The Puritan Character

by W. G. T. Shedd

THE seed, or principle, of a man's character is in existence before him. He is born with it. This proves its transmission from progenitors, and this proves its priority to birth. In order, therefore, to a full comprehension of individual character, we must go back to the species of which the individual is a part. A man's sinful character, for example, cannot be understood, unless it is referred to the apostasy of mankind. This was a free act. The individual, consequently, though deriving his character, is responsible for it. The two conceptions of inheritance and guilt, by this explanation, are not incompatible; and while insisting upon personal accountability, not only for particular actions, but for the general disposition from which they proceed, we need not deny the connection of this latter with what has gone before—with the sin of the race.

These remarks are true, measurably, of the character of a nation. Every national character is, in an important sense, the result of what has preceded it. It is not the result in such a sense that the nation is irresponsible in possessing it; but in the sense that former ages and nations exerted a great, though not a necessitating influence upon its origin and growth. All nations are united together; equally receiving influence from the past, and equally transmitting it to the future. Does a nation form a settled national character, entirely independent of the past? A new star sometimes appears in the sky, shining with its own light, differing from all other stars in glory, and seemingly independent of all the rest of the host of heaven. But not so with national character. It does not emerge into existence suddenly and independently; but is a slow formation, in great measure shaped and tinged by former ages, institutions, and characters.

These remarks are true of the Puritan character; and, before proceeding to describe its prominent trait, let us consider it in its origin, and its relation to what preceded it.

The main elements of the Puritan character are Old-English. They came down from the early periods of England's national existence. The great Alfred was essentially a Puritan. That trait which led him to devote one-third of his time to religion, and the remainder of it to a severe and strict discharge of the duties devolving upon him in the course of a reign strewed all through with dangers, obstacles, and discouragements, is intimately allied to that which made the Pilgrims so deeply religious and so strictly dutiful men. This character continued, but underwent some modifications, through the influence of the Norman invasion, and far more through the influence of advancing civilization. The primitive English character, thus modified, continued through the times of Elizabeth, producing great men in divinity, philosophy, statesmanship, and poetry. After this period it began to be withdrawn from the mass of the nation into a narrower circle. The nation, as a body, ceased to be animated by the vigorous and pure life of their fathers; and the result was growing superstition and un-spirituality in religion, and increasing despotism in government. But there did remain an inner circle, in which the old spirit dwelt and reigned. Driven from the extremities, the life retreated to the heart; and in the age of the first Charles, the old English character, of which Alfred was the type, existed, in a most pure and dense form, in a small and despised portion of the English people called the Puritans. Like Wordsworth's dalesmen,

"Pure livers were they all, austere and grave,

And fearing God; the very children taught

Stern self-respect, a reverence for God's word,

And an habitual piety, maintained

With strictness scarcely known on English ground."

Thus was the Puritan character a thing of slow and solid formation. It did not start into existence in an instant. Its beginnings must be traced to the union of the best elements of the British with the best elements of the Saxon nature; and its development is the history of the spiritualizing influence of Christianity upon these two excellent and prime ingredients, for eight hundred years. It grew with the growth, and strengthened with the strength, of the nation. In times of trial and danger it gave clearness to the head, determination to the will, and nerve to the arm, of the best of the people. It was ever on the side of liberty and law, of learning and religion. As it went along through the mutations of ages, it became more and more pure from foreign particles. Gradually narrowing the limits of its existence, by choosing for its residence the very soundest heads and the very purest hearts, in the age of Charles the First it exhibited as noble traits as ever have been seen in human beings.

England made the term "Puritan" a reproach, and took special pains to expel from itself this excellent character. Degenerate England drove out the Puritans. They sailed over the ocean which separates the two worlds. They put the Atlantic between them and their fatherland; and then calmly, proudly, piously deposited the elements of a great empire on the western hemisphere.

