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Perhaps Puritans weren't all that bad

Perhaps Puritans weren't all that bad
Many accepted notions about them - as sexually repressed, witch-hunting bigots - are untrue.

by Eric Hazell

The holidays are a time for censuring Scrooges as well as celebrating Santas, and one group certain to get its share of criticism is Puritans. They just seem so different from us.

Commentators often note that the group, which dominated the religious and political life of New England into the 18th century, "banned" or "despised" Christmas. It seems fitting that these sexually repressed, sanctimonious, witch-hunting bigots would frown on holiday cheer and inflict their priggishness on everyone else. Most people believe H.L. Mencken's wonderful quip that Puritanism was "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy."

Actually, most accepted notions about Puritans are untrue. For example, the Massachusetts law prohibiting Christmas grew from the Church of England's penchant for observing dozens of annual religious holidays. Puritans wanted many fewer church/state-sanctioned ceremonies, and eventually rejected all legally enforced regular religious observances except the Sabbath.

There are other myths:

Puritans repressed sexuality. America is squeamish about sex, but not because of Puritans, who discussed sex frankly, and usually to praise its virtues. Although the law prescribed harsh penalties for fornication, adultery and sodomy, magistrates knew conduct rarely matched the ideal, and they punished lightly (by 17th-century standards, and except for sodomy). In fact, in today's sex-education debates, one almost yearns for some good old Puritan common sense - an unambiguous advocacy of standards, mixed with a pragmatic acknowledgment of behavior.

Colonial Massachusetts was a theocracy. Ministers had less direct political authority than in any other government in the Western world. While only male church members could vote and hold office, such provisions were restrictive by today's standards, not those of the time. Even if theocracy means the influence of religion in public life, early Massachusetts may not qualify. A slew of historians have shown that official Puritanism held little sway over significant portions of the populace.

Witchcraft trials typify Puritan zealotry. Perhaps no image of colonial New England grips our collective imagination tighter than that of square-buckled, black-brimmed, sour-faced killjoys pounding their fists into their hands and demanding random killings of suspected witches. But the Salem episode was an aberration and, even in its extremity, mild for its time. In Massachusetts from 1630 to 1691, about a dozen executions for witchcraft occurred, compared with hundreds in England and thousands in Scotland, Germany and Scandinavia. At Salem in 1692, 20 were executed. Clearly, the authorities erred by allowing convictions based on "spectral" evidence, or accusations from alleged victims the devil supposedly possessed.

The disaster should have been avoided, but what happened afterward - and what didn't - is important. For one, the mania remained local and ended quickly (a little over six months), unlike, say, the Red Scare of the 1950s. At ministers' urging, the governor ruled against using spectral evidence, and while executions for witchcraft continued in Europe for another century, no one else in New England was ever even tried. And government officials annulled convictions, reversed attainders, and granted indemnities to the victims' heirs.

Puritans were intolerant. OK, this one is true, but again, abrasive to modern sensibilities yet typical then. Even Pennsylvania, founded 50 years after Massachusetts in part as a haven from religious persecution, limited freedom of conscience - one had to believe in God. After the crown's Act of Toleration (1689), New England churches accepted religious pluralism, an idea whose time had come.

Aspects of Puritanism do deserve criticism. For example, in reading hundreds of public pronouncements while researching my dissertation, I unearthed exactly one joke. So we can disparage them for taking themselves too seriously. In other words, you had better believe that if they were around today, newspapers would be inundated with protests about the willfully inaccurate caricatures of Puritans everywhere.

Which means they weren't much different from us at all.

Eric Hazell teaches English and history at the University of Maryland. She can be reached at EricHaze@aol.com.


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