The New England Mind: From Colony to Province Paperback – 15 Apr 1983
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About the Author
Perry Miller (1905-1963) was an historian and literary critic. He is the author of numerous books, including the Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1956, Jonathan Edwards, Errand into the Wilderness, American Thought: Civil War to World War I, and The New England Mind: From Colony to Province.
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Miller also described a terrifying "declension" experienced by the Puritans which, he asserted, resulted from the "apostasy, ingratitude, and corruption" of their too well off children who did not understand the struggles of their forefathers and did not appreciate their sacrifices in bringing them to a new land of plenty where they might live their lives in the spirit of a covenant with God (p. 482). The demise of the intellectual position of the early Puritans disturbed Miller, who searched for order among the thought of its best minds. Instead, he found a terrifying dissension that rejected that earlier consensus. As Miller put it, at the time that the revolutionary generation was being born in the 1730s "reality--all the complex, jostling reality of this anxious society--demanded new descriptions" to make sense of the world (p. 485).
As in all works by Miller, America was very much one nation and one people, but in this book he describes an unsettled people and nation troubled by its place in the world and its own self-image. A search for identity ensued, and for Miller that was a never ending quest. This book, a product of the consensus historical construct of the middle part of the twentieth century--which emphasized common intellectual beliefs over conflicting self-interest--remains an imposing work. It is involved reading with its emphasis on the elite thinkers of Puritan New England, but the depth of investigation and the breadth of detail is impressive. Few would read either this volume, or its prequel, at the beach, but for those seeking to understand the history of Puritanism it is invaluable.
The erosion of the New England Way was driven by multiple forces. Conceived as a somewhat utopian experiment that would kindle a further reformation in Europe, Puritan theology prepared the ministerial elite poorly to deal with the reality of an increasingly prosperous and permanent society. A society of the elect faced both major theoretical and practical problems of bringing the children of the elect into the covenant, leading to the famous Half-Way Covenant, a compromise that ultimately satisfied no one and contributed significantly to ministerial conflict and the decay of Covenant theology. The latter's emphasis on contractualism would give rise to secularizing political trends and after the Restoration, the Puritans had to concede toleration to avoid being overrun by state-sponsored Anglicanism and the ambiguity of claiming toleration as a minority while insisting on state church privileges in New England was a persistent source of tension with London. Episodes like the Salem Witch trials and persecution of dissenters kindled considerable disillusionment with the orthodox ministry.
The Puritan emphasis on learning was something of a Trojan horse. By the end of the 17th century, Cartesian logic was being taught at Harvard. Thinkers like Grotius, Locke, and Newton were widely read, even by some of the most conservative figures in the Puritan ministry. Even Machiavelli was cited approvingly during some disputes within the ministry. Starting from Covenant theology, a persistent theme is the gradual growth in the estimation of human capacities and retreat from strict Calvinism, often in disguised forms. Miller focuses particularly on the careers and intellectual evolution of Increase and Cotton Mather, the father and son ministers who continually fought rear guard actions against the decline of New England orthodoxy. Other figures, such as Solomon Stoddard, the "Pope" of the Connecticut River valley and implacable foe of the Half-Way Covenant, and portrayed very well.
Like The Seventeenth Century, the quality of writing is outstanding. Miller treats his subjects seriously and sympathetically but there many gems of ironic commentary throughout this book.