The Transition to The 18th Century American Literature

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      As the end of the seventeenth century approached, the Puritans were still in an overwhelming majority in New England, but the hold of the churchmen on the government of the colonies was, nevertheless, being slowly and reluctantly relaxed. Government in America has always, in its broad aspects, reflected the will of the people. If legislators and legislation have been vicious, it has been because the majority of the people have not cared enough about it to see that good men were chosen. If stupid and blundering laws have been passed, it has been because the people were not wide awake enough to analyze them. On the other hand old laws, unadjusted to modern conditions, have often become “dead letters” because the majority did not wish to have them enforced, even though they were on the statute books; and new and progressive legislation has been imposed on reluctant lawmakers by the pressure of public opinion. Now the Puritan uprising in England had been a democratic movement by a people who wanted to have a hand in their own government. It was a religious movement, because in England Church and State are one and because the oppression in religious matters had been particularly offensive. And in England it had been on the whole successful in spite of the restoration of kingship in 1660, for from that time on the arbitrary power of king and council were steadily and increasingly curbed. As a consequence there was a parallel movement in the democracy across the sea. American colonists with a highly developed sense of justice resented a bad royal governor like Andros, and were able to force his withdrawal; and they resented unreasonable domination by the clergy, and were independent enough to shake it off. Between 1690 and 1700 Harvard College became for the first time something more than a training school for preachers; the right to vote in Boston was made to depend on moral character and property ownership instead of on membership in the church; and in the midst of the Salem witchcraft hysteria judges and grand-jurymen caught their balance and refused any longer to act as cat’s-paws of the clergy. The passage to the eighteenth century was therefore a time of transition in common thinking; and the record of the change is clearly discernible in the literary writings of the old-line conservatives Cotton and Increase Mather, in the Diary of Samuel Sewall, who was able to see the light and to change slowly with his generation, and in the Journal of Sarah Kemble Knight, who represented the silent unorthodoxy of hundreds of other well-behaved and respectable people.

The Mathers, Increase (1639–1723) and Cotton (1663–1728), were the second and third of a succession of four members of one family who were so popular and influential as to deserve the nickname which is sometimes given them of the “Mather Dynasty.” These two were both born in America, educated in Boston and at Harvard, and made church leaders while still young men.
Transition to 18th Century American Literature

      The Mathers, Increase (1639–1723) and Cotton (1663–1728), were the second and third of a succession of four members of one family who were so popular and influential as to deserve the nickname which is sometimes given them of the “Mather Dynasty.” These two were both born in America, educated in Boston and at Harvard, and made church leaders while still young men. In age they were only twenty-four years apart, and from 1682 to 1723 they worked together to uphold and increase the power of the church in New England. Because of their prominence as preachers they inherited the “good will” which had belonged to their greatest predecessors, and by their own industry, learning, eloquence, and general vigor they added to their ecclesiastical fortunes like skillful business men. Their congregations were large and respectfully attentive; scores of their sermons were reprinted by request; on all public occasions and in all public discussions they were at the forefront. They were great popular favorites, and in the end they suffered the fate of many another popular favorite. For the deference which was given to them year after year made them vain and domineering; they talked too much and too long and too confidently, and they made the mistakes of judgment which men who talk all the time are bound to make. When Increase Mather lost the presidency of Harvard in 1701 they both acted like spoiled children; their prestige was already on the wane, for when the reaction had followed the witchcraft delusion, to which they had fanned the flames, the caution which they had advised was forgotten, and the encouragement which they had given was held up against them. To the ends of their lives, in 1723 and 1728, they were proudly unrelenting, but their last years were embittered by the knowledge that their power was departed from them.

