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The Puritan Oligarchy

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The Puritan Oligarchy: The Founding of American Civilization. By Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker. ( New York: Gosset & Dunlap, 1947. Pg 359.)

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - February 3, 2002

Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, in The Puritan Oligarchy, attempted to write a book which not only described the origins, formation and eventual failure of the Puritan bible state in Massachusetts, but he attempted to present the reader with an insight into the mind and soul of the Puritan's. His main purpose in writing this book was to give a historical narrative of the Puritan's attempt to create their version of Zion in Massachusetts, with a strong emphasis on how the mind set of the Puritans affected their actions. His goal was also to explain why this experiment failed.

He tried to achieve his objective by two means. The first was to present a historical analysis of the Puritan's from their initial development into a religious consciousness, through the development of their cultural and educational ideals, to the dissolution of the bible state. His second objective was to explain the actions of the Puritan's in such a way that the modern reader could look at the Puritan's world, vicariously through the eyes of the Puritans and their contemporaries. He was well aware that a man writing today would have difficulty comprehending the psychological forces that shaped a man from an earlier time. Therefore, he attempted to give as unbiased of an interpretation as he could by means of letting the Puritans and others speak in their own words. He also sought to explain some of the underlying forces that shaped the Puritan's world: such as their belief in supernatural forces, the need for education in order that everyone would be able to read the bible, the intensity of their religious beliefs and the state of their medical knowledge.

I can not give an authoritative opinion as to whether Wertenbaker accurately achieved his objectives, but on a personal level I feel that he succeeded admirably. By providing background information such as what East Anglia was like at the time that the Puritans left, to the cultural accomplishments that they achieved (or sided away from) in America, as well as by his behavioral analysis of the Puritan's, all served to present a solid foundation from which to understand the historical events of the narrative.

The details of his narrative were effective in giving me a true sense of understanding of why the Puritan's acted the way they did. Especially in chapter 8, Jericho's Wall, where he explains why the Puritan's were so intolerant to others and why they thought they were justified in being so. Simply to say that their society was built upon conformity and not upon tolerance would have been the simplest way to state the point. However, he went beyond the basics, by giving his insights into the Puritan's overwhelming fear of committing a 'religious' error, their believe that they were the Chosen People, and that they felt that they had the duty and the right to take any action they deemed necessary to keep their communities pure. With such additional information it becomes easier to understand how and why they committed such atrocities as murder and mutilation in the name of their religion.

I found that this book was greatly enhanced by Wertenbaker's extensive use of excerpts from the diaries, letters and books of the Puritan's and their enemies. These excerpts provided a great deal of insight into the mentality and intellect of the writers. The book was also very strong in showing the cause and effect of community organization upon the structure of the state. An example of this was where he showed that when the village system started to disintegrate and people started moving out onto farms, the entire foundation of the bible state began to crumble. This was because the minister's (and the neighbors) could no longer know every activity of every other member of the community, thereby making it harder to enforce conformity. Also it became easier to miss church services in the villages due to distance and weather, which in the long run saw new churches started and new communities develop away from the parent village.

This book has many other strengths. Such as the detailed definitions of terms, such as when he explains exactly what is meant by congregationalism and how it developed. As well as his explanations as to why and how the Puritan's were able to get away with what they did and for so long - such as the persecution of the Quakers, the breaking of the Navigation Acts and their disobedience to parliament and to the various Kings. I also feel that there is one major weakness in the book, not for what was included in it, but in what was excluded. I noticed that several topics were not covered and I feel that had they been included, the book would have presented a much clear interpretation of the Puritan's and their history. Those items which I feel should have been given some space in the book are the Puritan's relationship with the Indians and what their thoughts where in regard to converting the Indians to Christianity (the only real mention about the their relationship with the Indians was a glancing remark that the Puritan's thought that god had prepared the land for them by causing a plague to wipe out most of the Indians in Massachusetts, before their arrival.) The book also lacks insights into the life of the Puritan women. Did they feel repressed? Where their many women like Anne Hutchinson that were willing to risk banishment by not conforming to the dictates of the society, or were most women just meek followers of the men? There is also basically no mention about the Puritan's attitude toward slavery other than a statement that slaves were present in the bible state and that New England's seafaring merchants had no scruples about transporting and trading in slaves.

But perhaps the biggest thing that I noticed missing was the problem of the Indian and French raids that saw a large number of Puritans and New Englander's as a whole, murdered or carried north into bondage. Not only is this important because it shows that the Puritans where faced with not only dealing with a hostile environment for which they had to adapt and mold many of their ideals and believes, but that they also faced the threat of violent death or the prospect of seeing themselves and their children carried into Canada. Once there they faced possible imprisonment or servitude until someone would come and pay to have them released, or they and especially their children would be adopted by Indians. And perhaps worst of all, in their minds, the possibility of conversion to Catholicism, whether by force or by choice.

I believe that the Puritan's attitude toward this problem of forced captivity is very enlightening as to their psychological make-up as it shows how they dealt with the constant threat of siege, with the idea of captivity, and most importantly by the number of captives that refused redemption once offered it - especially the women. The fact that some of the captives refused repudiation shows, I feel, that life in the Puritan bible state was far from ideal - even for it's own members.

The general lack of information about the on and off wars that the Puritan's lived through, I feel is misleading. Constant warfare leaves a mark on so many aspects of a culture: religion, family relations, farming techniques (due to destroyed crops and general danger in farming when you might be attacked at any time) and in the general mood of a religious people who might have the tendency to feel that they are being punished for some fault. All these things must have influenced and helped shape the Puritan's and I feel should have been, at least in a small part, included in the book as the book was meant to be a general overview of the history and culture.

Regardless of what faults I have with the book, on the whole I found it very informative, interesting and highly enlightening. It helped me to better understand the Puritan psyche. Merging the information presented in the book with what I already knew of the Puritan's, it helped me to put that information into better focus and has helped me to better appreciate the differences, both in attitude and outlook, of the Puritan's compared to most other Europeans of their day. Wertenbaker presented a detailed historical and social analysis of the bible state and showed in a clear and understandable manner how it was formed and how and why it faded away.

Would I recommend this book to a friend? That is in many ways a difficult question to answer. Yes, I liked the book and I feel that it is well worth reading. However I have found that recommending a work that is not fiction is often a waste of time unless you know for sure that the person you are recommending the book to has an interest in the subject. On the other hand I found this book very enjoyable to read. Granted it is not the light fare of a novel, but it is written in a flowing style. Also it is not weighted down with pedantic rambling. A fault which far to often finds its way into scholarly writings, making otherwise interesting and informative books boring and overbearing for the lay reader. While I find it likely that someone not interested in this subject might find the book enjoyable, I would be more likely to recommend it to a friend that happen to have an interest in the history of Puritan or Colonial America. To such a person I would highly recommend this book as a decent social and historical analysis of the Puritan experiment in Massachusetts.


Related Reviews:

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Jonathan Edwards: America's Evangelical, by Philip F. Gura.
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