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Colonial Puritan Rhetoric and the Discovery of American Identity SACVAN BERCOVITCH According to Sancho Panza, who ought to have known, the best way to measure the flights of human fantasy is through the perspective of common sense. I should therefore like to begin this discussion by recalling Roger Williams's polemic against the New England theocracy- specifically, against its claim to the title of New Israel. The emigrants had based their claim on a social covenant. Theyhad a right to it, Williams agreed, and by that right they might expect God to reward their obedience with large harvests. But they spoke of spiritual blessings as well, of a figural Israel in a new promised land. Quoting countless authorities from the Church Fathers to the Reformation, Williams outlined the crucial distinction. Figurally understood, Israel constituted the elect of God, whereas all worldly designations - geographical, political, personal- pertained to the city of man. The saints in New England, like all saints, belonged to the figural Israel. But as New Englanders they could no more arrogate that title to themselves than could the Indians. "America," Williams pointed out, "(as Europe and all nations) lyes dead in sin." What, then, was all this talk of a "new found land of Canaan," divinely granted to a New Israel for their "everlasting possession "? To declare that prophecies were unfolding through the agency of "a people,naturally considered" - that a portion of this fallen earth was designated frometernity as sacred space - "if this be not to pull God and Christand Spirit out ofHeaven, and subject them unto naturall, sinful, inconstant men, ... let Heaven and Earth judge." 1 Williams debated with the baffled outrage of a man who just could not fathom his opponents' obstinacy. We can understand both his bafflement and his outrage by recalling the tensions in Reformed hermeneutics. In renouncing the forms of Catholicism (priesthood and papacy, Vatican and Holy Roman Empire), the reformers had reduced the area of the sacred on earth to scripture and the redeemed soul; but their doctrine of personal faith threatened to undermine scripture in the most fundamental way, by encouraging a willful, arbitrary mode ofinterpretation. To counter the threat, the leading clerics imposed an absolute control over exegesis. What the Catholics, they charged, termed multi-levelled exegesis was nothing more than a license for subjectivity-for "empty dreams," "monkey-games," "wild adventures," "fantastical conceits." They intended to restore hermeneutics to its proper function, as a pole star to guide the believer's tempestuous night-voyage from self to Christ. Accordingly, they instituted a single regimented "full sense" of scripture, a sort of catch-all literal-allegorica] THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. VI, NO. 2, FALL 1975 meaning by which the exegete could never confuse his own will for the divine. To ensure its application, they issued two sweeping strictures. The first defined the proper exegete as a believer. "The word is nothing without the Spirit," warned Richard Sibbes. Unregenerate readers kill the letter, reduce significance to dead fact. Hermeneutics presupposes a reader transformed in the image of the spirit he sets out to discover. The second stricture defined the process of discovery. Since the significance was put there by God, exegesis meant not invention or ingenuity, but orthodoxy. "When we proceed from the thing to the thing signified," wrote William Whitaker, in a famous treatise on hermeneutics, "we bring no new sense, but only bring to light what was before concealed in the sign." 2 In other words, the search for meaning precludes subjectivity. It serves as a wall of flame to secure the pristine Word against any snare of the intellect, all flights of the imagination. This double identification of perceiver and fact would seem to leave no room for self-assertion. As though they intuited the chaos inherent in modern symbolism - fragmentation, self-contradicting multiplicity, eccentric cosmosophies - the Reformers rejected the secular and the subjective apriori. Only biblical facts yielded figural meaning, and only the believer who had interpreted himself figurally, as part of sacred history, could discern the meaning of biblical facts. From our modern perspective, however, having witnessed the growth of symbolism since the Reformation, we can hardly avoid detecting a fundamental ambiguity...


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pp. 131-150
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