      The bulk of their authorship was prodigious, even though most of it was in the form of pamphlets or booklets, for it amounted in the case of Increase to about one hundred and fifty titles, and in the case of Cotton to nearly four hundred. But they are chiefly remembered for three books: “An Essay for the recording of Illustrious Providences,” by the elder; and “The Wonders of the Invisible World” and the “Magnalia Christi Americana: Or the Ecclesiastical History of New-England,” by the younger. The first two of these are unintended explanations to the twentieth-century reader as to how a whole community could ever have been swept into the Salem witchcraft excesses of 1692. Any educated man who should advance the theories to-day which were soberly expounded by these two really learned men would be held up to scorn and very possibly be made subject of a sanity investigation. Yet two hundred years ago the world was ignorant of the commonplaces of science. Popular superstition therefore ran riot; and the belief that God would interpose in the affairs of daily individual life, and that a personal devil was walking up and down the earth seeking whom he might devour, added to the confusion. Medicine in those days was hardly a science even in the broadest sense of the word. Physicians depended for honest effects on a few simple herb remedies and on powerful emetics and the letting of blood. The populace believed in curatives which still are resorted to only by children and the most ignorant of grown-ups—like anointing implements with which they had been injured, in order to heal cuts and bruises, or like being touched by the monarch as a remedy for scrofula, the “king’s evil.” Sir Kenelm Digby, a well-known subject of Charles II, reported that he overcame a persistent illness by having the fumes of camomile poured into his ear. The same sort of speculation prevailed in all the other sciences; and side by side with it superstition flourished. Between 1560 and 1600 in the little kingdom of Scotland, which had a population no larger than that of Massachusetts to-day, there were eight thousand executions for witchcraft—an average of nearly four a week; and James I, who was Scotland’s gift to England, was the author of a work on demonology.

      What the New Englanders, and among them the Mathers, believed was, therefore, not unusual at the time. In fact the Mathers were both somewhat less credulous than their fellows, but they only substituted one superstition for another. Their way of casting off the old and vulgar beliefs which were pagan in origin was to contend that these vain and foolish ideas were put into Christian minds by Satan and his emissaries. Said Increase Mather in his “Illustrious Providences”:

 "Some also have believed that if they should cast Lead into the Water, then Saturn would discover to them the thing they inquired after. It is not Saturn but Satan that maketh the discovery, when anything is in such a way revealed. And of this sort is the foolish Sorcery of those Women that put the white of an Egg into a Glass of Water, so that they may be able to divine of what Occupation their future husbands shall be. It were much better to remain ignorant than thus to consult with the Devil. These kind of practices appear at first blush to be Diabolical; so that I shall not multiply Words in evincing the evil of them. It is noted that the Children of Israel did secretly those things that are not right against the Lord their God 2 King. 17. 9. I am told there are some who do secretly practice such Abominations as these last mentioned, unto whom the Lord in mercy give deep and unfeigned Repentance and pardon for their grievous Sin."

      These preachers thus turned superstition into an enemy of the true religion, as it assuredly is; but they regarded it not as the fruit of ignorance, to be remedied by education and intelligence, but as a device of Satan which could be offset by preaching and prayer. The two books are cut from the same cloth, so that an indication of the contents of the one just mentioned will give an idea of them both. The chapter headings run as follows: Of Remarkable Sea Deliverances; Preservations; Lightening; Philosophical Meditations; Things Preternatural [voices of invisible speakers and doings of mysterious mischief-makers]; That there are Daemons and Possessed Persons [three main arguments: (1) Scripture forbade witchcraft, therefore there must be such a thing; (2) experience has made it manifest; (3) convicted maldoers have confessed it]; Apparitions; Conscience; Deaf and Dumb Persons; Tempests; Earthquakes; and Judgments. As a whole the book is a collection of curious anecdotes taken on almost any hearsay, but almost all at second or third hand. They resemble some of the most popular of the atrocity stories which have been told during every war that history chronicles, but which no investigator has been able to run down in any single instance. In point of superstition the Mathers, to repeat, should be considered in two lights: compared with educated men of the twentieth century they were almost incredibly primitive in what they were willing to believe, but considered with reference to their own generation they fought the wiles of the devil as soldiers of the Lord.