We now inquire, What is the prominent trait of the Puritan character? The fundamental trait of the Puritan character, upon which all its excellencies rest, and by which even its faults are to be explained, is spirituality of mind. By spirituality of mind, we do not now mean what is denoted by the theological definition of the phrase. Most of the Puritans were regenerated men, and were spiritually-minded in the New-Testament sense of the term. But, apart from this characteristic, which results only from the new birth, there was a peculiarity in the Puritan mind which perhaps cannot be denoted better than by the term "spirituality."

In accommodating the word to our present purpose, we mean by it that disposition which leads its possessor to believe in the invisible world, and to refer to it, both in his thoughts and actions. Though man, by creation, is a spiritual being, and is destined to spend the infinite part of his existence in the unseen world, yet he knows but little about that world, and it engages but little of his thought. Man generally has no sense of the reality of that sphere which is to be his eternal dwelling-place. Sin is the chief cause of this ignorance, and insensibility. If man were pure of heart, eternity would not be a dim or undiscovered country. It would have substantial reality for him, and he would think and act with reference to it, as the most permanent of all realities. But, besides this main and universal cause of man's ignorance of the spiritual world, there is a minor one arising from the mental constitution. We sometimes meet a person thoughtful by nature, serious-minded, and inclined to contemplate the mysterious and invisible. Unseen things have more reality to him than to the thoughtless and frivolous man He naturally believes that there are more things in the universe than can be seen by the eye, or touched by the hand. Such a man differs from the mass, by this disposition to find reality behind the visible and material. It is not difficult for him to believe in the supernatural. He is, in this sense, spiritually-minded, and predisposed to believe in, and think about, unseen things.

The same difference of constitution appears in nations, as well as in individuals. We find some nations naturally inclined to believe in spiritual and unseen realities, while others are disinclined. The former do not need, or make use of, the visible symbol, but rest satisfied with the idea; while the latter find it difficult to apprehend the idea at all, and need and use a material sign, by which it shall be signified. The former are spiritual, the latter material, in their modes of thought. It has been observed by writers upon this subject, that, as a general rule, this difference of mental constitution follows, and accords with, the difference of climate. The nations of the torrid zone are sensuous in their conceptions, while those of the cold zones are spiritual. For this reason, the paganism of the south of Europe was very different from that of northern Europe. The southern heathen had gods many and lords many; but he must see them and handle them, in order to believe in their reality; and therefore he carved numerous idols, and builded many temples, in which his divinities should dwell. The northern heathen had fewer gods, and could believe in their reality without the aid of the visible form. He hewed no idol, and he erected no temple; he worshipped his divinity in spirit, beneath the open sky, in the free air. The keen vigor infused into the body by the northern winter, and the influences which rained down from the cold northern sky, glittering with intensely bright stars, and gleaming and flashing with the northern lights, seem to have induced spirituality of thought and conception in the northern heathen; while the languid air, and enervating influences, of the warm zone, tended to make the southern heathen sluggish, earthly, and sensuous, in his modes of thought.

From their northern extraction, the Puritans derived what we have styled, in an accommodated sense, spirituality of mind; or the disposition to believe in the supernatural, the ability to realize it without the aid of visible things, and the inclination to refer to it in thought and action. This, we think, is the ground, and native principle of the Puritan character. From this sprang the many virtues, and the few faults of the Puritans.

That we may more fully apprehend this their fundamental characteristic, let us contemplate it as we see its manifestation in the three main relationships of human life,—the social, civil, and religious.

1. Every one knows that the social life of the Puritans was extremely simple in its structure. Their customs, manners, and habits were singularly severe. They made little of fashions, and the outward appendages of society; and that long list of modes and conventionalities which is the sum and substance of much of modern social inter course was unknown to them. Their inborn disposition to believe that the inward and invisible is the substantially true and real led them, in their social relations, to regard the feelings and sentiments of the heart, rather than the actions and appearance of the body. Therefore, though the social life of the Puritans exhibits an exceedingly simple, in some respects a bald and uncouth appearance, it would be a great error to deny, that underneath the outward appearance there was a noble, kind, and generous courtesy. There has never been a human society in which there was more of genuine gentility, than there was among them. The social charities and neighborly sympathies never had a more free play than in the Puritan heart. Good-will, which is the essence of politeness, animated the Puritan community; and exhibitions of kindness and courtesy in that society could be depended upon, as the manifestation and true index of its spirit.

