We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date. They were not teetotalers; bishops, not beer, were their special aversion.
C.S. Lewis, the greatest theological writer of the 20th century
Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature
”Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
H.L. Mencken, early 20th-century American satirist
If our cartoon seems odd and “not quite Puritan” you would do well to consider that Luke the Evangelist, author of one of the four canonical gospels and first historian of the Church, recorded that the Bereans searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so (Acts 17:11); we might do well to apply this same care to everything we’ve been taught . . . and especially to what we’ve been taught from the pulpit and in Sunday school!
Our misperception of “the Puritans” largely begins with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). This work, set in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony of the mid-17th century, was one of the first mass-produced novels in the United States and it remains a standard in the high school and college classroom. Many of you have either read the text or have watched one or more of its many movie adaptations. Unfortunately, “truth” was the first casualty of The Scarlet Letter; it is a novel about a fictitious people living in a largely fictitious culture.
And yet true Puritanism is as “American” as you get. Although this brief introduction isn’t meant to be a lesson in American history, consider that the Puritans laid the foundation for American democracy as well as for our system of popular education, and that they established our national character (privacy, mutual respect, wealth through hard work, submission to Almighty God).
And so let us begin by dispelling much of what we’ve been taught about the comic caricatures who have come to represent “Thanksgiving” and who supposedly took to swimming in the icy North Atlantic whenever they inadvertently gazed upon a member of the opposite sex.
Although there was never a Puritan “denomination,” we know that the Puritans followed a Calvinist doctrine of salvation but held to an independent (Baptist) congregationalist polity rather than to a hierarchical (Presbyterian) form of “group-church” governance.
How does this relate to our contemporary denominations? Leaving aside the academic arguments and at the sure and great risk of offending the many who would howl in the details, the layman’s answer is that many of our Puritan forefathers might today be seen as “Particular” or “Reformed” Baptists, with close ties to both the Presbyterians and the Moravian Brethren. Foremost, their focus was on being “Christian”; denominational separation and identities—much borne of the mechanics of baptism and of church governance—were of secondary importance.¹
Despite what we might have been (badly) taught, the Puritans of the New England colonies were anything but drab and dour folk!
Indeed, the Puritans of the 16th- and 17th-centuries were religious conservatives who sought to “purify” (hence the term “Puritan”) the Church of England from its Catholic traditions and man-made contrivance by strictly adhering to what was factually commanded in Scripture, but they were hardly “puritanical” by today’s definition.
The Puritans considered unbridled, passionate sex with one’s spouse to be a gift and a duty(!) from God. In marked contrast to Catholic teaching—which considered sex to reside somewhere between “soiled” (when used for procreation) and “outright sinful” (when enjoyed solely for pleasure, hence the continuing Catholic prohibition against birth control)—Puritans were greatly encouraged to engage in regular physical intimacy apart from its secondary purpose of “making babies.”
And, remarkable for the time is that, in a Puritan Assembly, a woman could not simply be cast off should her husband’s affections turn elsewhere, nor was she subject to her husband’s whim in the marriage bed. Women and men were equally expected to fulfill their marital responsibilities; in the Massachusetts colony, one out of every six divorce petitions was filed on the basis of male impotence or unwillingness.
(In 1640, the Boston Assembly excommunicated James Mattock and banished him from the community because he “denyed conjegal fellowship unto his wife.” In other words, Mrs. Mattock was granted a divorce and her husband was excommunicated from their religious community because he would not attend to the sexual needs of “the Mrs.”!)
It may likewise surprise some that the Puritans had no universal prohibition against smoking, dancing, beer, ale, wine, rum, or alcoholic cider, although the Brothers and Sisters were cautioned against excess.
Although individual Puritan assemblies were self-ruled and some were more restrictive than others (as remain our Baptist assemblies), it is well-documented that many New England Puritans retired to the communal “noon-house” between services so that both men and women might engage in snuff and a quiet pipe and to warm themselves with “flip”—a mixture of home-brewed beer, sugar, and a dash of rum given its loggerhead by an iron from the fireplace thrust into the pewter mug to both caramelize the sugar and heat the beverage. This ritual, we might assume, made the cold, winter afternoon service a bit more palatable than the morning service.
The assertion that the Puritans survived on non-alcoholic beverages is absolute nonsense, especially when “water” was the carrier of diseases such as dysentery and typhoid and which—along the coastal basin—could result in salt poisoning if brackish water was drawn from the estuaries or fossil aquifers. Because of its antimicrobial powers, our early settlers—adults and children alike—drank beer as if it were water and were not strangers to a host of other “safe” beverages. Quite simply: beer, wine, and spirits were safe for drinking because they were alcoholic beverages.
Although it was understood that men and women had distinct duties and different authorities, the Puritans believed that men and women were equals in the eyes of God. Consequently—and unlike in many social circles and religious communities of the time—the Puritan wife wielded great influence in the bedroom, in the home (often working as the primary breadwinner), and even within the community. Few men in positions of authority, including the town’s minister, could survive in the face of disapproval from the Assembly’s womenfolk.
There were no arranged marriages and, on average, the Puritan woman didn’t marry until 23 years of age.
In addition, the typical Puritan woman was not only literate but well-educated, well-read, and well-spoken.
Anne Hutchinson is remembered for her popular home-gatherings to discuss both Scripture and sermons and was a leading figure in the “Free Grace Controversy” that swept through New England in 1636-1638.
