“By gradual steps (which have not yet been traced),” wrote Perry Miller in 1956, “Paradise Lost became, around the middle of the eighteenth century, not so much a secondary Book of Genesis as a substitute for the original.”1 This bold claim from Errand into the Wilderness has always intrigued me. It contains implications for reception history, history of the book, American intellectual history, and above all, Puritan theology, if devotees of the principle sola scriptura, by the eighteenth century, practiced sola scriptura… and Milton! Here is my preliminary attempt to uncover and examine a little of this chapter in American intellectual history.
The first copy of Paradise Lost, published in London in 1667, arrived in the new world in 1698, after New York City ordered a copy for its library. Yale listed Paradise Lost as part of its collection in 1714, two years before a young Jonathan Edwards arrived in New Haven to study theology. In 1715, Harvard College boasted that their collection included Paradise Lost as well as all of Milton’s other works. Historian and Milton scholar George Sensabaugh writes that early in eighteenth-century New England Puritan diaries began to abound with references to Milton. “Such testimony,” Sensabaugh argues, “along with notices in newspapers and magazines and almanacs, suggests that Milton was read and appreciated from Massachusetts to the Carolinas, that his phenomenal fame, though partially imported from England, was largely an indigenous growth.”2
This indigenous growth was nurtured in a Puritan environment by Puritan habits of reading. Puritans did not read as if words were dead. Believing that all true human perceptions of beauty or truth were the experience of God’s grace, they maintained that a profound or excellent text must come from the Holy Spirit, and that it must be alive and capable of “speech” to impress its truth upon the reader.3 Puritans thus believed that the true author of Paradise Lost was the Holy Spirit, speaking through John Milton—an idea with radical implications. For with this theology, Puritans elevated any great text to the level of the scripture, replacing sola scriptura with sola fide, and declaring any word written through faith sacrosanct. The alternative would be to claim that men, through no divine aid but only the work of their excellent minds, were capable of perceiving great truths. Another option would be to protect biblical authority by declaring it dead, not alive and available to be experienced through God’s grace. While Arminians and Unitarians chose the later alternatives, rather than make every inspired poet divine, Puritans in the early eighteenth century could not deny the supreme power of the Holy Spirit or the total depravity of man, and their reading of Paradise Lost as a divinely-inspired, living text radically altered their reading of the Bible.
Charles Chauncy, appointed president of Harvard College in 1654, was a simple man. The most passionate theological debate he engaged in involved whether baptism required full submersion in water or a mere sprinkling on the head. He lacked rhetorical skill and had so little poetic inclination that he “wished that someone one would translate Paradise Lost into prose, that he might understand it.”4 Had Chauncy lived to see the eighteenth century, he would have gotten his wish. By the time his great-grandson of the same name was preaching in the 1740s, the leading ministers in New England gave sermons that read like prose versions of Milton’s poem, borrowing his narrative, his imagery, and his characters, even when they contradicted the biblical story.
Beginning in the early eighteenth century, New England preachers began to incorporate Paradise Lost into their sermons. At first, they acknowledged Milton as the source, augmenting the scripture with the poem, but not yet confusing the two. As far as I can tell from sermons available to public access, the first minister to preach Milton regularly was Benjamin Coleman of Boston. In 1714, he gave a series of sermons using the metaphor of light to explain how God reveals truth to the elect. Coleman drew upon Milton for this metaphor, quoting from Paradise Lost to his congregation, and proclaiming “God is light. So He represents Himself unto us . . . the angels sing Hail, Holy Light! . . . our Milton learn’d it of them . . . our late angel of a man.”5 Coleman quotes Milton in five sermons delivered from 1714 to 1716. Later, his sermons relied heavily on Paradise Lost but led the reader unacquainted with Milton to believe his only source was the Bible. In a sermon delivered in 1735 entitled A Brief Dissertation on the Three First Chapters of Genesis, Coleman painted a pastoral picture of Eden found nowhere in the Bible, but revealed in Book IV of Paradise Lost. “The plants were covered with the sweetest Odour, and streams of pure water ran by the green shady walks,” Coleman preached, adding that “the trees were laden with painted fruit,” and that Adam and Eve “walked together, contemplated and discoursed” in this idyllic setting. In Book IV, Milton similarly describes Eden’s “odorous balme,” “murmuring waters,” trees bearing “fruit burnisht with Golden Rinde,” and the strolls Adam and Eve would take together in lofty conversation.6
Jonathan Edwards, probably one of the most careful writers when composing his sermons, once used Milton as a lens through which to interpret the Bible. In defending a Calvinist interpretation of John 17:12, Edwards employed two familiar tactics. First, he interpreted the passage in light of other biblical passages. Second, he looked at the original Greek text and insisted on a particular translation with a meaning that supported his interpretation. But Edwards then quoted Book II of Paradise Lost: “God and his Son except/ created things naught valued he nor shunned.” That Edwards, a strict disciple of orthodox Calvinism, which proclaimed sola scriptura and eschewed all authority other than the Bible would turn to Milton to defend his interpretation of a passage from John is remarkable, and suggests that the principle of sola fide produced a radical way of reading texts that ultimately challenged the authority of the scripture.
