Perry Miller (1905-1963) was the most famous interpreter of the meaning of the New England Puritanism of the 17th century.
Perry Miller was born in Chicago in 1905, received his formal undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, and joined the Harvard University faculty in 1931, where he taught in the English Department until his death in 1963.
Miller was the most influential figure in a scholarly movement during the 1920s and 1930s which reinterpreted 17th-century New England Puritanism. The dominant image of the Puritan had been that of a narrow-minded bigot, a reactionary kill-joy whose legacy to American history was sexual repression, alcohol prohibition, and hypocrisy. Several scholars between the two world wars published research which replaced that image with a more complex, balanced, and sympathetic one. Perry Miller's articles and books analyzed Puritan ideas in unprecedented depth.
The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939) was one of the most abstract works of American intellectual history ever written. In it Miller analyzed the nature of Puritan piety and intellect. He explained characteristic Puritan logic, epistemology, natural philosophy, rhetoric, literary style, ideas of government, and theory of human nature as well as theology. Miller's description was of a highly rational Puritan mentality attempting to make rules to live by in a world created by God's caprice. Changes in thought over time were not investigated in The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, but they were in Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630-1650 (1933) and in The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (1953). Orthodoxy was Miller's first published book, and in it he explained how the Puritans managed intellectually to become independent congregationalists while insisting that they had not separated from the mother Church of England. From Colony to Province tells the story of the interaction between the ideas of the Puritan establishment imported from England and the new American environment. If the tension of The Seventeenth Century is between the heart's piety and the head's reason, the tension of From Colony to Province is between the ideals of Puritanism at the onset and the consequent ironic realities of the ideals in action. The Puritans came to Massachusetts pursuing the goal of a religious utopia, but succeeded in creating a materialistic society.
Ideas were studied at length by Miller because he believed them to be important in expressing life's meaning and in influencing human behavior. His interpretation that Puritanism was a coherent and powerful body of ideas caused early New England history to become intellectual history to a significant degree. Miller's emphasis upon Puritan ideas was part of a rejuvenation of colonial American scholarship during and after the 1930s, and it coincided with the rise of American intellectual histories. During the 1940s and 1950s Americans tried to understand the roots of their nation's identity and democratic commitments. Earlier American ideas were frequently traced as the sources of later values and behavior.
The inevitable historographical pendulum swing occurred toward the end of Miller's life and after his death, as younger scholars minimized the coherence and causal importance of Puritanism in New England. Criticisms of Miller for over-intellectualizing New England colonists and for imputing elite characteristics to the population as a whole became common as social historians took over a scholarly field previously dominated by historians of ideas.
Perry Miller was writing about 19th-century America late in his life, but he did not live to impose a broad synthetic interpretation on the later history of the country. The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War (1965) was edited after his death.
For biographical background on Miller, and for interpretation of his works, see the memorial issues of Harvard Review 2 (1964) and Robert Middlekauff, "Perry Miller," in Marcus Cunliffe and Robin Winks, editors, Pastmasters, Some Essays on American Historians (1969).
An example of the typical interpretation of Puritanism prior to Perry Miller can be found in Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, vol. 1, "The Colonial Mind" (1927). Examples of the type of social history written following Miller's death include Darrett Rutman's Winthrop's Boston (1965), John Demos' A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970), and Philip Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience and the Self in Early America (1977). Some commentators have suggested that Perry Miller can be said to have had an "ironic" interpretation of the long sweep of American history. See Gene Wise, American Historical Explanations (1973) and Richard Reinitz, Irony and Consciousness (1980).