By Henry Hallam Saunderson
Read April 22, 1947
The common interpretation of Puritanism is a direct reversal of the historical reality. It is doubtful if any important movement in history has ever been more completely misrepresented. A progressive people have been described as conservative. A movement for breadth is spoken of as narrow. The endeavor to develop and apply kindly, merciful and humane principles has been misrepresented as a movement for inhumane ways of doing things. Puritanism in England should be compared with the environing life of the same period. The Puritans in New England should be compared with the people who had been opposed to them in the homeland. This will show that the Puritan has been most unjustly accused of faults that were not his. To him have been attributed purposes which he did not originate but which, indeed, he was endeavoring to remedy.
It is commonly said that Puritanism was destructive of art and literature; that it looked askance at all beauty and distrusted joyous living. Critics of Puritanism should remember that it produced Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.”
People who read the literature of early Puritan years in New England are likely to be impressed with the idea that laws were exceedingly harsh, and punishments degrading. Critics of the Puritans cite the ducking-stool, the stocks, and the cage. These common devices were not invented by the Puritans, but were copied temporarily from England, and appear in colonial legislation. One excellent source of information concerning the actual operation of laws, and the inflictions of punishments, is old diaries. Years ago a reward was offered, and has not yet been claimed, for proof that anybody in New England was ever put into a ducking-stool. Puritan methods of punishment were an endeavor to appeal to the force of public opinion in support of the observance of law. Archaic punishments were soon rejected.
Puritan law-making in New England shows a profound respect for human welfare and human rights. There were very few crimes for which capital punishment was inflicted. In England at that time there were two hundred crimes and misdemeanors which carried the death penalty. It seems hardly believable that little boys were taken out and hanged for such trifling offenses as taking apples from orchards. Long and hopeless imprisonments were inflicted for debt. “Time was when slaves were exported like cattle from the British coast, and exposed for sale in the Roman market. These men and women, who were thus sold, were supposed to be guilty of witchcraft, debt, blasphemy or theft” says William Pitt. Puritanism in England was endeavoring to cure such barbarities by the application of a higher sense of human worth. Puritanism in New England never copied such atrocities.
The New England Puritan, if rightly understood, emerges into a clearer light of appreciation. Too long has he stood in the sombre shadows of misunderstanding. Historical researches are bringing us to a fuller knowledge of the conditions of life in England, and in New England, and also in other lands, three centuries ago. We recall that from 1630 to 1640 took place that unique migration which brought more than twenty thousand Puritans from England to the new Colony of Massachusetts Bay. There is no justification for the fact that the life of these people, during the next half-century, is sometimes painted in dark colors. Their life does not justify the deep shadows which are sometimes cast upon it. It is much to be regretted that the word Puritanism has come to be synonymous with conservatism, narrow-mindedness, gloom and bigotry. Neither here nor in England did Puritanism deserve such condemnation.
The plain truth is that the Puritans of England, three centuries and more ago, were the progressive party in English politics. They were also the liberal party in the established Church of England. The Puritan in England, at that time, if we look at him with seeing eyes, appears not as a personification of darkness, but as a messenger of light. And the Puritans of the great migration to New England were the more adventurous and the more progressive element of this liberal and progressive party. Very often these people have been represented as fugitives from oppression; people who fled to the wilderness to escape the normal life of their country. Not at all; they came as the creators of a new era. Their coming was not a gesture of despair but an expression of high courage and an assertion of hope.
One serious reason for the traditional misunderstanding of the life of the Puritans of New England is that their life is contrasted with the life of enlightened people of today. From this point of view their life may seem gloomy and their laws restrictive. But we have only to look at the life from which they emerged, and the laws which they left behind, to see that they began to build their civilization anew with a more humane spirit and a greater emphasis on the worth of life.
It is altogether admirable that their moral fibre was, indeed, toughened by their contest with the wilderness. They had a sternness which was necessarily coupled with their courage. Their methods of life were more serious, for they were very much in earnest about their ideals. They had, indeed, a glowing idealism, a spiritual ardor, and a stern joy which transformed their life and made it creative of the beauty and grace which came with the happier years that followed.
It is strange that critics of the Puritans take minor incidents of their life here, and magnify those incidents into grounds for wholesale condemnation of these pioneers. Let us look at one such incident. When certain dissolute people erected a Maypole in territory within the border of this colony, the Puritan authorities interfered with their intemperance. This has been cited as evidence that Puritanism was joy-less. But the feet that danced around the Maypole were not the feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.
The Puritans were moral athletes who were glad to adopt strenuous disciplines as do some of their descendants who are on athletic teams in our colleges today.
Some people today, reading old diaries, express themselves as shocked that our Puritan ancestors worshipped in winter in unheated churches. But these critics overlook the fact that at that time nowhere in the world was a large room provided with an adequate heating system; means for such heating had not yet been invented.
Again people read of old remedies for sickness used by our Puritan ancestors and say that the people of those times inflicted unnecessary misery on themselves. But people forget that the simple fact of the circulation of the blood was discovered only about the time of the great Puritan migration to these shores. The Puritans were as progressive as any other people in medical matters. But all medical knowledge, at that time, was crude and rudimentary.
I might go on answering these superficial criticisms of the Puritans, but time and space are limited. I offer, however, this proposition: The Puritans should be compared with other peoples of their time. If this is done we discover that the Puritans were pioneers seeking to establish a life higher and more humane than the life of their contemporaries.
The Background Of Puritanism
We should now ask and answer some fundamental questions if we are to have clearly in mind who these Puritans were who created Massachusetts and developed here a new pattern for living. Whence came they and what was their background?
The answers to these questions will have to be brief indeed. There is not time, in this present hour, to trace the sources of Puritan culture at all adequately. A mere outline will have to suffice. In a few minutes we must get a glimpse of five centuries of history.
Go with me then in imagination to the day in the year 1215 when the obstinate and infuriated King John of England faced a group of the powerful nobles of his kingdom, and put his mark on Magna Charta. (King John was illiterate and could not write his own name.) Magna Charta is the root of progressive government for all English-speaking nations. It substituted a declaration of human rights for the erratic and arbitrary will of an autocratic monarch.
Look again and see a few years later the creation of the English House of Commons. It embodied the principle that “taxation without representation is tyranny.” That House, in the course of centuries, became the highest power in the government of England.
Pass along to the next century and see the greatest English scholar of his age, John Wycliffe. He saw that the English people could attain their freedom more surely if they were educated, and also if there were the dynamic of a religious purpose impelling them toward a higher life. He did an epoch-making work; out of the various English dialects he created a common English language. Then he translated the Bible from its Latin version into English. This was before the invention of printing, but he enlisted the devoted service of a large group of educated men. They made copies of the Bible, and parts of it, and went out to teach. The Bible was their one text-book. A great inspired life was the result of this educational movement. The English people learned to love the book which was the implement of this new life.
It was about two years’ work of a skilled penman to make one copy of the Bible. But in the next century came the invention of printing, which made possible the multiplication of this work by tens of thousands. Thus there was a physical means for general education.
The progress of successive translations of the Bible is a romantic and a tragic story. The autocratic authorities of church and kingdom sought to check the popular movement until they realized that a very large element of the English people would have the Bible even though some men paid for it with their lives.
Thus two movements in England flowed along together: the increasing power of the House of Commons in government, and the educational movement of producing, reading, and interpreting the Bible. In other words: increasing democracy was essentially a religious movement. The men who opposed autocracy in the succession of English kings and queens opposed autocracy in the English Church. The demands for political docility and for religious conformity were met by the united opposition of a powerful minority of the English people.
This article can be found in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 32, from the years 1946-1948.