Saturday, September 10, 2016

Puritan Piety through a Communal Work Ethic

Diligence - Frugality - Faith

Inspired by Charles Cohen’s, “The Saints Zealous in Love and Labor,” this analysis details contrasting scholarly perspectives regarding the Puritan psychology of work. Cohen cites Max Weber’s thesis and mentions how Weber links the practice of piety to the development of capitalism and Western Civilization. Weber suggests that Puritans were largely inspired to fulfill their earthly acts of labor due to a higher sense of moralistic reasoning and virtue. Overwhelmingly, from the writings of John Winthrop, one of the leading founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and other Puritan authors, the majority of New England’s early settlers appeared to have desired to manifest their faith through good works and economic activity, whether as a show of their own piety or due to societal pressures to behave accordingly to the ideals of their religiously-based colony. From Charles perspective, Puritans assumed that if they were not being productive, they were not living up to the standards of Christ and that without labor, the Spirit of God was not being accessed, thus not reflecting a transformed state from sinner to a soul regenerated into active Christian life.

Reminiscent of John Smith’s famously attributed quote – “Those who do not work do not eat” –highly incentivized public activity from all members of Puritan society regardless of class or gender is indicative that new settlements along the Eastern coastline were no longer bound by old European ties to class hierarchy. Additionally, each individual, in order to survive the harsh elements of the New World, appeared compelled to participate and contribute, concepts that were exceptionally relevant to the Puritan way of life, as the common belief seemed to hold that the single action from one of their members could result in either God’s favor or displeasure, indicating that there existed subsequent consequences for either their action or inaction.

Historian Sharon Beder explores how a higher motivation is necessary for the efficiency of modern economics, that being portrayed in the success of capitalism. She states that "modern capitalism, more than mere trading for profit, requires a system of values that revolves around economic meanings and goals." She continues to highlight how the Protestant Reformation brought about "moral support and legitimacy" to settlers desiring to impact commerce and industry - one of the hallmarks of those crossing the Atlantic who were set on exploring and cultivating the relatively unclaimed American continent for their own personal or imperialistic gain.

Intriguingly, a critique of Max Weber's initial projection on how the economic motivations of Puritans stemmed from their Calvinistic theology emerges in the form of Anglican dissent. A contrary opinion posed by C. John Sommerville stands refreshingly aloof compared to the amount of research on early colonial piety during the 1600s. Sommerville argues that Anglicans were far more work-focused and efficient in their enterprises compared to their Puritan counterparts. In “The Anti-Puritan Work Ethic,” Sommerville disputes the validity of other scholars whom he sees as having relied too heavily on Weber's analysis and that consideration ought to be placed on other pieces of literary evidence to support the conjected link between Calvinist doctrine and the compulsive desire to work. He suggests, based on religious books penned by Anglican authors within the 17th century, that Anglicans instead placed more emphasis upon worldly acts of labor “as a religious duty" in a way that was "integrated with the rest of their theology in a more logical manner than the Puritans." He sees the Puritan motive for work more as a symptom of psychology branching out from a sense of “religious anxiety” instead of acts conducted out of pure devotion.

Sommerville could be right, however, though more detailed and thought provoking due to how he contrasts the deeper theological differences between Christian denominations, it appears as though his argument misses the point – simply because Anglicans may have been more concentrated on work as a stated “religious duty,” this does not discredit the reasons as to why Puritans were motivated to actively act out the will of God. Cannot both sects be equally motivated by economic and religious factors? Even if Puritans were motivated in part by societal pressures they may have felt, especially in light of conformity, intrinsically the Puritan mindset is fundamentally yet enamored with the idea that each believer is responsible in expressing the Spirit of God and His transformational powers within and through their outward show of labor and good works. Through the tenets of the Protestant Reformation, with Luther’s insistence on Sola Gratia - through God's grace alone, the Puritans heartily believed that salvation can only be achieved through the sacrifice of Christ and not through any humanly effort, thus they were further inspired by Christian principles to dedicate their lives to hard work in service of God in addition to a dedicated display of their own personal piety and devotion in an outwardly visible way.

