Puritans drank beer, loved sex and didn’t burn witches
Looking to start a Thanksgiving dinner conversation that upends conventional historical wisdom about the beliefs and practices of the folks who started it all back in the 17th century?
Make the point that the Pilgrims and Puritans get a bum rap.
If that doesn’t work, point out that Puritans punished people for not having sex.
This should get Grandpa’s attention. And everyone else’s.
The colonizers of New England have been portrayed for more than 100 years as drab, glum and pleasure-hating. But scholars of that period of American history say the facts tell a different story, not only about the Pilgrims but the Puritans, a similar and larger religious group that settled a few years later in Massachusetts.
Should we mourn Thanksgiving?
Not only has the adjective “puritanical” become pejorative, but the traditional Thanksgiving story is increasingly questioned and criticized. “The Horrible History of Thanksgiving,” published in November 2019 in The New York Times, makes the case that there is nothing here to celebrate.
If this trend continues, future Thanksgivings could turn into a National Day of Mourning. As incredible as that may seem, the movement is already underway.
What’s at stake with our history
What’s at stake is our nation’s origin story.
Puritans and Pilgrims are central characters in that story. How we perceive them affects how we see our country and our national character today.
What do leading academics say about the Pilgrims and Puritans? I interviewed several experts and their answers may surprise you.
Once held in high esteem
Dissatisfied with the Church of England, Pilgrims famous arrived in Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620. Puritans settled 10 years later in Boston and throughout New England.
Over time, Pilgrims and Puritans melded in the American consciousness, understandably so. These New England Protestants had the same set of core beliefs, based on the theology of French reformer John Calvin. They both agreed The Church of England had gone wayward. Puritans wanted to purify it. Pilgrims decided to leave it.
For the early part of American history, both groups were held in high esteem. They were widely credited with planting the seeds of core American values like faith, idealism, industriousness and the love of adventure.
“The Scarlett Letter”
The work of fiction is set in Puritan New England, where the main character must wear a scarlet “A” for “adulteress.” It was fiction, but the public accepted its portrayals as fact.
Disappointment with Puritans grew into 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.”
Scholars debunk the image of the prudish Puritan
But many scholars of 17th century New England say that the stern and sober caricature portrayed in fiction like “The Scarlet Letter” doesn’t do the real Puritans, or the Pilgrims, 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 book about the Salem witch trials.
“The Puritans were typical people of their time in that they enjoyed the pleasures of the 17th century,” said Norton. “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,” she explained in an interview. “Let’s put it this way, they weren’t ascetics, like monks.”
Lovers of God, enjoying good sex
Puritans promoted pure and passionate sex as a gift and duty from God, within the confines of marriage. To contemporary ears, that may not sound so sexy.
“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 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 Miami, writes of James Matlock, a cooper accused before the church of denying “conjugal fellowship” to his wife for two years.
Matlock got excommunicated, thrown out of the church. In other words, the Puritan community shunned and shamed him for not having enough sex.
Francis Bremer , a professor emeritus of history at Pennsylvania’s Millersville University, cites this letter penned by Puritan Colonial Gov. John Winthrop in 1618 to his wife, Margaret Tyndall, as an example of Puritan passion.
In the letter, Winthrop — one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony — speaks of “being filled with the joy of thy love, and wanting opportunity of more familiar connection with thee, which my heart fervently desires.”
Surprised by the historical facts
“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 their false assumptions.
- Puritans get portrayed as fashion-unfriendly, wearing drab clothing, when in fact they often wore colorful outfits for their era.
- Puritans are presented as no-nonsense teetotalers when records show they consumed large quantities of beer, rum, ale and alcoholic cider.
- Puritans are blamed for burning witches in Salem, even though convicted witches were usually hanged, not burned. Granted, if you’re dead, you’re dead. Nonetheless, witches got the death penalty in Puritan New England with less frequency and more due process of law than they did in Europe.
Shocker: Norton contends that Puritanism wasn’t the cause of what famously happened in Salem. A better explanation is a 17th-century mindset of intolerance and superstition prevalent worldwide, combined with a volatile mix of Massachusetts circumstances.
“There wasn’t anything particularly Puritan about the witchcraft trials,” Norton said in an interview.
The national holiday we call Thanksgiving
The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of gratitude to God for having survived a harsh winter that claimed many lives. But even here, scholars challenge the popular picture of Thanksgiving as something done only once a year, at harvest time.
Scholars point out that the Pilgrims and Puritans proclaimed days of thanks throughout the year when good things happened.
No one could have anticipated back then that Thanksgiving would turn into an annual national holiday. That occurred in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln officially set aside the last Thursday of November as a Day of Thanksgiving.
Where does this leave us now?
Ready to correct the misconceptions.
Challenge: Between servings of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving, set the record straight for the people gathered around your table.
And if anyone calls you “puritanical” you now have an appropriate response.
About the author: I’m a former newspaper reporter who specialized in the coverage of religion. This is an updated version of an article I wrote in 2002 for Newhouse News Service. It ran in newspapers across the country. I updated the article in 2018 and 2019.
What I’m doing now: I’m a full-time VP at a nonprofit organization, a part-time career coach and a lifetime Irish storyteller. If you want to be happier, healthier and wealthier in your 50s you might want to subscribe to my monthly newsletter. As a token of appreciation, you’ll get my free guide showing you how to leverage LinkedIn in your 50s.