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And In New England

July 2024
2min read

From New Mexico to New England it is a long way, and the stories of these separate colonies are very different; yet it is possible to suspect that some of the principal actors in Catholic New Mexico and Protestant New England would have understood one another very well, even if their ways of speech and the objects they were trying to attain were in substantial contrast.

In each case the great conditioning factor was the empty American continent itself. What men thought they were doing turned out, in the end, to be quite unlike what they actually did. In each case, America was the place where a fresh start could be made, the land (to repeat) of dreams come true; and in each case it was demonstrated, once more, that the dream you finally lay your hands on is apt to differ substantially from the dream you started out with.

Mr. Perry Miller takes up the New England case in a penetrating book of essays, Errand Into the Wilderness . He undertakes the somewhat knotty task of examining precisely what the earnest theologues of Massachusetts Bay were up to and of assaying the results of their labors.

The Puritans of the Bay Colony, he suggests, came to New England on an “errand” in the old, literal sense of the word; that is, on a mission, which was nothing less than to demonstrate, by erecting a working model in an untracked wilderness where no outside influences could affect them, what the ideal Calvinist theocracy would look like in actual practice.

By and large, they succeeded admirably. But there was a catch in it all. For, as Mr. Miller remarks, the real requirement (if the errand were really to be a success) was that “the eyes of the world be kept fixed upon it in rapt attention.” But as years went on, world Protestantism had other things on its mind.

Under Oliver Cromwell, English Puritanism headed off in a direction very different from the one it had been taking when the first colonists reached Massachusetts Bay; an experiment dedicated to the notion that there could be no such thing as dissent or freedom of worship in the ideal state made its ideal good just in time to see Cromwell (in Mr. Miller’s words) “become a dictator in order to impose toleration by force.” The expedition was a success, but there was nobody left at headquarters to whom a proper report could be made. The Puritans did exactly what they set out to do and then found that the world for whose benefit they were doing it was not especially interested any longer.

Errand Into the Wilderness , by Perry Miller. Harvard University Press. 244 pp. $4.75.

This, as Mr. Miller sees it, changed the whole nature of the New England “errand.” What had begun as a venture with a wholly otherworldly motive was suddenly compelled to become “something with a purpose and an intention sufficient unto itself.”

The venture, in other words, had ceased to be a theological experiment.

Here, in short, was a queer and ironic reversal of the New Mexican experience, where a drive for earthly cities made of gold had to find its meaning in a quest for a city that mortal man can never reach. Yet in a way the experiences were parallel; each group of colonists, balked of what it set out to do, found that men had to search for their goal within themselves. As Mr. Miller says of the New England Puritans:

“Their errand having failed in the first sense of the term, they were left with the second, and required to fill it with meaning by themselves and out of themselves. Having failed to rivet the eyes of the world upon their city on the hill, they were left alone with America.”

Here is a very thoughtful and illuminating book, which subjects the New England story—the early portions of it, at any rate—to a searching examination. It is not precisely hammock reading. Mr. Miller makes demands on his reader, but if they are met he is highly rewarding. He sheds important light on the trials and the accomplishments of these tough Puritan divines, who began as perfectly orthodox CaIvinists and wound up by grappling with “the problem of human comprehension of this mysterious thing which we today call the universe.”

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