I do not see the conflict here as anyone can be simultaneously motivated by various influences yet still maintain a genuine and sincere conviction towards an original motivating factor, this being God in the instance through our analysis of motivational factors influencing the Puritans. In fact, Christianity revolves around each saint navigating through the diverse influences and responsibilities of life while always bearing in mind Who ought to have the greatest amount of influence in our lives.

Linking Protestant Work Ethic and Capitalism, Max Weber
Thankfully, historian Marilynn Robinson, points out a unique facet of Puritan thinking in her "Puritans and Prigs: An Anatomy of Zealotry" that acknowledges the Christian doctrine of the depravity of man, a notion emphasized quite emphatically by Calvinists from which Puritan methodology strains. She likens a portion of Puritanical society to that of the “National Socialism of Germany” or other fascist communities – “the idea that society can and should produce good people – people suited to life in that idealized society” who must consistently examine whether they and those around them are expressing and living up to that communal standard. However, she retracts that affiliation, suggesting that the Puritans cannot be considered “zealots or Stalinists”, but rather showcases how Puritans have a zealous nature about them only because the passion of these devotees originates from the deep desire to “feel secure in their reasonableness, worth, and goodness,” or rather, to solidly mirror their Christian identity, despite their understanding of flawed human nature. It is actually because of this understanding, Robinson claims, that they are “filled with a generous zeal to establish their virtues through the world of their society with the inspiring hope that this transformation can be accomplished.”

And this leads us back to the beginning of this discussion with the statement Cohen took from Max Weber, suggesting that Puritan motivation for earthly work was uniquely and intimately bound together with their desire to serve and worship God to the utmost of their abilities - a pious expression rooted at the very core of Christian hospitality and compassion which came to greatly influence and alter the course of Western Civilization due to both economic and religious motivating factors.


Cohen, Charles L. "The Saints Zealous in Love and Labor: The Puritan Psychology of Work." The Harvard Theological Review 76, no. 4 (1983): 455-80.
Fitzpatrick, Tara. "The Figure of Captivity: The Cultural Work of the Puritan Captivity Narrative."American Literary History 3, no. 1 (1991): 1-26.
Harper, Preston. "Puritan Works Salvation and the Quest for Community in "the Scarlet Letter"." Theology Today 57, no. 1 (Apr 01, 2000): 51,
Hart, Ian. "The Teaching of the Puritans about Ordinary Work." 67, no. 3 (January 1, 1995): 195.
Laird, Pamela. "Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR."Enterprise & Society 2, no. 4 (12, 2001): 855-7,
Robinson, Marilynne. "Puritans and Prigs: An Anatomy of Zealotry." Salmagundi, no. 101-102 (Winter, 1994): 36,
Seaver, Paul. "The Puritan Work Ethic Revisited." Journal of British Studies 19, no. 2 (1980): 35-53.
Sommerville, C. John. "The Anti-Puritan Work Ethic." Journal of British Studies 20, no. 2 (1981): 70-81.
Winthrop, John. "John Winthrop: A Modell of Christian Charity." Hanover. Accessed September 09, 2016.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Book Review - Banning’s Sacred Fire of Liberty

Lance Banning. The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1995. Pp. x, 543. $35.00

In The Sacred Fire of Liberty, Lance Banning presents the unassuming yet capable James Madison as a uniting figure presiding over the Congressional delegation wrought in debate over ratification of a proposed Constitution penned for the United States and continues with an analysis of Madison’s subsequent political career after his landmark contribution. The author primarily argues that Madison's position for establishing a sense of national security rested upon the laurels of the Revolution yet hinged between success and failure due to the weakened nature of the Articles of Confederation following the rise of discord during the era of the Early Republic. Banning’s main point appears to attempt to shed light on the politician’s often misunderstood rationale subsisting of his view on the proper role of government and how the essence of liberty intertwines.

The Sacred Fire of Liberty masterfully chronicles Madison’s efforts and vocational progression, however, most impressively, Banning articulately surveys Madison’s belief in a compound form of republican government which he expected to preserve individual liberties while enabling a strong federal system that would function within its appropriate realm. Banning ought to have delved deeper into the reasons for Madison’s assumptions toward this end, however assurances issuing from his proposed idea of a tripartite limitation of national power may give recourse for his assumptive stance on how future statesmen would function. Yet in the same vein, Cathy Matson notes how Madison "clung to classical republican beliefs in the need for a virtuous citizenry and reputable political leadership...[consecrated on the] ideal of self-government grounded on republican dignity and virtue,"[1] forces which may indeed explain Madison’s frequently misinterpreted political vantage point in light of clamoring for a more distinctive form of democratic republicanism.

