Those nutty Puritans and their nutty, nutty values

I bet you’re all dying to see a chart we made in class comparing the “values” we gleaned from the Iroquois myth compared and contrasted with the Puritan “values” we inferred from the Jonathan Edwards sermon.

Well, today’s your lucky day, because here it is!

calues chart

This makes kind of a nice companion chart to one we made a few days ago that compared details from the two groups’ creation stories. When you put the charts side by side you can see pretty clearly illustrated the idea that I hope has been drilled into everyone’s head over the past two weeks: Myths are not “stories that are not true,” but rather stories that define and communicate a society’s values.

The Puritans’ set of values seems pretty simple on its face: Follow the law (the Bible), work hard, be humble, etc. It’s really just the old “Protestant work ethic” that many (perhaps MOST) people consider the functional core of the American dream. That may be true, but the more we find out about Puritans the more paradoxes start to emerge. For example, why did they sometimes seem so obsessed with the justice of the Old Testament God yet profess dedication to the mercy ideals of the New Testament? How can the doctrine of predestination motivate anyone who isn’t already naturally inclined to do so to get their butt up off the couch and get to work with that famous “Protestant work ethic”?

Of course, there are many responses to these paradoxes, and when we describe the daily life of the average colonial Puritan, the way they arranged their lives to try to resolve some of these paradoxes start to look awfully familiar. For example, Puritans understood that they were not able to judge the souls of their neighbors, to decide which of them might be truly “elect.” Yet, practically speaking, routine decisions about compliance with the rule of the law/church had to be made and enforced by community authorities. This reliance on outward appearances and behavior meant that, whether one was convinced one was “elect” or not, it was crucial to act like it. Does this strike a familiar chord with you observers of contemporary America? Now, combine that idea of “appearances revealing ‘elect-ness'” with a prevalence of cheap credit, and you see how we can blame the Puritans for the Great Depression, Black Tuesday, Black Thursday, Black Monday, the dot-com bubble, the housing bubble, and the wart I have just starting on my left ring finger.

Okay, maybe not the wart. Or Black Thursday, since I think I made that up. But I think that other stuff has just a little something to do with our “Puritanical” need to keep up with “Brother and Sister Jones.”

The Puritans were also great, and their strictness and respect for authority and total homogeneity of culture might have been the very things that allowed their colonies to survive and flourish as the incubators of the new republic. I don’t think most of us contemporary people would like to live in a Puritan colony, but tomorrow we’ll see how people like Benjamin Franklin were able to carry over some of the truly great developments of the Puritan colonies into the (small-c) constitution of the United States.

Nice job, Puritans


Download: Puritans’ role in early America


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