How Should We Remember the Puritans?

When the word “Puritan” entered the English language almost 500 years ago, it came as an insult—a “soul-killing Nick-name,” as one of the insulted called it. One of the name-callers, a conforming clergyman exasperated by demands to purify the Anglican Church of all vestiges of Roman Catholicism, replied to his implacable critics, “We call you Puritans not because you are purer than other men…but because you think yourselves to be purer.”

In one variation or another, the charge has been repeated ever since. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne portrayed his Puritan ancestors as “stern and black-browed” members of “the most intolerant brood that ever lived.” The narrator of George Santayana’s 1935 novel The Last Puritan accused them of sharing with “the Bolshies” a “scorn of all compromises, practical or theoretical.” Just a few months ago, Maureen Dowd devoted a New York Times column to denouncing the left flank of the Democratic Party for keeping the spirit of “the Massachusetts Bay Colony…alive and well on the Potomac and Twitter,” thereby raising the risk of a second term for Donald Trump. These “modern Puritans,” she wrote, “eviscerate their natural allies for not being pure enough.”

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