The Puritans Are Back: Have They Gone Already?

Many things influence human behavior, and I don’t claim to understand them all. I have had the most experience with the influence of the early New England Puritans on how Americans act and react to the world around them.

Each year for more than four decades, I have taught a series of literature classes that begin with the Puritan experience of the early 1600s and culminate with literature of the 1960s. In the process, I have come to be d agree with many Europeans who periodically look at events in America and say, “Here come those Puritans again.

What has been unusual in these classes recently is that I no longer have to convince my students how much the early Puritans shaped our behaviors. Once my students are introduced to the issues that preoccupied the early Puritans, they quickly point out many contemporary trends in American thought that suggest the Puritans are still among us, perhaps stronger than ever.

Our Puritan ancestors who came to the New World in 1620 were in many ways products of their own times. They understood that the Jamestown Colony of 1607 had nearly failed due to the breakdown of social and political order. The early Puritan authoritarianism was in part an attempt to avoid the mistakes that nearly destroyed Jamestown. Accordingly, the punishments were swift, decisive and cruel, as if they had been inflicted by a military tribunal.

The Puritans were not without virtues. They were very creative in a practical sense. They had to find ingenious ways to invent essential tools from whatever was available in the wilderness they inhabited. The ability to improvise was essential to their very survival and remains one of the most positive legacies of the early Puritan settlers.

This creativity, however, was not reflected in their attitudes towards art and literature. They viewed art and literature as competitors to the Bible for the hearts and souls of Puritan parishioners. Puritan preachers had the privilege of writing poetry and then converting their poems into sermons that upheld biblical truths. Human creativity among commoners, unless for functional purposes, was more likely to be viewed as highly suspect, even satanic, and deserving of extreme punishments.

The attitude towards women in Puritan societies also stemmed primarily from the Bible. They believed that Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden caused the biblical fall and that all mankind atoned for their transgressions. Accordingly, a woman in Puritan societies only had stature if she was married to a wealthy and socially prominent man in her community.

Without these relationships, women had very little status. Even prosperous widowed women who had turned into smart businessmen and farmers were among those executed in the Salem witch trials in 1692. A strong, prosperous, independent woman was more likely to be seen as a threat rather than an asset to his Puritan community. .

In Puritan cultures, a woman’s body did not even belong to her. Accused witches could be subjected to anatomical examinations to determine if they were pregnant. If so, they were temporarily exempt from execution until their children were born. Then the courts would decide whether to continue with the execution or allow the convicted “witches” (mothers) to continue living, as long as their lives were free from sin.

However, as Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, wrote, Puritan male leaders were often incredibly hypocritical. As they watched from their pews or pulpits at the condemned “witches”, they kept the secrets of their own far greater transgressions hidden from public view.

The poor were viewed with equal contempt and hypocrisy. In the Puritan mind, wealth was a sign that someone was a member of the elect and was destined for salvation. Conversely, the Puritans viewed the poor, including beggars and the homeless, as members of the damned excluded from salvation. Thus, the poor were also among the first to be imprisoned and executed in witch hunts.

Another defining characteristic of the Puritans is that they had no qualms about blending church and state into a rigidly theocratic form of government. These theocracies could in no way be challenged or questioned. Their leaders were seen as the earthly reflection of divine standards of moral behavior. Laws based on scripture provided ironclad protection for Puritan rulers and their opinions.

The Puritans also insisted on the freedom to practice their religious beliefs. However, they denied other religions similar freedoms. Like all theocracies, they established a “dominant religion”, in their case based primarily on the Old Testament, and this religion often sought to destroy all competitors. The Quakers suffered a lot at their hands, like any other religious sect that had different beliefs.

How does modern America reflect the thinking of our Puritan ancestors? Here are some general observations that my students suggested with very little prompting:

The banning and burning of books is back in fashion, and librarians and teachers are threatened with death if they teach unacceptable subjects. The justification for these threats is often deeply rooted in the language of the Bible, usually the Old Testament.

The Puritans largely ignored the New Testament message of love, tolerance, and mercy as it stands today. The role of Christ in modern theocracies has been further diminished, and his message is often relegated to that of an unwelcome intruder.

The arts and literature have gradually been relegated to the extreme limit or even excluded from many modern K-12 and university-level curricula. Literary classics have also been banned from classrooms and their authors silenced.

The role of women in marriage and in society is again under attack. Some state governments are even debating what tests could be used to determine whether or not a woman is pregnant.

The separation of church and state is clearly under attack. Meanwhile, theocratic thought reminiscent of earlier Puritan authoritarianism is increasingly common.

The poor and homeless today often face abuse and condemnation, just as in Puritan communities of old. Some homeless people have been attacked and killed simply because they live on the streets, the only place available. Simultaneously, income inequality has worsened to the point where the poor make up a growing percentage of the country’s population.

As was the case with their 17th century predecessors, today’s Puritans are determined, it seems, to take control of our private lives.

As the Europeans would say, “Here come those Puritans again.”

Is American culture still a puritan culture?

Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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