Wednesday, November 26, 1997
Puritans' positive legacy for America
By Betsy Hart
During the Thanksgiving holiday, we inevitably think of America's
first pilgrims, or Puritans, as those who practiced their strain
of Protestantism came to be known.
Thoughts of the first celebratory feast with the Indians aside,
those early settlers who came to the New World seeking "purity"
in worship are today regularly characterized as stern, colorless,
humorless and certainly sexless people. In short, "puritanical."
But is this accurate? Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken and A
Quest for Godliness by J.I. Packer are just two scholarly books
in recent years that shed light on who the Puritans really were,
and their work is drawn from extensively here.
Did those early Protestants hate sex? Hardly. When a New England
Puritan wife complained, first to her pastor then to her whole
congregation that her husband was neglecting their sex life, the
church excommunicated him!
A leading Puritan preacher, William Gouge, said married couples
should engage in sex "with good will and delight, willingly,
readily and cheerfully." An anonymous Puritan expressed the
common view that in marriage a couple "may joyfully give
due benevolence (a Puritan term for sex) one to the other."
Throughout the writings of the Puritans, marriage and the sex
act within it are affirmed as gifts from God. This was a progressive
view, for it contradicted the prevalent medieval teaching that
religious celibacy was more virtuous than marriage and family
life. This affirmation of marriage in turn raised the status of
Were the Puritans always afraid "someone, somewhere, was
having fun" as is heard today? No. One Puritan pastor, for
instance, instructed his followers to enjoy recreations "
including sports like hunting, bowling, swimming and archery "
"as liberties, with thankfulness to God that allows these
liberties to refresh ourselves." Yes the Puritans lived in
a different and far more difficult time, in many ways less frivolous
than today. But it was always the generally held view that "the
Christian gospel was good, merry glad and joyful tidings, that
maketh a man's heart glad, and maketh him sing, and dance and
leap for joy" as one Puritan noted.
The Puritans enjoyed alcohol in moderation. (Though apparently
there were enough cases of enjoying it in more than moderation
that later a Harvard student could be fined "five shillings
for drunkenness.") And the Puritans did quite a business
So what about that their dour black dress we're all familiar
with? Actually, the Puritans dressed according to the fashions
of their day. Black was formal wear for Sundays, but weekday wear
was colorful and bright. Commentators from the period regularly
describe Puritan preachers and community leaders as dressed in
colorful, costly, even elaborate clothes.
Nor did the Puritans eschew "the world." One Puritan
expressed the common sentiment that "this world and the things
thereof are all good, and were all made of God, for the benefit
of his creatures."
It's true the Puritans certainly believed in working hard "
and being rewarded for it. They were shrewd businessmen, though
always wary of the pitfalls of avarice.
Well, so what, Who cares if the Puritans have gotten a lot
of bad press in the last 100 years?
All Americans should care because of the important heritage
the Puritans really gave us. First, they viewed and celebrated
man as an individual, God-created being. Sinful, yes, but with
inherent worth. This presented a direct challenge to much of medieval
teaching and was crucial to the success of American Democracy.
And no one can deny the Puritan contribution on that score.
The Mayflower Compact, formed aboard the famous ship to establish
civil government for the good of that early colony, was a pivotal
document in the development of limited, constitutional government
The Puritans gave us a legacy of regular elections, the secret
ballot, the federalist principle and even the beginnings of the
separation of church and state " largely to protect a religious
people from government encroachment. (Thus, for instance, ministers
in Puritan New England were prohibited from holding office.) Most
important, the Puritans loved God, and incorporated worship of
Him into the very fabric of their daily lives. This allowed the
Puritans to brave the New World, and remain faithful during the
most difficult hardships.
I wonder: If Americans today were subjected to the kinds of
trials the early Puritans triumphed over, could we survive?
Of course, the Puritans had their faults. Nonetheless, the
Puritan's intellectual power came from mastery of the Bible and
his moral power came from living the Bible. Perhaps this has something
to do with why they have been so thoroughly denigrated in modern
Betsy Hart, a former White House spokesman, is a weekly commentator
on MS-NBC television news.
Scripps Howard News Service
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