The Puritan Way of Death:
A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change
by David E. Stannard
(Oxford University Press; $11.95)
Of the groups composing our ancestry, the Puritans have not been one of the more admired. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was himself descended from a judge in the Salem witch trials, wrote that they were "of the most intolerable brood that ever lived"; other writers have habitually referred to them as vindictive and cruel; and to most people nowadays "Puritanism" evokes little more than an image of something gloomy and repressive. Such judgments, however, are accompanied by a certain uneasiness. If the Puritans were so unpleasantly fanatical, what cultural and religious traditions caused them to be that way? And more importantly, how did this "stern, black-browed" people come to play so vital a role in the development of modern American culture, as has often been contended?
These questions underlie most studies of the Puritans and David Stannard's The Puritan Way of Death is no exception. Thus, Stannard gives us a picture of the Puritans as a people "gripped individually and collectively by an intense and unremitting fear of death," instilling in the members of their community from earliest childhood onward a vision of death as a terrifying punishment for innate sinfulness. The questions which underlie this picture are: How did such fears originate and how much influence have they had on us? Was the Puritan "way" of death, as Stannard puts it, merely a cultural anomaly?
Stannard's answer to this latter question is, with some qualifications, yes. Thus, he argues that the intense fear of death that gripped the Puritans was a radical departure from earlier Christian optimism, which viewed death as a "release and relief for the earthbound soul." Moreover. Stannard tells us, when Puritan culture declined around the early part of the 18th century, its characteristic "way" of death was already anachronistic, "at odds with the larger social world."
Such a viewpoint, though not preventing Stannard from giving us a scholarly, well-written, and thoughtful survey of the way the Puritans feared and faced death, is nonetheless inadequate. The Puritan "way" of death must be understood both as growing out of earlier Christian attitudes and as foreshadowing modern ones. Stannard, it is true, includes at the end of his survey a discussion of "death-denial," or the modern-day tendency to repress fears of death. Yet, he fails to relate this discussion in any substantive way to the Puritans. Such a failure is disappointing, for precisely what is lacking in most discussions of modern fears of death is an understanding of the cultural and religious tradition in which such fears have arisen. The Puritan "way" of death, though alien and distasteful to us in many ways, is a vital element of this tradition and has much to teach us about our own "way" of denial.
Stannard begins by placing Puritanism in the broad context of Christianity and the Reformation, Notwithstanding their "optimism," he notes that the Christians developed "a vision of Hell that surpassed virtually all other cultures in literal, horrific depiction of the fate awaiting the sinful." Similarly, Stannard's sketch of the Reformation makes clear that during this period the threat of eternal damnation loomed large in people's minds as a consequence of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. Denying the individual any way of determining whether or not he was avoiding damnation—and making it extremely improbable that he was—was simply an insidious way of intensifying its cruelty.
The intense fears of death which characterized Puritan culture, then, had precedent in the increasingly terrifying images of death presented in the earlier Christian tradition. What Stannard calls the "optimism" of this tradition is more accurately described, I think, by a sense of personal responsibility and individuality in the face of death—a sense which, far from strictly opposing fears around death, complemented them. Thus, while fear of death grew progressively from the Middle Ages to the Reformation to the days of the Puritans, so too did the notions of the immortality of the soul and personal "victory" over death (seen by the increased importance given to the individual in burial practices and ritual accompanying death). The idea of the individual as one who carried his fate in his own hands seems to have come into existence only with the heightening of the punishments and tortures he might endure after death.
The Puritans, and particularly the American Puritans, were heir to these complementary developments. The extraordinary fear of death which permeated Puritan culture was complemented by an equally extraordinary self-confidence and inner strength, qualities which were expressed in their view of themselves as "the vanguard of the movement now afoot in all of Christendom," while braving harsh and savage conditions in the New England wilderness.
Stannard provides a hint—without giving the complete answer—to what is at stake in these complementary attitudes when he speaks of the cultural milieu from which the Puritans emerged as being characterized by "shortsightedness"— that is, a foreignness to any modern notion of progress and an incapacity to promise and make commitments as a separate, moral being. The Puritans were a bridge, historically, between two different kinds of societies—that of the traditional one of the Middle Ages, based on obligation to the community, and that of modern society, based on the notion of the individual as a more separate unit within the community. Puritan society never departed from the traditional structure of society based on obligation to the community, but it did evolve within this structure the seeds of its own destruction—a high sense of personal conscience. Thus, when Hawthorne writes in The Scarlet Letter of "the wild, free atmosphere of an unredeemed, unchristianized, lawless region," he is talking about an internal region whose frontiers were just being explored at the time of the Puritans—the region of the individual. In the Middle Ages, a moral code had not yet been internalized by which the anti-social instincts could be repressed or sublimated; rather, this code had to be imposed externally. It is for this reason so many early societies, and particularly the Puritan one, meted out such harsh punishments for what are to us merely instances of trivial misconduct (for example, as Stannard tells us, the punishment for blasphemy in Massachusetts well into the 18th century included having one's tongue bored through with a hot iron). Only by such means could there be created what today we take for granted—individuals who will stand security for their own future, individuals with a moral conscience. In order for the individual to believe in himself, he had first to pay for this belief, and for the Puritans, this payment most often took the form of an "intense and unremitting" fear of death.
Today, of course, such cruelty seems pointless and tragically absurd—"anachronistic," as Stannard says. What Stannard fails to say is that such cruelty is no less present today; it is merely self, rather than socially-inflicted. The point here is not that we still carry elements of repressed "Puritanism" in us—that we still have not shed completely the guilts and fears that once obsessed the Puritans. On the contrary, it is not that the person of today is less guilt-ridden than the Puritan; it is that he is more so. It was precisely due to the absence of a highly developed sense of guilt that the Puritan community needed to inflict on its members such intense fear of death; it is the achievement of modern society that this is no longer necessary. Fear of death is now woven into the fabric of our lives, a masked and uncontrollable danger within the technology we have wedded ourselves to. It is but one measure of the pervasiveness of this fear that society's most terrifying image of death—cancer—is also a metaphor of its growth.
It is from the pervasive threat of death that the phenomenon of "death-denial" arises, a need which distinguishes us sharply from the Puritans; fear of death can no longer be shifted outside ourselves in a theology of damnation, nor can its impact he absorbed by a tightly-knit community. Fear of death is today internal and inescapable; it is this fact which makes the rationalistic solutions to death-denial proposed in recent years—everything from university programs in "thanatology" to organizations charging fees to sit with the dying—merely another form of 'denial.' An intense, internalized fear of death is today necessary and even natural. Yet, this fact does not necessarily doom us to a morbid preoccupation with death; as in the Christian tradition, fear of death can generate a potential for its opposite—for a more profound examination of the experience of life and a stronger affirmation of the ultimate victory of freedom and individuality. The Puritans, within a vastly different culture than our own, realized this potential not merely by the intensity with which they "lived life," as Stannard says, but by the tremendous strength of character they mustered in doing so. Such qualities, however "puritanical," are wholly admirable.