It is often accepted without question that the New England Puritans were hardhearted religious fanatics who took pleasure in publicly humiliating each other and calling down damnation on the heads of heathens. In 1917, H. L. Mencken wrote famously that the Puritan was characterized by his “utter lack of aesthetic sense, his distrust of all romantic emotion, his unmatchable intolerance of opposition, his unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views, his savage cruelty of attack, [and] his lust for relentless and barbarous persecution.” In The Crucible (1953), Arthur Miller writes that the Puritans were a “sect of fanatics” who led a “strict and somber way of life” marked by “parochial snobbery” and “hard-handed justice.” Margaret Atwood once remarked that her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale—in which a ruthless theocratic government enslaves young women and forces them to have sex with its childless party elite—was her “take on American Puritanism.”
These caricatures have been regularly debunked by scholars. In his groundbreaking two-volume New England Mind, Perry Miller showed how the Puritans’ fears and hopes shaped their “errand into the wilderness,” and Charles Lloyd Cohen and Charles Hambrick-Stowe have argued that feelings were central to the Puritans’ understanding of salvation and piety. Now, Abram Van Engen turns to the role of sympathy. Sympathy, or “fellow feeling,” he argues, was central to the Puritan way of life. Not only was a spontaneous affection for fellow Christians viewed as a sign of salvation, but sympathy was also understood as the defining characteristic of a godly society. At the heart of John Winthrop’s “city upon a hill,” Van Engen writes, is “a vision for society in which reciprocal affections become fundamental to communal well-being.”
Borrowing from both Erasmus and Calvin, Puritan sermons and commentaries argued again and again that sympathy—or an innate love of fellow Christians demonstrated, in particular, by a sensitivity to their suffering—“resulted from membership” in God’s covenant community alone. Arthur Hildersham wrote that the “fruit” of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life was “sympathizing with the fellow-members of Christ’s mysticall body.” Likewise, the absence of such sympathy, John Preston warned, indicated spiritual death: “A living member, if the body be in danger, will have a sympathizing and feeling of the danger.” But if not, “it is a certaine signe we are dead men.” Paradoxically, such sympathy was also commanded. While sympathy did not extend to those outside God’s community—“whosoever is Gods enemie, must also be ours,” Richard Greenham wrote—God’s children were regularly exhorted to love each other. Preaching on 1 Peter 3:8, Nicholas Byfield remarked, “The doctrine is cleer. That we ought to have a sympathie one towards another.” Robert Bolton urged his readers to “make conscience” their sympathy. Puritan sermons often aimed at stirring the holy affections of congregants, and Van Engen writes,
The imaginative work of sympathy, furthermore, constituted its own distinct practice. Puritan ministers instructed their parishioners to pray for others and provide physical aid, but before they acted, they had to be moved.
This helps explain why the Puritans, contrary to popular belief, were so expressive. When his wife was dying, John Winthrop was “weeping so bitterly,” Van Engen writes, “she asked him to stop” because (in her words) “you breake mine heart with your grievings.” When the Puritans fled England, and British soldiers separated children from their parents, William Bradford wrote that there was “weeping and crying on every side.” Anne Bradstreet regularly refers to her “troubled heart,” “sorrows,” “cares,” “fears,” and “joy” in her poetry. One of the most popular poems of the early colony was Michael Wigglesworth’s “The Day of Doom” (1662), in which he imagines the “weeping” and wailing of sinners but also the singing and “great joy” of God’s elect at Christ’s second coming. Van Engen writes that each instance of “tears and grieving, melting and weeping, pity and sympathy” in Puritan texts fits within “a broad tradition of Puritan fellow feeling.”