Friday, February 15, 2013

You May Not Know It, But the Puritans Were Rad

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

Climb the fence and in through the side door,
Past the sarcophagi laid down on the dirt floor.
I'm in your church at night,
Singing hallelujah at the top of my lungs.
—"I'm in Your Church at Night," Active Child

The other day as I browsed Facebook, I came across an item in my news feed, shared by several and liked by many, called "Puritan Valentine's Day Cards." They were, in themselves nothing terribly offensive, and they were even a little funny. But the sight of them made me angry, in a way I am still struggling to put into words. It has to do with false assumptions, smug superiority, and the loss of once-treasured ideas and values. More basically, it has to do with my defensiveness about the Puritans.

Before I try to put all of that into words, I want to take a moment and explain what's wrong with the cards themselves. I went to the source and selected two illustrative examples.

First, what do we all know about the Puritans? Right, they were totally sexually repressed; that's what "puritanical" means, after all. As demonstrated in this sexually repressive valentine, if the Puritans thought sex was for anything, it could only have been procreation.

In a word: no. The Puritans were all about sex. They thought sex was totally amazing and sweet, and that you should be doing it all the time, that you should engage in it "with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully." They just thought you had to be married to do it, which, if you think about it, so did the whole rest of Western society back in the day.

In point of fact, Puritan sexual thought was a rejection of Catholic thought at the time, which said that it was better to be a virgin than to have sex, and that you should only get married and have sex if you really, really needed to. But if you did, you were less okay than people who stayed celibate their whole lives. Puritans had the more balanced, realistic, and generally positive view of sex. If you don't believe me, check out this engaging blog post and this classic article on the subject.

The second most obvious fact about the Puritans is that they hated witches, and would do pretty much anything to be rid of them, even put people on trial and kill them in spite of them probably not being witches. Right?

This one's a little tougher to answer with a straight "no," but not much. Have you checked out what was going on in Europe in the 16th-18th centuries? Witch hunts and trials were a regular feature of cultural life for hundreds of years. What would be remarkable is if you had a group that managed to keep it down to say, one witch hunt in its existence. Which is basically what the Salem witch trials were: American Puritans' one witch hunt. In Marilynne Robinson's words: "For Europeans, our Puritans showed remarkably little tendency to hunt witches, yet one lapse, repented of by those who had a part in it, has stigmatized them as uniquely inclined to this practice." Sarah Vowell puts it even more pointedly,  moving the comparison from the Puritans' fellow 17th-century dwellers to our own time: "Check out those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death. Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago."


My dad always said that the conclusion of an essay should answer the question: so what? The more specific questions in this case are: so what if we make fun of the Puritans for being witch-crazy and sexually repressed? (They're dead, after all, and it's fun!) Why ruin a little Valentine's Day humor with a diatribe about irrelevant facts?

Because when we ignore the Puritans, or make fun of them and dismiss them, when we use "puritanical" to refer to sexual or general repressiveness, we "make ourselves ignorant and contemptuous of the first two or three hundred years of one major strain of our civilization," in Robinson's words. The Puritans in America were strange, yes; they were very different from us, and some of the things they did were pretty abhorrent (their treatment of Native Americans, for example). But many of the legitimate problems we have with the Puritans are problems we have with people from the era they came from in general; we should "keep in mind that these are more or less medieval people who are chronologically closer to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales than to The Wire" (Vowell).

The Puritans "established great universities and institutions and an enlightened political order," they "encouraged simplicity in dress and manner and an aesthetic interest in the functional which became bone and marrow of what we consider modern," and, most remarkably, they "quickly achieved unprecedented levels of literacy, longevity, and mass prosperity, or happiness as it was called in those days" (all quotes from Robinson). They were totally rad in a lot of ways, in other words, and if we make ourselves ignorant of how cool they were, we lose the attendant lessons we might teach ourselves, and the inspiration we might find, from their example.

My advice, in short, is this: by all means make fun of historical figures and societies. They had things that were eccentric or just plain wrong with them. But, if you're going to do that, make sure you know what you're talking about. And don't forget to look for the good, noble, and inspiring things in those figures and societies. In fact, do that first.

First quote is from William Gouge, "an English minister whose guide to domestic relations was read by  New Englanders" (Sexual revolution in Early America, by Richard Godbeer).
Other quotes are from The Death of Adam, by Marylinne Robinson, pgs. 150-152, and The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell, pg. 20 and pg. 57, respectively. I highly and heartily recommend both of these books.

Photo 1 & 4 source:
Photo 2 & 3 source:

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