Is it necessary to have a clear grasp of the Puritans in order to understand contemporary American culture? Didn’t modern America really commence some time after Puritanism had, like Oliver Wendell Holmes’s wonderful one-hoss shay, collapsed in a single heap? Or at least after it had faded away with the rise of a more aggressive rationalist mercantile economy? That an understanding of the Puritan forefathers is indispensable to knowing who we are older American historians took for granted and, in doing so, traced various lines suggesting the continuity of our cultural development: the connection, say, between modern Protestantism and the Puritan church, between Revolutionary Era politics and Puritan separatism, between our evolving capitalist economy and Puritan doctrines of wealth and stewardship.

But the older conviction that we could know ourselves by knowing the Puritans has come under...

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