Puritan Essential Question

Puritanism is usually referred to as a religion of the 17th century, practiced by a group of people needing and desperately wanting to separate themselves from the religious persecutions in Europe. Does this mean that the concept of Puritanism does not exist anymore? If yes, does that mean that Puritanism was experimental and only worked for a short amount of time and a for certain group of people? First, let us define Puritanism. More than just being a religion, Puritanism was a set of strict ideas, moral standards that the people followed, a way of life, and also a form of government.

In our world today, I believe that Puritanism still exists. To me, Puritanism is defined loosely as a set of moral ideals that the majority of a certain group follows; it is their own idea of PURITY and how to reach that central idea. In order for Puritanism to work, there need to be rules and people need to adhere to those rules. Groups such as the KKK even have their own form of Puritanism. They all strongly believe in white supremacy, and that is the code they live by day after day. They carry this idea with them wherever they go, and they pass these ideas onto their offspring. This is not to say that I agree with them, but just to make a point that Puritanism still exists. This is also not to say that Puritanism is always negative, because I do believe that our world would be better off if we developed our own form of Puritanism, unlike the Puritanism in the 17th century.

Being where we are in time, we could never go back into the 17th century, when witches were persecuted and hung, as shown in A&P, a short story written by John Updike, “if she’d been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem.” Also everybody believed in one God, the only God, and because these ideas are no longer in existence, they would not be part of our Puritanism. There are so many religions out there and even people with no religion at all, but I believe that we as people in general still share the same moral ideas, maybe just not religiously. And because we live with a separation of church and state, we could never go back to 17th century Puritanism, but instead into 21st century Puritanism where the two are completely devoid of the other. One piece of evidence of 17th century Puritanism still exists today, even though it should not. No president ever elected to office in the United States has ever been a non-Christian. This definitely shows that 17th century Puritanism is still being prevalent in today’s society.

Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter depicts Puritanism as a negative way of life, an immoral way of life, which is ironic because the Puritans felt they were the most moral people of that time, specifically between 1642-1649 (Hawthorne, 48), the time period in which the story takes place. Hawthorne uses a negative tone when referring to the Puritans in general. For instance “but, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child, whole his parents had given over to the civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post. It might be, that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian, whom the white man’s fire-water had made riotous about the streets, was the be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest. It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows” (Hawthorne, 47). Through this quote, Hawthorne shows that the Puritans are very accusatory because they were not quite sure who would be standing on the scaffold. It could have been a sluggish bond servant, an undutiful child, an Antinomian, a Quaker, a vagrant Indian, or a witch. All the individuals they tend to put blame on is in reality not culpable, but in fact innocent. Hawthorne shows the reader that he is appalled and trying to convince the reader to look upon Puritanism negatively, too.

There are two ways to look at the issue at hand. One is that all the guilty are persecuted, and of course the other side would say all the innocent would be incorrectly blamed and possibly punished. Then we have to weigh which is worse, which means who is more harmful to a society at large: a guilty person on the loose or an innocent person in jail. A 17th century Puritan would say that a guilty person on the loose proves to be more dangerous than an innocent person wrongfully accused. Today, there would be riots protesting for human dignity and human rights, and that is why the US judicial system says people are “innocent until proven guilty.” The judicial system is a form of Puritanism within itself, because it is trying to purify the society by getting rid of all the criminals. Now if we were more strict, but not as strict as in the 17th century, there would be less murders, less school shootings, and less crime in general. I believe if we developed our own form of Puritanism to fit with our morals in today’s day and age, there should be a happy medium between complete anarchy and complete authoritarianism. In A&P, there is an apprehension toward communism, a radical for of Puritanism, a form of government where everybody is equal, and no body gets more than anybody else. “Maybe in 1990 when it’s called the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something.” A medium that is found to work in the US is what we refer to as democracy. But even a democracy is not perfect because we still have a representative ruling over us.

In class discussions with Andrew Beck, Seth Guitterman, Ryan Ignatious, and Sarah Letson, it was discussed that books such as Billy Budd by Herman Melville, The American by Henry James, and short stories such as Bartleby also by Melville, and Daisy also by James all contain examples of how 17th century Puritanism has been passed into our world, today. Billy Budd, according to Beck, Letson, and Guitterman is an African on a battle ship who in the end is persecuted against because of his color. This is an example of how Puritanism singles out the people whom are different, such as Hester, in The Scarlet Letter. The American, Newman, and Daisy according to Ignatious, were both Americans living in Europe, and there is a sharp contrast between the Americans and the Europeans. Both the Americans are caught up with work, work, and work just like the Puritans, and the Europeans also saw them as different. Newman was constantly under scrutiny by the French families, and they kept picking at the fact that he held no title such as duke or earl or any of such sorts.

Newman could only think in reverse why they would have such nonsensical titles, and what was the use of being so proud as they were. Newman ironically was proud of the fact that he was not proud. Madame de Bellegarde says, “It is proper I should tell you, that I am very proud, and that I hold my head very high. I may be wrong, but I am too old to change. At least I know it, and I don’t pretend to do anything else. My daughter, she is proud in her own way—a somewhat different way from mine. Even Valentin is proud, if you touch the right spot—or the wrong one. Urbain is proud; that you see for yourself. Sometimes I think he is a little too proud; but I wouldn’t change him. But I have said enough to show you that we are all proud together.” The only response Newman could give to that speech was, “Well, I can only say in return, that I am not proud.” When the book was written, France may have been an aristocratic society where people of high society looked down upon those who weren’t as fortunate. Newman being brought up in American by generations of Americans before him has developed Puritan ideas about equality in society, and the idea of not being proud, and that pride is a negative term to place on someone. There’s no way to escape Puritanism in today’s society because is to so prevalent in everything we do for example the way we work, the way to interact with others, and the way we think. To say that we can not go back in 17th Puritanism is completely true, but to say that we don’t have our form of Puritanism or cannot ratify a new form of Puritanism is false. Changes are being made daily in the way we live, and each change that applies to the majority is a change of attitude toward Puritanism. This is not saying that there can no longer be individuals because that would be impossible, but since we are essentially one group of people with the same set of ideas and morals, we have our own form of Puritanism. I would not call ourselves Puritans because that refers to 17th Puritanism, but we are still a massive population still trying to PURIFY our lives.

Works Cited

Beck, Andrew. Personal Interview on 10.19.99.

Guitterman, Seth. Personal Interview on 10.19.99.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter (1850). New York: Bantam Books, 1986.

Ignatious, Ryan. Personal Interview on 10.19.99.

James, Henry. The American. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

Letson, Sarah. Personal Interview on 10.19.99.

Updike, John. A&P. Honors American Literature handout, Fall 1999.