Friday, October 22, 2010

When Did the Puritans Get So Cranky?

They were two people in love.  Thrust together by a bloody Civil War, determined to live a quiet life after the fighting had ceased.  She was from the Midwest, he from New England, both looking for the perfect place for a family.  The New Englander, enamored by the beauty of Northeastern Ohio, consented to settling in the Mahoning Valley.  His wife, a fun loving woman of Pennsylvania Dutch descent, ecstatically agreed with her husband.  New England was stuffy, prudish and home to the non congenial Puritans and while her new husband was descended from their stock, she didn't want to suffocate in New England.  According to family lore, this is why my great great grandparents, the Moodys, decided to settle in Ohio after William had served in the Civil War.

Why did my great great grandmother Caroline despise the Puritans so much?  Hadn't she read my previous posts on how rebellious and sexy the Puritans were?  Apparently, rebels weren't her thing, or maybe the views on Puritans had changed by the 1860's in America.  Which makes me ask the question, "did the Puritans become prudish over time or did something about American culture change?" 

According to the book by Bruce Daniels, "Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England" Puritans enjoyed an active social life and many foreigners who came to Boston in the 17th century were impressed by the merriment that surrounded them.  According to Daniels, a Dutch painter described a joyous scene of full taverns, children milling about and colorful houses and gardens.

Daniels, however, suggests that while the foreign traders were having a wonderful time in Boston, other colonists, especially in Virginia and New York, began creating the image of the dour Puritan.  By the 19th century, the poor reputation of the Puritans had been set in stone, by novelists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I believe two things happened in America, creating a perfect storm of a bad reputation for the Puritans.  First, it was the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, which placed reason over religion.  While the Puritans valued reason, they were obsessed with sin and salvation.  This didn't blend well with the increasing humanist and scientific culture. 

The second reason, I believe, why the Puritans obtained their dour reputation is that they were prolific writers.  Thinking back to my colonial history classes, most of the primary sources came from New England.  One of the first things the Puritans did was set up schools to teach the children how to read and write.  Since the Bible was the only authority Puritans accepted, everyone must be able to read and interpret it.  The Puritans became well educated and their sermons, religious pamphlets, letters and dairies are still in abundance.  In a sense, the Puritans became the Lindsay Lohans and  Britaney Spears of their day.  They were over exposed and very opinionated.  Thus, other Americans began forming opinions based on these writings.

Unfortunately, as Daniels points out, popular Puritan sermons, books on child rearing (take that Dr. Spock), and the religious propaganda they produced, only reflected a small portion of their society and beliefs.  In modern terms, it would be like judging Catholics only by the statements made by the pope.  While the Puritan reputation is being revised by historians, it may take a few hard ciders and an open mind for many to accept a new view of this complex group.

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