The Sympathy of the Puritans


When Hester Prynne stands before Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritans in The Scarlet Letter, she encounters monsters of intolerance. Embarrassed by his ancestors, Hawthorne describes her accusers with a level of bitterness possible only in an aggrieved descendent, calling them “the most intolerant brood that ever lived,” “a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical,” “severe,” and “grim.” His Puritans are unforgiving, and their sympathy “meager” and “cold.”

Students whose knowledge of the Puritans is drawn exclusively from The Crucible cannot be blamed for accepting Hawthorne’s description as history. Today, “Puritan” is a catch-all pejorative used to suggest that one’s opponent is dour, authoritarian, nit-picking, or afraid of pleasure, depending on the argument of the moment. Suggestions that they were overly scrupulous would not have shocked the Puritans—they were used to those accusations. However, Hawthorne’s declaration that Puritan nature knows no sympathy would have shocked his ancestors. Above all, they valued “love of the brethren” or “fellow-feeling” as a sign of spiritual regeneration, and a lack of sympathy would indicate that their social, spiritual, and political experiments were entirely in vain.

In Sympathetic Puritans, Abram C. Van Engen sets out to prove a small point: that literary sentimentalism arose as a natural outgrowth of—not in reaction to—Puritanism. As the foundation for his thesis, he examines the Puritan theology of sympathy and he then argues a much larger point: that the Puritans were not the cold hypocrites of popular conception but were instead people of strong emotion, who if they erred, erred by putting too much stock in emotional displays.

From their earliest days, the Puritans of Cambridge were influenced by Erasmus, who wrote much of “the sensuous sympathy of dust for dust.” Presocratic natural philosophers had argued that “like attracts like,” and Erasmus adapted the argument to the church as part of his interpretation of I John 3: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren.” Those possessing the life of Christ would be attracted to those who shared the same life. “Fellow-feeling” was considered a principle of nature, and the ability for a Christian to share and inspire sincere affection was a sign of spiritual regeneration.

John Calvin further developed a theology of sympathy, arguing that, “no act of kindness, except accompanied by sympathy, is pleasing to God.” An emotional, experiential sympathy with the brethren was a sign of election, its absence a sign of damnation. Far from believing that laws were necessary to repress men’s desires, the Puritans believed that love from Christ himself had to be the source of all their actions. Works that didn’t stem from Christ’s life and love were worthless.

Though the sympathy between Christians was considered the stronger bond, the Puritans in no way denied the importance of natural affections. As Puritan theologian William Fenner preached, “The affections are not only not sinful, but it is an infinite blessing of God, that God hath given us affections.” The love for God was to far exceed the love for lesser things, but only by burning more hotly, not by extinguishing the others.

The struggles of Puritan New England, from the Antinomian controversy to the witch trials, grew out of their intense desire to preserve “fellow-feeling” and their fear of hypocrisy. What initially was a properly high standard for Christian love, became in some cases a source of anxiety for the overly conscientious and an incentive for performed sympathy in others.

Puritans believed that grace was usually experienced in a dramatic moment of conversion, when the Spirit of God descended on a lost sinner, regenerating the heart in a moment that was often intensely emotional. This moment, plus the fruit the conversion produced, assured the Christian of salvation. Inevitably, despite pastoral clarifications that it was the inclination of the heart, not momentary moods, that mattered, the insistence on an emotional conversion began to cause some Puritans to doubt their salvation. As a means of providing greater assurance to weak saints, Puritan ministers began to emphasize “fellow-feeling” as a more important confirmation. A person might not have experienced ecstasy in the moment of conversion, but she loved her neighbor; thus she could know that she loved God.

While this teaching did strengthen fearful believers, it also lowered the bar for conversion. Perhaps the “work” of being a loving neighbor, which might also be possible naturally, was replacing the true work of grace. The banishing of Anne Hutchinson came about precisely because of this question. Hutchinson, a follower of Puritan minister John Cotton, believed sympathy was confirmation of grace but that only a conversion experience was evidence of the Spirit. Carrying the argument farther than Cotton did, she accused other Puritans of preaching a false gospel and hinted that she had received private revelation.

Hutchinson’s insistence on private revelation was a serious heresy, but even more alarming to the elders was her introduction of “faction.” If Hutchison had no “fellow-feeling” with fellow Puritans, she was not one of the elect. Disagreements about doctrine could be discussed, but only within a community of believers held together by Christ’s affection. If Hutchison was outside those bounds, she would have to leave. Accordingly, she was not banished immediately after her heresy had been confirmed but after her divisive accusations were repeated before the court.

The question of sympathy came up once again in the Salem witch trials. Several were hanged on the evidence that they seemed to feel no sympathy for the suffering of the alleged victims. Surely, the reasoning went, if they were Christians they would demonstrate compassion for those who suffered. “You do not know my heart,” responded one of the accused, but the Puritans, who had initially been anxious to consider sympathy one of the proofs of salvation precisely because the state of the human spirit was so difficult to ascertain, were now confident in their their ability to do just that.

By the time of the witch trials, the Puritans were in their second generation, and the dreaded “contentions” had taken root. Despite the jeremiads of many preachers, Puritan piety faded. Calvinism went out of fashion, and sympathy became less a sign of election and more a sign of gentility. It wasn’t with whom one sympathized, but how much. “Simply having sympathy came to matter more than the direction and reciprocity of that affection,” Van Engen argues. And from that watering down, arose the sentimentalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he concludes.

As compelling as this final argument is when taken broadly, Van Engen’s specific examples are less convincing. In a chapter on Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Van Engen reasonably suggests that Rowlandson’s nostalgia for her lost home, her centering of the narrative on mother and hearth, and her attempt to make the reader weep with her influenced later sentimental literature. He less compellingly points to Puritan theology as an explanation for Rowlandson’s hostility toward the Indians. He provides a philosophical and theological explanation for why she persistently derides her captors and does not sympathize with the death of an Indian child. While it is possible that her hardness of heart toward the Indians sprang from cultural or theological prejudices, one could scarcely expect even the most broad-minded person to write a warm account of people who had captured her and killed one of her children before her eyes.

This relatively minor problem points to a larger and perhaps unavoidable one in this type of endeavor. Ideological, literary, and spiritual genealogies are difficult to trace. Was the sentimentalism and earnest do-gooding that prevailed in Puritan New England a logical progression from Puritanism? Or was it the result of New England’s rejection of key points of Calvinist Puritanism? New England moralism tended to imitate the Anglican church back home; Van Engen calls this coincidence, but his dismissal is unconvincing.

Regardless of whether Harriet Beecher Stowe and other sentimentalist authors were the direct heirs of John Winthrop, Van Engen’s efforts to right the great slander of the Puritans are successful. Though guilty legalism and harsh judgment were part of the Puritan experiment, they arose from a general human tendency, not because they were mandated by Puritan theology.

In his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne reluctantly confesses his affection for Salem, despite his distaste for his Puritan heritage. Slyly mocking a favorite Puritan phrase, he writes, “the attachment which I speak of is the mere sensuous sympathy of dust for dust.” If this confession of love is tongue in cheek, Hawthorne’s judgment of New England’s Puritans’ affections is not: “Few of my countrymen can know what [sympathy] is.” But as resentful of his forebears as he is, Hawthorne admits that “strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.” These words are truer than he knew; in setting himself up as a sympathetic man who could judge whether another person’s sympathies were sufficient, he was continuing the best and worst of the tradition he despised.

Bria Sandford

Bria Sandford lives in New York City. She graduated from King's College in 2012 and is Senior Editor at Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Bria is poetry editor for Fare Forward and tweets at @blsandford.