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Wayward Puritans Book Review

Categories: Book ReviewSociology

As a sociologist, Kai T. Erikson looks at history as a reflection of changes in societal norms and expectations. Erikson re-visits his look at historical happenings of the Puritans in his novel “Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance”. By examining several “crime waves” throughout history, Erikson points out several aspects of how we see deviance. After researching Puritan lifestyle and the corresponding influences of deviance, Erikson explores the Antinomian Controversy, the Quaker Invasion, and the Witches of Salem Village.

In his first chapter, Erikson gives regard to a foremost leader in sociology; Emile Durkheim. As he notes, crime is really a natural kind of social activity. If crime is a natural part of society, there is definitely an indication that it is necessary, much like Darwin would argue that survival of the fittest is pertinent to the continuation of a species. Erikson claims that non-deviants come together in a phenomenal way to express outrage over deviants, therefore solidifying a tighter bond between eachother.

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This sense of mutuality, Erikson further explains, reiterates awareness to the common goals of the social organization at stake. In his analysis of “abnormal behavior”, deviance is defined as conduct which the people of a group consider so dangerous or embarrassing that they bring special sanctions against those persons. Furthermore, Erikson gives the title of “community” to this form of social unit. Communities must have boundaries to succeed, whatsoever “success” means to that specific group of people. In this sense, communities are what Erikson calls “boundary maintaining”.

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Whether these boundaries are religious, political, or moral, they are points of reference to refer to during times of confusion. If these boundaries are only set in place to restrict deviance to a healthy minimum (or, for ambitious communities, diminish entirely), then can it be assumed that deviance is necessary to define a society? Moreover, is there enough evidence to conclude that labeling someone as severely deviant may create more of a monster? In some cases, as Erikson explains, labeling and isolating deviants together creates an even worse problem than the initial crime.

Prison systems are notorious for a hierarchical system of criminals, with those on top teaching and grooming the amateurs for worse crimes. With this in mind, Erikson looks at a much lesser yet historically relevant form of deviance; the Puritans’ detachment from the Church. Erikson explains that to most English people of the 16th century, Puritans became an annoying sect of rebels. Overbearing and unrelenting, many detested the exaggeration of conventional values that the Puritans displayed. Feeling restricted by the formalities of the Church, Puritans quickly became deviant in the eyes of society.

By moving to Massachusetts Bay, Puritans hoped to create their own ideas of what is “right” and “wrong”, much like any community attempting to set boundaries. However, problems arose when laws were to be mandated in a Biblical sense. God could not sit at a pulpit in a courtroom, so then how would a strictly religious group maintain itself? As Erikson states, “one of the surest ways to confirm an identity, for communities as well as individuals, is to find some way of measuring what one is not”.

From this, they developed a keen sense of Devil distinction – that is, ways in which the Devil presented himself through the behaviors of individuals. Three separate yet similarly crisis provoking “crime waves” swept through Massachusetts in the first six decades of settlement by the Puritans. Erikson explains, “the Antinomian controversy of 1636 [was] an attempt… to redefine the boundaries which set New England apart as a new experiment in living”. This definition of boundaries within a community brings us back to an initial assumption of Erikson in regard to the maintenance of a society.

The Antinomian Controversy began with the inevitable discussion of how God’s covenant with each individual would transfer into His covenant with the Puritan people as a society. Needless to say, authorities needed to be appointed in order to guide individuals as a whole to heaven. With restriction, clergy were mostly responsible for the commonwealth. As more notable authorities were appointed, agitation grew. Erikson points out that “in its purest form, the covenant of grace was almost an invitation to anarchy, for it encouraged people to be guided by an inner sense of urgency rather than by an outer form of discipline”.

The controversy between those who wanted to be ruled strictly by God, as they had set out to do by leaving England, and those who understood that their society could not succeed without rules, transformed from a religious experience to a strictly political one. Erikson reiterates that the Antinomian controversy, as well as several similar cases, illustrates the relationship between a community’s boundaries and the kinds of deviation likely to be encountered.

To further explain his study of deviance in the Puritan era, Erikson turns to his second hypothesis about deviance: that social groups experience a fairly stable amount of deviation. The Essex County Court, one of four premier legal authorities for Massachusetts Bay, oversaw a wide range of deviancies that would more than likely not be of utmost importance to contemporary society. Community vigilance brought even the least petty crimes to court. Because of this, “almost every voice in the colony contributed something to the social control apparatus and fewer deviants slipped through this network”.

Without going into numerical details, it is evident from Erikson’s statistics that with the insurgence of an oppositional group such as the Quakers, Essex County Court tried almost twice as many cases at the height of the crisis than it did before or after. A calm before the storm gave way to this rise in noted crime, which naturally gave way to a peace afterward. Through his investigation into the forms and frequency of deviance, Erikson managed to use pertinent historical records to highlight his hypotheses.

By using the Puritan detachment from the Church of England, Erikson illustrated the changes in societal views of what constitutes deviance, how it is regarded, and how frequently it interferes with societal functioning. Boundaries are used by every society, whether it was initially necessary or not. These boundaries are essential to the stability of a community, and change with societal norms. Without deviance, boundaries would not exist and there would not be mutual aspirations and goals for a community.

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Wayward Puritans Book Review. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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