In Search of an Epigram

In Search of an Epigram

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March 28, 2012
 

Long before Indigenous peoples had to deal with pentecostals and other evangelicals committed to converting them from heathenism, there were the Puritans. In America, these religious fanatics — who washed up on the shores of Wampanoag territory and repaid Indigenous generosity with murder — have themselves undergone quite a transformation.

One of the supreme ironies in American history is the philosophical evolution of the Pilgrim faction of Puritan denominations over the last four centuries.

The central tenet of Puritanism was God’s supreme authority over human affairs, which led them to seek both individual and corporate conformance to the teaching of the Bible, pursuing moral purity down to the smallest detail. The Pilgrims (the separatist, congregationalist Puritans who went to North America) are famous for banning from their New England colonies many secular entertainments, such as games of chance, maypoles, and drama, all of which were perceived as examples of immorality.

They believed that secular governors are accountable to God to protect and reward virtue, including “true religion”, and to punish wrongdoers.

In modern usage, the word puritan is often used as an informal pejorative for someone who has strict views on sexual morality and wishes to impose these beliefs on others. None of these qualities were unique to Puritanism or universally characteristic of the Puritans themselves, whose moral views and ascetic tendencies were no more extreme than many other Protestant reformers of their time, and who were relatively tolerant of other faiths — at least in England.

The popular image is slightly more accurate as a description of Puritans in colonial America, who were among the most radical Puritans and whose social experiment took the form of a Calvinist theocracy.

The modern Congregational Church (which merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ) is the direct descendant of New England Puritan congregations, although in the early 19th century a few of these old congregations adopted Unitarianism. Oddly, of most recent note, the United Church of Christ was pilloried by the Southern Baptist Convention for adopting the position of equal rights for homosexuals.

And while the citizens of present-day England may have the sixteenth century antecedents of these Baptist, Presbyterian, and Quaker dissenters to thank for their parliamentarian form of governance and the absence of a religious monarchy, it is indeed quixotic that the American refuge these religious protesters founded ended up being their greatest hope for establishment of a modern theocracy.

*I gratefully acknowledge my reliance on Wikipedia for historical research.

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