“Fortunately, the Puritans stopped existing…”

As a lover of the theater (and a lover of a good time, for that matter), I agree that it was fortunate that the Puritans stopped existing, although lately they seem to be rising from their graves to drag modern culture back to their narrow definitions.

But that is beside my student’s point.

“Stopped existing” is nicer than, say, “died out,” since it seems to give the Puritans some volition in the matter. “Life is getting to be a drag,” you can imagine them saying to one another; “Let’s stop existing.” They shut up shop and that’s that.

No, my student had a much more developed understanding of what happened to Bradford, Winthrop, Mather, Edwards, & Co.: they stopped existing “because of the Salem Witch trials.” Did she mean they were conscience-stricken at the wrongs they had done in God’s name, and so they rode off into the sunset or turned off their life force? Or their glee at beating the devil gave them all fatal strokes? Or they felt their work was done and moved on to viler pastures? The exact agency, process, and motive seem unclear, but she still goes on to offer an explanation:

“Fortunately, the Puritans stopped existing because of the Salem Witch trials. Luckily more Christians were rising so they didn’t last long after that.”

“Rising”? Rising out of the ground? Rising up from inactivity? Rising against the Puritans? Gaining in the popularity polls? You can see that she continues to be glad at the demise of the stern and rock-bound host (sorry, pun irresistible!), anyway; and I think she believes she is continuing in a line of exposition as well. They stopped existing because more Christians rose after, or as a consequence of, the Salem witch trials and so the Puritans couldn’t last.

Does this make sense to you? I wonder if, at last, it made sense to her. It happened, after all, back in Yore, that hazy past students love to allude to but almost never have much of a grasp of.…The statement ends like the Puritans in her narrative, not with a bang but a whimper (sorry, TSE).

She seems to realize she has embarked on a road that is becoming increasingly obscure, but she is unable to turn back. The repetition and amplification smack of desperation. There’s a hint of Oscar Wilde’s lovely line in The Importance of Being Earnest here: Algernon Moncrieff, in love with a country girl and therefore now impeded by the “existence” of the invalid (also in the country) he invented as an excuse to get out of social obligations in London, he now attempts to UNinvent him by telling his Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell, that Bunbury, the invalid in question, has died. The dialogue goes on:

Lady Bracknell.  What did he die of?

Algernon.  Bunbury?  Oh, he was quite exploded.

Lady Bracknell.  Exploded!  Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage?  I was not aware that Mr. Bunbury was interested in social legislation.  If so, he is well punished for his morbidity.

Algernon.  My dear Aunt Augusta, I mean he was found out!  The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live, that is what I mean—so Bunbury died.

Lady Bracknell.  He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians.  I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action, and acted under proper medical advice.

I think of this exchange because my student’s narrative has that same improvisatory feel to it, and the same ending note that “they stopped existing” because they realized they “couldn’t last.”

I have nothing against Bunbury, and so I have no feelings positive or negative about his passing away into the ether.

About the Puritans, though, I have to agree with my student. They had no tolerance for other faiths: they assumed that the native Americans were Satan-worshippers; and even other Christians they persecuted whenever they got a chance, at least in the early days, locking Quakers in smokehouses, putting non-Puritans in the stocks, driving them out of Massachusetts (that’s how Rhode Island got founded!). Maybe they knew that if these others “rose” sufficiently the Puritans would be crowded out and wouldn’t be able to “last.” But, perhaps because by 1692 the Puritans were giving more attention to killing suspected witches than to suppressing those Christian upstarts, somehow the others DID rise sufficiently to, what, jump them in dark alleys and do away with them.

However they “ceased to exist,” they were a dour lot when they trod the earth and we are fortunate that they no longer hold sway in our lives. If our luck holds, that is.

"Sample Puritan," by "Bill" Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Luckily they no longer walk among us.

“Sample Puritan,” by “Bill” Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Luckily they no longer walk among us.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

9 responses to ““Fortunately, the Puritans stopped existing…”

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