Jeremiad: The Puritan Metaphysics of Ass-Kicking

September 17, 2013

In the middle portion of the 20th century, as a professor at Harvard, Perry Miller wrote seminal works of American intellectual history. Focusing on Colonial America, Miller created a dense, tensile argument about the impact of Puritan ideas on the American imagination. Ironically, given this thesis, Perry Miller marginalized the Puritans by presenting them as the antipode to what America eventually became – big-shouldered and profane.

Miller’s body of work reduces to this thesis: the colonial enterprise propelled itself forward and the Puritans (still quaintly and vaguely European and medieval) retreated to the margins of our identity – not absent but alien – prophetic visionaries whose vocation was to remind us that the center holds in our nation only so long as we acknowledge the presence of sin as the condition of our existence. The vehicle for their exhortations and lamentations was the sermon form that Miller named the jeremiad.

Sin as the Condition of Existence

Jonathan Edwards probably offered up the most famous jeremiad when he preached the execution sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, to his Enfield, Connecticut congregation in 1741. As Miller would say, Edwards presented only the most perfectly formed and finely tuned edition of the simple idea on which we can base the entire corpus of jerermiadic flame-throwing – that “God hath a Controversy with his New-England People”.

Without delving too deeply into the form and metaphysics of the jeremiad – as sermon form and as cultural medium – it is worth summarizing its key features. As enumerated in the General Court Synod of 1679, we can count the ways New England Puritans could fall from grace and piss off God, resulting in the inevitable ass-kicking to knock humility and self-awareness back into them (Befitting any good patriarch, the ass-kicking itself evinced God’s special love for his chosen brood.).

  • Decay of Godliness – Weary obedience and profession replaces grace (the problem of those who have become “sermon-proof”).

  • Pride – Contention in the churches, disrespect of inferiors toward superiors, and extravagance in apparel.

  • Heresy – From Quakers, Anabaptists, and those who simply wander fancifully from the true Word toward Satan.

  • Profanity – Swearing and sleeping during sermons.

  • Sabbath-Breaking – “And that outburst of depravity which came on sundown on Sunday, when the Puritan Sabbath ended.”

  • Decay of Family Discipline – Leading to lack of prayerfulness and obedience, and a frightening resemblance to the Indians.

  • Increase of Angry Passions – Church strife and lawsuits.

  • Pleasures of the Flesh – Rampant (relatively speaking) turns toward sex and alcohol, including “naked necks and arms, or, which is more abominable, naked breasts, and mixed dancings.”

  • Dishonesty – Wherein Puritans have “gone to school to Machiavel.”

  • Inordinate Affection unto the World – Eyes not lifted toward Heaven.

  • Obduracy – Unwillingness to reform evil ways.

  • Selfishness – Disintegration of public spirit.

As Miller emphasized, this list expounds the grievances of men who witness, but can do nothing to forestall, the march toward modernization. In this sense, the Puritans stand upon their rocky outposts in the New World as medieval reactionaries, their bodies in America, their minds in Europe. Yet, as Perry Miller surely realized, this litany of despair also captures an eternal awareness of sin and backsliding as the basic condition of our humanness.

Miller was an intellectual historian. He concerned himself with the life of the mind in relation to cultural forms that conferred meaning on events and that kept chaos – the wilderness, the Indians, war, disease, sensuality, and materialism – at bay. One might posit that the contradictions of explaining the meaning of America from the center of a historical universe that keeps expanding are too much to bear. Perry Miller embraced the contradictions and drank himself to death in 1963, at the age of 58. And then he fell out of vogue – his death occurred right before the tumult of the 1960s almost instantly rendering his historical methods moot – even as his intellectual brilliance and personal charisma continued to grip the imagination of historians and other students of the American experience.

The Covenant and the Contract: Enter Lincoln

As “non-separating separatists”, Puritan theocracy did not differentiate between affairs of the spirit and matters of nation and state. Miller identifies the jeremiad as the literary and hortatory vessel for restoring the harmony between spirit and state, between matters of salvation and matters of society. The political community existed as a vehicle of reform. It extended beyond and embraced all individuals within it. And it depended on the commitment each individual evinced to the idea of the covenanted community.

