Motivated by their fierce desire for Church reform and a fear of persecution, a group of Puritans fled England and migrated to North America in the 17th century. While much of Puritan life revolved around the notion of individual salvation, the religious integrity of the entire community was also of paramount importance. Forms of punishments among Puritans served the dual purpose of inspiring individuals to repent and preserving certain social norms.
Bible as a Basis
When the Puritans journeyed to North America and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they brought their sense of obligation to God and God's law with them. The Puritans believed that by fulfilling their obligations to the Creator -- as described in the Bible -- God would bless them. Failure to fulfill those obligations would anger God and result in punishment. This put religion and the Bible at the heart of individual and communal life. The Puritans considered criminal acts and non-normative behavior as sinful. They hoped that punishing criminals would stimulate regret and repentance, help former sinners reintegrate into the congregation and change God's disappointment to pleasure.
Puritans put a high premium on religious and social conformity. Community members had little patience for dissent and were apt to punish any behavior they considered deviant. Punishable crimes included failure to attend church, outspoken criticism of church authority figures and desecration of the Sabbath. The Puritans considered non-normative sexual practices -- ranging from extramarital relations and sodomy to bestiality -- as sinful, criminal and deserving of swift punishment. Authorities also meted out punishments for what they considered undesirable social behavior, including swearing, drunkenness, idleness, gambling, flirting and gossiping.
What a Shame
Puritan punishments varied in terms of their severity. Most minor offenses resulted in monetary fines, but many individuals paid for their unorthodox behavior in other, more humiliating ways. Authorities forced guilty parties to spend several hours in the public square, locked into the stocks or pillory or placed in the gallows with a rope around their necks. Passersby would spit, laugh or throw garbage at the offenders. In some instances, unfortunate individuals were forced to wear a sign detailing the crime or wear a symbolic letter -- such as a "D" for drunkard or an "A" for adulteress -- that reminded the community of the misdeed. Some crimes led to imprisonment, banishment or the infliction of significant physical pain, including whipping, branding and cropping -- or cutting off -- the ears.
A More Balanced View
History professor Michael Chesson claims that modern perceptions of Puritan life are often exaggerated. Chesson points out that the Puritans knew how to have fun, and were not as somber, austere and ruthless as many believe. Laws were arguably draconian by modern standards, but as Mitchel Roth points out in his book, "Crime and Punishment: A History of the Criminal Justice System," individuals often received a lighter punishment than the law prescribed. In the case of a rebellious son over the age of 16, for example, the prescribed punishment was death. But Roth writes that there is little evidence that the Puritans actually used the death penalty to punish boys who disobeyed or assaulted their parents. Because the ultimate goal of Puritan sanctions was to encourage repentance, authorities often chose instead to issue a fine or sentence the rebellious child to whipping.
- PBS.org: God in America: People & Ideas -- The Puritans
- Crime and Punishment: A History of the Criminal Justice System; Mitchel Roth
- Punishment in America: A Reference Handbook; Cyndi Banks
- History.org: Bilboes, Brands, and Branks
- Global Research.ca: History: New England Early Puritans “Did not All Dress in Black Clothes”
- Marbury/iStock/Getty Images