This state of society was the natural growth of the disposition, native to the Puritan, to believe firmly in the unseen, and to make more of that than of the visible. The neighbor cared little for the outward demeanor of his neighbor, but everything for his inward temper. The friend took but little notice of the dress or manners of his friend, but directed a most keen and piercing glance to the tenor of his feelings. The citizen paid but little attention to the audible and outward professions of his fellow-citizen, but deemed the invisible and secret opinions of his mind to be the main object of attention. What cared the Puritan for the mean apparel and the rustic manner, if there were only an honest, upright, and kind heart throbbing in the bosom? And what cared the Puritan for the most gorgeous apparel and the most polite demeanor, if within the breast there were nothing but selfish indifference and hypocrisy?

Thus, there grew out of this disposition to regard the invisible, a singularly sincere and simple state of society. All of its arrangements referred to what is within, and unseen by the material eye. It is not denied that the Puritans, under the impulse of this strong tendency to regard the unseen, neglected, in too great a degree, to regard what is seen and outward. But this is always a minor fault, and one that is committed only by a very spiritual mind. It is better to go to this extreme than to the other; and it is more easy to reach the golden mean from this end than from the other. It is far more easy for the intensely spiritual man to cultivate himself into a due regard for the outward and apparent, than it is for the intensely earthly man to school himself into a spiritual way of thought. Indeed, it may be said of these two courses of cultivation, that the former alone is really feasible. Man can come down from heaven to earth, but he cannot go up from earth to heaven. He can fall, but he cannot rise.

Taken as a whole, therefore, the social life of the Puritans is a fair and admirable structure. If, in some minor respects, it is deficient; if there is not so much finish and adornment laid out upon the exterior as there might be; still the great plan of the edifice is noble, and the architecture lofty and beautiful. It has the beauties and faults of the great edifices of the natural world. Like the mountain, it rises into the clear sky in grandeur, and with a beautiful outline; like the mountain, it has spots that are rugged and bare.

2. We come, now, to the consideration of this trait of character, as exhibited in the Puritan government. The principles by which the Puritans were guided in the establishment and maintenance of government were in the highest degree rational. Those principles were spiritual; that is, they flowed from pure law and pure reason, and not from an earthly and material source. The Puritan felt that government is a great and solemn interest; that it is an ordinance of God; that its organizing principles must be drawn from the invisible world, and that its sanctions must come from heaven. All the reverence and fear that comes down upon man from the supernatural world, he felt, must be brought to bear in upholding human government. Thus, did the tendency of his mind lead him to refer to the unseen, in his civil relations, and to found government upon purely rational and spiritual principles.

Hence, the spirituality of the Puritan government. As soon as we compare it with that of the European nations from whose atmosphere the Puritans had just departed, we see a striking difference. It is simple in its structure, its arrangements, and its working. The European mind, accustomed to a material and unspiritual mode of thought, because its faith in the invisible was weak, and its vision of pure principles was dim, had established government not mainly upon law and reason, but upon forms, precedents, arbitrary will, and absolute power. The structure of government in Europe was complicated, its arrangement irrational, and its working exceedingly despotic. It presented to the eye of an observer a long array of forms and ceremonies, under which it was difficult to discover the first principles of law and right, even if they were originally at the bottom, and by which those principles were straitened and hindered in their effectual working. A philosophical observer of the governments of Europe, at that time, would be led to suppose that man had either entirely lost sight of the pure, spiritual principles of government, or else, as was most probably the case, was unwilling to let them have a free and unhampered operation. Such an observer would see that there was but little faith, among the nations, in the great principles of reason and law, and that the state depended for security upon things seen and material; upon the trappings of royalty, the appendages of nobility, the pomp and circumstance of office, the sword and the cannon.

