As American As Apple Pie

As American As Apple Pie July 6, 2011
Sometimes, as sons and daughters of Christian Patriarchy, we tend to see our situations as unique and unprecedented. I realized today as I read a book on the history of childhood that this is simply not so. Rather, our situations are as American as apple pie. The hard decisions we have to make, the heartache we feel? Yeah, that’s not new.

The section I read that really struck me was on the Puritans, who began arriving in the American colonies in the years following 1620 and settled most of New England in the coming decades. You see, the Puritans were very similar to today’s Christian Patriarchy. They taught that children were born sinful and must have their wills broken, that corporal punishment was mandated by God, that even adult children must obey their parents, etc. The family was ordered according to a divine rule, and the father was the head of the household in every way. These similarities didn’t surprise me, as I already knew about many of them. What surprised me was the similarities in the Puritans’ tensions with the next generation, their children.

The Puritan obsession with children and youth was not, however, limited to concern about sin. It also expressed fear for the survival of the Puritan faith. With the first generation of New Englanders, with the rapid decline in conversions relative to population growth, how could the younger generation be nurtured in the faith that had motivated their parents? … To perpetuate their religion, the Puritans instituted mechanisms for indoctrinating youths, including youth-specific catechisms, covenant-renewal ceremonies in churches and homes, private religious societies, catechetical exercises, lectures, and covenant renewals, in which groups of youths were assembled on the Sabbath to renew their parents’ covenants.

No earlier people had ever invested greater responsibilities or higher expectations in their children than did the New England Puritans, but this heavy investment produced intense anxiety. The survival and success of the Puritan enterprise hinged on the willingness of the ‘rising generation’ to maintain their parents’ religious beliefs and ideals.

This is simply incredible. This description, word for word, could be applied to my parents, and so many other families like them in the world of Christian Patriarchy today. It gave me goosebumps.

So, did Puritan efforts to raise their children in their beliefs work? In a word, no. Whereas patriarchy originally succeeded because the father controlled his family through his control of land, this didn’t last. By the late 1600s new opportunities arose for young people, land in the west and new occupations not controlled by their parents, and parental control weakened. A youth culture formed outside of the control of the adult generation, and parents lost control of their children’s marital decisions. During the 1700s, moral norms relaxed as the church and the parents lost their grip on colonial society. Children left their parents’ houses for the frontier and chose their own spouses. How did the Puritans respond?

Beginning in the 1660s and 1670s, Puritan presses and pulpits produced a stream of jeremiads lamenting the sins of the rising generation and the degeneration of the young from the religion and godliness of their forebearers.

Sound familiar? Families were torn apart and hearts were broken. Wayward older children were seen as bad examples to younger children as parents worked hard to guide their children’s spirituality and ensure their salvation. Cotton Mather locked his eighteen-year-old son in his room for several days, alternately applying shame and guilt, after he learned that the lad had gotten a neighbor girl pregnant. Yet children had options – they could leave! they could go! there was a frontier to settle! – and leave and go many of them did.

What of religion and spirituality? Did the Puritans’ children abandon religion altogether? Sometimes, but not generally. What actually happened was more interesting. You see, the Great Awakening that took place in the middle decades of the 1700s was an overt attempt to  reign in the young, and instill them with their parents’ beliefs.

As early as the 1720s a growing number of religious leaders adopted a new strategy to instill discipline in the young. This was an evangelism that sought to convert young people in their teens and bring them into church membership. …  The [resulting] Great Awakening, the emotional religious revivals of the 1730s and 1740s, stressed the idea that divine grace could save the young. A majority of those converted during the Great Awakening were single young men and women; a quarter were in their teens.

The Great Awakening was huge, and religious revival spread through many parts of the colonies. So it worked, and Puritan children returned to their parents’ views and authority, right? Wrong. The Great Awakening actually backfired and ended up increasing the younger generation’s sense of independence and autonomy. Why? Because it made religion something that the young themselves could control, not something controlled by their parents.

Nevertheless, the Great Awakening did reinforce a trend toward greater youthful autonomy. Over time many young people turned away from the local churches that had sought their membership. Youthful piety increasingly found expression in religious ceremonies that took place outside the established churches, sometimes led by lay preachers. … The fervor and enthusiasm of the religious revival had drawn youth to it as a possible way to assert an independent identity.

Regardless of how they did so, the younger generation broke free from the control of their Puritan parents and established their own lives and their own beliefs. Their decisions to do so not only helped make the colonies prosperous and bustling places but also contributed to the colonies’ decision to seek independence from Great Britain.

By the mid-eighteenth century, adult control over young people’s access to economic independence had diminished, and young people were exercising greater autonomy over their leisure activities and courtship practices. A flood of advice books, philosophical treatises, novels, plays, and poems condemned prolonged submission to paternal rule and defended youthful freedom as a natural right. This antipatriarchal, antiauthoritarian ideology helped to sensitize the colonists to arbitrary British colonial authority.

You see, in Great Britain adult children were still largely controlled by their parents, as they lacked other economic options. In the American colonies, in contrast, children grew up to make their own decisions and live their own lives. The colonists applied this difference to their relationship with Great Britain: the colonies had come of age, they argued, and it was time for their mother country to set them free to make their own decisions and live their own lives. Great Britain disagreed, and stressed the importance of its authority as the colonies’ mother child and the colonies role as children who submit and obey. You think your break from patriarchy was hard? Our nation fought a war to defend its break from patriarchy.

In this way the Puritan young people who left their parents all those centuries ago and struck out on their own are representative of the quintessential American. Their parents heaped them with guilt and sought to reeducate them and keep them safely under authority, but that was not to go. The reality is that growing up to leave your parents’ authority and control and start your own life with your own beliefs, occupational choices, and marital decisions is as American as apple pie. We but follow in the footsteps of our forebearers.

Reference: Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, by Steven Mintz

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