The Puritans Weren't So Puritanical, Scholars Say

Dec 04, 2002 05:03 PM EST

For more than 150 years, the Puritans have received a shameful reputation.

The colonizers of New England, credited with the first Thanksgiving, are most often portrayed as drab, glum and pleasure-hating.

But that image is a false one, scholars say.

Some see Puritans planting the seeds of such core American values as industriousness, idealism and faith more than a century before the Declaration of Independence. Nearly all agree that their caricature doesn't do the Puritans justice.

"There's now a complete consensus that the popular image of the Puritans is almost totally inaccurate," said Mary Beth Norton, a professor of American history at Cornell University and author of "In the Devil's Snare," a new book about the Salem witch trials.

"The Puritans were typical people of their time in that they enjoyed the pleasures of the 17th century. They liked to drink. They liked to sit and talk. They liked to eat well when they had the food to eat. They enjoyed sex. They also liked to play games, like an early version of shuffleboard. Let's put it this way, they weren't ascetics, like monks."

Dissatisfied with the Church of England, Puritans aimed to purify it. Some left for America, including a small group later known as the Pilgrims, who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. Other Puritans followed, settling throughout New England.

Pilgrims and Puritans alike promoted sex as a gift and duty from God, but only within the confines of marriage. To contemporary ears, that may not sound progressive.

"But it's an important and radical departure from traditional Catholic teaching, which then saw sex, even within marriage, as morally tainted, as almost a necessary evil," said Richard Godbeer, author of the new book "Sexual Revolution in Early America."

If a Puritan man did not frequently or adequately perform his husbandly duties, consequences could be severe. Godbeer, a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, writes of James Matlock, a cooper accused before the church of denying "conjugal fellowship" to his wife for two years. Matlock was excommunicated.

"Most of my students," Godbeer said, "are quite surprised by what I have to say about Puritan sex and Puritan life in general because they bring preconceptions they've absorbed from `The Scarlet Letter' and other works of that sort."

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 classic of American literature, made into a 1995 film starring Demi Moore, is set in Puritan New England, where a main character must wear a scarlet "A" for "adultress." It was fiction, but the public accepted its portrayals as fact.

Prior to that, the Puritans were mostly romanticized as an American ideal. According to research by Brooks Holifield, professor of American church history at Emory University in Atlanta, the late 1800s saw increasing but sporadically negative portrayals of the Puritans, followed by full-blown disdain during the cultural upheaval of "the roaring '20s."

It was journalist H.L. Mencken who in 1928 famously defined "puritanism" as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

Said Norton, "That gave Puritans a bad name from which they never recovered."

Despite academics' efforts to set the record straight, Puritans continue to be cast wearing drab clothing, when in fact they often wore colorful outfits for their era. They're portrayed as teetotalers, when records show they consumed large quantities of beer, rum, ale and alcoholic cider. They're blamed for burning witches in Salem, even though convicted witches were usually hanged, not burned, and with less frequency and more due process of law than in Europe.

Norton, author of the book on the witch trials, contends that Puritanism wasn't the cause of what happened in Salem. A better explanation is a 17th century mind-set of intolerance and superstition prevalent worldwide, combined with a volatile mix of Massachusetts circumstances.

"There wasn't anything particularly Puritan about the witchcraft trials," she said.

But there is something Puritan about America as we've always known it, argues Charles Haynes, senior scholar of the First Amendment Center, a research group in Arlington, Va. He cites politics, and the influence of John Winthrop, as just one example.

Winthrop, Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company, gave a 1630 sermon called "A Model of Christian Charity." Winthrop used a phrase from the New Testament's Matthew 5:14, referring to America as a "city on a hill" that would inspire and lead the world.

It has become customary for American presidential candidates to give at least one "city on a hill" speech, Haynes said, noting that Ronald Reagan repeatedly used the phrase as his overarching vision for the country. Similarly, Bill Clinton used the Puritan language of "new covenant" to describe his political agenda.

"We are all Puritans today in how we see the world and how we see America's place in the world," Haynes said.

Credit is given to the Puritans, and more specifically the Pilgrims, for establishing the first Thanksgiving, in 1621, in gratitude for having survived a harsh winter that claimed many lives. But even here, scholars challenge the popular picture.

They point out that the Puritans proclaimed days of thanks throughout the year when good things happened and declared days of fasting and atonement when bad things happened. There is little doubt that a feast was shared with Wampanoag Indians in 1621, but some argue it was more a traditional English celebration of the harvest.

Virtually all scholars agree there was no original intent for an annual holiday. That didn't occur until 1863, when Lincoln officially set aside the last Thursday of November as a national Day of Thanksgiving.

Whatever really happened in 1621, Norton gives the Puritans some credit for our modern day of turkey, pumpkin pie and pro football.

"The purpose was to thank God for something good that happened," she said. "So in a sense, we do owe our Thanksgiving to them."

By Mark O'Keefe