Edwards lists Paradise Lost twice in his meticulously kept log of all books and essays he read. His high praise and enthusiasm for Milton and his theology of grace suggests that he could have believed Milton to be divinely possessed when he wrote Paradise Lost and thus a valid authority for interpreting scripture.7 But perhaps even more remarkable is Edwards’ unacknowledged use of Paradise Lost in a sermon on recognizing true grace delivered in 1743. “The devil has . . . a great knowledge of heaven,” Edwards explained in this sermon. “For he has been an inhabitant of that world of glory: and he has a great knowledge of hell, and the nature of its misery; for he is the first inhabitant of hell; and above all the other inhabitants, has experience of its torment, and has felt them constantly, for more than fifty-seven hundred years,” he declared.8 These facts about Satan, particularly the date “fifty-seven hundred years,” come from not from the Bible, but Paradise Lost, which Edwards’ journal shows he read just three weeks before delivering the sermon.9 Edwards’ use of Paradise Lost and his dating of the time Satan spent in heaven are particularly interesting considering Edwards’ reluctance to use new science such as Newtonian physics, which he also read with enthusiasm, to add to the Bible in the form of speculation about the age of the earth or the date and manner in which the world would end, something many of his contemporaries engaged in.10 Edwards’ willingness to entertain thoughts about the years Satan spent in heaven based on Paradise Lost suggests that he considered the poem on the level of scripture.
After 1740, quotations from Paradise Lost abound in at least two sermons of every major New England minister. Jonathan Mayhew, a bitter opponent of Edwards, quotes Milton in over two dozen sermons. Charles Chauncy, whose great-grandfather had longed for a prose version of Paradise Lost, allowed Milton’s description of Eden and the motives and personalities he assigned to Adam, Eve, and Satan to creep into his sermons, although his direct quotations remain from scripture alone.11 As Perry Miller suggested, Paradise Lost nearly replaced Genesis in the Puritan imagination.
