Monday, October 14, 2019


Just to review, the Puritans were not obsessed with sex.  It is closer to the mark to say that moderns are obsessed with sex and therefore disapproving of anyone who has got any rules about it. The Puritans were in fact among (A commenter points out that Aquinas was on the scene for that earlier) the leaders in Western Christian thought that sex was not only for having children - which virtually every culture in the world has stressed. (Except for rich and powerful people, especially men. They get to regard sex as entertainment and expression of power.) Puritans believed it was also "to knit the heart of a husband to wife," a charming thought. One of the supposedly oppressive rules of the Puritans was that men should not get away with taking advantage of women. They were strict.  They did not believe that a man and woman who were not husband and wife should be alone together, because they thought the temptation was likely to be too much for one or both of them. We threw that rule out, and guess what?  It turns out it has a good deal of truth to it.  Just because adultery does not occur in 100%  of such situations, or even 30% does not mean it doesn't happen more than is good for both individuals and society as a whole.

Hawthorne had his own hatreds - we needn't share them.

Puritans were obsessed with death, with the final moment when whether they belonged to the elect or not would be revealed.  They were both horrified and fascinated by death. They were obsessed with time, with "improving the time" and not wasting it. They were not Docetists, falling into the oft-recurring heresy that material things were evil and spiritual ones were pure. Many Christian groups have leaned this way over the centuries, and the Puritans had some of that, but they did not foreswear the flesh, they merely believed it should be held under short rein.  They drank beer and enjoyed it.  They had folk dances, but not dances with pairs of men and women. They had sports and recreations, though they believed these should be limited.

(Screwtape:) In modern Christian writings, though I see much (indeed more than I like) about Mammon, I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that, your patient would probably classify as ‘Puritanism’—and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life. CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (#10)
Stop blaming the Puritans.


james said...

Typo: "They did not believe that a man and woman who were not husband and wife should not be alone together,"

sharecropper said...

They also had pretty a narrow theology. Quakers & Baptists were often targets. Some of their responses were extreme. Maybe all theocracies are that way. But for folks who came for religious freedom, they found it hard to extend any.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ sharecropper - a fair criticism. They were especially hard on Quakers, even executing some. However, Quakers were not today's sort. They would crash into services and pour blood on the altar to protest the pagan rite of Real Presence in the Lord's Supper. Everyone was harsher to everyone than we would consider acceptable today.

Grim said...

"The Puritans were in fact among the leaders in Western Christian thought that sex was not only for having children ... Puritans believed it was also "tho knit the heart of a husband to wife," a charming thought."

Aquinas got there first, I think. The three ends of marriage are perfected procreation (the principle end, which entails raising the children to virtuous and educated adulthood as well as having them in the first place); pleasure; and the unity of man and wife as one flesh.

It's always struck me as an interesting moment in his thought, being a man who was himself celibate. But according to the Medieval view, it was only in this kind of matrimony that a fully human nature was realized. Otherwise humanity is bifurcated into male and female. Only in the coming together as 'one flesh' of man and wife do we encounter the fully human, the one who is both.

RichardJohnson said...

The geneticist C.D. Darlington, in The Evolution of Man and Society, pointed out that most of the scientific and engineering advances in Great Britain from 1650-1850 came from religious Dissenters(Chapter 22: The Reformation and Society). That would include Puritans and Quakers.

One consequence of the restoration of the monarchy was the Clarendon Code, part of which stated that only Anglicans could teach or study at Oxford and Cambridge. Those Dissenters who were at Oxbridge had to dissimulate their religious views, such as Isaac Newton.

Some of my ancestors were in Massachusetts by the 1630s. They became Quakers, and left Massachusetts for Pennsylvania shortly after Penn founded his colony. There is no family lore about who was more unpleasant to the other- Quaker or Puritan. Born in Massachusetts, but got out as soon as they could.

Joseph Bottum, in An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, points out that many secular Americans share with their churchgoing ancestors a concern with belonging to the Elect. Nowadays, the secular Elect profess the politically correct/progressive gospel, believing that belief in that shows they are among the Elect. This can be dicey because it changes daily. The Puritans are still with us: Lizzie Warren, Beto from El Paso, etc.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"Religious dissenters" would also include Scots Presbyterians, who also chipped in their bit on that score.

I have mostly Puritans, but a few original Pilgrims and some Quakers among my New England ancestors. The Quakers tended to be out on Cape Cod. As far as I can tell, the Quakers in PA were not as difficult with the Puritans as vice-versa, though there may be isolated incidents. They had already changed to a somewhat pacifist group then. However, when they put a letter on you, like "D" for Drunkard or "A" for Adultery, they didn't just make you sew it on your clothes for a while. They might brand it into your forehead. I'm hoping that wasn't for first offenses.