The Puritans who settled in New England in the 17th and 18th centuries have been largely mythologized as a small group of people who lived a life devoid of pleasure, shunned alcohol and sex, and lacked humor or compassion for other people. In fact, despite living a hard frontier life in a foreign land, the Puritans did experience the same pleasures as others but in moderation. Their way of life called for discipline and a devotion to God.
The Puritans were a group of people who were discontented with the Church of England and wanted religious, moral and social reforms. They believed that the Bible was the true law of God, and they rejected the Church’s authority, seeking to purify both the Church and their own lives. After many Puritan clergy were alienated from the Church of England, thousands of Puritans, seeking the freedom to practice their religion, migrated to New England, especially around Massachusetts Bay in the years between 1630 and 1640. They formed tight-knit communities and devoted their lives to God.
Education and Church
Education was very important to the early Puritans, who felt it was a key part of Christian life. In fact, Harvard College was founded in 1636 by Puritans, primarily to educate the ministry. Children were required by law to attend school. “Dame Schools” were created for children ages six to eight, where the teacher usually taught reading. In addition, school children read the Greek classics of Cicero, Virgil, Terence and Ovid, along with some Latin verse and religious poetry. Even at a young age, children were warned of the dangers of the world and of giving in to temptation, and were often quizzed on what they learned in the Bible. Attending church was mandatory, and those who missed church multiple times could be fined.
The Puritans believed in the doctrine of predestination, which meant that God had already determined which people on Earth would be going to heaven or hell -- though none of them knew which place they were destined for. However, Puritans felt that by working hard, they were honoring God and would ultimately be rewarded for it. As a result, Puritans felt that wealthy people were in good standing with God. They also believed in ethical business practices and of not making excessive profits in a business venture.
Three types of activities were not allowed in the Puritan New England colonies: drama, religious music and erotic poetry. The Puritans felt that both drama and erotic poetry would lead to immorality while enjoying music, as part of worship, would interfere with their ability to listen to God. There were numerous laws banning certain activities, including restricting hair styles and the excessive consumption of alcohol. However, many such laws were not strictly enforced. Punishment for certain crimes, such as adultery, was harshly administered, often with public whippings.
Recreation and Leisure
According to the book "Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction," written by Francis J. Bremer, Puritans sought pleasurable activities that were within a moral framework. The Puritans enjoyed recreation that took them outdoors, such as fishing, berry picking and picnics. They also enjoyed social gatherings with feasts, storytelling, sharing news, card playing and singing.
- Independence Hall Association: Puritan Life
- Discovering Puritan Heritage: The rules of trading
- University of Notre Dame: Puritans
- Christianity Today: The Puritans behind the Myths -- Interview with Harry S. Stout
- The City University of New York Brooklyn College: The Puritans
- "Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction"; Francis J. Bremer; 2009