Another demonstration of Milton in the popular imagination comes from the New England Primer, the children’s book designed to teach religion and reading. Children learned the alphabet from this book by associating pictures and a rhyme with each letter. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” sang the rhyme for the letter A. The simple illustration that accompanied this rhyme began as a picture of Adam and Eve next to the tree of knowledge in the first edition. In the second edition, Adam and Eve are depicted next to a snake-devil. John Milton made the snake that encouraged the transgression Satan in disguise; the Bible does not say that the serpent is the devil. The drawing of the fall in the second edition of the New England Primer thus depicts a scene from Paradise Lost, not Genesis. Finally, a later edition of the primer shows only Eve with a fruit in her hand. The choice to depict only Eve is curious, since the rhyme remained “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” In Paradise Lost, Eve is tempted by the serpent alone; she takes the fruit alone, and only later does she encourage Adam to join her in sin. In the Bible, however, Adam and Eve are together when the serpent approaches them and together when they eat the fruit. It is only after God discovers their sin that Adam claims Eve was primarily responsible. Again, the primer’s drawing of the fall is therefore a better illustration of Milton’s version than of the biblical version.12
While the Puritans appreciated Milton because they could take his poetic fiction for another version of biblical truth, Unitarians appreciated Milton because they believed his poetry could not be misunderstood for fact. New England Unitarians embodied what Henry May has called the Didactic Enlightenment, built on Scottish common-sense philosophy.13 This Enlightenment strain reacted against the subjectivism and skepticism of George Berkeley and David Hume; followers of the Scottish common-sense movement therefore tried to establish the faith in objective reality that Berkeley and Hume had shaken. In the tradition of this ideology, Unitarian poet William Cullen Bryant praised Paradise Lost for showing a controlled use of the imagination, grounding the fantasy of his mind on the objective fact of the Bible.14
Milton’s imagination is only controlled, however, when the Bible is guarded as a dead text and conversion is simply a matter of accepting it as truth, not a private experience of grace and regeneration. In 1834, A. H. Everett explained why Milton was safer than Shakespeare. “In Milton’s creation, we feel the hands of a master;– in those of Shakespeare, we forget it” he cautioned.15 According to Everett, both Milton and Shakespeare were geniuses, but Shakespeare’s fiction could dangerously melt into fact; Milton clearly remained the effort of a creative mind. Yet the experience of earlier New Englanders with Milton demonstrates that there is nothing inherent in his writing that makes it easy to discriminate from fact, but rather a different way of reading and a different understanding of the role of the poet that changed Milton from an “angel,” as Benjamin Coleman had preached, to simply a talented writer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson attacked this Unitarian way of reading, complaining in 1838 before the Harvard Divinity School that “men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.”16 For Emerson’s New England ancestors, God and scripture were alive and in danger of becoming perverted by the interpretation of a poet; for Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists, God and the Bible were secure, frozen, and dead. “I would have my pen so guided as was Milton’s when a deep and enthusiastic love of goodness and of God dictated . . . to the bard,” a young Emerson wrote, reflecting a Puritan view of the source of Milton’s genius.17
In his essay, Intellect, Emerson writes: “To genius must always go two gifts, the thought and the publication. The first is revelation,” he continues, “always a miracle, which no frequency of occurrence or incessant study can ever familiarize, but which must always leave the inquirer stupid with wonder.” “But to make it available,” Emerson says of the subjective experience of great truth, “it needs a vehicle or art by which it is conveyed to men.” To be communicable, he concludes, experience must become objective. “We must learn the language of facts. The most wonderful inspirations die with their subject, if he has no hand to paint them to the senses,” Emerson declares.18
Should historians write like Emerson’s Unitarians, as if the past were dead? Can we make the past an expression of our thought? Writing about the way figures in the past have read and used literature, aside from offering unique insight into their mental and cultural worlds, can provide a starting point for the historian to experiment with writing about the past the way Puritans used Paradise Lost— as an objective reflection of subjective perception.
1 Miller, Errand in the Wilderness (New York, 1956), 220.
2 George F. Sensabaugh, Milton in Early America (Princeton: 1964), 37.
3See, Leigh Eric Schmidt, Hearing Things (Cambridge and London: 2002).
4 Quoted in Miller, Jonathan Edwards, 27.
5 Benjamin Coleman, A Discourse on the Incomprehensibleness of God, Boston, 1714.
6 Coleman, A Brief Dissertation on the Three First Chapters of Genesis, Boston, 1735.
7 The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University < http://edwards.yale.edu/>.
8 Jonathan Edwards, True Grace, Distinguished From The Experience Of Devils, Northampton, 1743.
9 The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University < http://edwards.yale.edu/>.
10 See Miller, Jonathan Edwards.
11 “Eighteenth Century Collections Online” is an excellent resource for searching within published sermons.
12 New England Primer, < http://www.sacred-texts.com.>
13 Henry May, The Enlightenment in America (Oxford: 1976).
14 K. P. Van Anglen, The New England Milton: Literary Reception and Cultural Authority in the Early Republic (University Park: 1993), 62-63.
16 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address” in Robert D. Richardson Jr., ed., Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems (New York: 2007), 116.
17 Quoted in Anglen, 115.
18 Emerson, “Intellect.”