Tag Archives: Puritans

“The Puritans in that time frame are known today as Seventh Day Adventence.”

Once upon a time I was teaching remedial-level freshman comp at a Catholic Church-related university. In a class session devoted to topic development for a short (7-page) research-based argument paper, one student said he planned to write on the topic of “Protestants.” I asked him to clarify his central question, and he replied, “You know, who are they, where do they mostly live, what do they believe.” It took me nearly a minute (tick…tick…tick…) to frame a question in reply—that is to say, a question that did not too obviously express its subtext of “What the F?!?!?!?!

And I don’t mean “once upon a time” to imply that things have changed. I’m teaching now at another Catholic Church-related university, for instance, and I’m constantly amazed at how little my students (most of whom claim to be Catholic) know about major concepts and even holidays in their own religion, let alone other religions. At my “other” school, culturally more of a mixed bag, the situation is no different: most students will say that religion is important to them, but most of them are pretty hazy on the major beliefs or texts of any particular religion.

In a truly secular society this might be understandable (although, in literature classes, no less frustrating and saddening), but American society seems to become more vocally and dogmatically “religious” with each passing day—or so at least it seems in the media and in politics. The main problem with ignorance about religion, and religions, is that it is frequently accompanied by gullibility and especially a willingness to believe the worst. This is the case with ignorance of any kind; and, discouragingly enough, although most kinds of ignorance can be remedied by a little research, doing a little research seems to be the last thing that occurs to anyone.

All of this is merely prologue to today’s Horror.

Here was a student in my American Lit (first half) survey. The course is subtitled “Beginnings to Civil War,” meaning that the assigned readings cut off around 1865, or more accurately, the course closes with writers who “fl“ed around 1865. So we begin with the Puritans. (Interspersed are Native American readings, but dated according to when they were written down, not when the words or thoughts may have first been uttered.) Lately I’ve been arranging the syllabus according to themes (religion, the idea of America, slavery, women’s rights, “toward an American art”), with each theme’s readings arranged chronologically. Students are responsible for integrating the readings into a master chronology (which the anthology pretty much does for them), but reading thematically we can focus on the ways in which specific kinds of ideas emerged, evolved, battled, faded. At least my theory is that we can do that.

My student does understand that “the Puritans” flourished in a “time frame”: that is, they’re not still around—their writings and influence are time-specific, and even the changes the Puritan community underwent occurred within a specific period. But then she’s trying to associate the Puritans with today, for some reason: to make their beliefs clearer to her readers? to feel more closely related to them? to reassure herself that nothing truly disappears? to indicate to me that she understands more than she actually does?

The course never addresses Seventh Day Adventists. That sect wasn’t officially established until 1863, for one thing. (For another, the course doesn’t attempt to address all religions present in the United States at any given time.) So their presence in a paper written for the course is, shall we say, unexpected.

My suspicion that she doesn’t know much about the sect is deepened by the reasonable assumption that it’s only something she’s heard of, not something she knows anything about: how else to explain “Adventence” for “Adventists”?

What would “adventence” even be? “Advent” is arrival, the culmination of a process that leads to inevitable emergence or appearance. The advent of Spring. The Advent of Christ. Ad + venio, I come to; advenio, I arrive after a journey. Well, in English the suffix -ence or -ance adds “instance of an action or process, instance of a quality or state.” “Adventence,” then, might mean the condition of having arrived. The blooming daffodils confirmed the adventence of Spring. Would then the Seventh Day Adventence be the state of having arrived on the seventh day? Did the olden-day Puritans re-arrive in our midst seven days ago?

Yes, the Puritans were conservative and strict in their personal behavior, and so are Seventh Day Adventists supposed to be. Yes, both advocate a God-centered life, spiritual and personal humility, and the basic tenets of Christianity (and its Jewish roots). There are a few less-general beliefs they also share. But there’s no reason to think of one as an earlier (or later) version of the other…unless you’re a student with fuzzy notions about both and a desire to make something clear to readers that isn’t clear to yourself.

Verbum sap: Never claim more than you can support.

Never try to explain something you lack the means to understand. Look up what you don’t know. Think.

The late Stanley Crane, dearly beloved and deeply missed former Head Librarian of the Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, was once bemoaning to me students’ dependence on Cliff Notes. (This dependence has only grown, now on Spark Notes and other easily-accessed computer crutches as opposed to those yellow-and-black Caution-striped books that actually cost money.) “Why,” he asked, “do they feel they have to copy down and then parrot ideas that they don’t even understand? Why are they willing to take the Cliff version of a story rather than reading it for themselves?” And then his point: “Why don’t they have the courage to use their own beautiful minds?”

I agreed with, agree with, him. Courage, wisdom, or energy—why don’t they use their own beautiful minds? Teachers (and librarians) continue to believe in the eventual adventence of these minds, a flowering or flourishing of that Inner Student. Oh, let it be.

“Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites…”

I can’t seem to leave the Puritans. My students really enjoyed reading and discussing their narratives, poems, and sermons, for various reasons; but a lot of them had trouble actually writing about these things. Here’s the rest of the Edwards comment:

“Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites and he uses them as an example of what happened to the Israelites.”

Actually Edwards’ famous sermon to the slow-to-Awaken congregation at Enfield, Connecticut, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” warns Puritans of what will happen to them if they fail to give themselves wholly to God: if God would punish the Israelites, his chosen people, with devastation and eternal punishment when they strayed from his commandments, IMAGINE WHAT HE WILL DO TO YOU! Don’t get Him angry!

My student will be impervious to the warning, of course: for her, what happened to the Israelites is an example of what happened to the Israelites.

I imagine she began the sentence with a clear idea of what she wanted to say, but had forgotten it when she reached the end. Such a long sentence? Maybe her original intention was to write “Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites and he uses them as an example. What happened to them will also happen to Puritans who forget God.” That would work well enough. More simply, “Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites and he uses them as an example of what would happen to the Puritans.” This second alternative is probably exactly what she started out to say. Typing “what happened” instead of “what would happen,” though, made it impossible for her to reach her original destination: indeed, it forced her to stay historical, and back came the Israelites.

Taking another minute or two to decide what she actually meant might have provided her with a cleaner grammar and clearer statement: “For Edwards, God’s punishment of the Israelites who strayed from his commandments is a warning of what will happen to Puritans who stray.” She should have taken those minutes.

After all, eternal damnation is no laughing matter.

“Winthrop and the Puritans had heavy-set beliefs.”

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.