Friday, April 20, 2007

'The Discovery of Puritanism, 1820-1914' - a review

Even were it not one of the key secondary texts for my research, Raphael Samuel's 'The Discovery of Puritanism, 1820-1914: A Preliminary Sketch' [in Revival and Religion Since 1700, Essays for John Walsh, eds. Jane Garnett and Colin Matthew (London: Hambledon Press, 1993) (201-248)], would be a fascinating read for me, or probably any other researcher of Puritanism or the nineteenth century. As someone studying both, I take the liberty to introduce it to you.

Samuel's central concern is the rise of Puritanism's reputation and influence during the nineteenth century, especially in Britain, although America is mentioned.

He begins with the obligatory paragraph on the difficulties of defining and describing Puritanism, but infuses even his preliminary analysis with humour and surprising breadth (I won't spoil it for you). His brief survey of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century attitudes to Puritanism is lucid and erudite, and he powerfully illustrates reasons for the changes in early nineteenth-century attitudes. [He is not, of course, as comprehensive as Blair Worden, who may fairly be called the expert on these things. See in particular his Roundhead Reputations: The English Civil Wars and the Passions of Posterity (London: 2001)]. Samuel examines literary, political and religious strands of Puritanism's influence in the nineteenth century, particularly highlighting the significance of Thomas Carlyle's Cromwell. He describes Puritanism as surprising Carlyle by being an English analogue to the Scottish Covenanting tradition (214).

He goes on to observe the downturn in English Nonconformity at the end of the nineteenth century, and with it the decreasing influence of Puritanism. The most original and interesting part of Samuel's article, as far as I am concerned, is 'Part II' (224-247), where he describes the influence of Puritanism as an attitude, coming out of all that he has already discussed, on nineteenth-century society. This includes a 'service and sacrifice' rationale for the late Victorian overseas settlement (228), and the puritan influence on socialism (229), social reform (233), and late-century movements like theosophy (244).

If any of us were in danger of doubting the abiding legacy of the English puritan movement, this article certainly offers a powerful antidote. Highly recommended.


Bridges said...

Great post, Susan. Looking forward to reading more.


H.C. Ross said...

Thanks, Susan! Looks like a great read.


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