Category Archives: Puritans

Looking Back to Colonial Times from December 1895: Puritans versus Christmas


American attitudes toward Christmas haven’t always been so positive. But what could possibly be wrong with Christmas? Well, for the Puritans, the problem was their enemies celebrated Christmas.

Wait — let me back up and be a bit more modest with my claim. Here’s just a snapshot of a perspective from a time that was not better or purer, but certainly earlier, before the television age, before the middle class was allegedly indoctrinated by left-wing professors in colleges. On Dec. 19, 1895, The Sequachee News of Sequachee, Tenn., published the following italicized section under the headline “Colonial Christmas:”

The Puritans were sorely tried by the way in which Christmas was observed in the colony in 1658, and at the first General Court subsequently held the following law was passed:

“For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offence of others, it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like either by forbearing of labor, feasting or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shillings as a fine to the country.”

The following from a letter from Amos Lawrence to his son, William K. Lawrence, then at school in France shows the beginning of the change of sentiment. Its date is December 27, 1830:

“I suppose Christmas is observed with great pomp in France. It is a day which our Puritan forefathers, in their separation from the Church of England, endeavored to blot out from these days of religious festivals; and this because it was observed with so much pomp by the Romish Church. In this, as well as in many other things, they were unreasonable as though they had said they would not eat bread as the Roman Catholics do. I trust and hope the time is not far distant when Christmas will be observed by the descendants of the Puritans with all suitable respect as the first and highest holiday of Christians, combining all the feelings and views of New England Thanksgiving with all the other feelings appropriate to it.”

I really like this line: “In this, as well as in many other things, they were unreasonable as though they had said they would not eat bread as the Roman Catholics do.”

I’m glad Amos Lawrence’s hopes turned out to be prophetic.

Unfortunately, Puritans were even worse in other areas. Other U.S. newspapers, before the television age, before the alleged indoctrination of the middle class by left-wing professors in colleges, published troubling articles about the American Puritans. Stunningly, they killed much, much more than the Christmas spirit.

The Indian Advocate, Nov. 1, 1905, Critiques Puritan Treatment of Native Americans


…thirty-two exterminated native tribes…

I’ve been trying to understand the possibility that someone could be “spiritually enlightened” and radically unethical, at the same time.

Or, how someone could be wise enough to send down through the ages spiritual insight yet foolish enough to kill those who got in the way of worldly progress.

Here’s a perspective from The Indian Advocate newspaper, published Nov. 1, 1905:

“When the government committed itself to the Anglo-Saxon policy of civilization, reflected and enacted by the Puritans; it turned out to be, as might have been anticipated, not only of problematical advantage and uncertain success from an ethical standpoint, but disastrous to the fair repute of the nation and fatal to the life of the Indian. The melancholy humor of the somewhat timeworn witticism that ‘when landing upon Plymouth Rock, the Puritans first fell upon their knees and then upon the aborigines,’ is so unassailably in accord with historic facts borne out by the bloody roster of thirty-two exterminated native tribes, that the droll comment ‘it was a pity that the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock instead of Plymouth Rock landing on the Puritans,’ has more than a semblance of retributive justification. ‘The Puritans,’ says an historical writer in a volume fresh from the press, ‘adopted the Cromwellian method in which they had been bred and trained. They extinguished the Indian title (to lands) by the simple, sure and irrevocable expedient of extinguishing the Indian.’”

In honor of Blaise Pascal’s birthday


One of the premises of this blog is a quotation from Blaise Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

He has been proven right again and again.

But I’ve made that point enough — at least until the next example hits the news.

Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. Some might also consider him a Christian theologian, considering much of his philosophical writing dealt with religious questions.

While Pascal is considered a Christian apologist, he is also considered a forerunner of existentialist thinkers, and in his written work, he frequently sounds like “intuitive psychologists” Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, to use William Barrett’s phrase.

In honor of Pascal’s 392nd birthday, I offer some of my favorite excerpts from his unfinished book, probably his notes for a book, posthumously collected and published as Penseés (or Thoughts).

Greatest Hits by Pascal

“Cleopatra’s noes: had it been shorter, the whole aspect of the world would have been altered.”

