Can’t you just see them, those beliefs? Strutting ponderously along, thick of neck and thigh, arms straining the sleeves, hostility in the eye, belly perhaps leading the way?
To the modern American mind, the Puritans do seem domineering and dogmatic (one of my students described Jonathan Edwards as a “thug”). Oppressed themselves, they were quick to oppress others whose beliefs differed from theirs. Anxious for the salvation of souls and dedicated to the idea of community, they extended their spiritual and behavioral vigilance from the meeting house to the public square, thence into the home, the bedroom, and (alas) the barnyard. John Winthrop memorably considered the Massachusetts Bay Colony a “city on a hill,” not the “shining” one politicians mistakenly refer to but an enterprise that could not be hidden and that would be judged, for better or worse, as an example of the beliefs and practices of its inhabitants. These are onerous burdens—the individual soul and the collective example.
I think my student meant to say that the Puritans were set in their beliefs, strict in obedience, stern in judgment, swift in punishment of those who strayed. In the name of Christ’s mercy, they stressed God’s justice, and they defined God’s justice as a terrifying thing. Any deviation from their ideas of scripture was a threat to the whole structure of their lives and beliefs and therefore could not be tolerated. To express the extent to which they were “set,” he may have looked for an adverb. But what adverb would do the job? “Fairly” set? “Pretty,” “very,” “very very,” “extremely”? All of these will do, in a generic sense, to place “set” on some sort of gradient; but none actually characterizes it. Adding “heavy” isn’t an unreasonable idea.
We all have our beliefs, and at a certain point we decide those beliefs are “set,” not to change easily. But for most of us the beliefs sit within us fairly comfortably, coming forward when needed but not intruding otherwise, content to steer one life rather than trying to jump out and boss others around. But for the Puritans, their beliefs and their lives were the same thing, and orthodoxy of belief was essential for communal survival. Those beliefs must have sat in the soul as firmly as lead blocks, heavy as can be, set in stone; and they did stretch out a fist as beefy as a pulpit-pounding preacher’s at every opportunity, emphatically, energetically, steely of purpose and iron of will. Those beliefs weren’t just “set”; they were set very heavy indeed. “Heavy-set,” in fact.
Of course there’s the very good chance that my student had none of this in mind. He may simply have heard the expression “heavy-set” so often that the two words had become conjoined, so that where one went the other must also go. He didn’t even have to think about it: “set”meant “heavy-set.”
But I don’t want to think about this possibility, because, like so many strange student wordings, this one has become more and more appealing to me the more I’ve thought about it. I like the picture of a belief ponderously strutting, massive and implacable, inhabiting space with a weighty presence. “Heavy-set” does not, after all, mean “fat”: there’s something more foundational about it, more a matter of the basic being than of any additions to it. Yes, I have to admit I like the term.
I don’t like it in experience, though. Today, as back in the Puritan times, there are plenty of people walking around with their heavy-set beliefs stalking along beside them, ready to pound those who differ. Well, at least I have a word for them.