books History

Lives of the American Puritans: Dustin Benge and Nate Pickowicz’s “The American Puritans”

Nate Pickowicz is a pastor and historian who openly admires the Puritans. In his The American Puritans, with a closing chapter by scholar Dustin Benge, Pickowicz treats us to the lives of nine eminent Puritans in chronological order from hagiographic Protestant eyes.

The Puritans occupy an odd and unique place in American history and memory. If there are any admirers today, they tend to be like Pickowicz, Protestant evangelicals with a strong debt to the Puritan theological tradition: Reformed congregationalism as opposed to the higher Reformed ecclesiastical traditions like Presbyterianism who more or less revere the Presbyterians of Scotland alongside John Calvin with little or limited appreciation for the Puritan tradition. Many critics of the American Puritans, who fancy themselves progressives and truthtellers, actually spout a bunch of hogwash and downright lies and misinformation about the Puritans.

There was a time in the middle of the twentieth century when a number of prominent skeptical scholars, surrounded by Perry Miller of Harvard, had a positive view of the Puritans. Pickowicz attempts to revive that positive approach to the Puritans but does so not from a skeptical historical perspective but one of a faithful Protestant disposition.

Recently, there has been a revival in Puritan studies due to the treasure of writings and materials they have left us and a renewed interest in their work from American, Canadian, and British scholars and students.

Yet we can never forget who the Puritans were: men and women of faith. And Pickowicz’s book is an enduring reminder of that fact. While clearly written from a devotional disposition, the book is easy reading and a great summary—minus some of the hyperbolic rhetoric directed at Catholics and Anglicans—of the lives of nine Puritans: William Bradford, John Winthrop, John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, Anne Bradstreet, John Eliot, Samuel Willard, and Cotton Mather.

The composition of the work is pretty straightforward. Each chapter introduces us to one of the Puritans, gives us their birth, maturation, adulthood, and death—whereby Pickowicz inevitably uses Christian language to sign off his heroes he written about. Rinse and repeat.

Within this simple biographical format for chapters, we are also given snippets of information of important events and other people related to the lives of the Puritans Pickowicz is sampling. This work is meant for sympathetic readers, undoubtedly of a Protestant Christian persuasion, to become reacquainted with the Puritans. But for those who are not, as I am not, there are still wonderful little moments in the book.

Of particular interest is Pickowicz’s chapter on Anne Bradstreet. Bradstreet used to be well-known in America. Now she isn’t. Perhaps it’s because she was a Christian woman. Woman, yes. Christian, no. So she gets the short stick in today’s fad of feminism. Though Bradstreet ought to be reappraised. Pickowicz concentrates on her poetry and how it reflected her theology and love. And he does an excellent job sampling her splendid prose from within a devotional lyricism that was common within metaphysical poetry in the seventeenth century metaphysical poetic tradition. (I’m particularly fond of George Herbert.) The chapter on Bradstreet is, by itself, a great introduction to a wrongly forgotten founding mother of the United States.

Our authors note in their introduction that “we hope to clarify and correct many of the myths and half-truths associated with the American Puritans.” They do this admirably and honestly. The American Puritans is a great little read over some eminent lives of Puritans in the colonial era of America and although written from a devotional perspective, one will still garner a great—albeit concise—introduction to these important souls who were instrumental in laying the groundworks for the eventual emergence of the United States of America. One need not be a Puritan, or a Puritan sympathizer, to nevertheless enjoy this little work.

Nate Pickowicz and Dustin Benge
The American Puritans
Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2020; 208pp.

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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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