chapter  1
14 Pages

THE CENTRAL THEMES OF AMERICAN RELIGIOUS HISTORY: Pluralism, Puritanism, and the Encounter of Black and White

If those who stress the pluralism and toleration theme may be said to vary primarily in their optimism about when the American experiment in religious liberty was--or will be-fully realized, interpreters of our past who emphasize Puritanism may be classified according to their degree of pessimism about when the Puritan legacy either was--or will be-fully dissipated. Generally they agree that in its origins the American experiment was not so much an experiment in religious liberty as an attempt at a holy commonwealth. Whatever their sins of oppression against religious dissenters, this account suggests, the Puritans had an admirable sense of common purpose that stands in favorable contrast to the prevailing privatism and individualism of much of our subsequent historyincluding our religiOUS history. Before they had even set foot in Massachusetts, the Puritans were advised by Governor John Winthrop that if they wished to succeed in building their "city upon a hill," they "must be knit together in this work as one man ... as members of the same body." Puritanism, however, together with its strong sense of collective purpose, was destined to go downhill in America from this promising beginning. According to the gloomiest accounts, Puritanism scarcely outlived the generation that brought it to the New World. The settlers' children and their children's children went from Puritan to Yankee, as crass commercialism dissolved religiOUS bonds and individual material goals supplanted common spiritual purpose.