What manner of man is this Puritan?
Today I have been reading through an assortment of Puritan primary documents, including the Mayflower Compact and an assortment of letters written by early Mayflower settlers. How brilliantly they illustrate the Roman administration intersecting with the Viking spirit of entrepreneurship and venture. Idealism and pragmatism bear out in equal measure. Or is it that only men of this ilk were called or motivated to come to this strange new land? Perhaps it is worth noting that those early settlers with religious motivation out-settled those with only commercial desires to recommend them. Either way, their letters give us a picture of practical folks deeply impacted (internally) and motivated (externally), and whose personalities seem to forever encapsulated by their black, belt-buckled hats: sensible, sober, and spiritual. Yet I do not see the kind of grim fatalism which moderns regularly attribute to our Puritan forebears.
Take for instance the Compact, formed on the go after it was realized that their preexisting contract was invalid, was simultaneously idealistic (“Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith, and the honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia…”) and practical (“…enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony…”). Perhaps this is the inevitable result of a culture which does not acknowledge a hard-and-fast divide between the realms of Church and state, where Biblical dominion taking is a more natural and obvious undertaking.
Were this limited to the Compact, we might discount it for nothing more than mere rhetoric. But that would not appear to be the case. To the contrary, we see this practical idealism born out in the letters sent by colonists home to family and acquaintances. Isaak de Raisers’s 1628 letter to Samuel Blommaert we get a “memoir” littered with depth soundings, Indian numbers, crop yields, and emphasizes concern regarding grants/patents to harbors and fishing grounds, and the peculiar (and apparently promiscuous) sexual habits of the local Indians (the colonists being rather over-interested in this last matter, I think making them not so different than men in all other times throughout history). And yet, few letters draw to a close without first asserting something along the lines such as are found in William Hilton’s Letter to his Family in 1621, wherein he concludes that, “Our company are, for the most part, very religious, honest people; the word of God sincerely taught us ever Sabbath…” They are practical people to be sure, yet not mere materialists seeking after their own prosperity, but deeply reverent and God-fearing, seeking not after wealth per say, but rather contentedness.
Later, Americans like Ben Franklin will romanticize this practical, industrious side to the American character. So ubiquitous is this notion that we seem now to think this quality is somehow conferred by right of birth. But birthrights can be sold for soup. And I am not the first cultural commentator to wonder aloud if we are at risk of filling our bellies at the expense of our inheritance. As I recall, Esau never did fully recover from that exchange.