The New Puritans: Studies of Anglo-American Social Conscience

Fall 2015 and Winter 2016 quarters

Taught by

American studies
British literature

The Puritans are caricatured as strict prudish moralists. Yet the Puritans were avid readers and writers who believed in the life of the mind. They socialized, partied, drank alcohol, played sports, and married young if at all. About a third of their children were born out of wedlock; efforts to purify themselves of sin were not completely successful. Nevertheless, the wish for self-purification captures the American imagination, and its roots are deep in the Puritan past. In the 1950s, the path-breaking historian Perry Miller wrote, “Without understanding Puritanism, and that at its source, there is no understanding of America.” Students will study what Miller meant, learn about generations of “new Puritans” over three centuries of American history, and evaluate whether Miller was—and is—correct. Puritanism has changed, but its basic “structures of feeling,” to borrow a phrase from Raymond Williams, are still with us, and will be the subject of our studies.

This upper-division program will give an overview of progressive movements and ideas in a transatlantic context (i.e., spanning Great Britain to the United States). Students will read history, literature, religious tracts, and political philosophy. Our program’s cast of historical characters will include 18th-century idealists, 19th-century reformers, 20th-century progressives, and “new radicals.” We’ll encounter abolitionists, utopians, vegetarians, temperance advocates, lots of women (some of them feminists), communists, radicals, and counter-culturists, including idealists in our own time who address challenges of the human condition.

In the fall, we will take a 10-day trip to New England to visit sites of early Puritan settlement such as Plymouth, Boston, and Salem. Our studies will begin in 16th-century England, with an examination of the Protestant Reformation and the political questions it inspired. We will consider how and why religious ideas about individual agency and rights shaped social change and inspired social movements, including the American Revolution and beyond. In the winter, students will pursue a research project on a topic of their choice.

The Puritans were concerned with the dignity of everyday people, skeptical or outright hostile to state power, troubled by hierarchy, compelled to purge corrupting influences, attracted to disciplined bodily habits, worried that society was ever more unethical, committed to influence minds and hearts, and convinced that “everything happens for a reason.” If you share any of these concerns, you may be a “new Puritan.” Take this program and find out.

Program Details

Fields of Study

Preparatory for studies or careers in

humanities, education, and writing.

Location and Schedule

Campus location



Offered during: Day


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Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning

More information about online learning.

Required Fees

$900 in fall for museum entrance fees and a 10-day field trip.

Registration Information

Credits: 16 (Fall); 16 (Winter)

Class standing: Junior–Senior

Maximum enrollment: 50


Course Reference Numbers

Jr (16 credits): 10171
Sr (16 credits): 10172

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Accepting New Students

Course Reference Numbers

Jr - Sr (16 credits): 20093

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