included and no one is left behind.

The Puritans were also closely tied to university and education. Puritan preachers were expected to be highly literate and work directly from the Scripture. This required a high degree of literacy, as well as a deep understanding of Christian theology. Education was part of God’s grace. Harvard college was founded sixteen years after the Puritans arrived in the New World, in order to train the clergy.

It was not just the preachers who had to be educated. Puritan services were not a one-way street. Sermons were highly structured, and parishioners were expected to take notes during the sermon. After the sermon, parishioners would debate what they had heard among themselves and maybe even with the preacher. In this regard, preaching was highly meritocratic, something we hear among the ruling classes of today.

The Puritans were called to social involvement, or what we call social activism, viewing the orderly rule of men over men as a part of God’s creation. This is the root of the famous John Winthrop quote, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Their duty was not just to live well, but to create a society that was rooted in Scripture for all men.

Of course, the thing that we most associate with the Puritans today is the late autumn feast of Thanksgiving. Contrary to popular myth, this was not a widely accepted holiday until after the Civil War. It was a Yankee holiday, imposed on the nation by Lincoln after the Civil War. Like most of the American mythology, the origins and promulgation are the works of the Yankee ruling class.

This is what makes the landing of the Mayflower 400 years ago a pivotal moment. Those 100-plus souls and those who followed built a culture that still influences the ruling class of the American empire to this day. The empire has gone on to remake the West in its image, imposing a set of moral codes and cultural frameworks. You see that in the current racial unrest throughout Europe

Thanksgiving is an American holiday, a celebration of those Puritans who landed in the New World 400 years ago. The point of the holiday is to give thanks for the blessings of life, but it is also a reminder of what a small dedicated group of believers can do when they believe God is on their side. They can cast a 400-year-long shadow that shapes the world long after the world has forgotten them.


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