Albion’s seed in New England

The Puritan colony in Massachusetts Bay was a much more thoroughgoing theocracy than modern-day Iran.

The Puritan leaders not only banned all religious worship except their narrow version of Calvinism.   They screened newcomers for religious orthodoxy.   Sunday religious worship was compulsory.   They might jail or fine you for such offenses as wasting time.

It’s true, as David Hackett Fischer pointed out in Albion’s Seed, that established churches and religious persecution were the norm in 17th century Europe and its colonies.

Virginia and the other southern colonies, like New England, had tax-supported established churches.  The settlers on the Appalachian frontier settlers did not hold with established churches, but they were quick to drive out any clergy whose preaching didn’t meet with their approval.   Only the Quakers of the Delaware Valley embraced the radical idea of tolerating religious teachings they thought to be in error.

But the Puritan religion was exceptionally narrow, austere and joyless.   It was about human sinfulness, the threat of hell, policing each others’ behavior and listening to hours-long sermons on hard benches in unheated churches.   The Anglican religion of tidewater Virginia, in contrast, involved a rich liturgy, 20-minute sermons and many feast days.

The flowering of New England culture was the result of a revolt against this Calvinist orthodoxy at the dawn of the 19th century.

Transcendentalists rejected original sin, and taught that we all have a divine spark within us.  In that respect, their theology was more like the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light than it was like the old-time Calvinism.

Humanitarian reformers sought to bring about the Kingdom of God by championing the cause of the blind, the deaf, the mentally ill, the American Indian and the black slave.   There, too, New England Congregationalists and Unitarians followed in the footsteps of Quakers.

The things the Yankee reformers retained from Puritanism were moral and intellectual seriousness, belief in education and self-government, and commitment to collective action.

One of the first fruits of the flowering of New England was the emergence of the Republican Party, which was formed to oppose the spread of slavery.   Almost all the famous New England writers and reformers were Republicans.

Yankee settlement in the middle 19th century. Source: Discover.

Compare and contrast the map above with the following map, which shows the geography of the vote for John C. Fremont, the first Republican presidential candidate, in 1856.   The Republican vote is shown in red.

The Republican Party for many decades dominated American politics in every region except the South.  When President Franklin Roosevelt won his landslide victory in 1936, the Yankee regions remained loyal Republicans.

Right down to the end of World War Two, the Republican Party was the party of civil rights and the Democratic Party was the party of white supremacy and the Solid South.   But the New Deal brought a majority of African-Americans into the Democratic Party, and Democratic leaders embraced civil rights.   In reaction, Republican Party became the party of the South.   The New England Yankees also changed sides.

Above is the Presidential election map for 2008.  Below is the map for 2016.   The darker or lighter the blue (or red), the stronger or weaker the support for Democrats (or Republicans).

I am a Unitarian Universalist, part of a religious sect which arose from two early 19th century revolts against Puritanism—the Unitarians, who believed that God is a unity, not a Trinity, and that Jesus is a great teacher, not God; and the Universalists, who believed that since God is good, nobody is condemned to an eternal Hell.

My guess is that the overwhelming majority of the congregation of First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., are Democrats, and that we have more Green Party supporters than Republicans, although I hope Republicans feel welcome.

Unitarians in particular were an ethnic Yankee religion.   A century ago, there was a saying that Unitarians believed in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighborhood of Boston.  Not until the 1940 census were there more Unitarians outside New England than within it.

We’re considerably more diverse now, but the UUA in many ways is a photographic negative of the old Puritanism.  We affirm instead of deny human goodness, we are ecumenical, not doctrinal, and we celebrate love, not fear.  But the center of our religious service is still the sermon, and the typical UU sermon is intended to increase intellectual understanding, not to evoke religious emotion.

Then, too, there is a certain amount of the old-time Puritan drive to not only improve society, but to reform individuals who manifest bad attitudes.   We don’t believe in original sin, but some of us believe in white guilt, which in many ways is the same thing.  It is something you are born with, you have to affirmatively purge yourself from it, and you may never get rid of it.


Book Review: Albion’s Seed by Scott Alexander for Slate Star Codex.

Cultural Folkways in Flux by Razib Khan for Discover.


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