 Appreciatively, Robert A. Becker provides insight into a slight flaw of Banning's throughout his publication, that being repetitiveness and the potential glorification of Madison in lieu of his reputation's tarnishing at the hands of modern historiography. Yet the redeeming virtue of Sacred Fire is Banning’s insistence on respectfully illuminating the error within a majority of scholarly reviews of the man. Banning suggests that "numerous interpretative difficulties" over Madison's concern of potential authoritative overreach while yet desiring an effective centralized government "can produce an image bearing little resemblance to Madison himself."[2] Complimentary to the author’s thesis, Becker's persuasive observation of Banning's intention to project Madison as a "revolutionary republican and a kind of states' rights nationalist [instead of the politician who has been] persistently misread in order to force Madison into the mold of an anti-republican nationalist"[3] is thoroughly agreeable.

Additionally, as suggested by Vincent McGuire, Banning aims to reveal that, however contradictory, Madison's "overriding concern was maintaining the Spirit of Revolution"[4] in its purest form. Similarly, with Matson’s aforementioned discernment of Madison’s ethical stance, Banning utilizes Madison's "own words woven unobtrusively into the narrative"[5] to feature how Madison poses not as a fickle public servant but rather one of principled character and consistency in his approach to sociopolitical theory and revivalist change.

Through approaching the realm of America’s hallowed pantheon to dissect one of its members in an honest and justifiable manner, Banning provides an insightful and fair analysis of the humble man bearing the weighty mantle as the Father of the Constitution. Though refraining from considering himself a nationalist, Banning skillfully indicates through his work how Madison emerged from a defender of state rights’ to jointly favoring federal policy, namely through the institution of implied Congressional powers due to the necessity of reform he recognized the budding nation required if the idealized vision for the “grand American experiment” could be sustained.


Lance Banning, A Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (1995).

Scholarly Reviews Consulted:

Becker, Robert A. The American Historical Review 102, no. 5 (1997): 1562-563.

Matson, Cathy. The Journal of Southern History 63, no. 1 (1997): 151-53.

McGuire, Vincent. The American Political Science Review 90, no. 4 (1996): 884.

[1] Cathy Matson, The Journal of Southern History 63, no. 1 (1997): 152.
[2] Lance Banning, The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic (1995): 165.
[3] Robert A. Becker, The American Historical Review 102, no. 5 (1997): 1563.
[4] Vincent McGuire, The American Political Science Review 90, no. 4 (1996): 884.
[5] Cathy Matson, 151.

A Brief Consideration of Charles Cohen’s Thesis - Christianity and the Colonization of British North America

        Charles Cohen presents a contrary perspective regarding the early colonization of British North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, suggesting not that Christianity loomed only to decrescendo ever since the landing of the Puritans and other-like minded dissidents, but instead, presents the case that the faithful pinioned on the periphery of the New World were located in a fundamentally revolving environment that harbored and instigated the expanse of Christendom. Cohen's thesis explores the unique scenario of migrants huddled in an uncharted landscape and endued with the responsibility to organize and structure their surroundings upon ideological concerns, primarily as a refuge from European church and societal corruption, the desire to revive long-held and valued Christian principles, and to function as a successful system of citizens lying outside the boundaries of conventional British civilization. He concludes with the notion that American revivalism ought not to be considered isolated but instead, a complement to the global revival sweeping across the Atlantic from Western Civilization's shore due to the organization of Protestantism from official doctrine to a faith revived by the intensive yearnings of devoted hearts affected by sermons from enthusiastic ministers, such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. Ultimately, Cohen argues that the religiously unassociated as well as the cross-denominational collective of settlers from the British continent were an extent of the church-state system but also a product of their developing environment.

        Charles Cohen, “The Colonization of British North America as an Episode in the History of Christianity,” Church History (2003), 553-568.

        Charles Landseer, The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642, Google Art Project.