The Puritans Behind the Myths
Who were the real Puritans? And why did “Puritan” become a derogatory label? In what ways have the Puritans shaped what we believe and how we live today? To answer these questions, Christian History editors Kevin Miller and Mark Galli talked with Dr. Harry S. Stout, Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity at Yale University. Dr. Stout is the author of The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (Oxford, 1986).
Christian History: What do we misunderstand about the American Puritans?
Harry Stout: Most Americans picture the Puritans as people who had no humor and no compassion. In their minds, the Puritans sat in self-righteous judgment on the rest of the world. That stereotype has lent the word puritanical the dark meaning it assumes today.
How would you dispel that myth?
I would point out that the Puritans were enamored of bright clothing, and their houses were brightly painted. They had a strong sense of beauty. While they were not attracted to the visual arts, the Puritans produced great poets like Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor.
Also, the Puritans were not opposed to parties. They certainly did not have sexual hang-ups. They were not prudes.
It’s true that promiscuity was absent from colonial New England. But for husband and wife, sex was important, and Puritan families were routinely large. A spouse could be punished by the authorities for withholding sex from his or her partner.
So how did the “joyless Puritan” stereotype get started?
It began during Prohibition. People like H. L. Mencken said, “Whom do we blame for this Victorian America we live in?” and the Puritans came out as culprits.
In fact, the Puritans were not teetotalers. Scholars ...