“What Did the Puritans Really Teach Us?”

 Rev. Nannene Gowdy

            We all know about the Puritans, right?  As H. L. Mencken’s quote at the top of your order of service indicates, they were our uptight, repressed, and repressing ancestors.  Religiously, we have heard that they were intolerant of others, politically we have heard that they began our country on a basis of manifest destiny, and sexually we have heard that they never had any fun.

But impressions are misleading, so today I’d like to take a look at the Puritans in these same three areas of their lives – religion, politics, and sex.  In looking at these three areas, it is helpful to remember that at the heart of Puritanism lay a deep longing for emotional fulfillment.  They were, in fact, a passionate people, trying passionately to restructure their lives to achieve the emotional fulfillment that they found lacking in the rest of society.  Having looked at the Puritans in a new way, I’d like to look at how this can inform our lives today.

Religiously, the Puritans were the innovators.  In their day they were called “the hotter sort of Protestants”.  Begun in the late sixteenth century as a protest against the direction the Church of England was taking, they wanted to purify the theology, liturgy, and ecclesiastical structures of the church.  All purifications were based on the Bible, the final authority for belief and conduct.  It was in the Bible, and in their religion which was based on their interpretation of the Bible, that they sought the spiritual answers to questions raised by their daily lives.

C. S.  Lewis described the Puritans as “the very opposite of those who bear that name today.”  They were the cutting edge, the innovative new generation.  In England, they were a persecuted minority.

Since there was little separation of church and state in those days, they were persecuted in all aspects of their lives –  not just their religious lives.  An “us against them” mentality developed while they were in England, and it came with them to New England.  It is an extreme irony that these ancestors of the American revolutionaries moved from England to New England as a substitute for revolution against England.

In New England, they came to number no more than 30 or 40 thousand people by the middle of the seventeenth century.  Here, the once persecuted radical minority was suddenly transformed into a dominant religious community.  Now they had to make the laws and were responsible for keeping peace in the community.  While Puritanism in England was a response to what they perceived as religious disorder, in New England it was, of necessity, also a response to political disorder.

For such a small group, they had rather large pretensions.  Their leader, John Winthrop, said of their endeavor, “As a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”   This spoke to their sense of political, as well as religious, importance.

Sexually, they were not at all what we have been led to believe they were.  A sixteenth century English Catholic, Thomas More, said the Puritans “eat fast and drink fast and lust fast in their lechery.”  It was particularly in their departure from Catholic attitudes about sex that they were the most unique.

For centuries, the Catholic Church had taught that all sexual love was evil.  Some Catholic theologians even preferred the extinction of the human race to its propagation through sin.  Other Catholic theologians taught that the act was all right as long as it had no passion.  Still others taught that it was all right as long as it was only done for procreation.  And still others argued that if Adam and Eve hadn’t fallen, the human race would have reproduced itself by some harmless mode of vegetation.

The Puritans stood in stark contrast to this.  Their ideal was wedded, romantic love.  C.S. Lewis has commented that “the conversion of courtly love into romantic, monogamous love was largely the work of English, and even of Puritan, poets.”

New England Puritan Thomas Hooker wrote of marital love, “The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves … dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels … she lies in his bosom, and his heart trust in her, which forceth all to confess that the stream of his affection, like a mighty current, runs with full tide and strength  …”  This doesn’t sound repressed and inhibited to me.

In a case from the times, a New England wife complained to her pastor and then to the congregation that her husband was neglecting his marital duties.  The husband was excommunicated from the church.  Let me hasten to assure all spouses that we Unitarian Universalists have no procedure for excommunication.

The Puritans did insist on privacy for their intimate moments.  Not because they were ashamed of it, but because it was sacred.  To them a sexual relationship was not a casual one, but one that deserved time and attention.  This naturally led to a Puritan emphasis on keeping sexuality private instead of public, for each culture protects with safeguards and taboos what it believe to be sacred.  A rule against stealing, for instance, doesn’t mean that property is unimportant, but rather that it is very important.  In this manner, rules were made to protect the sacredness of sexuality.

