In the American imagination, the Puritans are known as those buckle-wearing religious refugees who colonized New England and loved nothing more than a six-hour church service followed by a good witch-burning.
But the real history of the Puritans paints a picture of a complex and often misunderstood people who exhibited both the highest moral values and the most common of human frailties. We spoke to two scholars of 17th-century American religious movements to hash out the facts from the fiction.
1. The Puritans and the Pilgrims Are One and the Same
The English settlers known as the Puritans and the Pilgrims have a lot in common, but only one of them arrived on the Mayflower and shared a Thanksgiving meal with the Wampanoag Indians. The other came later and waged war on the Native Americans.
From a religious standpoint, Puritans and Pilgrims are almost identical. Technically, they're both Puritans because they both wanted to "purify" or reform the Church of England, but they had different ways of going about it. The Puritans tried to reform the church from within, while the Pilgrims were known as "separatists" who believed they had to leave it.
"The Pilgrims sail to America because they want to be left alone to do their own thing; if England falls into the sea, so be it," says Sarah Crabtree, a history professor at San Francisco State University and author of "Holy Nation: The Transatlantic Quaker Ministry in an Age of Revolution." "The Puritans are intent on setting up this model utopian society and to inspire England to purity."
The Pilgrims got their name (much later) from a passage in William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation" describing the group's tearful departure from the Netherlands: "So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits."
The Pilgrims arrived first on the Mayflower and established the Plymouth colony in 1620. Poor and unprepared, they lost almost half of their 102 settlers to cold and famine before the Wampanoag came to their aid. The Puritans, mostly middle-class merchants, came a decade later on 17 ships and established the much larger and more prosperous Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Once in the New World, the theological distinctions between the Pilgrims and Puritans — separatists versus non-separatists — became meaningless, says Francis Bremer, professor emeritus of history at Millersville University of Pennsylvania and author of several books on the Puritans, including "Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction." For example, the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony followed the Pilgrim's new method of establishing a church far from England's soil, which was for a congregation of believers to agree to a covenant or contract among themselves.
"And that's what Massachusetts does," says Bremer. "They follow the example of the Pilgrims and there's really no distinction."
Crabtree believes that the Puritans and Pilgrims distinguished themselves in their treatment of the Native Americans they encountered.
"The Pilgrims have a working relationship with Wampanoag people when they come here, but the Puritans weren't interested in that," says Crabtree. "The Puritans show up in 1630 and by 1636 they're at war with Native Americans."
2. The Puritans Brought Freedom of Religion to America
It's almost American gospel that the first English forebears crossed the Atlantic seeking a land of liberty where they could practice their religion freely. But while the Puritans certainly claimed the right to freely live their purified version of Christianity in America, they didn't extend the same freedom to other sects.
Nathaniel Ward, a Puritan clergyman turned colonial leader, summed up the prevailing Puritan opinion on the "freedom" enjoyed by other Christian denominations in Massachusetts Bay Colony:
Even dissenters within the Puritan ranks were routinely tried for heresy and banished. The best-known cases were Roger Williams, who argued for better treatment of the Native Americans and sharper separation of church and state; and Anne Hutchinson, a popular female healer and preacher who threatened the male hierarchy.
The sect that really made the Puritans' blood boil were the Quakers. When other groups were banished from the colony, they stayed banished, says Bremer. Not the Quakers.
"In the Puritan blue laws, you could suffer death for giving a Quaker directions for getting to the next town; that's really how severe it was," says Crabtree. "Five Quakers were put to death on Boston Commons after they had their ears and tongues cut off."
3. Puritans Hated Sex, Even Within Marriage
In modern parlance, people who think sex is inherently sinful and dirty are said to have "puritanical" beliefs. But were the Puritans as sexually repressed as we think?
Not at all, says Bremer, at least when the nookie took place between husband and wife. Unlike other Christian sects, Puritans didn't limit sex to procreation, but saw it as an essential way to deepen the marriage relationship.
"Puritan clergy would preach on what they called the 'duty to desire,'" says Bremer, and excommunicated at least one man who withheld sex from his wife. "Intercourse between a husband and wife should be conducted 'willingly, often and cheerfully,' but presumably not obsessively."
John Winthrop, the Puritan leader and first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, even wrote steamy letters to his wife Margaret back in England:
Crabtree and other scholars also note that Puritans didn't take such a hard line against premarital sex. Take the colorful English practice called 'bundling', in which betrothed or courting couples spent the night together in the same bed, albeit bundled in separate sleeping sacks. The separation didn't always hold.
"An awful lot of children were conceived out of wedlock, but not that many were born out of wedlock," says Crabtree. "The true worry about bastardry in the colonial era is who is going to pay for the kids. There's not the total stricture on premarital sexual experimentation."
