Monday, August 15, 2011

John Bull, Chronology, and "Puritanism"

Charles Bardin stone, 1773, NCBG, Newport, carved by John Bull

This week, I've been reading the papers from the 1976 Dublin Seminar on Puritan Gravestone Art. In general, the essays are good and thought-provoking, especially David Hall's curmudgeonly contributions, in which he expresses doubt about pretty much all of the other contributors' conclusions.

One essay that had me nodding along until the last page was Dickran Tashjian's "Puritan Attitudes Toward Iconoclasm." His main argument is that gravestones were regarded as civil art and thus were not considered violations of the 2nd commandment. He cites plenty of relevant 17th-century sources to back up his argument that Puritan scholars in Massachusetts and England regularly argued that the prohibition against idolatry only applied to ecclesiastical settings, not civil images. Since graveyards and the stones in them were civil, rather than sacred, objects, images were not a problem, and there was no reason to smash up any gravestones.

This is all very useful to me, and I was pleased to have found this essay until I turned to the last page. Tashjian qualifies his argument a bit by noting that "imagery still had to conform to public taste," which would not have endured outrageously idolatrous images. In view of this assertion, he argues that the Charles Bardin stone in Newport (by John Bull, 1773) does not depict God, but, rather, Moses (contra Ludwig) because representing God the Father "would have been taken as idolatrous by the terms of the Puritans' interpretations of the Second Commandment."

Needle scratch.

Wait, wait, wait. I'm all on board for discussing Puritan interpretations of the Second Commandment in Massachusetts in the 17th century. But if those are the parameters of the discussion, you absolutely cannot extrapolate to make an argument about a stone carved in Newport in the late 18th century. John Bull may have been many things — a runaway apprentice, a mutineer, a thwarted genius, an ungrateful SOB — but he was not a Puritan. And he didn't live in a Puritan colony. And, lest the point be overlooked, he carved this stone in 1773.

I'm pretty uncomfortable using the term "Puritan" for Massachusetts in general after 1680 or so, though I'll make an exception for self-professed adherents like the Mathers. What does it even mean to characterize Rhode Island — which wasn't even "Puritan" in the 17th century — as "Puritan" 100 years later? The mind, it boggles.

This is my main gripe about the many gravestone studies I have read so far, both in the Dublin Seminar papers and in books by the Tashjians, Ludwig, etc., and even David Stannard's The Puritan Way of Death: they are incredibly sloppy when it comes to chronology. If you are making an argument about "Puritans" based on sources written 1590-1640, you cannot, cannot, cannot, marshal a stone from 1785 into your argument. It's like trying to make an argument about music during the American Civil War and citing The Black Eyed Peas as an example.

1 comment:

Roy said...

Heh, heh! Yeah, nobody could read RI's royal charter of 1663 (written by Newport's own Dr. John Clarke, btw) and think there was much Puritanism in the colony; Clarke's and Roger Williams' "lively experiment" of freedom of conscience could never even have been conceived of in a Puritan milieu. (I did a post on that charter and Newport's history of religious tolerance here.)

I've always loved the Bardin stone. Both Bull's work and John Stevens III's work have always fascinated me; they were both so far ahead of their time.