restricted access What Happened to the Puritans?
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32 Historically Speaking · September/October 2005 What Happened to the Puritans? Thomas S. Kidd What happened to the Puritans? Among American historians, the classic answer to that question is that their religious commitment declined, and they became Yankees.1 In doing so they became quintessential Americans, moralizing and acquisitive at the same time. Historians of colonial New England have long recognized problems with this story, however. First, we don't know when to mark the end of Puritanism. The era between the Salem witchcraft trials (1692) and the Great Awakening (1740s) is a veritable "dark ages" of historical understanding. We reflexively call New Englanders "Puritans" through 1740, while knowing that the label can't possibly fit any more. Second, the "declension" narrative doesn't account for the remarkable persistence of religious identity among these no-longer Puritans. We keep expecting the Puritans, like Americans, to stop being so religious. Though religion changes, however, it doesn't seem to go away. It is time to reevaluate the end of Puritanism. New Englanders' public religion changed after Puritanism, but it did not decline. Instead, after 1689, many New Englanders became profoundly attached to a movement they called the "Protestant interest," the faithful community of world Protestants fighting against world Catholics. While the Puritans of the 17th century, fleeing authorities in England, had been inwardly focused, the Protestant interest looked to the British nation as the last great hope for Protestants to defeat the Catholic menace. They hoped that the defeat ofglobal Catholicism might herald the return of Christ. Any attempt precisely to mark the end of Puritanism as a movement would, of course, represent an imposition for narrative's convenience . Movements like Puritanism don't "end" in one moment. However, we can surely say that once the Glorious Revolution was embraced by New Englanders, their religious and political agenda had so fundamentally changed that it doesn't make sense to call them Puritans any longer. The rise of the Protestant interest explains a great deal about how prominent New Englanders responded to the massive changes they faced in the decades after 1689. New Englanders grew heavily invested in the military and imperial successes of the British nation after the Glorious Revolution, when Britain became embroiled in almost a century of war with Catholic France and/or Spain. New Englanders were deeply implicated in these wars and feared that the depredations suffered by French Protestants after the Revocation of the Edict ofNantes (1685) would visit them, too. Their position south of Quebec made them, ifanything, more vulnerable to French attacks than their fellow countrymen in Britain. Many New Englanders paid close attention to the fate of Protestants in Europe. They noted with considerable concern the growing violence between Catholics and Protestants in far-off places like the Palatinate and Poland. Pastors encouraged their congregations to pray for the persecuted Protestants of Europe and warned them that the divine judgment of Catholic invasion could easily come against them next, should they fail in their holy responsibilities to family , church, and state. The Glorious Revolution, the wars with Catholic powers, and a deepening sense ofcommon cause with international Protestantism led New Englanders to shed many vestiges oftheir old Puritan identity in favor of a new identification with the Protestant interest. In the 17th century the Puritans struggled ever to make common cause with other Protestants because of squabbles over doctrine and church polity. Moreover, Massachusetts and Connecticut had been founded because of their leaders' hostility to the English church and state. New Englanders famously fled England because of persecution in the 1620s and 1630s. Oliver Cromwell's regime offered false hope that the Puritans would establish a godly government in England, and the Restoration in 1660 shattered the Puritans' dreams of reforming the English church and state. The direction ofthe monarchy only became more horrifying as Charles II secretly, and James II openly embraced Catholicism. Another reason that New Englanders despised James II so much was because he had revoked Massachusetts' charter in the 1680s and placed it and the other New England colonies under the new Dominion of New England. Once William and Mary took the throne in 1688, many hoped that Massachusetts would...