Today’s post comes courtesy of Claire Rydell Arcenas. Claire is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Stanford University, and a 2015-2016 Geballe Dissertation Prize Fellow in the Stanford Humanities Center. This post arises in her capacity as a member of the 2016 S-USIH Conference Committee.
Does Perry Miller Matter More Than Ever?
Within mere minutes of beginning graduate school (or so it felt then), I encountered Perry Miller for the first time. I spent hours reading and rereading “Errand into the Wilderness.” For days, nearly everywhere I went, I carried with me The New England Mind, attempting to understand Miller just a bit better than I had the day before.
As I read deeper into Puritan historiography, I balanced my initial awe with more critical assessments of Miller’s work. I found compelling scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s that approached American Puritanism through a trans-Atlantic lens, looking more to England and English Puritanism for insights into its New England counterpart. I was drawn to studies that used the Puritans to better understand commerce, sexuality, conflict, and science in colonial America. I digested nuanced revisions by Philip Gura, Theodore Dwight Bozeman, and Stephen Foster of Miller’s arguments that, for example, a proto-American sense of exceptionalism was present throughout New England Puritanism. The more I read, however, the more I came to admire Miller’s ability—however much I agreed or disagreed with his particular insights or oversights—to make a compelling case for why the Puritans mattered.
Just this past week, in a walk down memory lane, I reread my first historiographical essay on Miller and his interlocutors. “The future of scholarship on Puritanism,” I had written, “resides in the ability of historians to revisit the Puritans with the same sense of intellectual urgency Miller possessed over half a century ago.” Now, five years later, as I look ahead to this year’s S-USIH Annual Conference, I eagerly await a plenary session that promises to do exactly that.
The roundtable discussion will be led by David Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor Emeritus of History, U.C. Berkeley, and author, most recently, of After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History, who recently shared his own perspective on Miller’s legacy on this blog. He will be joined by Christopher Beneke, Associate Professor of History, Bentley University, David Hall, Bartlett Research Professor of New England Church History, Harvard Divinity School, Mark Peterson, Professor of History, U.C. Berkeley, and Sarah Rivett, Associate Professor of English, Princeton University.
The remarkable breadth of recent publications by these scholars indicates the present vitality of Puritanism studies. Take Sarah Rivett, for example. In her award-winning 2011 book The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England, Rivett challenges us to revisit categories of “evidence” and “grace” in the seventeenth-century English North American colonies to better understand the permeability of boundaries (or lack thereof) between science and religion for New England Puritans. More recently, she has again urged us, with the publication of her co-edited volume on Religious Transformations in the Early Modern Americas (2014), to rethink big questions in early American religious and scientific history inside and outside of an Atlantic framework. Rivett teaches in an English Department, another sign up how Puritanism is not a topic of the past for historians alone.
Our other panelists, all historians, suggest how Puritanism still lies at the intersection of economic, political, and intellectual questions. Christopher Beneke’s Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism, David Hall’s A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England, and Mark Peterson’s The Price of Redemption: The Spiritual Economy of Puritan New England give us a window into the changed, and changing, place of Puritanism, broadly conceived, in the past, present, and future of American intellectual history.
In what ways should we reread and reconsider Miller in light of this more recent work? Is, perhaps, Miller’s case for the Puritans’ importance more critical and timely than ever?
Join this conversation yourself by submitting panel proposals on topics related to the history of Puritanism or early American intellectual history more generally. Or, at the very least, think back to your own first encounters with the Puritans and Perry Miller, and ask yourself, “What has changed?”