Page images

for an

[ocr errors]

ever found, is not Christianity. And the Sermon on the Mount is, beyond all denial, the most complete and definite exposition of his doctrine, as applied to men and human duty. It shall be no longer, he says, as it was ' of old time. I give you a new law of life; and whoever calls himself by my name, and professes to follow me, must receive my words, and live in the spirit which inspires them. That He might leave no room for doubt on this point, He repeats the very words of the Mosaic law, which assert the principle of the lex talionis, 'An eye eye, and a tooth for a tooth,' and declares its abrogation ; delivering, at the same time, the new commandment: “Resist not evil. The contrast is presented in the plainest terms of language; the law of Moses propounds the principle of retaliation; the law of Christ commands the duty of forgiveness. To follow the first is to be, to this extent at least, a Jew in religion ; to follow the last is to be a Christian.

Judge, now, the Puritans by this test, and mark the result to which we are compelled to come. Look first at the civil polity which they adopted. It was all Jewish. Their capital laws were simply reproductions of the Mosaic statutes. It was enough for them to discover that three thousand years ago, among a half-civilized people, certain crimes were accounted' worthy of the death-penalty. Apparently forgetting that since that time Christ had lived and taught, and that they professed to be His followers, they imported across the sea of centuries the same terrible punishment for the same specific crimes; and this, too, in the face of the open declaration of their Master and His disciples, that the old system had for ever passed away.

Their superstitious reverence the bbath was also completely Jewish. In their view, the day of rest was not made for man, but man was made for it, and no circumstance whatever could justify the least relaxation from the rigor of the old rule. Following the Jews also, they made their Sabbath begin on Saturday evening; thus consecrating as holy time, not the seventh day wholly, nor yet the first day wholly, but

And the Old Testament pattern was copied, not only in civil and political affairs, but the Jewish spirit too much pervaded the private life of the Puritans. Exceptions should doubtless be made in favor of certain individuals among them ; but as a general fact, in their private disputes and contentions, there was little manifestation of the patience, and gentleness, and forbearance which we are taught to regard as the outward evidence of a truly Christian soul. The same stern rigor which filled all the public administration, descended also into their social and domestic relations, and a quarrel once begun was healed, if at all, only with much difficulty, and after long delay.

But among the Puritan ministers of religion, the Jewish spirit found its most marked development. Whenever any point in practical morality of doubtful solution arose, it was to the Hebrew Scriptures that they first applied for light to direct their course; and the act of some barbarian of old was often taken as the valid warrant for their own conduct. Their counsel was frequently sought by the magistrates of the colonies, in respect to the kind and degree of punishment to be inflicted upon particular offenders; and it is painful to remark how uniformly they threw


parts of both.




the great weight of their influence into the scale of severity. What shall be done,' say the magistrates, with this malefactor ? He is guilty of crime, we know, but we doubt as to the punishment proper for his offence. The ministers open the Old Testament, (always the Old Testament,) and searching diligently there, they find some record which seems to bear upon the case in hand, and then they calmly answer : ‘Let him die.' Always the magistrates were found more merciful than the ministers ; and more than one heretic, through their forbearance, escaped the last penalty, whom the preachers of a gospel of peace and pardon had adjudged to death. Were these men cruel ? Did they delight in the shedding of blood ? By no means. We bring against them no such charge. Their sole mistake might be almost called a simple error in chronology. They miscalculated the age of the world by just three thousand years ; and forgetting that the sun of Truth never goes back on the dial of Time, they confounded its first faint beams of morning with the light of its perfect day. The founders of New-England were superstitious men.

In this they were not singular, for superstition was the general characteristic of the age in which they lived. But it belonged to the intensity of their nature to advance farther than others in whatever direction they advanced at all; and so they were preeminent in their superstition. A profound belief possessed them that the powers of the invisible world constantly mingled themselves in the affairs of men. Every portent of nature beyond those of the most common occurrence, was interpreted as a direct message from Heaven ; the utmost liberty of private judgment' being indulged in the interpretation. Forgetful of the warning of CHRIST, that those who are involved in great and sudden calamity should not be therefore regarded as sinners above other men, they were wont to consider the misfortunes of individuals as evidence of especial Divine displeasure -- an error into which the ignorant of all ages are prone to fall, but which no longer deludes the minds of intelligent men. Even the elder Winthrop, one of the most liberal and charitable of the New-England fathers, has sprinkled the pages of his journal with the record of misfortunes which he hesitated not to regard as penal inflictions of the Almighty.

The tendency to spiritualize all things was equally remarkable. It is amusing enough to the modern reader to follow the Puritan ministers in their laborious ingenuity in this department; and the correspondences' which they detected and unfolded would have delighted the soul of Swedenborg himself. The most intelligent and learned members of the clerical body were not less prone than others to indulge in this kind of intellectual play ; and even the great John Cotton himself did not disdain to assert his preëminence in this not very exalted sphere of professional duty.