Of the three areas – religion, politics and sex, sex has undoubtedly been the most misinterpreted.  But there have been misinterpretations in all three areas that continue to affect the way we see ourselves as North Americans today.

Religiously, when we cite our puritan ancestors, we don’t stress how radical they were in their day.  Instead, we piously mouth platitudes about their sense of values, bemoaning the loss of those values today.  We imagine a genteel people, drably dressed, who led serene lives.  But remember that the people of their day didn’t think the Puritans had values worth emulating.  What would we think today of a group of people who were called “the hotter sort of Protestant”?

What can we, as a religious people, learn from this?  We can certainly learn that you don’t have a lasting impact on society by conforming to the current line of thinking.  This is a lesson we Unitarian Universalists have rather high marks on already, but there is still room for improvement.  We can learn that you don’t have to be great in numbers to make an impact.  In face, we UUs have over 100,000 more members in the United States than the Puritans did.  Think of the impact we UUs might have.

What can we, as political people, learn from the Puritans?  We can take a hard look at their sense of Manifest Destiny, and reassess whether or not we believe a nation should be founded upon such an idea.  Referring to John Winthrop’s quote about the city on the hill with the eyes of all people upon us, Richard Schlatter called this the most quoted phrase of Puritan literature. …  The sense that it is America’s mission to set an example to other nations is part of America’s Puritan inheritance.  It echoes through the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the Gettysburg Address, and the crusade to make the world safe for democracy.”  Ronald Reagan also made numerous references to “a shining city upon the hill”.  In his book The American Jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch claims that we, the descendents of the Puritans, stampeded across the continent, wiped out the Native Americans, and got ourselves into Vietnam because of this Puritan vision of manifest destiny.  The Puritans, he wrote, “used the Biblical myth of exodus and conquest to justify imperialism before the fact.”  Events in the Middle East seem to indicate we are still buying into this myth.

We in the United States often mistake our nation for the ideas our founding fathers wrote into the Constitution.  While it might be good to hold up the ideas as a light for others, we mustn’t equate them with the country.  European settlers, for the most part, were here over 150 years before the nation was formed.  A good part of our history happened before the Constitution was written.  In fact, we as a nation have yet to live up to all of the ideas in our own Constitution.  But because of this Puritan undercurrent of divine providence, of being a nation especially favored by God, we have lived with a sense that we are right, that God is always on our side.  We need to remember that we are not infallible, and have made grave mistakes as a country and as a people.  The political lesson we can learn is that the Puritans may have been mistaken in their belief in manifest destiny, just as we may be mistaken in our current belief that every country should be run as the United States is run.

And what can we, as sexual people, learn from the Puritans?  First, we can learn that impressions can be wrong.  Far from denying their sexuality, they elevated it to a sacrament.

Second, we can learn that sex, as a natural and important part of life, can be talked about in church.  Some of you may be uncomfortable when sexual matters are mentioned in church.  But perhaps you can take solace in the fact that the Puritans talked about it all the time, and quite freely it seems.  I mean, can you imagine someone standing up here and bringing charges against their spouse as that woman of long ago did?

Third, starting from what was a healthy attitude about sex for their day, we can improve on what I see as their too narrow definition of acceptable sexual expression.  There were sexual matters they opposed, like sexual intercourse before marriage, adultery, lechery, homosexuality, and sexual idolatry.  Today hardly anyone cares of two responsible adults are married or not.  Adultery is still wrong because of the harm it can do.  Lechery (I had to look this one up.  The dictionary says it is the “inordinate indulgence in sexual activity”) is really relative.  One person’s lechery may be another person’s not enough.  Homosexuality is finally being seen as just another way of expressing sexuality.  Sexual idolatry is probably the only real perversion on the list.  Just as gluttony is a perversion of eating, idolizing sex is putting too much emphasis on a natural function of living.

The legacy left us by the Puritans is important and extensive, but it isn’t always what we have been led to believe it is.  When we think about who we, as a people, are religiously, politically, and sexually, let’s think about who the Puritans REALLY were, be informed by our past, and use that to improve our future.