III Pilgrims and Puritans and the Myth of the Promised Land
Why the Pilgrims and the Puritans?
[The Puritans] conceived of the American paradise as the fulfilment of scripture prophecy.
Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the exodus is one of America’s central themes.
Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven’s waiting down on the tracks
oh come take my hand
We’re riding out tonight to case the Promised Land.
Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”
The Pilgrims and Puritans who settled in New England in the first half of the 17th century, arriving only a little later in America than the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, are the protagonists of a foundational myth which has survived across the centuries as a story of American beginnings characterized by religiosity, idealism, sacrifice, and a utopian vision based on theology. Many scholars have considered the New England Pilgrims and Puritans as the ‘first Americans’ in the spirit of what would later develop into the full-fledged notion of American exceptionalism. often, they have been contrasted favorably to the settlers in Virginia, who were seen as “adventurers” supposedly interested in material gain only (cf. Breen, Puritans), whereas the Pilgrims and Puritans, it was claimed, came for spiritual reasons and considered themselves religious refugees (cf.
ibid.; Tocqueville, Democracy Vol. 1 31-32). These religious dissenters from England thus were often cast as morally superior to the men of the Virginia Company in early Americanist scholarship, and the ‘cradle of American civilization’ has often been located in their early New England settlements. The moral righteousness of the Pilgrims and Puritans, however, is a matter of contention. Often, they have been unfavorably and stereotypically represented as overtly pious, stoic, narrow-minded, intolerant, and even fanatic. While they claimed for themselves the right to dissent from the orthodoxies of the Church of England, they in turn, it is argued, denied those who did not conform to their own doctrines the same right of religious freedom. And while the narrative of origins told about Virginia cast Pocahontas, a Native woman, in the title role, “the Massachusetts myth centered on a patriarchal hierarchy, even though women composed a relatively large percentage of the Plymouth population” (Uhry Abrams, Pilgrims xv).
Who were the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony? They were two groups of English religious dissenters, influenced by the Reformation, in particular Calvinism, who turned away not only from the Catholic but also from the Anglican Church and sought to establish a new ‘Holy Commonwealth’ in North America. They considered America their Promised Land, thus taking biblical scripture as prophecy and anticipating its fulfillment in their own lived reality in North America. In history and scholarship, the terms ‘Pilgrims’ and ‘Puritans’ are sometimes used synonymously, and this conflation indicates that the two groups had many things in common. For reasons of historical accuracy, however, we should be precise about the terminology: The Pilgrims were religious separatists who reached America in 1620 on board of the Mayflower with William Bradford (1590-1657); when sailing for the ‘new world,’ they had been granted land and support by the Virginia Company, yet, landing further north on the coastline, they ‘missed’ Virginia - perhaps purposefully so - and founded Plymouth, as legend has it, at the site of a rock. Within a few years, the colony had 2.500 inhabitants and maintained quite a rigorous community life. The Puritans - originally having been a derogatory term, they did not refer to themselves as such - arrived in 1630 on board of the Arbella and several other ships under the guidance of John Winthrop (1588-1649) after they had been granted the right to settle a new colony by Charles I, and founded the city of Boston, which for a long time remained the center of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Pilgrims and the Puritans thus originally formed distinct communities, but interacted with each other (as well as with the Native population). The so-called Great Migration (1630-40) brought many newcomers from
England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which soon outnumbered Bradford’s Plymouth Colony by far. By 1640, there were about 10.000 settlers. Three generations later, in 1691, English colonial politics eventually merged the two colonies into the so-called Province of Massachusetts Bay. Up until then, the inhabitants of both colonies had made formative experiences which have left, as many scholars argue, “a permanent mark upon American history” (Hall, “Introduction” 1); these marks are most evident in the national mythological repertoire of the US.
Illustration 1: The Landing of the Mayflower (Historical Postcard)
Smith's Inc., The Mayflower, 1620, Plymouth, Mass. (1929).
In what follows, I will reconstruct the genesis of a myth of American origins in which the Pilgrims and Puritans and the notion of America as a biblical Promised Land have been closely connected. The scriptural story of the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt and their journey to a new land promised to them by God is one of the most powerful narratives of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This religious narrative was turned into a cultural myth by reconfiguring the ingredients of the biblical story - human suffering under slavery, God’s sympathy for the oppressed, divine providence, a sacred journey to a Promised Land, and claims of God-given entitlement - into a potent narrative of American beginnings (cf. Mazur and McCarthy, God 25-6), which constitutes a core foundational myth of the United States. In order to establish a chronology of this process, I will first turn to the early history of the Plymouth and Massachusetts
Bay Colonies and to the narratives of beginnings shaped by the 17th-century post-Reformation discourse of Puritanism. To understand this discourse and its development in the years from 1620 (the landing of the Mayflower) and 1630 (the landing of the Arbella) to 1691 (the end of much of the colonies’ autonomy from the British Crown), we need to take into account that America had been imagined in Europe as a utopia since the Renaissance and thus seemed an obvious place to envision and found a utopian new society at the beginning of the 17th century. Second, I will turn to the foundational period of the United States and inquire about the role of the utopian legacy of the Puritans and the Pilgrims in this context. Third, I will trace how after American independence the history of the Pilgrims and the Puritans became a foundational story that was transformed from a regional narrative of New England into a national myth, and a crucial one at that. Fourth, I will trace the myth through the 19th and 20th centuries and look at revisionist as well as affirmative references and representations. While the myth was championed against alternatives from the South, the West, and from across the Atlantic and, in the context of the American Civil War, was quite successful in overcoming other competing narratives of national genesis, the topos of the Promised Land at the same time was used as a form of cultural critique with the aim of empowering groups who had found hell rather than their Promised Land in the United States. First and foremost among those groups were African American slaves, in whose religious culture it loomed large because of its emancipatory thrust. And whereas the modernists in the early decades of the 20th century were largely critical of the Puritan legacy, the myth of the Promised Land was concurrently claimed by immigrant and ethnic writers in a religious or semi-religious fashion.
In the field of American studies, the myth was established by scholars in the formative phase of the discipline in the 1930s as the dominant genealogical narrative and can be described as the ‘myth that made American studies’ but has been challenged thoroughly (and lastingly) in the writings of the New Americanists since the 1980s. The latter were influenced by the social protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which contested the white male bias and exceptionalist teleological impetus of this foundational narrative. Tracing the American myth of the Promised Land through the centuries, we can easily see that it has been one of the most prevalent of America’s national mythical narratives. Whether its claim that the settlements of the Pilgrims and Puritans contained the seeds of American democracy is tenable still is a matter of debate. Yet, articulations of this myth have not only contributed to idealized accounts of American history, but have also, as we will see, employed the trope of the Promised Land as a vehicle for radical cultural dissent.