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its will. You have rejected the one and kept the other. Is it by reason that you love yourself?”

“Reason’s last steps is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it. It is merely feeble if it does not go as far as to realize that.”

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but his is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantages which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”

“It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”

“Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion, without effort. Then he faces is nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness. And at once there wells up from the depths of his soul boredom, gloom, depression, chagrin, resentment, despair.”

“Not to care for philosophy is to be a true philosopher.”

“We are not satisfied with the life we have in ourselves and in our own being. We want to lead an imaginary life in the eyes of others, and so we try to make an impression. We strive constantly to embellish and preserve our imaginary being, and neglect the real one. And if we are calm, or generous or loyal, we are anxious to have it known so that we can attach these virtues to our other existence; we prefer to detach them from our real self so as to unite them with the other. We would cheerfully be cowards if it would acquire us a reputation for bravery. How clear a sign of the nullity of our own being that we are not satisfied with one without the other and often exchange one for the other!”

“The more intelligence one has the more people one finds original. Commonplace people see no difference between men.”

“Cromwell would have ravaged the whole of Christendom; the royal family was lost, and his own family was about to become all-powerful, except for a little grain of sand that lodged in his bladder. Even Rome was about to tremble beneath him. Once this little piece of stone became lodged there, he died, his family was disgraced, peace was established all round, and the king was restored.” (Desmond Clarke includes this quotation in a discussion of Pascal’s proto-existentialist mentality. Clarke also says, “Many of Pascal’s intuitions about the contingency of human existence were a commonplace in the period, especially among Calvinist theologians.”)

Random Pascal Publishing Notes

  • Nobel-prize winning poet T.S. Eliot wrote an introduction to a 1931 edition of Penseés.
  • The 1952 set of Britannica Great Books includes a volume devoted to Pascal, including The Provincial Letters, Penseés, and Scientific Treatises.
  • In his classic 1958 study of existentialism, Irrational Man, William Barrett included Pascal as one of the forerunners of existentialism.
  • In 1966, Leicester University Press in England published The Rhetoric of Pascal: A Study of His Art of Persuasion in the Provinciales and the Penseés by Patricia Topliss.

 

Previous Posts about Pascal

Christian apologist Blaise Pascal had some good tips on writing

Paradoxes for Better Living, 5

The limits of knowledge

Fear of the Lord — and astonishment at his creation (Jurgen Moltmann)

As a man thinketh, so goes his health

Happy birthday, Blaise! And I have no idea how to pronounce your first name!

Footnote digressions: Anglican John Locke versus Puritan Oliver Cromwell


One of my favorite literature profs at N.C. State used to announce, “Footnote digression,” before heading into background info tangentially related to his lecture.

The following is meant to provide some background and context to previous posts about the relationship between Anglicanism and Puritanism. The facts and interpretations are presented for your evaluation, without my added opinion. Except I boldfaced some lines.

According to evangelical and scholar Greg Forster, writing for First Things in 2012:

“Cromwell ruled 1653-1658; Locke’s first known writings on government, the aforementioned Two Tracts, were written after Cromwell’s death, and weren’t circulated outside Oxford that we know of until their rediscovery in the 20th century. Moreover, Locke was a strong royalist partisan during his time at Oxford in large part due to his detestation of Cromwell and the republicans, whom he viewed as turbulent religious fanatics. I think it would be difficult to find a ruler whose ‘policy’ was more hostile to Locke’s ‘principles’ than Cromwell; it’s not much of a stretch to say Locke supported the rebellion against James II largely because he saw James as a Catholic version of Cromwell – a man willing to tear apart the fabric of society out of loyalty to a narrow-minded religious enthusiasm….

“Locke advocated religious toleration but not a separation of the state from the church. He supported the state-run, tax-funded Anglican church; he argued that those who dissented should be free to practice their own religions in their own churches, but not that the state should not run a church.”

