Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Something wicked this way comes...

The Pilgrims were surely an earnest, long-suffering, and hardened people to have gone through all that they did in planting Plymouth Colony. When it wasn't famine, sickness, terrible weather, or threat of an Indian war enveloping them, it was the more common type of hardships that befell them.

Much of William Bradford's excellent history Of Plymouth Plantation (I'm reading the 2001 edition edited by Samuel Eliot Morison, Borzoi Books) chronicles the business reversals that they suffered, the underhanded dealings of agents who were supposedly negotiating for them back in England with their investors (the Merchant Adventurers), but who were really out to make a buck for themselves. The Pilgrims got the shaft every time they turned around, and ironically enough, had a heck of a time finding a pastor for their flock who wasn't a complete charlatan or who didn't have some peculiar belief that they couldn't countenance. But Bradford became seriously perturbed by the "wickedness" he saw breaking out all around him, just as the colonies were becoming more populous and, at least some, more prosperous.

In his entry for year 1642, he entertains several reasons why all this incontinence, sodomy, and buggery was breaking out like an epidemic. He considers that it is because the Devil has to work extra hard and go to greater lengths to sow corruption in a people simply because they "endeavour to preserve holiness and purity ... and strictly punisheth the contrary when it arises." However, Bradford doesn't like the idea that the Devil is more potent in the New World, so he also reasons that it might be because their community didn't allow sins to "run in a common road of liberty" so when it did break through, it was twice as violent.

But here's where he really lets the Puritan freak flag fly -- it's not because they have more than the normal proportion of "evils" done among them:

But they are here more discovered and seen and made public by due search, inquisition and due punishment; for the churches look narrowly to their members, and the magistrates over all, more strictly than in other places. Besides, here the people are but few in comparison of other places which are full and populous and lie hid, as it were, in a wood or a thicket and many horrible evils by that means are never seen nor known; whereas here they are, as it were, brought into the light and set in the plain field, or rather on a hill, made conspicuous to the view of all. (Chapter XXXII, p. 317)

Ah! Here it is, the forerunner of modern "social networking" but without all the spying and legwork. Now, you can simply out yourself, disposing of the bother of relying on others to do it for you. That, my friends, is progress. And if broadcasting all your evils isn't enough, you can take a picture of yourself engaging in said evils and confirm them. Although, I have to say, if hanging were the probable outcome, modern social networkers might manage to be more prudent. Not that I think that's an appropriate antidote. But as Bradford would say, "Thus much for the present."

All joshing aside, what really strikes me about the passage above and of the whole book, really, is the most earnest, genuine, soul-shaking belief that the Devil is REAL. Not some cartoon red imp with a cloven hoof and pitchfork, but a destructive, preying, malevolent presence haunting your every thought, step, and nightmare. And if you were already of this persuasion in Europe, amongst the familiar rolling hills or grand cathedrals of the cities, how much would that feeling be intensified, in almost perfect isolation, facing an endless wilderness that contained unfathomable threats and mysteries?

It's easy to make Puritans the butt of jokes with our 21st century sensibilities. I know I've certainly done it. But for them it was a deadly serious business; they weren't being ironic; they weren't trying to sell people a bogus story in order to defraud them (well, maybe a few). The belief that they were constantly in peril and threatened by eternal damnation is what they staked their lives on and what made them quite willing to execute those members of the community who might be "infected" by evil, a belief that reached its ultimate expression in the witch hunt hysteria which was to follow.

No comments: