During the Thanksgiving holiday, we inevitably think of America’s first Pilgrims — “Separatists” as those who practiced their strain of Protestantism came to be known.
Though technically the term Puritan refers to Protestants who stayed in England to purify the church there, theologically it describes those early settlers of America, and so we’ve come today to generally think of them as Puritans. In any event, thoughts of the first celebratory feast with the Indians aside, those early settlers who came to the New World seeking “purity” in worship are in modern times regularly characterized as stern, colorless, humorless and certainly sexless people. In short, “puritanical.”
But is this right? “Worldly Saints” by Leland Ryken and “A Quest for Godliness” by J.I. Packer are just two scholarly books in recent years that shed light on who the Puritans really were, and their work is drawn from extensively here.
Did those early Protestants hate sex? Hardly. When a New England Puritan wife complained, first to her pastor then to her whole congregation that her husband was neglecting their sex life, the church excommunicated him!
A leading Puritan preacher, William Gouge, said that married couples should engage in sex “with good will and delight, willingly, readily and cheerfully.” An anonymous Puritan expressed the common view that in marriage a couple “may joyfully give due benevolence (a Puritan term for sex) one to the other.”
Throughout the writings of the Puritans, marriage and the sex act within it are affirmed as gifts from God. This was a progressive view, for it contradicted the prevalent medieval teaching that religious celibacy was more virtuous than marriage and family life. This affirmation of marriage in turn raised the status of women.
Was Puritanism “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, was happy,” as H.L. Mencken put it?
No. One Puritan pastor, for instance, instructed his followers to enjoy recreations — including sports like hunting, bowling, swimming and archery — “as liberties, with thankfulness to God that allows these liberties to refresh ourselves.” Yes, the Puritans lived in a different and far more difficult time and in many ways were less frivolous than people today. But it was the generally held view that “the Christian Gospel was good, merry glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad, and maketh him sing, and dance and leap for joy,” as one Puritan noted.
The Puritans enjoyed and approved of alcohol in moderation. Though apparently there were enough cases of enjoying it in more than moderation that a Harvard student of the period could be fined “five shillings for drunkenness.” And the Puritans did quite a business in rum.
So what about that dour black dress we’re all familiar with? Actually, the Puritans dressed according to the fashions of their day. Black was formal wear for Sundays, but weekday wear was colorful and bright. Commentators from the period regularly describe Puritan preachers and community leaders as dressed in colorful, costly, even elaborate clothes.
Nor did the Puritans eschew “the world.” One Puritan expressed the common sentiment that “this world and the things thereof are all good, and were all made of God, for the benefit of his creatures.”
It’s true the Puritans certainly believed in working hard -- and being rewarded for it. They were shrewd businessmen, though wary of the pitfalls of avarice.
Well, so what? Who cares if the Puritans have gotten a lot of bad press in the last 150 years?
Americans should care because of the important heritage the Puritans really gave us. First, they viewed and celebrated man as an individual, God-created being. Sinful, yes, but with inherent worth. This presented a direct challenge to much of medieval teaching and was crucial to the success of American democracy.
And no one can deny the Puritan contribution on that score. The Mayflower Compact, formed aboard the famous ship to establish civil government for the good of that early colony, was a pivotal document in the development of limited, constitutional government in America.
The Puritans gave us a legacy of regular elections, the secret ballot, the federalist principle and even the beginnings of the separation of church and state — of course, it was to protect a religious people from government encroachment. (Ministers in Puritan New England were prohibited from holding office.) Most important, the Puritans loved God, and incorporated worship of him into the very fabric of their daily lives. This allowed the Puritans to brave the New World and remain faithful during the most difficult hardships.
I wonder: If Americans today were subjected to the kinds of trials the early Puritans triumphed over, could we survive? Of course, the Puritans were sinners, just like us, and sometimes terribly so, just like people in our day. Nonetheless the Puritans’ intellectual power came from mastery of the Bible and their moral power came from living the Bible. Perhaps this has something to do with why they have been so thoroughly denigrated in modern times.
Betsy Hart is the author of “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting our Kids — And What to do About It” (Putnam Books). Reach her through email@example.com. For more stories, visit shns.com.