My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why Puritans Scare Me

As readers of this blog may have figured by now, last year I published a historical novel based partially in 17th-century Massachusetts.  You might even have noticed that I am sometimes critical of the Puritans who controlled that colony in that time.  Why is that, and what do we know about Puritans?

They hated sex, right?  Hardly.  There was a proper time for sex; after marriage.  But premarital sex was not unknown, and up to 20% of some towns’ births came within 9 months of marriage.  You might be fined, or possibly jailed for extramarital sex, but that was about it.

They hated alcohol?  Not at all – weak beer or cider was what most people preferred.  Milk was for children.  Water was sometimes contaminated, so it was considered unhealthy.  However, drinking alcohol to excess was frowned upon, and drunkenness was a good way to get hauled off to jail.

Then … what do we remember the Puritans for, and why do they scare me?  This is why:

Salem Witch trial
Puritans ran the horror show we remember as the Salem Witch Trials, when scores of New Englanders lost their lives, liberty, and estates as witches.  Often, the evidence was nothing more concrete than a pre-teen crying out that an accused person’s “specter” had attacked her.  In the Puritans’ defense, the judges, magistrates, and ministers were all convinced that they were saving Massachusetts from Satan, pursued “witches” throughout the colony until the royal governor ended the witch hunt (after his wife was accused).

The witch hunts began in 1692, but the real-life heroine in my book, Herodias (Long) Hicks, was witness to a much earlier abuse of power by the Puritans.  In 1637, less than a decade after Boston was established, citizens who supported a fiery, controversial sermon critical of the Puritans had their weapons seized, and were then given a choice.  Recant or depart.  Many apologized and were allowed to stay.

Anne Hutchinson's trial
However, many of Herod Hicks’ friends chose to leave Massachusetts, and several were banished to ensure that they could never return.  Anne Hutchinson was also excommunicated for heresy.  These tough New Englanders went south to begin their own new colony at Rhode Island.  Herod’s family joined them not long after.

Why did the Puritans do this?  Because they so dearly wanted their own colony that they left their homes in England, sailed across the Atlantic, and built new homes in the Massachusetts wilderness.  The Puritans now had their “City upon a hill,” as John Winthrop put it; a Godly community which would provide an example to the rest of the world.  Far from easy interference by King Charles, Church of England moderates, or Parliament.  Free to choose – or eject – what sort of people were allowed to dwell among them.  When Anne Hutchinson’s supporters became numerous enough to vote Winthrop out as governor, they had to go.

They were also free to make their own laws, based directly on English law, but also upon the Bible, particularly from Deuteronomy.  The proscriptions and punishments spelled out there are often harsh, yet our Puritan ancestors tried out many of them.  They were hardly the first; people have been mutilated and slain for their beliefs for millenia.  But the Puritans brought Old Testament law to New England, justifying their actions by saying that God would punish New England's residents far more harshly than they did.

Gays and adulterers were hanged.  Thieves and heretics – those who held “dangerous” (non-Puritan) beliefs – were branded or whipped so their scars would prove them suspect in the future.  Quakers had their ears cut off.  Witches were burned – 

witch burning image from PhotoBucket
OH NO, THEY WEREN’T!  Not a single “witch” was burned in New England.  A few dozen were hanged over the years, but burning witches was a European thing.

The Puritans were also creative in their methods of persuasion.  A disobedient child might have his heels tied to his neck, and left in that excruciating position until the blood “started” from his nose.  Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child is a good old-fashioned Puritan concept.  Headstrong kids quickly learned to obey, and it’s just as well, because they could be executed.  Even an adult could be hanged for disobeying his or her parents.

image by Dave Doody from
Wayward adults could be punished in many ways.  Fasten a drunkard’s feet into the stocks, or lock his head and hands in the pillory, and let him stand in public for an hour or two.  Does a woman argue with her husband too much?  Pinch her tongue in a split stick and display her for public ridicule.  Women really did wear the Scarlet Letter for adultery.  And when one old man refused to enter a guilty or not-guilty plea during the Salem witchcraft outbreak, the Puritan magistrates piled rocks on his chest, trying to press the words out of him.  The man died before he gave them the satisfaction.

Those acts were based on biblical law, as interpreted by Massachusetts’ Puritan ministers.  Now, some people might say that we need more biblical law in our lives. However, there really can be too much of a good thing.

For Massachusetts’ first decades, the same handful of men oversaw everything: enacting and enforcing laws, deciding who was permitted to own land, and who could preach – Puritans only, thank you.  Once found acceptable, those clergymen interpreted the Bible for the magistrates when new laws were being written.  Puritan ministers also decided if a man’s beliefs were conventional enough to let him join the church.  Take note: if that man were not a church member, he could not vote.  Thus the church upheld the colony’s laws by barring the non-orthodox.  In turn, the colony supported the church and its ministers through taxes.

Single party rule from courthouse to meetinghouse can – and did – lead to spectacular abuse of power.  Convinced that God was on their side, and that achieving a “pure” New England justified whatever it took to keep outsiders from their midst, Puritan intolerance led to repeated purges of those found not acceptable – Catholics, Jews, Baptists.  Five Quakers, including Mary Dyer, were hanged when they refused to accept banishment from Massachusetts.

Such overwhelming abuse is less likely in this country these days … thanks to liberal courts, conservative judges, and progressive laws, moderates and hawks of all sorts.  Even Occupy Wall Street protestors and Tea Partiers have a part to play when they point out wrongs.  But the McCarthy hearings are not far in our past, when people suspected of “Communist” leanings saw their careers ruined. Internment camps in WWII …

When you come to it, it’s extremists of all sorts that scare me, not just Puritans, or Taliban, or the Spanish Inquisition.  While I wish that our representatives could get their heads together and solve our country’s problems, hopefully no single group can get enough advantage to do the Puritans’ sort of damage – not without being checked by the rest of us.  There really is strength in diversity.

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