      The most ambitious work that either produced was Cotton Mather’s “Magnalia,” a history of the Church in New England. This was a bulky two-volume effort, divided into seven parts, or books. As a matter of fact it was really a general history of the region by a man who regarded the existence of New England as identical with the existence of the Church. In this basic assumption as well as in many of his details Cotton Mather revealed himself as a hopeless conservative of his day—hopeless because it was already evident to all but him and his kind that the State was shaking off the control of the Church leaders. One can get a fair idea of the bias of the book from the opening paragraph:

 "It is the Opinion of some, though ’tis but an Opinion, and but of some Learned Men, That when the Sacred Oracles of Heaven assure us, The Things under the Earth are some of those, whose Knees are to bow in the Name of Jesus, by those Things are meant the Inhabitants of America, who are Antipodes to those of the other Hemispheres. I would not quote any words of Lactantius, though there are some to countenance this Interpretation, because of their being so Ungeographical: nor would I go to strengthen the Interpretation by reciting the Words of the Indians to the first White Invaders of their Territories, We hear you are come from under the World, to take our World from us. But granting the uncertainty of such an Exposition, I shall yet give the Church of God a certain account of these Things, which in America have been Believing and Adoring the glorious Name of Jesus; and of that Country in America, where those Things have been attended with Circumstances most remarkable."

      The “Magnalia” is really an attempt at a general history of New England from 1620 to 1698, containing classified material on the governors, magistrates, and preachers, a history of Harvard, a collection of reports of church transactions, an account of the Indian Wars, and “A Faithful Record of many Illustrious Wonderful Providences.” Yet for historical data it is almost as unreliable as the libelous “New English Canaan” of Thomas Morton. For Morton was no more eager to turn the facts to the discredit of the Puritans than Mather was to interpret them to the glory of the Church; and the consequence was that neither could be absolutely trusted. The historians have abandoned Mather as a safe authority. His sin has found him out, even though he committed it in the name of the Lord.

      The man in this period in whom complete faith can be put is Samuel Sewall, who did not profess to be an author except in an incidental way. He lived from 1652 to 1730 and kept a very full diary from 1673 to 1729. This was written with no thought of publication, and actually was not printed until a hundred and fifty years later, when it was given to the world by the Massachusetts Historical Society. In American literature Sewall’s Diary occupies a place almost exactly parallel to that of John Evelyn’s in English letters. Their lives and their long diaries covered about the same years, and they held corresponding positions in the communities. Both were educated men—Sewall was a graduate of Harvard—and both were highly respected and trusted. Sewall held a minor position at Harvard connected with the library, was prominent in church affairs, and was a judge, officiating at the time of the Salem witchcraft trials. An informal journal written without prejudice, by such a man as he, gives material of the greatest value for a picture of the times. It is material of course and not the picture itself, for it lacks anything in the way of composition, just as do the facts of ordinary daily life in the order of their occurrence. But out of it two main threads of interest may be unwoven. One is the sober but not unrelieved background of the times, itself a composite of various strands. Religion was its strongest fiber. Few weeks pass in which there is no record of sermon, fast, christening, wedding, funeral, or special celebration. These were among the chief social happenings of the calendar. Funerals as well as more festive occasions were accompanied with gifts of gloves and rings; refreshments were ample if not lavish; and the bill for strong drinks was always a heavy item, for it must be remembered that prohibition is of recent origin, and that among the Puritans self-control made drunkenness as infrequent as drinking was common. Against frivolity too they set their minds; and Sewall’s Diary gives a protest at “tricks” and dancing and May festivals, and even Christmas and Easter, which were triply hated because they had their origins in pagan tradition and had come to the present through the Church of Rome and the Church of England. Yet the objections to these practices and festivals show that they were real disturbances in Sewall’s Boston, as were the roistering of sailors and other strangers in town.

      The other and more important thread is the revelation of the inner mind of a flesh-and-blood colonial American. It takes patient reading to recreate the real man; but he is here in these pages, with all the inconsistencies that make up life out of story-books. He was all in all a fine, devout, broad-gauge man—and this is what any biographer would tell of him—with a moderate supply of littleness and petty vanity, which the biographer would be almost certain to suppress. And he was in himself a record of the public opinion of his generation. He wrote two other things besides his Diary. One is a theological treatise which was as uninspired as the quoted paragraph from Mather’s “Magnalia,” and on much the same theme. It shows him to be an apparently hopeless old fogy. The other is a pamphlet called “The Selling of Joseph,” which was probably the first antislavery utterance printed in America, and implies that Samuel Sewall was centuries ahead of the times. There is at second glance nothing perplexing in this contradiction. Sewall was a normal man who stood between the oldest-fashioned and the newest-fashioned thinkers. Sometimes he leaned backward, and sometimes forward; but on the whole he was inclined to advance. Of this he gave one famous proof. Five years after the Salem trials he had the honesty to admit to himself that he had been all wrong in his judgment, and the courage to make a public confession of his repentance. He chose one of the hardest ways of doing it. Among the “curious punishments of bygone days,” one was the humiliation of disreputable persons by forcing them to sit at the foot of the church pulpit while the minister read a public reproof. On Fast Day, 1697, Samuel Sewall of his own choice posted a bill which could be read by any who would, and, giving a copy of it to the Reverend Mr. Willard, stood up at the reading before the congregation. The method of atoning for his mistake proves that he was still a devout and faithful Puritan worshiper, but the fact that he did so at all shows that he could confess errors, even when they had been committed in behalf of the Church. The Mathers could neither have seen nor acknowledged such mistakes. They were too cocksure of being always right. So life passed on, leaving them by the wayside; and Samuel Sewall was with the quiet majority who sadly left them behind.

