This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at email@example.com.
The Puritan and the Yankee: A long semi-scholarly footnote on a sentence
from Professor Charles J. Speel II's paper on
"Theological Concepts of Magistracy"
J. Stafford Weeks
Americanization, in Boston, means closer ties with the old line "Yankees" and this involved schooling at Puritan-founded Harvard.
Reference to the Americanization of Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John F. Kennedy in Speel (1963:14)
This paper takes the form of a footnote-essay rather than a research work. The topic grows out of a paper presented by Professor Speel on the occasion of his recognition as President of the Midwest Section of the American Academy of Religion. At that meeting, Professor Speel presented the notion that John F. Kennedy could be understood better as a Yankee than as a Catholic. The paper was well received. It posed a question for me as to the relationship between the Puritan tradition and the character of those New Englanders who became known as "Yankees."
The term "Yankee" came to refer to a type of person, but the origin of the name had no connection with the resulting personality-picture. "Yankee" came from the Dutch, the original form likely being Janke (Little Jan) or Jankees (Jan Cheese). It was a common nickname among pirates as early as 1683, but it always referred to Dutchmen. It is not clear how the term came to apply to Englishmen. By 1765 in New England, it was a term used in derision but with the opening of the Revolutionary war, New Englanders were proud to be called "Yankees," possibly related to the song "Yankee Doodle." Later uses of the term--such as "Yankee go home"--are outside the concerns of this essay.
Thinking of Yankee in terms of character traits involves notions of independence, straightforwardness, integrity, community, responsibility, the sense that right is right, and a combination of shrewdness and frugality. The visual representation of the Yankee for me is in Norman Rockwell's "Freedom of Speech" painting. The major figure is standing and speaking to the town meeting. He is not a crusader, nor is it a big deal. He is speaking his mind and doing it candidly. Emerson's essay on "Self Reliance" is a literary expression of the Yankee spirit. It may be that Ben Franklin is a prototype of a Yankee. We too easily forget that though he came to prominence in Philadelphia, Franklin lived his formative years in New England. His writings show the commonsense practicality often associated with the Yankee mentality.
The question I am addressing is how the Yankee mind-set is related to the New England Puritan mind. The general hypothesis I am presenting is that the Yankee is the Puritan without the inward passion and the sense of God's actions in the world. The Puritan depended on the grace of God in all things. That inward sense was part of the Puritan mentality. Key in all this is the doctrine of inability, the notion that human beings cannot do good apart from the grace of God. Faithfulness was possible only for those who were chosen by God to have faith, the elect. The part that made the election doctrine effective was that the Puritans were convinced that they were the elect, the ones who had been given faith--and it all came from God. Part of the inwardness of the Puritans themselves was that they believed they were among the righteous. If they could not see good fruit in their lives, they repented harder and tried harder to be faithful. A magnificent motivation!
But what of those Puritans who did not have that inward sense of being elect? What of those who could not give an account of a conversion experience? These were good people, not scandalous in life, and they were part of the church and community, members of families. Also, they had learned well the importance of telling the truth, even about their not having a conversion experience to relate. Yet they wanted to be part of the community and part of the church. This problem was solved by Rev. Solomon Stoddard, grandfather of Jonathan Edwards. The solution was found in the "Half-way Covenant," teaching that people who had grown up in the church and who were not scandalous in behavior and who wished to have their children baptized but who had not had a conversion experience to confess (and therefore not able to be a full member of the church and present children for baptism) could receive communion as a means of grace. In other words they lacked the inward sense that members of the church were to have, but they were like church members in style of life. They were good citizens, came to church and wanted their children to be part of the church. They could also present their children for baptism. All this might lead to regeneration.
Jonathan Edwards rejected the "Half-Way Covenant" despite his grandfather's position on it. It was a difficult decision for him, but in all good conscience he could not agree to it. In my judgment the controversy is related to the rise of the Yankee-mentality, the retention of the outward manner of life of the Puritan without the inwardness, the sense of the reality of God and recognition of his agency in the world. Edwards could not accept the "dilution" of the Puritan faith as he knew it. This is all the more surprising because Edwards had read and understood many of the best secular minds of the age, writers who were not Puritans in thought or spirit. Edwards lost his battle against the "Half-Way Covenant" in that he was put out of his church, and that event may have been a defining moment in the victory of the Yankee spirit over Puritanism in New England.
The emergence of the Yankee spirit began long before Edwards was born, perhaps as early as the Mayflower Compact. The Puritans were about to land in Massachusetts, but they had no charter that defined the rules of the community. Some spoke as though they could do whatever they pleased after they landed. As Prof. Sweet put it, "It was to ward off this threatened rupture in their ranks that they gathered in the cabin of the Mayflower and there drew up the famous Mayflower Compact" (Sweet 1939:67). The Compact established a covenant among the people. All Christians recognize the covenant of grace between Christ and the individual believer, but the Puritans tried in the Mayflower Compact to establish a covenant embracing the entire community, to make it the Holy City or the Kingdom of God in New England.
But no sooner was the divine order completed and the ultimate work of reformation performed, than the first signs of faltering appeared among the people. The younger generation, according to Cotton, were coming of age in the 1640's without coming into their profession as they were wont to be many years ago (Miller 1939:471).
In other words the notion of a covenant to create a community which followed God's will was beginning to break down as individuals began to soften the standards and were still accepted by many of their peers.