For the Puritans, the concept of the covenanted nation declared in absolute terms that “individuals” literally could not exist or survive – spiritually or physically – without committing to the political community. Social contract theory is complicated, and easily manipulated to serve various political goals. However, for the Puritans, there is no doubt that covenant theology and covenant politics (they could not be separated) assumed that commitment to the political community was the precondition for individuality and personal identity.

Abraham Lincoln never mentioned the Puritans or the concept of the covenant in his writings. His concept of nationhood as preeminent and prior to statehood largely depended upon a precise application of Constitutional law and the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln framed this legal and contractual argument thusly.

I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination…. If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it—break it, so to speak—but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?

Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was “to form a more perfect Union.

However, Lincoln – for all of the practical purposes to which he applied his lawyerly skills during the Civil War – subordinated his legal claims for the preeminence of the federal government to a higher “covenanted” concept of national union. You can see a hint of this in his concept of a “more perfect Union.” Lincoln also closed (loath) his first inaugural with a classic rhetorical flourish – calling upon his fellow citizens to respond to the “mystic chords of memory” that constituted the spiritual foundations of national union.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The nation preceded the states. It preceded the individual. Neither possessed identity or purpose outside the framework of the nation, because the nation alone can serve as spiritual vessel for achieving the high and noble purposes to which Providence has committed us.

Grace and Works

In 17th century New England, the Puritan theocracy cleaved over the distinction between the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Works. The technical – nearly scholastic – complexities of this debate need not concern us (except to the degree they gave Perry Miller license to write with relish about how Long Island Indians bashed in the head of Mistress Anne Hutchinson, presumably a revelation of God’s displeasure with her womanly advocacy of a purely spiritual cognition of God’s presence within a human soul).

What may concern us is the concept of sin and its meaning for our times. We differ. Some among us rise. Others fall. Others never stand a chance. But the differences are not a matter of our works, our skill, our perseverance, and the attributes of our characters. They are largely a matter of luck and randomness, and of forces far larger and more inscrutable than we can imagine.

We lack humility. We lack awareness. We judge. We assume we “deserve” this, and others “deserve” that. But there are no just desserts. “We” do not possess grace. “They” are not (alone) consumed by sin and deficiency. We are not “good” and so deserving of salvation. They are not “bad” and so deserving of damnation, in this world or the next.

Lincoln understood.

New York Governor William Seward, in a speech delivered in 1858, posited the irrepressibility of national conflict over the matter of slavery. In his debates with Stephen Douglass later that year, Lincoln defended Seward and the idea that conflict between free labor and slave labor within a single nation was inevitable. The United States, he said, could not survive politically under the weight of this contradiction. More importantly, it could not survive as an idea.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, contradiction without possibility of resolution led to positions hardening along the extremes of the conflict. Contradiction led to sectional division, truncated dialogue, and emotional catharsis fueled by judgment and hatred. Practically speaking, modes of work led to covenants of works – for North and South alike, my labor theory of value transubstantiates into a labor theory of grace. For this reason, when the first shots were fired, people experienced relief, joy even.

Lincoln straddled the poles. He occupied the deep, radical center of politics and of existence. With his corded arm muscles reaching and his long shanks stretching – North and South – he alone kept the idea of the nation alive. How did he do this? One might argue (and many have argued) that Lincoln himself lucked out. Without happening upon Grant, he would have lost the war. Without assassination, he would have lost the peace. He also survived with humor. Alongside Artemis Ward, Lincoln can lay claim to being the nation’s first comedian. He wore the fool’s cloak that concealed a greatness of soul. The cloak of humility.

Lincoln – no Christian – nonetheless understood himself to be an instrument of Providence. He accepted sin as the condition of our existence and therefore claimed no credit for and experienced no exultation in his triumphs. In his second inaugural address, with the “victory” in hand, he framed the great conflict as a judgment upon all Americans, and a triumph for none. The second inaugural was Lincoln’s jeremiad, his greatest gift of language to the nation he had saved.