Not really that different, those Puritans

Note: This was originally published as a “Sneak Peek” on August 14. This book is now available for purchase. – MM


O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. — from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, by Jonathan Edwards

If there is anyone who gave rise to the phrase “fire and damnation” as it applies to sermons, it was Connecticut preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). His fiery “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (quoted above), delivered on July 8, 1741 in Enfield, had his listeners writhing with agony and–in some instances–fainting, so fearsome were his descriptions of eternal damnation.

Edwards, perhaps more than anyone, was responsible for the so-called first “Great Awakening,” and is considered even today to be among the greatest scholars and intellects that America has produced. That he sprang from Puritan stock has allowed us to view the Puritans as–well, you know, puritanical.

But the stereotype that we have of the puritans in New England is misleading. True, they believed in a community of faith, the core of which was the family, and were believers in such Calvinistic doctrines as predestination. But they were far from perfect. In fact, Edwards’ own family had its share of skeletons in its closet. Much of the dirt was swept under the rug when Edwards became a national icon, but 19th century and 20th century scholarship has dragged the whole ugly truth out into the open. Edwards scholar Ava Chamberlain has taken it upon herself to put some meat back on those bones.

In her forthcoming book The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards (NYU Press, available October 2012), Chamberlain trots out an analysis of Edwards’ grandmother, Elizabeth Tuttle, a woman whose reputation (undeserved, as Chamberlain will explain) painted her as unrepentant and as unpopular as Hester Prynne, the heroine of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

When I first came across this book, I almost passed it over. First of all, it is written by an academic and seemed to have all of the appeal of a doctoral thesis as far as encouraging anyone to read it. Secondly, the subject matter is so peripheral to most people’s experience so as to cause me to ask, “Okay, who the hell is Elizabeth Tuttle and who cares?” But I started reading anyway. As it turns out, I am glad I did.

Who was Elizabeth Tuttle? She was a woman raised in a Puritan family, a family of some means, who rebelled against her religious upbringing and eventually was forced to marry Richard Edwards, a man not so well off, when she was discovered to be with child. Whoa! Isn’t this a book about Puritans? Yes, it is. And one of the most fascinating revelations about the Puritans in this book is that they weren’t really that different from us today, and their children rebelled against authority and engaged in all kinds of unsavory activity–including illicit sex–before settling down and living responsible lives.

Elizabeth wasn’t the only young person to find herself in the family way, and this was not really a problem in Puritan society–so long as the young man made an ‘honest woman’ of his young lady and established a home. The home was the center of Puritan life, and respect for a man was a function of how well he lived his life and how much he contributed to his community. There was a problem however: there was some question of who the father of their child really was. This doubt was the pea in the bed of the princess that would not allow the Edwards’ to settle into a comfortable relationship. Although they remained together for more than 20 years, they eventually divorced amidst talk of infidelity–admitted to by Richard but only alleged of Elizabeth (Oh those wild and wooly Calvinists!).

So why is this important? Well, for one thing, there was a scientific fad of eugenics that energized the late 18th and early 19th century and popular thought had it that madness was hereditary, and madness was equated with sexual misbehavior. If you saw a perfect example of a thoroughly decent and accomplished human being, as Edwards certainly was, then the assumption was that this was partly genetic and could be tracked back to his pedigree. Eugenics was a dangerously misleading philosophy, aptly described by Chamberlain as “marriage of scientific ignorance and class prejudice”, but one of the things that would eventually throw a monkey wrench into the theory was the presence of Elizabeth Tuttle in the background of the famed Jonathan Edwards. If grandma was a mental case, and if mental illness is hereditary, how do you explain a decent, intelligent man who is still considered one of America’s brightest intellectuals and who would eventually serve as a college president? (Perhaps madness jumps across generations: Edwards’ grandson, Aaron Burr, would later have the reputation of being sexually adventurous and would eventually be branded a traitor.)

In fact, the whole Tuttle family was a family marked by tragedy. Not only was Elizabeth (allegedly) promiscuous and rebellious (she would not submit to her husband, which was almost a hanging offense in Puritan New England); but her brother murdered their sister, with whom he had been living, with an axe. (Murders weren’t all that uncommon, but were usually domestic offenses and were almost always committed with a handy utility, a broad axe: guess they should have tried to enact “axe control.”). Later, a member of the family was suspected of having committed suicide, a sure sign of madness. Unfortunately, much of the talk that condemned Elizabeth to the category of madness was found in court records, in actions brought by her husband seeking dissolution, and her voice is not anywhere to be found (nor was Elizabeth herself, who lost everything in the divorce and disappeared from the pages of history).

What I found most fascinating about this book is that it paints a very realistic picture of human beings whom we have always thought of as somehow very different from ourselves, when in fact they were as in need of grace and guidance as any of us today. Chamberlain notes that the dissolution of the marriage of Richard Edwards and Elizabeth Tuttle, is an “old story,”

…but many of its features sound familiar. Although the structure of domestic life has changed dramatically since colonial times, the factors that prevent a family from flourishing have remained remarkably stable. Financial failure, mental illness, intimate violence, and sexual jealousy create marital crises from which many families, in the twenty-first century as well as the seventeenth, do not emerge intact.

There was, however, one big difference. The Puritans were Calvinists whose level of belief brought about “predestination anxiety.” Predestination was the belief that God chooses whom he will save and whom he will condemn, but the problem is none of us knows which list we are on until it’s all over. Furthermore, living a good life if you are predestined to hell makes no difference, nor does living a bad one if you are predestined for heaven. This belief made even more unbearable the pain of family troubles, which were seen as intimations of one’s damnation (and the Tuttles had their share of suffering), and so such belief probably did more to bring about dis-ease than it did comfort.

It also makes it easy to understand why people fainted when Jonathan Edwards described the horrors of hell: who knew for sure they weren’t going there? Sure would make me nervous!

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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