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Errand into the Wilderness [Paperback]

Perry Miller
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 31, 1956 0674261550 978-0674261556

The title of this book by Perry Miller, who is world-famous as an interpreter of the American past, comes close to posing the question it has been Mr. Miller's lifelong purpose to answer: What was the underlying aim of the first colonists in coming to America? In what light did they see themselves? As men and women undertaking a mission that was its own cause and justification? Or did they consider themselves errand boys for a higher power which might, as is frequently the habit of authority, change its mind about the importance of their job before they had completed it?

These questions are by no means frivolous. They go to the roots of seventeenth-century thought and of the ever-widening and quickening flow of events since then. Disguised from twentieth-century readers first by the New Testament language and thought of the Puritans and later by the complacent transcendentalist belief in the oversoul, the related problems of purpose and reason-for-being have been central to the American experience from the very beginning. Mr. Miller makes this abundantly clear and real, and in doing so allows the reader to conclude that, whatever else America might have become, it could never have developed into a society that took itself for granted.

The title, Errand into the Wilderness, is taken from the title of a Massachusetts election sermon of 1670. Like so many jeremiads of its time, this sermon appeared to be addressed to the sinful and unregenerate whom God was about to destroy. But the original speaker's underlying concern was with the fateful ambiguity in the word errand. Whose errand?

This crucial uncertainty of the age is the starting point of Mr. Miller's engrossing account of what happened to the European mind when, in spite of itself, it began to become something other than European. For the second generation in America discovered that their heroic parents had, in fact, been sent on a fool's errand, the bitterest kind of all; that the dream of a model society to be built in purity by the elect in the new continent was now a dream that meant nothing more to Europe. The emigrants were on their own. Thus left alone with America, who were they? And what were they to do?

In this book, as in all his work, the author of The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century; The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, and The Transcendentalists, emphasizes the need for understanding the human sources from which the American mainstream has risen. In this integrated series of brilliant and witty essays which he describes as "pieces," Perry Miller invites and stimulates in the reader a new conception of his own inheritance.


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Editorial Reviews

Review

Perry Miller has corrected the extreme revisionist historians who have overstressed the authoritarian and even totalitarian aspects of Puritan political doctrine. Miller corrects the balance by bringing out the inherent individualism of American Puritanism, its respect for private conscience, and even the revolutionary implications nurtured by Puritan doctrine....He has given us an analysis of the Puritan mind which is subtle and sophisticated, profound and humane, and revised in the light of the most recent scholarship. (Richard B. Morris New York Times Book Review)

Professor Miller has assembled materials which would otherwise not be easily accessible and which, taken together, present new perspectives on the dominant Christian origin of American political doctrine and civilization. Beginning with the Puritans and their preoccupation with orthodoxy and continuing with the Quakers, the Congregationalists, Calvinists, and Unitarians, he interprets each from the point of view of its place in social and political change....Dominant figures such as Hooker, Jonathan Edwards, and Emerson are brought to life with understanding. The chapter on the various theories and prophecies on the end of the world brings the record up to the present. The author's impressive knowledge of the subject and his persistent research are evident throughout. (Library Journal)

Product Details

  • Series: Belknap Press
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (January 31, 1956)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674261550
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674261556
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 6.1 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #143,609 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
When I was pursuing my Ph.D. in American history more than twenty years ago Perry Miller's studies of Puritan New England represented required reading on this religious group and its settling in North America. Having just reread this volume, originally published in 1956, Miller's work still offers insight into the Puritan mindset. He argues in this book that the Puritans came to America not so much in search of a better livelihood so much as in search of a better world. The quest for a perfect society motivated them beyond all else. I recommend "Errand into the Wilderness" both as an important statement of the intellectual history of the Puritans and an enthralling reading experience by one of the masters of American colonial history.

