When one thinks of Puritans and Puritanism (in the US this usually happens around the time of Thanksgiving) one usually thinks of men and women in staid black vestments who are dour in demeanor and extremely strict and bleak in their morals. However, this caricature has more to do with the way that Puritanism was used in the twentieth century as a byword for all sorts of strict moral and religious attitudes than with the real Puritans and their primary concerns. From that standpoint this very short introduction from the Oxford University Press serves as a useful guide to dispelling many of those prevalent myths and prejudices about Puritanism. It places its origins in the right historical and political context, and that is the one of sixteenth and seventeenth England. Puritanism arose in the aftermath of the splitting of the Church of England from the Catholic Church, and its primary impulses were to bring the Church of England further along the line of other protestant churches and get rid of what was perceived as remnants of Catholic practices. Puritans never became a separate and self-contained denomination, but were rather a reform movement within Anglicanism. In their theology they were closer to Calvinism, but overall did not possess a distinct theological tradition.
In England, aside from politics Puritans have had a significant influence on all aspects of public life. John Milton's "Paradise Lost" is a prime example of influence of Puritan ideal on literature and arts. One of the more surprising things that I came away with after reading this book was how quite ordinary Puritans actually were, and how in fact some of the stereotypes we have about them are in actuality quite the opposite of what the reality were. For instance, much like the rest of sixteenth and seventeenth English population Puritans readily consumed alcohol, even in preference to water which was at the time extremely polluted and unsafe to drink. The completely black outfits that are traditionally associated with Puritans were in fact worn only by the elite, since black cloths at the time symbolized high status and were hard to come by. The only accurate idea about them seems to be about their avoidance of theatre and dancing.
In the US Puritanism has a special status due to the nation's founding myth of Pilgrims who had established a colony in present day Massachusetts. For centuries many of the values and ideals that have been ascribed to the Pilgrims have shaped the way that Americans perceive themselves. The actual Puritans are long gone now, but many of their spiritual descendants are still with us in the form of different Protestant denominations. For the sake of better understanding of American religious heritage it is important to know about the origin of these denominations, and this very short introduction is a very useful step in that direction.
on 3 March 2014
I came to this book wanting an account free from the stereotypes of puritanism. My own childhood was significantly shaped by the final echoes of puritan thinking and I wanted to understand it more; to get away from the image of prudish, repressed, prohibitionist busy-bodies and people whose greatest fear was that "someone, somewhere might be happy."
Bremner gives a clear account of the origins of puritanism, what he calls 'the reformation of the Reformation'. He explains the thinking, the historical context and the core beliefs. There are excellent chapters on the puritan's concept of God and what that God required of him. There is a chapter on the puritan way of life too, which holds many pleasant surprises: that they enjoyed a glass of wine, didn't dress in black and (shock) also enjoyed sex. Here is a pattern of belief and thought that hugely influenced this country and was a significant part of the founding of a new country - America.
If there is an issue (four stars, not five) it is that he perhaps spends a little too much time in the early Untied States rather than here at home. There is little of Milton or John Bunyan - the puritan who wrote the most influential and published puritan book in English history. I would like to have seen a link made with the later evangelical movement, now so influential and global, and also the founding of the Brethren movement in Victorian times. Both of these were fundamentally puritan in their origins.
This small comment aside, I whole-heartedly commend this book. It joins the ranks of a fine series of 'Short Introduction' books and is worthy of the heritage. Puritanism is an underestimated and misunderstood part of our national heritage. Please read the book to discover more.