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Exile and Kingdom - Puritans in America

Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America. Avihu Zakai. Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. x + 264 pp.

Within the last decade several early modern scholars (R. Middlekauff, H. S. Stout and T. D. Bozemann) have argued that the second and third generations of American Puritans created the "myth of New England" in contrast to Perry Miller's classic essay "Errand into the Wilderness." Zakai argues that "the redemptive flight of the Church into the Wilderness" constituted the "very essence" of the Puritan migration to America (p. 157). His specific contribution is a profound understanding of the concept of "wilderness" on the part of the Puritans and its roots in sixteenth and early seventeenth century English historiography.

The book cogently traces the rise of apocalyptic themes in the historiography of John Bale, John Foxe and Thomas Brightman. The rise of Protestantism created a "sacred time" (the Reformation era) and the nationalism of English apocalypticism created a "sacred space" (England). These two themes combined to produce two distinct migratory motivations. On the one hand, the Virginia Company migrated to America on the basis of a "Genesis" or Abraham typology. The elect nation of England was to move beyond its borders in order to Christianize America. In fact, this was conceived as a counter-punch to the AntiChrist's (Spain, Portugal) plundering of America. Thus, the Virginia Colony became an extension of England's "sacred space."

On the other hand, the Puritans migrated to America on the basis of an "Exodus" or Mosaic typology. As a result of the failure of Elizabeth to reform the Church of England, England was de-sacralized as the elect nation. The Puritan migration was an escape from the impending judgment to fall upon England ("Egypt" in Genesis or "Babylon" in the Apocalypse).

Their "errand in the wilderness," then, was an intentional apocalyptic migration based upon an interpretation of the "wilderness" in Revelation 12. The "wilderness" motif should not be limited to the Mosaic wanderings. Puritan New England was a place of "hiding" from the judgment to come upon England, and also the place of ecclesiastical experiment. The "errand" was the establishment of the kingdom of God in its purity. Therefore, Zakai concludes that exile (wilderness) and kingdom (errand) are the fundamental apocalyptic themes of Puritan historiography which are rooted in Protestant (particularly early English) historiography. The Puritan migration to American, then, is part of the progress of the Gospel in the world where previous times and places (England) are de-sacralized and new ones (New England) are sacralized.

His analysis means that the migration from England to America was ideologically rooted. Apocalyptic history provided the basis for the English settlement of America and incorporated America into the "unfolding drama of providential, ecclesiastical history" (p. 61). Thus, America became a sacred place in a sacred time. In particular, the Puritan migration was rooted in a specifically "American ideology" whose premises ultimately meant the separation of the New World from the Old. It was a new era of redemptive history.

Zakai provides a convincing and fairly complete case through his analysis of books, sermons and lay movements. The "myth of New England" will need revision in the light of his evidence. He has provided us with a tightly argued and detailed interpretation of Puritan historiography.

However, Zakai's case could have been strengthened in two ways. First, Zakai does not devote much time to interaction with the secondary literature. He is clearly familiar with the debate and its literature, but it would have been beneficial if he had explicitly entered the fray. Nevertheless, his work stands as a major attempt to counter an increasingly dominant interpretation of the Puritan migration. Second, his meager reflection of separatist ecclesiology in the Puritan psyche is inadequate, which he acknowledges (p. 226). Expanded treatment here could have strengthened his case.

Based somewhat on his 1982 dissertation, Zakai has credibly argued his perspective. His interpretation of Puritan migration deserves a hearing.

First appeared in Sixteenth Century Journal.


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