      A third representative of the attitudes of mind at the changing of the centuries was a genial woman, Mrs. Sarah Kemble Knight (1666–1727). She was not in any sense a public figure, like the preachers and the judge just mentioned, nor did she pursue the habit of writing a continued diary like Sewall’s. Most emphatically she was not given to the unwholesome recording, like many other women in her day, of “itineraries of daily religious progress, aggravated by overwork, indigestion, and a gospel of gloom.” But there was one itinerary which she did record for her own satisfaction and which was published more than a century later, in 1825—her “Journal of a Journey from Boston to New York in 1704.” At this time a vigorous woman of thirty-eight, a wife and a mother, she set out alone on the ten-day journey, taking such guides as she could engage from one stage to the next. The hardships were considerable and the discomforts and inconveniences very great; and the striking fact about them is that she bore up under them in a good-humored, matter-of-fact, sort of twentieth-century way. An accident was an accident and not a visitation from on high; a disagreeable or churlish or even a dishonest person was somebody to be put up with and not to be moralized on as unscriptural. The worst innkeeper she encountered was a man to avoid in the future rather than a man to convert; she did not seem shocked by a drunken quarrel late one night, but she was annoyed, because she wanted to go to sleep.

      She was at times positively frivolous and irreverent in her allusions. Crossing a river one day she was very near to being tipped over.

 "The canoe was very small and shallow, so that when we were in (it) seemed ready to take in water, which greatly terrified me, and caused me to be very circumspect, sitting with my hands fast on each side, my eyes steady, not daring so much as to lodge my tongue a hair’s breadth more on one side of my mouth than t’ other, nor so much as to think on Lot’s wife; for a wry thought would have overset our wherry.

      Her jests about the name of the innkeeper, Mr. Devil, would have landed her in the stocks had she made them publicly in Boston.

 "The post encouraged me by saying we should be well accommodated at Mr. Devil’s, a few miles further; but I questioned whether we ought to go to the Devil to be helped out of affliction. However, like the rest of the deluded souls that post to the infernal den, we made all possible speed to this Devil’s habitation; where, alighting in good assurance of good accommodations, we were going in."

      The accommodations turned out to be anything but good; and she left her host with a sigh of relief, and the thought “He differed only in this from the old fellow in t’ other country—he let us depart,” following the observation with a rimed warning for subsequent travelers to avoid this earthly hell. These are quoted not because they are admirable or worthy of imitation but because they give an indication of what was going on under one very respectable bonnet when Mrs. Knight was sitting decorously in her Boston pew. She was a highly respected woman in the Puritan community. She was accustomed to its ways. There is no word of motherly regret that she was away from her little daughter on Christmas Day, for Christmas was not a festal day in her calendar. Of the people who were coming into manhood and womanhood when Sarah Kemble Knight was born, Hawthorne wrote in “The Scarlet Letter”: “The generation next to the early immigrants wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not sufficed to clear it up. We have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gayety.”

      It was men like the author of the “Magnalia” who had darkened the national visage, but women here and there, like the writer of this Journal, who had already returning gleams of gayety. Of the three people whom we have taken as types of New-England thought at this period, Cotton Mather may fairly be regarded as representing the faith of a declining theology, Samuel Sewall the hope of a broader and more generous civic attitude, and Mrs. Knight as the flicker of charity or warm-hearted and genial fellow-feeling which had been almost extinguished in the seventeenth century.

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