Propaganda’s “Precious Puritans”and How We Teach the Puritans

Opening with discordant strings and followed by stomps and chains, Propaganda’s “Precious Puritans” challenges the teachings and thoughts of the Puritans, a group we typically teach every semester in our classrooms. When the song initially appeared in 2012, there were discussions online surrounding the song, specifically within a Christian context. (To see those see Thabiti Anyabwile’s post on the song. He has links to the other participants.)    Propaganda ultimately turns the focus towards himself, claiming that we should not place anyone on a pedestal. While these topics are worthy of discussion, I want to write about about this song in relation to the texts we teach in literature courses, similar to what I did with Brother Ali’s “The Travelers.”

Sonically, “Precious Puritans” relies on everyday items as instruments to create a soundscape that recalls the plantation system and the Middle Passage at the same time while also recalling the Puritan colonizers of America in the seventeenth century. The stomping of feet, with chains rattling, along with the changing voices and drums in the middle of the song, calls to a mind slave coffle or rhythmic work songs. Add to all of this the sound of seagulls and the creaking of a ship afloat on the ocean and the cacophony of sounds comes together to paint a picture that embodies settling America as well as the hideousness of slavery that came along with it.

Lyrically, there are a couple of sections that I want to focus on in regards to seventeenth and eighteenth century texts. After commenting on Columbus and Cortez, Propaganda launches into lines that bring to mind Olaudah Equiano and John Marrant and their relationship to Christianity. Prop raps,

They looked my onyx and bronze skinned forefathers in they face
Their polytheistic, God-hating face
Their shackled, diseased, imprisoned, face
And taught a Gospel that said that God had multiple images in mind when He created us in it
Therefore destined salvation contains a contentment
In the stage for which they were given
Which is to be owned by your forefather’s superior, image bearing face
Says your precious Puritans

Listening to these lines, I cannot help but think about Equiano seeing his master and Richard on the deck of ship reading. It is not clear whether or not the two men are reading the Bible, but as scholars note, when the talking book appears, the book is typically the Bible. With Equiano, I think about the Middle Passage then his trips at sea, encountering “Christian” theology while he is still enslaved amongst professing Christians. Later, as I have written about before, Equiano takes the Bible and uses it, in the same way that “Christians” used it with him, to suppress a group of Native Americans in Nicaragua.

Pulling the thread of the “talking book” a little further, I begin to contemplate John Marrant, a free African American who experienced conversion at the hands of George Whitefield. In Marrant’s narrative, the “talking book” becomes a means of power in his hands when he uses the Bible to convert the Cherokee princess and king who hold him captive. So, the Cherokee becomes the “polytheistic, God-hating” individuals. Marrant’s use of the trope does not come across as condescending or derogatory towards the Cherokee; rather, he presents the incident as something that naturally occurs, unforced. In this way, Marrant becomes akin to William Apess and Samson Occom as they try to navigate their Christian and Native American identities.

Another aspect that arises in “Precious Puritans” is the false sense of the American Dream that arose out of the Protestant Work Ethic. We must remember that one way Puritans determined if someone was elect (i.e. saved) was through hard work and the increase of material wealth. Prop intones,

Your precious puritans were not perfect
You romanticize them as if they were inerrant
As if the skeletons in they closet was pardoned due to they hard work and tobacco growth

The idea of the Protestant Work Ethic is something that needs to be challenged because hard work does not, if the system is not set up for you, always work to bring about happiness as defined by the American Dream. Even though Equiano becomes a Christian, his master still owned him until Equiano bought his freedom. The same occurred with Phillis Wheatley and numerous others. How can Wheatley, Equiano, and Venus (Jonathan Edwards’ slave) expect to adhere to the Protestant Work Ethic as enslaved individuals? How does that work with Christianity? Numerous people had this conversation during the period, including Samuel Sewall.

Sewall wrote the what is considered the first anti-slavery track by a Puritan, The Selling of Joseph, a Memorial (1700). In it, Sewall attacks the institution of slavery on religious grounds, even commenting on the ways that slavery tears families apart. The focus of his memorial, though, comes in the form of his responses to three objections to the end of slavery: Biblical passages that Africans are cursed to a life of servitude, the evangelical aspects that by being brought to America enslaved individuals come into contact with the gospel, the Africans being captives of war, and Abraham having slaves. For our purposes, the most important answer Sewall provides is also the shortest. Replying to the objection that slavery provides a means of ministry to pagans, Sewall simply writes, “Evil must not be done, that good may come of it. The extraordinary and comprehensive benefit accruing to the Church of God, and to Joseph personally, did not rectify his brethrens Sale of him” (528). Essentially, Sewall states that committing a sin to convert someone is not doctrinal.

There is more that could be said here, of course. However, these are things I thought about when listening to “Precious Puritans.” What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Sewall, Samuel. The Selling of Joseph, a Memorial. The Heath Anthology of American Literature Vol. A. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Wadsworth, 2009. 525-530

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