The lack of humor was a common characteristic of the New-England Puritans. A few of them, indeed, possessed a kind of unwieldy and ungraceful wit, (the gambol of the elephant,) but this was very different from the humor of which we speak. It is not enough to say that the work which they had in hand was of too serious a sort to allow of humor in the actors, for it is upon just such a rugged path as they were compelled to tread that its rosy light ought oftenest to shine.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]


In the life of the Puritans also appeared an uncommon degree of stoicism ; or perhaps we should rather name it self-reserve. The emotive part of their nature was kept under rigorous control. They were not men to carry their hearts in their hands, and have them read by every passing eye. We have no right to say, as some have done, that their domestic and personal affections were relatively feeble. On the contrary, there is the best reason for believing that these affections partook of their general strength of character. But they abhorred the indelicate fashion of later days, which shrinks not from publishing to the common world the most secret and holy of the heart's emotions; even the most intimate intercourse of the soul with its CREATOR. There is a chastity of spirit as well as of body, and to set the first naked before the world is no less revolting to a delicate mind than to do the same thing with the other. The first age of New-England was not the age of religious biography,' including copious extracts from the private journals and closet exercises of the departed saint.' Puritan literature is happily free from this modern immodesty.

The admirable journal of Winthrop repeatedly illustrates this rigorous self-reserve. His son Henry, “a sprightly and hopeful young gentleman,' was accidentally drowned a few days after the arrival in NewEngland of the Massachusetts colonists. The Governor's only public record of this sad event was in these words : “My son, Henry Winthrop, was drowned at Salem.' Did the father, then, carry a stone in his bosom in the place of a heart, that he could so coldly announce a personal affliction so sudden and severe ? Examine his private letters to his wife, and the answer will be manifest. With the unutterable anguish of David, he cries : “My son Henry! my son Henry! Ah! poor child !' His heart knew its own bitterness, and for that very reason no stranger was allowed to intermeddle.

In the summer of 1647, an.epidemical sickness' swept over NewEngland, and during its progress destroyed many valuable lives. Among the deaths was that of Governor Winthrop's wife. The entry in his journal reads as follows: 'In this sickness, the Governor's wife, daughter of Sir John Tindal, knight, left this world for a better ; being about fifty-six years of age: a woman of singular virtue, prudence, modesty, and piety, and especially beloved and honored of all the country. This tribute to womanly worth, which any common friend might pay, is all that the self-reserve of the husband permits him to utter before the world. But his private letters show his marital love in a different light. The endearing epithets which he there lavishes upon her would grace the pages of a modern romance : “My sweet wife ;' "Mine own dear heart;' Mine only best beloved ;'. My love, my joy, my faithful one.' These, and other kindred terms of tenderness, flowing freely forth in the sacred privacy of heart-communion, show the fire steadily burning beneath the calm surface, though never breaking forth into visible volcanic flames of passion.

Much might be added respecting the more common life and feeling of the Puritans, respecting food, dress, social intercourse, family government, amusements, and other minor matters, as we call them, although, in fact, they constitute the principal part of human being, and go very far in

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]



shaping and finally fixing human character. But


points of the picture we cannot at present dwell. We must make room, however, to correct a common impression which prevails regarding the extreme simplicity, and even rudeness, of the founders of New England, in whatever pertained to grace and beauty in outward garb and adornment. Puritanic strictness in this matter did not cross the ocean with our fathers, but originated one generation later, on the soil of New-England itself. The valuable volume entitled Chronicles of the Pilgrims, for which we are indebted to Alexander Young, contains a portrait of Governor Winslow, of Plymouth, the only portrait of the pilgrims which has come down to us. In outward appearance, the Governor might be almost mistaken for a cavalier. His garments are of rich material; his flowing locks rest upon his shoulders ; his neck and wrists are encircled with ruffles of fine linen ; a ring glitters on one of his fingers; a handsome mustache adorns his upper lip, and an imperial depends from the lower; and not a sign of the Roundhead can be detected on any part of his portly person. We do not always remember that many of the first colonists of New-England were men of wealth and high social position. Sumptuary laws against all the grace and beauty of life came later; the leader in this reform' being that stern old fanatic, Governor Dudley.

Having already considerably exceeded the limits which we proposed for ourselves at the commencement of the article, we must drop the subject somewhat abruptly, adding only a hope, which is also a prayer, that some competent writer would give us a more complete description than we have ever yet had of the private and domestic life of the New-England Puritans: 'a history of their fire-sides.'

[ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]
[blocks in formation]

Her father's sheep the tender maid On Sunday in the village-choir

Her steps had sought to follow, Her pure, sweet voice, out-pealing, And friskful lambs around her played, Struck up, in listening hearts, the fire Down in the grassy hollow.

Of deep and holy feeling.

[merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

The quiet meekness of her brow So, when the leaves were turning red, Awoke no special wonder,

And autumn-winds were sweeping, Though like a brook beneath the snow Sweet Mary with the early dead

The sparkling thoughts flowed under. Beneath the grass was sleeping.

Philadelphia, July, 1853.

« PreviousContinue »