Adultery was definitely a serious offense in Puritan society, though, as was homosexuality.
"You do have adulterers who were made to stand at the stocks or who had to wear a badge like Hester Prynne," says Bremer, referring to the protagonist of "The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel in which a colonial woman is publicly shamed for her alleged sin.
4. The Puritans Were the Original Party Poopers
In 1925, the witty journalist H.L. Mencken offered his concise definition of Puritanism: "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
Bremer says that Puritans don't deserve their reputation as hopeless killjoys. They weren't any more repressed or judgmental than other Christian sects of their day, but when 19th-century Europeans and Americans started rebelling against the legitimately repressive mores of the Victorian Era, they tried to pin it on the Puritans.
"By the early 20th century, there was this general stereotype of Puritans as narrow-minded, prudish, bigoted, intolerable people with dreadful fashion sense," says Bremer.
Crabtree isn't even convinced that the Puritans were especially religious as a whole. In the 1660s, for example, the colony approved a new law called the Half-Way Covenant, "because the children of these initial founders weren't going to church and they had to figure out why."
The infamous jeremiads, six-hour "fire and brimstone" sermons delivered by Puritan preachers, were only necessary because the Puritan authorities feared that the faithful were losing their faith.
"Undoubtedly some Puritans are very devout, but for the majority of them, sometimes it's convenient to go to church, sometimes it's not," says Crabtree. "Sometimes you like the minister. Sometimes you don't. I think we overstate the devotion of Puritans."
5. Winthrop's 'City on a Hill' Was a Sign of American Exceptionalism
Before the Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay, their leader John Winthrop delivered a stirring sermon aboard the Arbella. Centuries later, his words would become shorthand for a vision of America as a beacon of democracy to the world.
Ronald Reagan, among other U.S. presidents and politicians, latched onto the idea of Winthrop's "city on a hill" as a vision of American exceptionalism — everything that made America the greatest nation on Earth. In his farewell address in 1989, Reagan explained it that he saw the shining city on the hill as "a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity."
But scholars like Bremer and Crabtree see a very different meaning in Winthrop's sermon. Before invoking the "city on a hill," a phrase borrowed from the Gospel of Matthew, Winthrop delivered a plea for unity and Christian generosity: "For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others' necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality."
"The document is really idealistic and beautiful," says Crabtree. "John Winthrop goes to great pains to say, 'If my brother is hungry, I'm hungry. If my brother is unclothed, I'm unclothed.' There's this real sense that we're all in it together. That's not usually what Americans take from it."
And to Winthrop, being a "city on a hill" wasn't a sign of greatness already achieved, but a precarious position that exposes you to the judgment of God and man.
6. Pilgrims Wore All Black With Big Buckles
The Halloween costume version of Puritan and Pilgrim dress is a black coat and pants for men, a broad white collar for the women, and a prominent belt buckle for everyone. While this might have been something that the wealthier Massachusetts Bay colonists wore to church, it doesn't nearly represent the color and diversity of everyday Puritan dress.
"Black fabric was very expensive at the time, a color reserved for the elite," says Bremer. "Clergymen or governors might wear that. In general terms, the Puritan inventories reveal that upper-class members of the community had a wardrobe not dissimilar to what you might see at court of Queen Elizabeth and King Kames: gentlemen's suits of yellow canary satin and red cardinal silk."
While the old-money Puritan elite were allowed to wear showy colors and fabrics, the working classes were required by law to dress plainly in woolen clothes dyed in earth tones like green, brown and brick red. They were also the most practical clothing for working the fields or tending the hearth fire.
Crabtree says that Puritans were also obsessed with rank and status, and made sure that the new-money strivers were kept in their place beneath the old guard.
"In the 1650s, you begin to see sumptuary laws, which try to regulate what you could wear in terms of ornamentation and jewelry," says Bremer. "If you try to look more or better than you are by overspending, then that's sinful."
7. The Puritans Were Fanatical Witch Hunters
The Puritans absolutely believed in the existence of witches and witchcraft, as did everyone else in the early modern world, says Bremer. In the 16th and 17th centuries, thousands of men and women in England and across Europe were accused and convicted of witchcraft or murdered by vigilante mobs without a trial.
But no witchcraft trial is remotely as famous as the tragedy that took place in Salem in the 1690s, when hundreds of men, women and children were accused of witchcraft and 19 were executed. By this account alone, it would seem the Puritans were hysterical witch hunters.
The truth is that Salem, although absolutely horrific, was an outlier. Bremer reports that from 1620 to 1692, there were only 61 known prosecutions of witches in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies and only 16 convictions.
"Witchcraft was a crime with a high standard of evidence," says Bremer. "You had to prove that there was indeed a compact with the devil, and you had to have two witnesses."
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Originally Published: Jul 22, 2020