Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Puritans Weren't All That Bad

Philadelphia Inquirer had an article on how the Puritans aren't understood and how misconceptions abound about them.
Actually, most accepted notions about Puritans are untrue. For example, the Massachusetts law prohibiting Christmas grew from the Church of England's penchant for observing dozens of annual religious holidays. Puritans wanted many fewer church/state-sanctioned ceremonies, and eventually rejected all legally enforced regular religious observances except the Sabbath.

There are other myths:

Puritans repressed sexuality. America is squeamish about sex, but not because of Puritans, who discussed sex frankly, and usually to praise its virtues. Although the law prescribed harsh penalties for fornication, adultery and sodomy, magistrates knew conduct rarely matched the ideal, and they punished lightly (by 17th-century standards, and except for sodomy). In fact, in today's sex-education debates, one almost yearns for some good old Puritan common sense - an unambiguous advocacy of standards, mixed with a pragmatic acknowledgment of behavior.

Colonial Massachusetts was a theocracy. Ministers had less direct political authority than in any other government in the Western world. While only male church members could vote and hold office, such provisions were restrictive by today's standards, not those of the time. Even if theocracy means the influence of religion in public life, early Massachusetts may not qualify. A slew of historians have shown that official Puritanism held little sway over significant portions of the populace.

Witchcraft trials typify Puritan zealotry. Perhaps no image of colonial New England grips our collective imagination tighter than that of square-buckled, black-brimmed, sour-faced killjoys pounding their fists into their hands and demanding random killings of suspected witches. But the Salem episode was an aberration and, even in its extremity, mild for its time. In Massachusetts from 1630 to 1691, about a dozen executions for witchcraft occurred, compared with hundreds in England and thousands in Scotland, Germany and Scandinavia. At Salem in 1692, 20 were executed. Clearly, the authorities erred by allowing convictions based on "spectral" evidence, or accusations from alleged victims the devil supposedly possessed.

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