Books History

De-Mythologizing the Puritans: Francis Bremer’s “The Puritan Experiment”

The Puritans are foundational to the United States. This is not a secret. It is, however, problematic to some—mostly illiterate people who have no understanding of who the Puritans were. In the mid-twentieth century, a number of exceptional scholars wrote histories representing the Puritans against their illiterate critics. Francis Bremer was one of them.

The Puritan Experiment: New England Society form Bradford to Edwards, is a survey history of the 150 or so years of Puritanism’s groundworks in colonial America. It was a text I had to read for my graduate seminar on Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism while a student at Yale. It’s important to revisit it here to help dispel the myths of the Puritans.

Bremer’s work chronological traces the evolution of Puritan society from colonial settlement to the eve of revolution. In it we are treated to the real faces of American Puritan society: who they were; where they came from and why; their relationship to Mother England; their general theological vision; relations with the indigenous tribes; the Salem witch trials; contributions to art, science, and education; and their religious innovations.

Let us briefly address three of the major points that often get targeted by uninformed critics.

First is their relationship with the indigenous tribes of New England and the Salem witch trials which are the general bugaboo issues to defame the Puritans. As Bremer decisively rebuts with real historical data, not fantasy critical conjuncture, Puritan-Indian relations were generally benign until the advent of King Philip’s War. As he writes, “From the time that Plymouth’s first governor, John Carver, signed a treaty of peace with Chief Massasoit…the history of New England’s Indian relations was one of remarkable, though not unblemished, amity.” The reality of Puritan-Indian relations from 1620-1675 was one that was, as Bremer states, amiable. Puritan-Indian relations were generally benign and led to prosperity for all – especially the Native American tribes who benefited from industrial and scientific advancements offered by the Puritans. In fact, Native Americans actually became more proficient using musket technology than the Puritans because of their hunting culture which turned them into crack shots. The so-called “genocide” of disease is something unserious writers promote: disease transmission is not intentional. It wasn’t until King Philip’s War, which was the result of indigenous rivalries that subsumed the Puritans, that Puritan-Indian relations soured.

Additionally, the Salem witch trials garner the imagination of people who want to paint the Puritans in darkness. The truth is the opposite. Bremer highlights how the trials were not different than witch crazes in “enlightened” Europe at the same time. Moreover, compared to Europe, the Salem witch trials were very tame by comparison. Bremer doesn’t defend the witch trials. He simply points out that the hysteria of Puritan tyranny and darkness is fabricated lies from the middle nineteenth century. The actual history of the witch trials shows a comparatively moderate trial and outcome compared to the most grotesque trials and hysteria of Europe.

A second point is that the Puritans, being religious, were anti-intellectual. This is also nonsense peddled by the real anti-intellectual imbeciles – the critics of the Puritans. The Puritans were among the most educated people in England at the time of their migration to America. Most hailed from Cambridge (a hub of Puritan theology at the time). The Puritans wanted a university trained ministry in America. So they established the most famous university in America: Harvard. The second most famous university in America, my alma mater, was also founded by the Puritans: Yale.

Furthermore, requirements for admission were a lot hard than today. By age 15 students were expected to know Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and other foreign languages. And that was to gain entrance into college – not in order to graduate. The Puritan zeal for education is what made New England the most educated and liberal place in America. Education was one of the major ideological goals of the Puritan movement. Their promotion of education eventually led to the establishment of our contemporary public school system which was inspired by the Puritan model of universal education. Anyone who says the Puritans were anti-intellectual is the real anti-intellectual; they’re speaking out of their ass. The descendants of the Puritans came to dominate the Midwest, were the presidents and professors of virtually all universities, and became leaders of educational, moral, and social reform on the eve of the Civil War.

The third point is that the Puritans were anti-science. Again, this is demonstrably untrue. The Puritans advocated the study of nature and laid the foundations for America’s scientific and medical establishment. America’s earliest scientists and science institutions were founded by the Puritans. The Puritans advocated the smallpox inoculation despite strong opposition from within their own community (a hysteric anti-vaxxer threw a bomb into Cotton Mather’s house because he advocated the smallpox vaccine). The relationship between science and theology, as I’ve also written on in this post, was synthetic. Bremer reminds us, “English university graduates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Puritan as well as Anglican, saw no incompatibility between science and religion. They were confident that the study of the creation could only add to man’s knowledge of the creator.” Once more, any who claims the Puritans were anti-science knows not what they are speaking about.

To something more familiar, however, we also see the Puritans’ religious innovations still manifesting itself today. This is especially true in American evangelicalism. The Puritans pioneered “born again” confessionalism: the idea that in order to become a full member of a Christian church one had to give an account of their conversion. While the Puritans retained a higher view of the sacraments of baptism and communion compared to modern evangelicals (they baptized infants as was the common practice for all Protestants except Anabaptists at the time), their emphasis on personal conversion stories was innovative. Additionally, the Puritan practice of open communion between united churches eventually laid the groundwork for today’s open communion practices that also are adopted by most mainstream Protestants who have limited historical exposure to Puritanism. Finally, the congregational governance structure of independent churches—though in open communion with each other—not governed by a higher ecclesiastical body was another Puritan innovation.

For anyone who actually wants to learn about the Puritans in a concise and erudite manner, Francis Bremer’s The Puritan Experiment is the best little book on the New England Puritans and their history and legacy in America.

Francis Bremer
The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards
Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1995; 1976.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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