The Puritans had a deep sense of inwardness in their relationship to God, a defining characteristic of the movement. But these same men were middle-class Englishmen who were men of action in business and in society. Their faith and their doctrines were inherited, but the Puritans tried to express and "externalize" their faith in their manner of life in the entire community. They saw the world as a system, created by God, which could be understood to a degree. Science was to be used in the service of God. In this regard they did not lag behind the knowledge of their day but were free to use all that was known. The concern for the external world became more and more important and the inwardness was a bit neglected although the faith still provided the norm for behavior and relationships. Even in the 1640's there was concern about the young men and their behavior and attitudes as moving away from their heritage.
The Puritan way of looking at the world was called "Technologia," a system which explained how science and the world of efficient causes could stand alongside of God as the Cause of all things. For example, normal logic would say either storms are caused naturally by clouds and atmospheric conditions (a la meteorologists) or they are caused by God for reasons known only to him (a la Puritan Divines). The Puritans, Jonathan Edwards among them, used the distinction between primary causes--God, and secondary causes-clouds and atmospheric conditions. Edwards put it simply--when God decrees rain, he also decrees there shall be clouds, the secondary cause. God does not violate his own system, but conforms to "Technologia." The pressures of life and the "practical" bent of the Puritans as men of action tended to put more stress on the secondary causes, e.g. what makes grain grow, what the skies look like before a rain, etc. While they kept the ideals of behavior in mind, they became more concerned with and worked for material progress. Still they were not violating the doctrine of God's sovereignty, for ultimately God was the cause of all things.
The great work showing the decline of piety was Michael Wigglesworth's poem "God's Controversy with New England." By the later part of the seventeenth century, there were many who were not regenerate members of the church-an obvious problem in keeping the covenant intact. But as the poem says, "as to the company which men keep there is little difference to be observed between some Professors (the regenerate) and the profane" (Miller 1939:472). The "Controversy" poem depicted the decline of piety, the preoccupation with the mundane rather than the spiritual as well as actual activities that were shameful in the eyes of the devout. In many ways Puritan thought may have brought the temptation to seek wealth, not only because diligence is good, but because it was thought they "were awarded riches for their holiness" (Miller 1939:484). The remarkable thing to me is how few Puritans were actually corrupted by riches as they grew wealthy.
Jonathan Edwards confronted the softening of the Church's position as regards the availability of the sacraments for those who, though not scandalous in behavior, had not had an experience of regeneration to profess. Stoddard had argued that while Communion was not instituted as a means of regeneration but as a means of strengthening the Saints, it could also be used as a means of regeneration. Therefore, the people who were in a Natural Condition (ie. unregenerate) but were not scandalous, could share communion as a means to bring them to a saving knowledge of God. Edwards saw this as a blurring of the difference between the Puritan who had an inward sense of God and the Yankee who was a good man but not so devout. Edwards felt compelled to oppose the "Half-Way Covenant." His work, the full title of which is A Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God Concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a Complete Standing and Full Communion in the Visible Christian Church, defended his opposition to the "Half-Way Covenant." In "The Author's Preface," Edwards recognizes that he is opposing an established view which was strongly supported by his Grandfather. He argues that Bible study and prayer led him to oppose the practice of permitting respectable persons who did not have a "conversion" to confess, access to Communion which should be reserved for confessing Christians, Puritans. For our purposes, the details of A Humble Inquiry are less important than the fact that he defended the Puritan tradition against the growing group for whom the Puritan way of life was important, but, without a lively sense of God's sovereignty, these were good people, and, in a sense, they were "religious" people, but definitely not Puritans.
In the controversy, Edwards, who had the most penetrating and original mind in New England, who had been a leading figure in the Great Awakening, and whose writings were widely read here and abroad, was dismissed from his church. Puritan forms persisted and many Puritan values and attitudes continued, but it appears to me that the best mind for the defense of Puritanism and dependence on a Sovereign God was defeated by the Yankee spirit of self-reliance. The people had moved from dependence on the decrees of God to greater dependence upon their own capacity to make choices that were wise and useful.
But again and again the Puritan spirit showed itself in New England. As Miller (1939:5) said Puritanism was
inward meaning and Puritan theology was an effort to externalize and systematize this subjective mood. . . . It was something that men either had or had not. It could not be taught or acquired. Surely most of the first settlers of New England had it; in later generations, most of those who did not have it pretended to it. It blazed most fiercely in the person of Jonathan Edwards, but Emerson was illuminated,though from afar, by its rays, and it smoldered in the recesses of Hawthorne's intuition. It cannot be portrayed by description; to be presented adequately there is a need for a Puritan who is also a dramatic artist, and Bunyan alone fulfills the two requirements.
Bunyan was no Edwards, but Edwards was no Bunyan. In the end, New England Yankees live
on bearing many of the good characteristics of their Puritan forbears. Edwards brought his
best thought and his passionate piety to combat the growing secularization of the colony.
The Puritans, like utopian movements in every age, could not sustain the depth of faith
and passion that burned in most of the founders. They did, however, leave their
mark--mostly for good--on the generations that followed. Their intense self-examination
was surely not healthy except for those who were acutely aware of God's forgiving grace.
But we can all be grateful for the integrity, courage, and sense of community and
responsibility they bequeathed to generations to come: to Supreme Court Justices and
businessmen, to legislators and educators, and to some Presidents of the United States,
including the first Roman Catholic one!
Miller, Perry. 1939. The New England Mind, 17th Century. New York: Macmillan.
Speel, Charles J., II. 1963. "Theological Concepts of Magistracy." Church History 32, No. 2, June 1963.
Sweet, W.W. 1939. The Story of Religion in America. New York: Harper.
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