It was reserved for the Puritans to found a government on pure principle. They established but few offices. They stripped off from governmental institutions the forms in which they had been for so many centuries encased, and let men see the steady and beautiful operation of just maxims, as applied to the regulation of human society. They were not afraid to rest so great a superstructure as the national government, upon what appears to the earthly-minded to be a very weak and unsafe foundation, a few invisible and rational principles. They had faith in the unseen, and knew that law and reason, though not visible to the outward eye, are full of "the power of an endless life."

The more we contemplate the system of government established by the Puritans, the more clearly shall we see the native spirituality of the Puritan mind exhibited in it. The disposition to appeal to what is within man, and so to subject him to wholesome restraint, by means of rational principles, is very apparent in it. Law, in its pure naked reality, was brought before the inward eye; and men obeyed freely, and like rational freemen, as they were. Throughout the whole Puritan commonwealth, so safely and beautifully did government do its perfect work, that peace and order prevailed; and the interference of the officer, the outward and visible representative of government, was rarely needed. Government was, in the best sense of the term, self-government; a voluntary subjection of self to those great maxims of reason and conscience which are invisible, and which connect man with the unseen world and the invisible God. Thus did the prominent trait in the Puritan character manifest itself in the Puritan government.

3. We pass now to the religion of the Puritans. In this, too, we find their fundamental characteristic manifesting itself with great power and intensity. Christianity never appeared in a more spiritual form, than it did in the first periods of the history of New England. It was despoiled entirely of all in which it had been clothed by superstition and formalism, and stood out unencumbered by rites and ceremonies, a free, pure, and spiritual reality. New England felt that God is a spirit, and worshipped him in spirit and in truth.

But, let us scrutinize more narrowly the different parts of the Puritan religion, and we shall more clearly see their natural temper exhibited in it. For, be it ever remembered, that, although Christianity is a living principle coming down from heaven, and is therefore essentially one and the same in all men, yet it will receive some hues from the native traits of the mind in which it takes up its residence. Christianity in the French mind, though not essentially, yet in its manifestation, is different from Christianity in the English mind.

The Christian religion presented a remarkable appearance, when it lodged itself among the native energies of the Puritan character. Naturally inclined to regard the invisible as the chief reality, and disposed to make but little of things seen and material, it was natural that the Puritan should make religion a matter pertaining mainly to the unseen world, and should strip it, as far as possible, of all earthly conceptions, and all material forms. Hence, the spirituality of their mode of worship. They had no form of prayer, but spake as the spirit gave them utterance. They laid no stress upon postures, but let the body bend naturally to the movements of the soul. They were afraid, to a fault, of devotional music and poetry; for they feared lest their thoughts should be drawn away from the pure and naked realities of another world. They made much of the sermon, because they felt that truth is spiritual, and is a revelation from the invisible God.

Again, if we consider the scheme of doctrine received by the Puritans, we shall see their spiritual tendency. It was strict and pure. It was the theology of such spiritual men as Augustine and Calvin. This theology brings man into the immediate presence of God. It allows of no mediator between God and man, except Him who is God-man. The deity is thus brought into direct contact with humanity; heart to heart, spirit to spirit, life to life. Man is ushered directly into the eternal world; and, in view of its scenes and realities, is led to make his peace with God, through the atonement of God. This theology is exceedingly spiritual and soul-searching. It charges utter sinfulness upon man, convicts and eternally damns him, brings him trembling in his guiltiness to the foot of God, where he ought to be, and then bids him look up, to see if indeed there may be mercy for him.