"Errand into the Wilderness" is a collection of ten essays, mostly previously published, on various aspects of colonial intellectual history. All but one of them deals with Puritan thought, but the one on the Virginia colony also emphasizes the religious/intellectual nature of the "errand" to create a more perfect society in North America. The Puritans explicitly accepted the mission of an "errand into the wilderness" to establish God's kingdom, serving as a beacon to England of what it should become as well. Essays with titles like, "The Marrow of Puritan Divinity," "The Puritan State and Puritan Society," "The Rhetoric of Sensation," and "The End of the World" trace an overriding concern for the salvation of humanity through increasing "perfection" in this life. The utopian element of Puritan thought comes through clearly in these essays, and they present a compelling element of the American experience. Making the world a better place has long been the "stuff" of the American character.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Starting Place for Studying the Puritans February 14, 2002
By J. Hart
Format:Paperback
For those wishing to begin learning about Puritan theology, this book is probably the best starting point there is. The book is a collection of essays covering different aspects of the Puritan experience and their belief system. This is intellectual history, and some chapters are quite difficult. Most chapters, however, are highly readable and easy to comprehend. An excellent follow-up book, which disputes the idea of a decline in Puritan piety over the generations, is Harry S. Stout's "The New England Soul." Recommended for any college level reading person.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An invaluable collection of essays July 3, 2000
Format:Paperback
Perry Miller's collection of essays ranges from his stomping ground of the Puritans to Virginia and elsewhere in colonial history. Throughout, the most blindingly brilliant American intellectual historian of the twentieth century displays his craft. Unlike his magisterial histories of the New England Mind, these tend to be somewhat easier to follow, as his themes were more compact. If you haven't read Perry Miller, you're missing a first-class thinker; at the least, there's no more important colonial historian, although many are more easily accessible.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Perry Miller's "Errand Into the Wilderness" more than any other book I've read in a long time makes you realize sometimes how little education our educational institutions actually provide. Think of the Puritans. The word conjures up images of earnest, hard-working folk bedecked in golden buckles and ruffles eager to spread their moral superiority to anyone within earshot. We think of their biggest accomplishment as managing to survive disease and pestilence for so long, despite their backward ways. The history we know of the Puritans is a history of events - things they did, their names, their travels. Miller's fascinating book opens up Puritan history for those interested in intellectual history - a history of ideas, theology, and polity. And what a fascinating world he uncovers.

While the main focus here is Puritanism, Miller does occasionally do a bit of wandering; some of the latter essays explore Emerson and the formation of American nationalist ideology. There are ten essays, all of which are full of the enticing, meaty history of ideas, so I won't be able to cover all the ground of the book here, though I would like to give a short précis of some of those essays which I thought to be the most impressive.

The book's title comes from one Samuel Danforth, whose sermon "A Brief Recognition of New England's Errand into the Wilderness" sets the existential, searching tone whose tenor can be found in each one of these essays. In the title essay, Miller notes the dual meaning of the word "errand." It can mean a task done by an inferior for a superior, or it can refer to the task alone, the very action itself. The first generation of Puritans to set foot on North American soil never thought of themselves as Americans.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Perry Miller's "Errand Into the Wilderness" is a collection of ten essays on American Puritanism. In these essays, Miller attempts to examine the origins of American history through the examples of the Puritans. His main thesis is one of Americanization. Miller's ten essays follow the theme of "errand into the wilderness" and he uses theological, social, and literary contributions to explain and exhibit this errand into the wilderness. Miller provides literary criticism for each piece to interpret them according to the uniqueness of the American experience.

The title of the book derives its name from Samuel Danforth's 1670 election sermon. The word "errand" is a "metaphor" that probes "some deeper configuration in the story than mere modification, by obvious and natural necessity, of an imported European culture in an adjustment to a frontier" (p. 1). Miller's first chapter discusses the second and third generation Puritans who began to question if they had fulfilled John Winthrop's prophecy of a "city upon a hill." Did they set up and provide a model society for Protestant Europe or did they create something new? Miller contends that the Puritans had unknowingly "redefined their errand" and had begun the process of Americanization and a new identity. This process of "redefining their errand" led to inner tensions and splintering among the Puritans. In "Thomas Hooker and the Democracy of Connecticut," Miller opposes the Vernon L. Parrington and James Truslow Adams views that Connecticut was more democratic than Massachusetts. Miller believes that the rivalry between Hooker and Cotton Mather was much more a factor in the separation.
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