Poor Wayfaring Strangers

Wayward Pilgrims: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance
Kai T. Erikson

PilgrimsThe white spiritual that the above title is drawn from has Appalachian roots. But it strikes me that wayfaring strangers, just like Bunyan‘s pilgrims, are travelers and Professor Eriksons Puritans  traveled some distance to set their city on a hill.

It’s what they did once they got there that’s of interest to the good doctor.

This study, originally published in 1968, is a first-rate example of what I call old-school sociology. What I mean by that is it pre-dates the widespread use of advanced statistical analysis. So while there is data aplenty that data includes the historical narrative as well as facts and figures. The latter are most always presented as simple tables or charts and the most advanced measure appearing between the covers is a frequency distribution. It’s straight out of Durkheim who famously said, in Suicide, that sociology wasn’t about stories, but rates.

Kai T. Erikson Sociologist b. 1931

Kai T. Erikson
b. 1931

Maybe that’s why I haven’t heard Erikson’s name since my own undergraduate days. But he’s academic royalty being the son of Erik Erikson, one of the 20th century’s most renowned social scientists. This volume was spoken about in reverent terms back in the 1980s although I was assigned Everything in Its Path, a study of the devastating effects of the Buffalo Creek flood in West Virginia.

Now, about those Puritans. You can’t grow up in these United States without learning about our Puritan heritage. Nor can you miss our great contribution to national holidays, Thanksgiving. So we think we have the whole thing down pat: tall hats, buckle shoes, ruffled collars, Squanto, Samoset and a few witches. It’s the witches, along with the Quakers and Anne Hutchinson, who are the focus of this work.

Erikson sub-titled this work “a study in the sociology of deviance” and one almost wonders  what deviance could possibly mean to a Puritan.  But he quotes Durkheim who noted that a society composed entirely of saints would still have deviants, they would just be engaged in completely venial matters.

A statement like the last one is about the time the average man on the street tunes out. A lot of social science looks at deviance and often deviants merely mirror the society in which they live. There is also an argument–one that Erikson reprises here–that society requires deviance. That one might send you sputtering but it’s almost commonsensical–the normative needs to be defined by contrasting itself to something.

Anne Hutchinson at her trial.The river and parkway came later.

Anne Hutchinson at her trial.
The river and parkway came later.

It is Erikson’s hypothesis that whatever else was going on, Puritan society required a certain amount of deviance and, at roughly generational intervals, found it throughout the 17th century. He ventures so far as to hypothesize that not only was this a requirement but that accommodation had been made for just the proper amount, allowing authorities to dial up and back as needed.

He lays all this out at the outset and devotes fully a third of his text to recounting three episodes in the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The first of these is the Antinomian Controversy of 1636, the to-do that made a hero of Mrs. Hutchinson. In contemporary terms Anne Hutchinson’s ‘crime’ was being a free thinker in a theocracy. But that’s unsatisfying in the same way that labeling ISIS and their belief system is. It’s unreasonable to apply contemporary understanding because Puritan Massachusetts wasn’t a theocracy, it was a way of life in which government, social structure and religious practice were aligned.

So you can imagine the uproar when Anne Hutchinson started hosting free-wheeling discussions that incorporated divine revelation. Or as she put it a “covenant of grace.” This she juxtaposed with the what she called the “covenant of works” the clergy were pushing. Ongoing revelation is an age-old issue in Christian thought (see Pagels and others) and seems always to lead to no good end. In this case it lead to excommunication and banishment. Erikson makes clear that Hutchinson’s beliefs had been at the center of Puritan theology  as recently as a generation earlier. So the issue is clearly about proper roles.

Mary Dyer on her way to the gallowsfor the crime of being a Quaker

Mary Dyer on her way to the gallows
for the crime of being a Quaker

A generation later the threat to the Puritan weal came not from a disputatious member but from a breed of heretic that drove Puritans to new heights of frenzy. In a word, the problem of the moment was the Quakers. Of course ongoing revelation was part of it. But so was the general tendency of Quakers to deliberately not fit in. Saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’ Wearing those plain gray clothes and flat hats. Not swearing oaths. And, for some improbable and here unexplained reason, indulging a tendency to, as my British friends say, doff one’s kit.

And so the power of the state came down again. Outlawing Quakers. Banishing them. Branding them. And sentencing them to death if they persisted. The Puritan establishment made quite a show of force in rounding up the offending Friends and sending quite a few to the gallows. Erikson shows how the ‘threat’ was directed at a social order under siege, divorced now from its co-religionists in England who had become more tolerant in the wake of the English Civil War. In fact, it is only on direct orders of the King that the persecution stops.

The Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.

The Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.

Finally there are the witch trials. Erikson’s primary source for this tale is Marion Starkey‘s The Devil in Massachusetts which I can recommend as the definitve take on the subject. There is a modern analog of what happened in Salem in 1691 and 1692: going viral. It’s just that the stakes were higher and people were executed in error. By this point it’s more of the same although this time calmer heads prevail and the furor is stopped, rather than abetted ,by power.

And what of that initial hypothesis? Erikson ends by going through court records for Essex County Massachusetts covering a considerable chunk of the 17th century. And what he shows is that at any given time, the proportion of deviance, defined as the incarcerated proportion of the population, is fairly stable. In fact, only the Quaker episode really spikes things and if you parse out the visiting offenders the trend reverts to the norm.

So, does society need deviants? Maybe even so much that it manufactures them? It’s a good bet that there’s some truth to that statement even if a Jack Henry Abbot provides an offsetting truth.

There are countless versions of Wayfaring Stranger and, it being a folk tune, countless variations on the verses. But the first version I ever heard was Emmylou Harris from her 1980 album Roses in the Snow. There are 3 possible guitar players on this track, but I’m pretty sure the dark, spooky guitar solo is all Tony Rice.


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