The New England Mind

As a couple of my posts may have indicated, I've become fascinated with Perry Miller's writings on New England Puritanism over the past six months or so. They are not so much social history as intellectual history--an examination of the evolution of the ideas that brought New England Puritans from an essentially medieval intellectual outlook to a modern one within the span of a hundred years.Miller's magnum opus: The New England Mind, is a commitment. It comprises two volumes, each with big pages, small print, and each encompassing about five hundred pages of text (without notes). For anyone who wants to understand the relationship of religion, public morality, and religious liberty in the US, it's completely worth it.In addition, Miller is a treat to read. Entirely worth it. Wonderful control of the concepts, and, in my view at least, a beautiful stylist. Humane, wistful, and sharp when sharpness is required. Especially sharp with the Mathers--Increase and Cotton.The last two paragraphs of the whole thing--in a chapter entitled Vale AtqueAve."It [New England in 1730] was a parched land, crying for deliverance from the hold of ideas that had served their purpose and died. It had more than the rudiments of new conceptions, an abundance of abilities demanding expression. It was part of Protestant civilization, and, as everywhere in that kingdom, the weight of the past had become stifling. For the revivification of great principles, religious or civil, an awakening was necessary. It was a problem not only for thought but even more for language. The covenant had accurately described reality for John Winthrop, and Richard Mather had framed enduring counsel within its confines; but now reality--all the complex, jostling reality of this anxious society--demanded new descriptions. Ideas relative to these facts had to be propounded and in words that could make the relation overwhelmingly felt."By the end of 1730 it was evident that everybody had spoken from whom ideas orwords were apt to come, had indicated what he might or might not contribute tothe solution. Or rather, all except one. The next spring it was known that Jonathan Edwards would come to the Harvard Commencement, and he was pressed to give the Thursday lecture. Solomon Stoddard's successor announed that he would speak on GOD GLORIFIED IN THE WORK OF REDEMPTION, BY THE GREATNESS OF MEN'S DEPENDENCE UPON HIM, IN THE WHOLE OF IT. That man must depend upon God in thework of the covenant was always a basic axiom of New England. That he should depend upon God in reforming the sins he committed in his independence was the premise of all jeremiads. Yet somehow, in a century of American experience,the greatness of man's dependency had unaccountably become a euphemism for the greatness of man. Possibly that was because this greatness had not yet been thoroughly considered in the whole of it."

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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