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Perry Miller's View of Puritans in the Errand into the Wilderness

Updated on July 12, 2016

The Puritan

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Miller's Works on Puritans

The Puritan Errand into the Wilderness


Before the 1930s, most historians tended to view the Puritans either as a group of persecuted liberal democrats who stood up to the backward, autocratic, and semi-Catholic monarchy of the early Stuarts or as the prototypical capitalists who had concern only for their pecuniary gain. Beginning in the 1930s, however, some historians began to question the established understanding of the Puritans. One of the leading historians who changed the general understanding of the Puritans was Harvard University professor Perry Miller. Miller wrote extensively between 1930 and his death in 1963 on the intellectual history of Puritan New England. While he wrote important works on The New England Mind, The Puritans, and Jonathan Edwards, perhaps his best-known work was Errand into the Wilderness, which was a collection of essays that traced New England (and to a lesser extent Virginia) thought from the settlement of Massachusetts in 1630 to the nineteenth-century transcendentalists.

Miller attempted to understand the Puritans on their own terms, rather than through the economic determinism that many historians of the day employed. He agreed with Frederick Jackson Turner that “the frontier” was an important factor in shaping American life. However, his idea of what made the frontier important was very different. Whereas Turner argued that the frontier gave America its rugged individualism, Miller understood that the Puritans’ view of themselves as the elect of God sent on an errand drove them into the wilderness. The Puritans saw their errand in these terms: God intended them to move to the New World to be the example, “a shining city upon a hill,” that would show the Old World how a true Christian commonwealth would operate. These transatlantic immigrants focused upon the covenant relationships that they had with God and each other. An individualism that was uninterested in the good of the community was not a part of early Puritan thought. Miller disagreed with those who viewed the Puritans as early liberal democrats and did not rely upon the strict theocracy of John Winthrop as his only example. Miller argued against historians like “Vernon L. Parrington and James Truslow Adams” who “conspired to present Thomas Hooker as a sort of John the Baptist to Thomas Jefferson.” He quite ably emphasized that a desire for land, rather than a desire for greater democracy, led Hooker and those who followed him to the new settlement of Connecticut. Hooker set up a Massachusetts-like settlement with the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which resembled a church covenant. The founder of Connecticut and Massachusetts minister John Cotton collaborated in a synod that denounced presbyterianism. Miller emphasized the importance of the Puritans’ consistent thought and their belief that they were on a mission from God, while avoiding a fall into the trap of viewing them as forerunners of liberal democracy.[1]


[1] Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956), 16.

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    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I remember reading Errand Into the Wilderness in graduate school 20 years ago. I am a Europeanist, but I was required to take two American history courses. So I took two Intellectual history courses and of course we looked at Perry Miller in the first course. You have done an excellent job of summarizing the gist of his work. A job well done. SHARING

      A favor please? For those of us with tired old eyes, me, (perhaps for younger readers as well) would you consider breaking your "longish paragraphs" into several shorter ones. Providing more white space and breaks for the eyes is very helpful. Thank you.

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

      ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      Like phdast (above) I recall reading Miller in a graduate seminar on Colonial religion. You have, indeed, caught the essence of his argument and have presented it excellently!

      Thanks,

      Thomas

    • cprice75 profile image
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      cprice75 5 years ago from USA

      Thanks for the comment, Thomas. I'm glad you enjoyed the review.

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