The first author in the New England colonies to be published and the first poet to be published in the New World was Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan wife who is today recognized as America’s first feminist and whose works “debunk the myth of the stodgy, prudish Puritan so long a part of the American psyche.”
Today, in this same tradition, women are invited to serve as full members of the First Puritan Assembly and to hold great authority in matters of church practice and governance, able to actively serve in church administration and able to be elected by fellow women to sit in the position of judge and Elder.²
Although women are asked to wear the chapel veil during the worship service at First Puritan, its wearing is NOT an outgrowth of patriarchy or sign of submission to the church, Calvinism (most of our traditional Protestant, as well as Catholic, churches still ask for the veil), the minister, or “men” in general—as is evident from the equality and great authority given to women in our Assemblies; rather, veiling is done in adherence to 1 Corinthians 11. The matter has been discussed at length from the pulpit;³ because the wearing of the veil has fallen “out of favor” in our contemporary society (much like just about everything else commanded in Scripture) and visitors may not even own such a head-covering (“hair” or “hat” being a mistranslation of the Greek “veil”), chapel veils—freshly laundered before each service—are provided to those who wish to worship with us.
Nor did the Puritans live as a community of closed-minded religious zealots.
In 1636 the Puritans established the first institution of higher learning in the Colonies, Harvard University.
Contrary to urban legend and unlike what was accepted in Catholic as well as in many Protestant circles, the Puritans had a great unease about “witch-burning.” Not one of the accused at the Salem Witch Trials (1692-93) was burned at the stake.
Then, in 1701, the Puritans went on to establish Yale University.
(As a historical footnote: on 5 July 1779 the university president, Ezra Stiles—professor of ecclesiastical history, philosophy, and astronomy and former classmate of Benjamin Franklin—stood in the steeple of the college chapel with his telescope and gave first warning of the landing of the British fleet, noticed the previous evening by the town’s sentries; the student militia then rose to defend the town at the Battle of New Haven.)
As for our mental picture of our Christian brethren at “Thanksgiving,” it should be noted that the Puritans neither sported those ridiculous buckles on their hats and shoes nor dressed in funeral-black. Puritan estate inventories record that Puritan wardrobes included colors of red, orange, green, blue, and yellow, and that William Bradford, governor of the first Puritan colony in the New World, himself owned a red suit with a colored cap and violet cape.
And let us please move quickly beyond the out-of-context misinformation about how Puritans hate Christmas as well as all other occasions of merry-making! We exchange valentines and we’re fond of the charcoal grill and fireworks on the 4th of July. And, according to the most recent in-house poll, a great many of our Puritan-Calvinist-Reformed pastors keep, during its proper season and in its proper manner, a Christmas tree in the living room and a dining-room table topped with turkey and ham, mashed potatoes, cornbread dressing, cranberries, pecan pie, and an endless variety of cookies. And eggnog. Eggnog laced with an ample dose of either rum or brandy.
Why such a long discourse on “the Puritans”?
Ever since the Old Testament, believers have been led astray by false teachers and by ecclesiastical authorities who have taken away, or added to, the Word of God so that governments and church authorities might gain and consolidate power over the masses.
If our society and the pulpits of our fellow Christian denominations have so badly maligned and misrepresented these relatively unimportant Calvinist-Puritans, should we not worry that so many of our Christian Brothers and Sisters may have been misled—by this same society and by these same pulpits—in the far more serious business of our relationship to Almighty God?
Might it not be wise to search the Scriptures to see—for ourselves—whether those things were so?
¹ Although we generally associate the practice with the Catholic Church, many Protestant denominations and pulpits likewise advise against considering the thoughts of “those other people” lest we be swayed by the Devil in their midst, and yet the words with which we most disagree often provide the greatest food for thought.
Setting aside any disagreement (or at least setting aside those words, written in 1990, I believe may be misperceived when read through a lens of “2020” wokeness, entitlement, and a social justice that is not of God), our thoughts may be profitably provoked by reading Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go. In this work, author Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, suggests that “religion” and “denomination” allow us to maintain our image of God and God’s Will as we want God to be while true Christianity insists that we allow God to be “as He is”—noting that it was the priests and theologians (whose behavior would need to change) who denied Christ and sent Him to the cross while the poor accepted Christ for who He was (and is). As Fr. Rohr observes: “religion is the safest place to avoid God.” I like that, very much.
We see this very plainly even in the first sermon I delivered at Rye Chapel, “Made Whole from the Ashes of a Great Divorce,” wherein we see how man (in his self and in his government and in his church denominations) has taken what God commands concerning adultery and divorce and remarriage and how he has refashioned the Law of God into statutes and societal norms that we, sinners, prefer.
² Patriarchy has been a problem of the church since its early days, “patriarchy” not being merely a “male-oriented fraternity” but a collective in which relationships are defined by “highers” and “lowers” and which too easily fosters the need and the ability to preserve the status quo. Not only has this led to keeping women from offering their full contribution to the church—and it is extremely valuable that women can see the world through a different lens than do men!—but it simultaneously creates an environment in which those at the top become “comfortable” with the discomforts of the poor and the needy, the homeless, the elderly, etc.
³ Thomas Solín, Volume: Church Order in the Regulative Principle; Series: Here Am I; Guardian of the Word of God; Sermon: “On the Peculiar Preaching of the Word of God.”