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Ah! destructive Ignorance, what shall be done to chase thee out of the World! Cotton Mather

The idea of – as they are now called – social elites was nothing new to Puritan Massachusetts. It was an idea that had rattled around since at least the 14th century in France with the recognition of the états généraux. Coincidentally, or not, the first estate in the French system was also the clergy but it is a stretch that won’t quite reach to compare the 14th century French clergy to the Puritans who owed far more to Rousseau than Christ since, in spite of their militant public piety, their’s was a civil religion bound by contracts and governed by a simple democracy where revealed truth could be dismissed by a majority vote. Although their successors will be the last to admit it the reason their clergy was finally supplanted by a lay elite was that they had no true teaching authority and when a congregation is free to think anything they soon believe nothing of substance and are well on their way to becoming congregationalists and Unitarians and leading lives of practical atheism.

What is really noteworthy  is how the English colonies were divided – north and south – almost along what would become the Mason-Dixon line with the northern half clinging to the sterility of Cromwellian protestantism while the South followed the more Catholic tradition openly in Maryland at first and laterly the Anglo-catholic tradition in the Southern states. The formality of ritual and the heritage of dogma served as mutually reinforcing pillars of these churches which continue to serve long after the puritans have disintegrated into Methodists and Baptists.  It is of no particular surprise that tensions arose between a South dedicated to God and a north dedicated to mammon.

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The making of an American thinking class : intellectuals and intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts  Darren Staloff  New York : Oxford University Press, 1998  Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xv, 276 p. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 207-268) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

A radical new interpretation of the political and intellectual history of Puritan Massachusetts, this work envisions the Bay colony as a seventeenth century one-party state, where congregations served as ideological ‘cells’ and authority was restricted to an educated elite of ministers and magistrates. Staloff posits that the colony’s course of events was dictated by the struggles of laypersons against the Puritan “thinking class,” eventually leading to the erosion of the Puritan intellectualspolitical authority and the colony’s transformation into a Puritan lay republic in the years before the loss of the charter. Staloff offers a strategy for synthesizing the hitherto disparate fields of social and intellectual history by treating intellectuals as a distinct social group with their own interests and agendas.

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