Enlightenment in the Puritan Era

Enlightenment came to the Puritans like a cat in the night: sneakily and quietly.  Cotton Mather, in The Triumphs of the Reformed Religion in America, clearly utilizes the older, puritanical ways of thought to describe the life of John Eliot, while also intermingling several ways of thinking that reflect those of the enlightenment era. Mather does not force this new way of thinking down his readers throats, instead only a few occurrences of Enlightenment ideas are seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of the Puritan Christian ideals.  The Puritans had been so deeply rooted in their religious beliefs since their arrival in the New World, some 80 years prior to this, that many modern Puritans knew no other way of believing.  The Reason/Enlightenment movement went against much of what they had always taught and had been taught.  Mather started what Jefferson, Paine, Crevecoeur, and many others would continue to nurture and cultivate for the next century.  Widely accepted views of God, humans, nature, time, personal freedom, and work, just to name a few, would change and evolve as economic and population growth continued to skyrocket in America.  To truly grasp just how radical these seemingly small occurrences of Enlightened beliefs were, we must look at both Mather’s The Triumph of the Reformed Religion in America, as well as the works of strictly Puritan writers and predominantly Enlightened writers.
Despite his gradually changing system of beliefs, Mather’s continued adherence to the puritanical ways of thinking in The Triumphs of the Reformed Religion in America can be easily seen predominating throughout the text.  For instance, Mather still firmly depicts the Native Americans in a sub-human manner:
The natives of the country now possessed by the New-Englanders had been forlorn and wretched heathen ever since their first herding here; and though we know not when or how those Indians first became inhabitants of this mighty continent, yet we may guess that probably the devil decoyed those miserable salvages hither, in hopes that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ would never come here to destroy or disturb his absolute empire over them. (22)

Math does not once speak well of the Native American people.  His puritanical hatred for them runs so fervently in his blood that despite his near hero-worship of John Eliot, Mather is unable to see the Indians as anything but rancid, evil tools of the Devil.  He alludes to the possibility of their conversion the Christianity, but does not appear altogether certain that even this is possible.  Mather also comments on the Indians “infinitely barbarous” way of living: hunting, women performing industrial work as well as men, never settling in one place for very long, and generally living off the land (24).  While placing him as a hero, Mather is dually appalled at Eliot’s belief that the Indians could have been descendants of the biblical Israelites; “To think on raising a number of these hedious creatures unto the elevations of our holy religion…!” (25).  Mather goes on about the Indians for 3 or 4 pages, under the pretense of Eliot’s evangelistic work, but mostly speaking quite ill of the “shiftless” and “abject” Native Americans and their lifestyles (23).  While Mather is progressive is his views on human perfection, he quite clearly cannot let go of many of the Puritans values that he has always known.
If one looks to Thomas Jefferson, one of the more prominent enlightened thinkers and writers of the 18th century, Mather’s themes of enlightenment are clearly brought out of the text.  Mather seems to share the same idea that humans may be perfectible.  In Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, he speaks of children learning bad habits from their elders: “Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man in an imitative animal.  This quality is the germ of all education in him” (46).   A few lines down, he infers that perfection within humans is possible, even though not probable: “The man must be a prodigy who cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities” (46).  These same principles of human perfect and blank-slated birth shine through, more evidently at some times than others, in Mather’s description of Eliot in The Triumphs of the Reformed Religion in America.  Upon Eliot’s death, Mather even calls him a “perfect and upright man” and a “star fetched away to be placed among the rest” (29).  Mather also seems to hold more belief in the watchmaker, or Deist, view of God, than in that of the traditional Puritan view of God as an interventionist.  When recounted the final chapter of John Eliot’s life, God is depicted as seeming to do little or nothing in response to Eliot’s plaintive prayers.  While Mather was quite progressive and enlightened in these aspects, one must not forget the upstanding Puritan Christian side of his writings and beliefs.
Mather reflected much of William Bradford’s views from Of Plymouth Plantation.  Bradford was one of the most foremost Puritan writers, not only as the author of Of Plymouth Plantation, but also as a founder, and long-time governor of the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts.   Bradford and Mather share many of the same religious beliefs about such subjects as the Native Americans, as well as their views on the freedom and work.  Both Bradford and Mather hold true to Puritan Christianity with their firm belief in election, or predestination.  Mather sees little or no hope for Indians conversion, probably due to his deeply rooted convictions of God’s sovereignty in His election of souls.  Mather believes that the puritans that came America are certainly God’s Elect, for he could see the fruits of their faith quiet clearly; however, the Indians showed no evidence of good works to prove their election.  This is a subject on which Bradford whole-heatedly agrees with Mather, for he thinks of not only the Indians, but also many of the hired hands and indentured servants, as “unworthy persons” and “envious” men who “endeavour to sow tares” (13).  Indeed, there is an overt sense of elite-ness and privilege in comparison to those they believed to not be of God’s elect.  They also share a similar standard of work; they, as Puritans and members of the Elect, must constantly work to prove their election, as was mentioned above.  There was never a sense of completion or rest, for then they would be exhibiting slothful character traits, which would suggest their non-election, placing them on the same level as the afore mentioned “unworthy persons” (13).  Even though Mather was groundbreaking in his Enlightened thinking, his puritanical background of beliefs remained steadfast and undeniable.
The early years of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment would certainly turn out to be the first rumblings of a new system of thought for Americans of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  The Puritans had grown comfortable in their faith, as Puritan Christianity was the normal, popular belief among the English in America.  The Age of Enlightenment came along not to challenge Christianity as a whole, but to challenge the accepted Christian ways of thinking of God, themselves, the world around them, and many others.  Bradford would remain secure in the Puritan belief system, as Jefferson would with him Enlightenment contemporaries, but Mather would cross unheard of boundaries of thought and religious beliefs with The Triumphs of the Reformed Religion in America, appealing to Puritans and Enlightened thinkers alike.  Mather would open the door to usher in a new wave of individual thought.  Many writers after him would be accepted by the public because of his works and would push the envelope even further to the dawning of a new era of Reason and Enlightenment within one’s own individual system of beliefs.

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~ by Mary Christa on September 27, 2008.

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