The Puritans: A Sourcebook of their Writings by Perry Miller

tsslogo.jpgPuritan fashion is hot! No kidding. A top designer recently announced the resurgence of the Puritan doily! Yes, that white thing around Richard Sibbes’ neck is coming back. [Once for a college video project to portray John Winthrop I cut a neck hole in a table doily. Yes, there are pictures of me sportin’ the thing. No, you’ll never see them.]

There is more to the Puritans than hip doily fashion. So who were they? This question receives a great deal of answers but one book relinquishes definition of Puritan culture to the words of the Puritans. The book is titled The Puritans: A Sourcebook of their Writings (Dover: 2001) edited by Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson.

Perry Miller (1905-1963) was a professor at Harvard and is remembered as a fine Puritan scholar and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Narrowed specifically on the American Puritans, this 1,000 book is loaded with original source writings and helpful introductions covering the true Puritan in their manners, customs, behaviors, poetry and their thoughts on art, education, politiks and science. It provides a fascinating background in the search to understand true Puritan culture.

Here are a few choice cuts from the intro:

“Without some understanding of Puritanism, it may be safely said, there is no understanding of America … In the mood of revolt against the ideals of previous generations which has swept over our period, Puritanism has become a shining target for many sorts of marksmen. Confusion becomes worse confounded if we attempt to correlate modern usages with anything that can be proved pertinent to the original Puritans themselves. To seek no further, it was the habit of proponents for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment during the 1920’s to dub Prohibitionists ‘Puritans,’ and the cartoonists made the nation familiar with an image of the Puritan: a gaunt, lank-haired kill-joy, wearing a black steeple hat and compounding for sins he was inclined to by damning those to which he had no mind. Yet any acquaintance with the Puritans of the seventeenth century will reveal at once, not only that they did not wear such hats, but also that they attired themselves in all the hues of the rainbow, and furthermore that in their daily life they imbibed what seem to us prodigious quantities of alcoholic beverages, with never the slightest inkling that they were doing anything sinful. … if first of all we wish to take Puritan culture as a whole, we shall find, let us say, that about ninety per cent of the intellectual life, scientific knowledge, morality, manners and customs, notions and prejudices, was that of all Englishmen … They were not unique or extreme in thinking that religion was the primary and all-engrossing business of man, or that all human though and action should tend to the glory of God.”

This book is not Cross-centered but very useful in illustrating the Puritan Cross-centered spirituality existed within a cultural sensitivity to art, politiks, education, science and the world around them. Very useful to confront the caricature that the Puritans were dry, culturally withdrawn and excessive zealots.

7 thoughts on “The Puritans: A Sourcebook of their Writings by Perry Miller

  1. I, too, love this book for its great collection of Puritan writings. But I do question whether the authors truly grasp Puritan theology.

    To give but one example, on page 14 of the intro we read about “the Puritan doctrine that men were saved by the infusion of God’s grace…” On page 56 the author says of the Puritans, “They held…that men had fallen into a state of sin and that in order to be saved they must receive from God a special infusion of grace…” However, this is Romish theology, not Puritan!

    For the most part, the authors’ descriptions of Puritan life and worldview are correct, but much discernment is required when the authors discuss Puritan beliefs and spirituality.

  2. Kevin, I totally agree! Thanks for these illuminating excerpts on mistaken Puritan theology! The strength of this volume is the original source material and the social/scientific/artistic activities of the Puritans. Here the volume shines brightly. Blessings, Tony

  3. Exactly so–I think its strongest area is in the Poetry that they have selected. Much of it is not available anywhere else (that I’m able to find). I’m humbled every time I read Anne Bradstreet’s “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House”. After describing how she escaped from her burning home in the middle of the night, she writes:

    And, when I could no longer look,
    I blest his Name that gave and took,
    That layd my goods now in the dvst:
    Yea so it was, and so ’twas jvst.
    It was his own: it was not mine;
    Far be it that I should repine.

    Would those be my words if I were watching my home and all of my earthly possessions go up in smoke? Sadly, no. I am reminded that affirming God’s sovereignty over our lives is an easy thing to say with our lips–it’s quite another matter to do so with our hearts.

    Thanks for reviewing this great book and prompting me to get it down from the shelf again and read it afresh.

  4. Yes! This was the first poem I turned to and read. I could not help but read it to my kids sitting nearby. Maybe I’ll post this poem later in the week on TSS?! Needless to say Anne Bradstreet, because of this book, has become one of my favorites! Blessings my friend! Tony

  5. I know I have heard of Perry Miller being a scholar on american purtianism. I read his autobiography of Jonathan Edwards. Was he an athiest? A number of sources briefly mention that he was.

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