I think we did some good work on Thursday by following through on Judy’s lecture. Hopefully that conversation helped to clarify any ambiguities you might have concerning the context of the Pilgrims’ “errand into the wilderness.” The woods of New England, according to the stark worldview of these colonists, was demon-haunted. Beneath the surface of the natural world, invisible forces were at work, eating away at the spiritual health of the community, threatening to subvert the godly and undermine the authority of the colonies’ patriarchs. Remember that the harsh realities of colonization were only one front in a battle to establish a model of good governance and piety for the world to embrace; lurking behind the branches of those dark forests were other sinister impulses, drawing the faithful away from their commitments and obligations. The colonialist’s cliche of “going native” might apply here, as it denotes a form of madness, a willful rejection of the constraints of civilization that leads straight to degeneration. If, as some thought, “the naturals” were possessed of demonic tendencies, then traffic with them could only lead to a struggle for the very soul of the community.
The Puritans’ sense of themselves as uniquely appointed by God to undertake this spiritual and geographical journey into the unknown is one of the foundations of that oft-contested old trope, “American exceptionalism”– the certitude that this nation is somehow exempt from history’s inexorable logic. If you’re interested in learning more about this highly ideological belief, you might check out this or this.
Next week we’ll continue our exploration of the Puritans in the Americas and on Thursday I’ll lecture on the the Captivity Narrative in American culture.