The Puritan Example

DAVID AWBREY

November 26, 1992|By DAVID AWBREY

Wichita, Kansas. -- The 19th-century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who knew them better than any other American writer, described them as our ''grave, bearded, sable-coated and steeple-crowned'' ancestors.

That image of the New England Puritans has stuck -- an uptight crowd dressed in black and white whose primary amusements were persecuting witches, sewing scarlet letters on women's bodices and listening to sermons on the natural depravity of humanity.

Except during Thanksgiving, few Americans today pay much attention to the 17th-century colonists who fled Europe to ''purify'' the Church of England and to establish a celestially inspired ''city on a hill.''

Indeed, few ideas are as out of fashion today as those held by the Puritans. Their Calvinist principles of original sin and predestination offend our modern faith in the self- actualized individual. Their sense of the separateness of God and humanity violates the New Age creed that there is a bit of divinity within each of us. Their belief that everyday experiences reveal God's will disputes scientific theories that existence is random and meaningless.

It's our loss that the Puritans have fallen out of favor. Much in the Puritan tradition has potential relevance for modern America.

The main challenge facing the United States is to reconstruct a national philosophy and restore a sense of community. Everything else -- the economy, civil rights, the fate of the family -- largely hinge on whether this country can revitalize itself into a cohesive society.

With the end of the Cold War, the United States no longer can define itself by what it isn't -- a totalitarian state. Instead, it must forge a visionary mission based on its history and aspirations for the future, a process certain to be difficult and divisive. As Americans plunge toward the 21st century, they should take a detour into the past -- to recall the 17th-century Puritans who left a much more important legacy than a pleasant holiday called Thanksgiving.

The Puritans were the first to see America as an exceptional place, as ''God's New Israel.'' That sense of a unique American destiny has become an integral part of the American character. No other country has such a conviction that it has a special purpose, that God created it to open a new era in human history.

The Puritans saw America as a land of redemption, where Europe's corruptions would be replaced by the transcendent innocence of a new Eden. Theirs was the original ''American dream'' -- not one of material wealth but of fulfilling God's design for mankind. God was revealing himself in the American wilderness; he was recreating biblical archetypes on a new continent that would become the crucible of Christian civilization.

The contemporary question is whether Americans still feel that this is an exceptional country that offers a lasting vision for the rest of the world -- or merely another nation state among many others in an increasingly interdependent world. While many modern Americans may see this as primarily a political question, for the Puritans it was a personal issue. For such Puritans as Jonathan Edwards the inner drama of an individual's life was the central element of society.

Perhaps the largest vacuum in current American life is the awareness of how the individual impacts the larger community. True, the Puritans were extreme in their regulation of moral conduct, but they did so because of an understanding that individual actions strongly affect the strength of a community.

Today, we tend to rely on psychology, technology or therapy to solve what are really moral and spiritual crises. It often seems that the greatest sin today isn't violating a moral precept, but feeling guilty about doing so. Yet the most powerful element of the Puritan personality is a strong sense of guilt. And it was guilt that gave some Puritans such a profound understanding of the human character.

Consider the most remarkable book about the Puritans, Hawthorne's ''The Scarlet Letter.'' It is the story of Hester Prynne, who gave birth to a daughter out of wedlock, but the most fascinating character is Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester's secret lover. Fearing to damage his ministry by admitting his role in Hester's plight, Dimmesdale remains silent. But guilt consumes him and he makes a deathbed confession.

Hawthorne's point is that a freely acknowledged sin would have made Dimmesdale a better minister by giving him a greater sensitivity toward human weakness. The community would have been better off because one of its leaders would have been seen as a person susceptible to error but capable of self-scrutiny.

To the Puritan, autobiography merged with theology and history. Puritans saw themselves as part of God's scheme, and felt their individual decisions affected the divine plan. That is the sense American needs to recapture -- the awareness of how each individual impacts the community. If the United States is to become the beacon of hope in the 21st century, Americans must realize that a virtuous society requires a virtuous citizenry, but one which recognizes that perfection is not possible -- that forgiveness is a divine trait that we all can practice.

Americans could have worse role models than the Puritans, who understood that a moral nation is impossible without moral individuals.

David Awbrey is editorial-page editor of the Wichita Eagle.

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