The less stable the center of society, the weirder things get on the fringes. But what happens when the fringes move to the center?
Puritanism is a good example. Puritanism wasn’t the weirdest fringe movement to come out of the early Reformation — that’s probably Anabaptism — but it was one of the strongest. We moderns find it incomprehensible, especially Predestination. If we truly have no free will, and have been saved or damned from all eternity, why bother to do anything? Why not retreat into quietism, or hedonism, or despair?
The question is a category error. Those are logical consequences of the doctrine of predestination, and some, like the Quakers, did logically withdraw into quietism. But since when has religious belief been about logic?* Puritanism’s strength wasn’t its theory, but its practice.
Everybody knows that Puritans wanted to purge the church — and, through it, all of society — of vice, and for once what “everybody knows” is correct. You’ve probably heard the Book of Sports mentioned, and though it wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as it’s made out to be, that’s the basic idea.
That’s the trick. That’s how you avoid sinking into despair while thinking through predestination — obviously you’re not one of the damned, because you’re so blessedly enthusiastic about stamping out sin. It’s the externals of the doctrine that matter — behavior, not belief.
Problem is, behavior and belief are reciprocal. The more comprehensive the doctrine, the more behavior you must regulate; the more behavior you must regulate, the more comprehensive the doctrine must be to back it up. For the Puritans, everything not explicitly permitted by the Bible was sinful. That’s why they were against throwing dice, for instance. Dice is a game of “chance,” and since God preordains everything, there is no such thing as chance. Tossing dice — behaving as if “chance” is real — is therefore blasphemy. And that’s Puritanism’s fatal flaw. When even wearing the wrong color clothes put you in Satan’s camp, nobody could rest assured he was always on the side of the angels. Misbehaviors are seen as failures of doctrine, and what man has ever followed all the rules to the letter, or avoided hypocrisy?
None of that would matter if Puritanism remained a fringe movement. As scholars of the period have amply demonstrated, even very weird weirdos would generally be left alone, provided they didn’t make themselves too obnoxious to the authorities.** But Puritanism didn’t remain a fringe doctrine. Thanks to the ineptitude of King Charles I and the genius of Oliver Cromwell, Puritanism was the law of the land in England for years. And in Colonial New England, of course, it was the law of the land from the start.
The results are as instructive as they were inevitable. The English voted to bring their king back rather than go another day under Puritan rule, not least because Oliver’s son “Tumbledown Dick” Cromwell wasn’t a very good Puritan (he wasn’t a very good anything). A lot of other stuff factored in there as well, but in New England, the only real challenge to Puritanism was the Puritans themselves. As their society grew healthier, safer, and more prosperous — and by 1690, it was arguably the best in the West on all those metrics — dour Puritan fanaticism started easing up… with the obvious implication that maybe God was at least sorta ok with health, safety, and prosperity. Could it really be so bad to wear “ribbons or great boots…lace, points, etc., silk hoods, or scarves”?
Which brings us to the Salem Witch Trials. No, really — feminists insist that the Salem girls were driven temporarily crazy by the strictures of patriarchal society, and for once they’ve got a point. Far from being a triumph of Puritan fanaticism, the witch trials were Puritanism’s last gasp. Those who couldn’t adjust to the passing of the old order tried to reassert their control by persecuting Satan’s minions. They overreached, as fanatics always do, and in doing so they discredited their whole doctrine. Cotton Mather may have sucked up to the old guard after the fact, but the “evidence” laid out in Wonders of the Invisible World was so dubious, and the trials themselves such an obvious farce, that nobody could take New England Puritanism seriously anymore (Cotton Mather spent the rest of his life carping at the otherwise unknown Robert Calef, who was the kind of skeptical gadfly ol’ Increase would’ve exiled to Rhode Island, and Cromwell would’ve burned at the stake).
Which brings us to now. Our modern Puritans, the Social Justice Warriors, are well into the witch trial phase of their decline. Cromwell to Cotton Mather was 50 years; it’s been 50 years since the Summer of Love, and the Cult has really only been in complete charge since the later 1970s. And right on schedule, we have judges admitting spectral evidence of Trump’s anti-Muslim prejudice into trials, and hysterics in the NCAA are forcing states to let mentally ill men in sundresses make wee-wee in the little girls’ room. “Social Justice” is as all-encompassing as Puritanism, and since there’s no behavior it can safely leave unregulated, it must necessarily devolve into Matherish insanity. Elizabeth I didn’t burn her Puritan fanatics; she welcomed them back with open arms, and 100 years later they were destroying her heirs’ country. We didn’t laugh our neo-Puritan fanatics out of public life when we had the chance; we let them run our media and education industries, and now they’re ripping the country apart.
That’s what happens when you let fringe weirdos start running things. There’s a lesson here, but it’s a harsh one… too bad we’re going to have to relearn it very soon.
*n.b. to spergs, I said belief. Lots of things about religion are perfectly logical. Nobody is better at logic than Thomas Aquinas, for example. But even Aquinas admitted that his logic, impeccable though it was, wouldn’t get you through to belief in the Christian God. Only revelation does that.
**n.b. that particular weirdo ended up getting burned at the stake. If you’re going to be a weirdo, don’t do it in the Pope’s backyard.