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The Link Between Puritanism and Transcendentalism

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19th Century American culture was largely focused on the creation of new societies, in which individuals could live according to their own beliefs. Puritan ideas played a large role in shaping this American culture, including the growing philosophical movement of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalists went against the “American Dream” created by the Puritans through their beliefs that focused on individuality and free will, yet their idea of spiritual perfection can be reflected upon by the Puritan ways. Despite the difference in beliefs, Puritanism laid the foundation for movements such as Transcendentalism to develop their own form of utopia.

The concept of the “American Dream” was created by Puritans in the early 18th Century American colonies and was largely based on the idea of perfectionism; they viewed this New World as a fresh start from the Old World of Great Britain and strived to create a society of elite people held under the highest standard of God. Puritanism was driven by Protestant religious beliefs, and America was the ‘mecca’ of these beliefs. “’Tis a Heavenly city” that was created by God, as one Puritan described of New England, “A city; where God shall dwell with men, God Himself shall be with them, and we shall Inherit all things”. The strict standard of perfection that Puritans held guided how they ran their society. To the Puritans, hard work and repentance were the key to creating a perfect society due to their belief that all people were innately sinful.   From the inception of America, Puritanism designated a society of perfectionism and utopia centered around the Protestant religion and the idea of holiness. 

As social reform movements developed in the early 19th century, one philosophical movement that gained specific traction was Transcendentalism. Transcendentalist beliefs arose in protest of the Puritanism views of intelligence and they rather advocated for emotional relationships with religion and the concepts of idealism and individualism. They also rejected the Puritanism idea that people were innately sinful and rather believed that people were innately good. The true clash of Transcendentalism against Puritanism can be seen in Ralph Walton Emerson’s address to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity College. In this address, Emerson argued that the “calamity of a decaying church and wasting unbelief” stems from people using religion, rather than virtue, to govern their life. Virtue, he claimed, allows one to develop their own relationship with the universe and God without a “mediator or veil”. Though Transcendentalists did not deny or reject the existence of God, they believed one had to make a personal connection with religion rather than rely on the Bible and the beliefs of their ancestors, which groups with traditional Puritan beliefs felt threatened by.

Despite their countering beliefs, Transcendentalists were influenced by the Puritans’ vision of a utopian society under God; the foundation the Puritans had built allowed them to construct the vision according to their beliefs. Thus, the utopian community of Brook Farm that was a “city of God, anew” was established. Transcendentalists, however, expanded upon the Puritans’ concept of utopia through exploration; Brook Farm was created not only as a utopian community, but as an experiment by George Ripley to examine utopia in the context of social reform. This communal experiment was set to prove their beliefs that a utopian society was not simply created through a whole community, as the Puritans believed, but rather through the individuals that collectively brought their own experiences. There was clear emphasis on the importance of both individuality and community in all structural aspects of Brook Farm. At Brook Farm, men, women, and children all worked in the community during the day, families slept in their own residences at night, and all members ate together during meals. Brook Farm was also a form of literary utopia for many writers. Many of these writers, such as Margaret Fuller and George Ripley, found great inspiration from Brook Farm to express their transcendentalist beliefs in their works. Some, however, were dissatisfied with Brook Farm and thus reflected anti-transcendentalist views in their writings. One of these writers was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was one of the most acclaimed writers from Brook Farm. Hawthorne’s dissatisfaction in his writing revealed a new side to Brook Farm, one that questioned the durability of social reform experiments. These writings were preceded by the fall of Brook Farm just six years after it started, from a culmination of strains from the demand of the community and a fire that destroyed many of the buildings. Brook Farm, however, ultimately demonstrated the search and exploration of a perfect utopian society that expanded upon the Puritans initial concept of a utopian world.

The collapse of Brook Farm only paved way to other communal societies based in Transcendentalism, proving the persistent desire of the American people to create the perfect utopian society. Another such communal society and experiment was Fruitlands. While Brook Farm attempted to form a transcendental utopia through its structure, Fruitlands rather emphasized utopia through the individual. Members had to follow a strict diet of fruits, nuts, potatoes, and vegetables, and any animal products were forbidden. This diet came from the core belief of “physical, moral, and spiritual self-purification”. The influence of the Puritan perfectionism is clear in the beliefs of Fruitlands as it projected the same idea of needing to purify oneself in order to achieve utopia. For the members of Fruitlands, self-purification came through this heavily restricted diet. Hot baths and drinks other than water were also forbidden, and celibacy, even in marriage, became a rule. The society of Fruitlands lasted less than a year, and an idea at social reform once again failed. 

Ultimately, the Transcendentalist movement was built on the foundation of Puritan beliefs and the quest for a utopian society. Through social reform experiments and outspoken writers, it was evident that Transcendentalism followed the concept of perfectionism that the Puritans had built, despite differing beliefs. The eventual disintegration of the Puritans and the fall of different Transcendentalist communities revealed that the longevity of a truly perfect utopia was ultimately unattainable. Despite its failures, the Transcendentalism movement continued the pursuit of an idealistic society, a pursuit that Puritanism had established as an integral part of early American culture. 

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