There have been milder types of Christian doctrine than Calvinism. There were such in the times of the Puritans; but their native spirituality of mind, among other causes, led them to the reception of the strictest and purest theology in the Church. They desired to see the plain and naked truth of God. It was their disposition to remove all coverings, and get at the core. They did not shrink from the consequences of such thorough scrutiny, and they did not fear the results of seeing the bare, conscience-searching truths of the eternal world. Though the intolerable brightness should blind and blast them in that guiltiness which they shared in common with all men, they knew that in this way alone would they be prepared to stand the fires of the last day. Their spirits obtained no rest, until they had known the worst of their case, and the direst rigor of divine truth. And when they had once thoroughly known the whole pure truth of God, they stood firm. They could never again be moved; they could never again be terrified. They were ready, then, for the blast of the archangel's trump, for the resurrection of their own bodies, for the burning-up of the world, for the passing away of the heavens, and for the irrevocable sentence of the final day of doom.

Thus, possessing naturally a disposition to slight the formal and visible, and having this disposition intensified and energized by the indwelling presence of a most severely spiritual theology, is it any wonder that the Puritans abhorred formalism in religion? Is it any wonder that they dissented, to the bottom of their souls, from all showy and seeming Christianity? What satisfaction could men find in hollow rites and unmeaning ceremonies, whose spirits were hungering for pure spiritual food, for the living word of God? What peace could men find in false and shallow exhibitions of truth, whose consciences had been set on fire by the clear vision of the Divine Law? No! these men had made thorough work in searching their own spirits; and now, nothing but the pure gospel could give them rest. These men had looked into the other world, and they felt that a formal religion and a lax theology cannot prepare a man to enter into its pure, soul-searching light.

Thus, by nature, by education, and by regeneration, the Puritans were spiritually-minded. That original trait in their character, of which we have spoken, reached its very height of life and absolute intensity of power, through the influences of the Holy Spirit. In society, and in government, we found them to be highly spiritual; in religion, we find them to be absolutely spiritual.

Having thus contemplated the prominent trait of the Puritan character, it is readily seen that all the excellence and glory of New England must be directly referred to it, as their source. Our present comparative simplicity of manners and purity of social life must be referred to it. The freedom and beauty of our government must be referred to it. The spirituality of our mode of worship and the purity of our scheme of religious doctrine must be referred to it. That we are Protestants, is owing to our fathers. That, as a people, we dissent from formalism in religion, is owing to their instruction and prayers. Burke said of New England, when as a people it was still in the gristle, to use his own phrase, that it possessed "the dissidence of dissent, the Protestantism of the Protestant religion."* If that great statesman could rise from his grave, and look upon us now, when the gristle has become hardened into bones, well strung with thews and thickly netted with sinews, he could still say that New England is largely possessed of the very dissidence of dissent against all formalism in religion, and that the veriest Protestantism, the pure defecated essence of the Protestant religion, is its animating life and its actuating principle.

But, although we have reason to be thankful, that so much of the vigor of the Puritan character is still felt by us as a people, we have reason to fear lest that vigor wane away and die out, under the unfavorable influences to which it is exposed. That vigor, though it still animates us, is not so intense as it was two hundred years ago. We have lost too much of the spirit of our fathers. We have lost much of their faith in invisible things, and are greatly engrossed in things seen and temporal. Luxury and ease, the results of advancing civilization and improvement in the arts, are enervating us. False principles in social organization, in government, and in religion, are stealing, like slow poison, through our arteries. We are beginning to lose the Puritan reverence for the word of God, the church of God, and the sabbath of God.

It becomes us, therefore, to make the Puritan character a model for imitation. We ought to study it, until we see it in all its massive strength and simple beauty. We ought to invigorate ourselves, by drawing fresh life from the spirituality of our ancestors. Let us remember that our fathers were spiritually-minded, and were greatly under the influence of the other world; that they read God's word, kept God's sabbath, and feared God himself with a solemn awe. Their blood flows in our veins; let their spirit dwell in our breasts.


W. G. T. Shedd,  Literary essays

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