The late Richard John Neuhaus, (also) writing in his journal, First Things:

“While one can agree about the element of nobility in the grandly flawed experiments of Calvin in Geneva, Cromwell in England, and the Puritans in this country, the particular nature of their common failure needs careful attention. (The mixed success of Kuyperianism in the Netherlands, it might be noted, was due in large part to Kuyper’s respect for the place of “common grace” and reason in the ordering of society, precisely the element of Kuyper that strict theonomists repudiate.) The question is whether the flaw in these earlier experiments was in the intention or in the execution. Theonomists urge us to work harder and think more clearly so that we can do it right the next time. Other Christians insist it should not be done at all.

Boldface and hyperlinks within the quotations were added.

Other posts about Anglicans and Puritans:

Richard Hooker versus the Puritans and the Separatists

Anglicanism and ‘Biblical Anglicans’ as the one-third Anglicans

Anglicanism, Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker in the context of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition

Richard Hooker versus the Puritan position — more about the Anglican view of Scripture, Reason & Tradition


I think Anglicanism looks most distinctive, at least to Americans, when it is contrasted with Puritanism, in part because America was influenced much more by the Puritans than by the Roman Catholics.

The Puritans and the Roman Catholics are relevant because Anglicanism was designed to be neither Puritan nor Roman Catholic.

Here’s a good witness for my case: Jaroslav Pelikan, the late Yale University historian of Christianity, who was acknowledged in many corners of Christendom as a scholar with a good grasp of the faith’s doctrinal and theological developments and changes.

In his book Reformation of Church and Dogma, which is Volume 4 in his five-book set The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Pelikan gives the following interpretation of Richard Hooker (1554-1600) and his book Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

Hooker acknowledged that there were many doctrines, including the Trinity, that were “in Scripture nowhere to be found by express literal mention, only deduced they are out of Scripture by collection.” Yet that did not detract from “the sufficiency of Scripture unto the end for which it was instituted,” so long as one recognized what that end was — and what it was not. It was the knowledge of salvation, but it was not a detailed “ordinance of Jesus Christ” about the specific arrangements of ecclesiastical polity. These were to be known from the laws of reason and nature; for “when supernatural duties are necessarily exacted, natural are not rejected as needless,” and the law of God included both. Therefore it was a mistake, in the name of “a desire to enlarge the necessary use of the word of God,” to hold that “only one law, the Scripture, must be the rule to direct in all things,” when in fact “God hath left sundry kinds of laws unto men, and by all those laws the actions of men are in some sort directed.” (boldface added)

This should reveal Hooker’s belief in a reasonable exercise of reason, as well as an appreciation for traditional Christian beliefs that were handed down through practice and belief — yet not found spelled-out in Scripture.

When Hooker, within Pelikan’s paraphrase, said Scripture “was not a detailed ‘ordinance of Jesus Christ’,” he took exception to a point of view represented by the Puritans.

As quoted before on this blog, Professor David L. Holmes suggests that in the time of Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the Prayer Book author who died two years after Hooker was born, the Puritans were uncomfortable with any exercise of reason or acknowledgement of tradition in church beliefs, practices, and offices:

The Puritan party, which desired biblical warrant for all beliefs, practices, and offices of a Christian church, viewed the Prayer Book as a half-way house to true reform and objected that it retained practices that were unscriptural.

In contrast, Anglicanism and the Church of England were distinct largely because of the English liturgy as found in the Book of Common Prayer. The Puritans, according to Holmes, disliked the Book of the Common Prayer!

Furthermore, Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, as described above by Pelikan, opposes the Puritan premise as described by Holmes. Hooker’s book, according to Pelikan, was “an apologia for the unique features of the Anglican settlement.”

We ought to register a significant difference between Anglicanism and the Puritan point of view.

This significant difference was not unique to Hooker. Professor William C. Placher, as I quoted elsewhere, said of Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer:

His interests lay less in systematic theology than in church history, especially the history of liturgy, and in writing the Book of Common Prayer he produced the foundation of much English religion and one of the glories of English prose.

Keep in mind that evangelical Christianity in the United States has largely shared the Puritan suspicion of reason and tradition. As Philip J. Lee writes,

The Puritan changes often brought the New England theology perilously close to gnostic Christianity. Of particular concern is the Puritans’ concentration on the self and their tendency to regard humanity from an elitist perspective.

That’s from Lee’s book, Against the Protestant Gnostics.