The Puritan Character Produced Political Freedoms
Let us take the character of the Puritan as it is drawn, not by a Presbyterian minister or by a descendant of the Pilgrim Fathers, but by a member of the British Parliament, in the Edinburgh Review. "We would speak first of the Puritans, the most remarkable body of men, which the world has ever produced...This meeting of the Houses (the Long Parliament) was one of the great eras in the history of the civilized world. Whatever of political freedom exists either in Europe or in America, has sprung, directly or indirectly, from those institutions which they secured and reformed. We never turn to the annals of those times, without feeling increased admiration at the patriotism, the energy, the decision, the consummate wisdom, which marked the measures of that great parliament, from the day on which it met, to the commencement of civil hostilities...The Puritans were men whose minds had derived a peculiar character from the daily contemplation of superior beings, and eternal interests. Not content with acknowledging, in general terms, an overruling Providence, they habitually ascribed every event to the will of the Great Being, fo whose power nothing was too vast, for whose inspection nothing was too minute. To know Him, to serve Him, to enjoy Him, was with them the great end of existence. They rejected with contempt the ceremonious homage which other sects substituted for the worship of the pure soul. Instead of catching occasional glimpses of the Deity through an obscuring veil, they aspired to gaze full on the intolerable brightness, and to commune with Him face to face. Hence originated their contempt for terrestrial distinctions. The difference between the greatest and meanest of mankind seemed to vanish, when compared with the boundless interval which separated the whole race from Him on whom their own eyes were constantly fixed. They recognized no title to superiority but His favor, and confident of that favor, they despised all the accomplishments and all the dignities of the world. If they were unacquainted with the works of philosophers and poets, they were deeply read in the oracles of God. If their names were not found in the registers of heralds, they felt assured that they were recorded in the Book of Life. If their steps were not accompanied by a splendid train of menials, legions of ministering angels had charge over them. Their palaces were houses not made with hands; their diadems crowns of glory which shall never fade away! On the rich and elegant, on nobles and priests, they looked down with contempt; for they esteemed themselves rich in a more precious treasure, and eloquent in a more sublime language, nobles by the right of an earlier creation, and priests by the imposition of a mightier hand. The very meanest of them was a being to whose fate a mysterious and terrible importance belonged - on whose slightest actions the spirits of light and darkness looked with anxious interest - who had been destined, before heaven and earth were created, to enjoy a felicity which should continue when heaven and earth should have passed away. Events which short-sighted politicians ascribed to earthly causes, had been ordained on his account. For his sake empires had risen, and flourished and decayed. For his sake the Almighty had proclaimed His will by the pen of the evangelist, and the harp of the prophet. He had been rescued by no common deliverer, from the grasp of no common foe. He had been ransomed by the seat of no vulgar agony, by the blood of no earthly sacrifice. It was for him that the sun had been darkened, that the rocks had been rent, that the dead had arisen, that all nature had shuddered at the sufferings of her expiring God!
"Thus the Puritan was made up of two different men, the one all self-abasement, penitence, gratitude, passion; the other proud, calm, inflexible, sagacious. He prostrated himself in the dust before his Maker; but he set his foot upon the neck of his king. In his devotional retirement, he prayed with convulsions, and groans and tears. He was half-maddened by glorious or terrible illusions. He heard the lyres of angels or the tempting whispers of fiends. He coauthor a gleam of the Beatific Vision, or awoke screaming from dreams of everlasting fire...But when he took his seat in council, or girt on his sword for war, these tempestuous workings of the soul had left no perceptible trace behind them. People might laugh at them. But those had little reason to laugh, who encountered them in the hall of debate or in the field of battle. These fanatics brought to civil and military affairs a coolness of judgment and an immutability of purpose, which some writers have thought inconsistent with their religious zeal, but which were in fact the necessary effects of it. The intensity of their feelings on one subject made them tranquil on every other. One overpowering sentiment had subjected to itself pity and hatred, ambition and fear. Death had lost its terrors, and pleasure its charms...Enthusiasm had made them stoics, had cleared their minds from every vulgar passion and prejudice, and raised them above the influence of danger and corruption...Those who roused the people to resistance - who directed their measures through a long series of eventful years - who formed, out of the most unpromising materials, the finest army that Europe had seen - who trampled down king, church, and aristocracy - who in the short intervals of domestic sedition and rebellion, made the name of England terrible to every nation on the face of the earth, were no vulgar fanatics."*
If now, a man cradled by a mother in Israel, in whose veins ran such blood, formed perpetually on such models, studying them in their theology, reverencing their names, should grow to be like them, would it be a strange phenomenon? Well do the men who now hear me know that the race is not extinct. It is two hundred years since the Westminster Assembly sat, but they have not been all years of degeneracy. This mighty tree of liberty which shelters under its branches near twenty millions, would never have grown so strong and world-defying, but for the seed from which it sprung.
B. J. Wallace, Spiritual Ambition: A Sermon preached before the Synod of Pennsylvania, in the Clinton Street Church, Philadelphia, on Tuesday evening, October 29, 1841. Pp. 12-14.
* Macauley's Articles on Milton, and Hallam's Constitutional History, in the Edinburgh Review.