I begin here a series of posts on Margo Todd’s 1987 book, Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order. The book is a corrective on the (still popular) scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s. The text below includes her thesis.
If puritans were a self-conscious community of zealous religious reformers, they were also possessed of a clear and characteristic vision of godly social reform, a vision which we associate not incorrectly with the ‘culture of discipline’ and the ‘spiritualized household’ and the ‘reformation of manners’. However, they were not the inventors of this reformist vision. They did not see themselves as intellectual innovators, not did their contemporaries, nor should we. The notion that they were truly innovative in their social thought is as fallacious as the assumption that they represented an early form of capitalist class consciousness, or that they comprised a bitterly alienated oppositionist group of Elizabethan England. Puritans as social theorists were instead a vitally important group of popularizers and practitioners of earlier ideas – more properly associated with Renaissance than with Reformation.
It is because scholars have failed to see puritans as the heirs of a complex intellectual legacy – classical, medieval, and Renaissance humanist as well as Reformed – that the historiography of puritan social thought has plodded along first in one direction, then in another, through a muddle of contradictions and seemingly inexplicable inconsistencies….If as historians we cannot make up our minds, it is doubtless because puritan minds were simply not so neatly divided into logical categories as we, and perhaps they, would wish. The intellectual development of sixteenth-century protestants was no more monochromatic than ours, and they were no better at drawing lines and making distinctions than most people, contemporary or modern. So we find their social and political treatises citing Xenophon and St Paul in the same breath, Erasmus and Zanchius in the same marginal note. Heretofore, our solution to this apparent paradox has been simply to ignore half of their sources and insist that the other half was exclusively formative – of a single, consistent, protestant social ideology.
The thesis of this study is that that conditioning influence, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, was Christian humanism, and that one of the defining characteristics of puritan social thought in the seventeenth century was its maintenance of Erasmian ideals and methods in the face of growing conservatism and authoritarianism on the part of its enemies. The importance of puritans as social thinkers lies in the fact that they contributed heavily to the propagation of a belief in social reform, which they, along with contemporaries both protestant and Catholic, had derived from the Renaissance and its classical sources. Puritans were educated a la mode, subject to assumptions and perspectives characteristic not so much of protestantism narrowly conceived as of the norther European Renaissance. They were product of the same printed books, tutors, and university curricula as other Englishmen; their world view was spawned no more from Calvin’s Institutes, which they generally read as adults, than from Erasmus’ Enchiridion and Cicero’s De Officiis, which they read as youths. Puritans were imbued with the presuppositions of early modern England, and those were, in the final analysis, heavily Erasmian.
Todd’s argument is clear. Puritan social and political thought was not innovative. They relied on ideas from the Renaissance, especially in Erasmus, and classical texts. They perceived their opposition (the Anglicans) to be conservative and authoritarian. The Puritans were not as radical as some have argued.