How I Escaped Puritanism's Creepy Side By Embracing Its Noble Side

Three weeks before the publishing industry commenced its huge promotion of Stacy Schiff's energetically researched, dazzlingly narrated, ideationally empty The Witches: Salem 1692 -- with a 500-person Manhattan armory gala, dinners up and down Park Avenue, a book tour rivalling Odysseus' travels or David Niven in "Around the World in Eighty Days," and four feature pieces in The New York Times -- I attended my 50th high school reunion in Longmeadow, MA, an old Puritan town founded in 1690 at the other end of the Commonwealth from Salem and just four miles north of the spot in Enfield, CT, where the great divine Jonathan Edwards preached "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in 1741.

I've had my say this week, in Democracy journal, about what's wrong with the current coronation of Schiff's (and our) self-serving, doting but damning assessment of Puritans. But I've never before explained that I learned to see them differently while growing up amid some of the best remnants and echoes of their ways. Why does that matter? My high school reunion, of all things, helped me toward an answer.

Probably the only public sin we Longmeadow High School students committed in Enfield came in painting "LHS '65" in huge white letters on a tobacco barn there, but surely we committed sins of the heart and the lower viscera that Edwards would have probed. So I was surprised at our reunion to discover, as if in a revelation, that I owe something much better to classmates whose Puritan descent had never before crossed my mind.

I'd long known that Longmeadow was the birthplace of Kingman Brewster, Jr., Yale's president from 1964-73, whose lineal antecedent was the Elder William Brewster on The Mayflower, but suddenly that mattered less to me than learning that the family of my classmate Will Thayer, one of our class' football stars, had come to Massachusetts in the 1630s and that he's now a minister in the Congregational Church (originally the Puritan church) who spent years working with poor residents of Brooklyn's beleaguered East New York, a neighborhood I, too, came to know well.

How had seeds like that been sown in us in arboreal, funereal Longmeadow? Talking with Will and other classmates -- Susan Shepard's family, I learned, donated part of the land that is Harvard Yard; I discovered that Clark Shattuck, a deeply reflective, artistic composer, had an ancestor, John Shattuck, who drowned in the Charles River in 1675 returning from a battle in King Phillip's War and another who fought in Lexington in 1775; and Barbara Ryder Hubbard showed me that mother's lineage goes back to William Bradford, first governor of the Pilgrims' Plymouth Colony -- I found myself awash in my own memories of growing up as a stranger among these kids half a century earlier. And, with all due allowance for the fact that the Longmeadow I grew up in was not the Longmeadow of its Puritan founders, I saw vividly how wrong we are to psycho-dramatize, satirize, and commercialize the Puritans' creepy side now, as Schiff's book is doing.

Long before Puritans lost their ecclesiastical and judicial grip on New England early in the 18th Century and settled into becoming just Yankees like those I knew in the 20th, they'd had a better, even nobler side that is part of their legacy, too.

One February morning in 1957, I sat on the floor with my fourth grade class in Longmeadow's Center School as our teacher, Ethel Smith, read to us, by nothing but wintry light coming through tall windows under charcoal skies, the Rev. John Williams' The Redeemed Captive Returned Unto Zion, which recounts his and congregants' slaughter and/or abduction to Canada in 1704 by French and Indian raiders of his Deerfield settlement, 40 miles upriver from us in Longmeadow.

Williams' son Stephen returned from captivity years later and became the minister of the Congregational Church that stands not a hundred yards from where we were sitting as Miss Smith read to us. In 1741, Williams rode from there down to Enfield to watch Jonathan Edwards preach "Sinners," and he wrote one of the only eyewitness accounts of congregants' writhing reactions.

Creepy? Well, maybe. But even though Puritan teachers like Miss Smith didn't just look at us but into us, they did so caringly as well as sternly. Sometimes, this could be a little hard to sort out. Early in December, 1956, Miss Smith told me and another boy to stand and announced, "Jim and Richard are Jewish boys. They don't accept our Lord as their savior. And they won't be celebrating Christmas. But I want you all to know that the Jewish people is a noble and enduring people, and our Lord himself was a Jew. You may sit down now."

Disoriented though I was by that kind of introduction to my own classmates at age 9, I could tell even then from Miss Smith's softer-than-usual tone that she meant well in a way that has never left me. Later I realized that for her we Jews weren't pariahs but sacred librarians. No matter what Puritans had thought of Jews (and it wasn't nice), they placed Hebrew on Yale's seal because they'd learned from the Old Testament to ground their salvation-hungry faith in covenanted, earthbound communities of law and work. And I would learn from them to cherish the introspection and the inclination to bearing moral witness that catapulted both Will Thayer and me into Brooklyn.

In all the time that Puritans held New England in their thrall, slaughtered native Americans, and hung 40 witches, 19 of them in Salem's collective hysteria, they knew better than to forgive themselves as casually as most of us forgive our country's collective hysterias now. A conscience-stricken Judge Samuel Sewall, who'd presided over the witch trials, stood penitentially in Boston's Old South Meeting House one Sunday in 1697 as the pastor, Samuel Willard, read aloud a note from Sewell confessing his "guilt contracted... at Salem" and desired "to take the blame and shame of it, asking... that God... would powerfully defend him against all temptations for Sin, for the future: and vouchsafe him for the efficacious saving conduct of word and spirit."

Who among today's American leaders and officers desires to take the blame and shame of killing or unjustly incarcerating any of thousands of innocent young black men? Who besides Kingman Brewster, Jr., that Puritan from old Longmeadow, who told a Yale faculty meeting in 1970, "I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States."?

Who now begs forgiveness for opening floodgates of slaughter in Vietnam and the Middle East or for the slaughter going on in our own streets and the predatory dispossession of hard-working but under-informed and under-employed Americans from their homes and jobs? Who takes blame for the designing powerful engines that grope and titillate the lower viscera that Puritans like Edwards only probed, our marketing sensors exceeding their censors in suppressing and demoralizing people?

Against the current conventional wisdom that globalization is flattening the world for the better, Puritans would warn that the world has abysses, opening suddenly at our feet and in our hearts, and that a strong society needs spiritually deep ways to plumb them and face down the demons in them and in ourselves.

Their descendants in Longmeadow showed me that that kind of abyss-plumbing requires caring as well as discipline. A tall order and a humbling one, as Judge Sewall made clear by "humiliating" himself, in the old usage of that word, and as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and even Barack Obama have done in quiet moments by drawing on Puritan remonstrances and metaphorical remnants.

Do we now nervously satirize, demonize, and commercialize the Puritans in order make them take the blame for our own, much darker side? Would it disorient us to imagine, as I did this fall, that some of them knew more than many of us do about looking into the human heart? Have we enough courage to assess them as I did at some length this summer, without seeing them only, as the historian Jane Kamensky rightly raps Schiff for doing, "in a mirror that reflects most brightly our own self-satisfied faces."?