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 estimate the Puritans had a rum-consumption rate that surpasses the alcohol-consumption rate in the twentieth century.

Were Puritans deeply emotional people?

Yes. They were intense lovers and intense haters. They were intensely reverent.

For the Puritans, nothing was done unthinkingly or unfeelingly. They believed that their life mattered, that what they were doing was more important than anything else in the world. If you believe that, you will feel extreme emotions.

What scared the Puritans?

They were alarmed about secularism, though they would have called it infidelity. In their day, the great secularism was a form of deism that denied the divinity of Christ and undermined intimacy with God.

The Puritans also feared the rising generation would not measure up to the piety of their fathers and mothers. They often talked about loss of faith in their children.

Why do so many people misunderstand the Puritans?

To understand the Puritans, you have to adopt their attitude: Life is a great adventure. The Puritans saw themselves on a group mission, like a corporate Pilgrim’s Progress.

If you read the Puritans’ writings as cold, theological prose, they will kill you quickly. You have to look deeper to see what’s motivating them: the yearning to build a Christian civilization, a new world order. Creating this was the adventure of a lifetime.

In John Winthrop’s famous speech aboard the Arbella, the Puritans fixed on what I would call “a world—regenerative creed.” They believed, “We are reforming not only Anglicanism and Christendom but the whole world.”

To understand the Puritans, you have to adopt their attitude that life is a great adventure. 
—Harry S. Stout

Didn’t many Puritans come to America primarily to escape persecution?

There was persecution in England, but it was limited mostly to ministers. So it wasn’t fear of persecution that drove the laity to come. 

Instead, many lay people were extraordinarily loyal to their pastors and followed their pastors to the New World. It’s impossible to overstate the spiritual and moral influence these ministers had over their congregations. Ministers were enormously respected, people for whom the laity literally traveled the ends of the earth. The most famous case would be Anne Hutchinson, who convinced her family to follow her minister, John Cotton, to America.

In history, what other groups have so thoroughly tried to create a new religious world?

The most obvious would be the Dutch in South Africa and the Mormons in Utah. In America, only two “theocracies” have lasted for any length of time: the Puritans in New England, and the Mormons in Utah.

Why did the Puritan experiment finally collapse?

The Puritans’ charter was revoked in 1689, so the Puritans could no longer compel assent. They had to tolerate Quakers and Anglicans. This created a real crisis of meaning: How do we survive in a pluralistic world?

Today, we take religious toleration for granted. What would terrify us would be the exact opposite—a theocracy, such as we see in the Middle East.

How much have the Puritans shaped American culture?

Though some scholars disagree, I believe Puritanism shaped American society to an extraordinary degree.

Recently, historians have pointed out—rightly, I think—that we cannot forget the contribution of Quakers, Presbyterians, native Americans, African-American slaves, and so on.

But the Puritans were more than merely one group among many. They exerted an influence in American culture disproportionate to their numbers.

For instance, they gave us a world-regenerative creed, a vision that America is “a city set upon a hill.” That vision infuses American literature, foreign policy—our entire sense of identity.

Listen to Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, or Bill Clinton. They often speak of “destiny” and “providence.” Or civil-rights leaders speak of a dream of equal treatment under the law. All of these people are drawing from Puritan roots, whether they know it or not.

In what other ways have Puritans made a major impact on modern American culture?

The Puritans believed that education was central to the Christian life. Harvard was formed while people were digging out the first settlements. The first classes at Harvard took place with bears running through the campus, yet classes were in Latin. The Puritan colleges were steeped in the Western Christian, classical tradition. In fact, Harvard and Yale were the only colleges in the Western world that required Hebrew.

For the next two centuries, Harvard and Yale were emulated widely—until this century, when the university became secularized.

What can modern Christians learn from Puritan Christianity?

They were able to hold in tension traditions that many people consider opposites: liberal and evangelical. They eagerly studied the most recent learning, confident it could be reconciled with the evangelical teachings of the New Testament.

You always see in Puritans a passion for both the head and the heart, for both piety and intellect. That combination culminates in Jonathan Edwards. But entire generations of New Englanders tried to emphasize both head and heart.

What happened to this ideal?

It’s a hard one to maintain. After the American Revolution, the head moved toward Unitarianism, to a liberalism without the ballast of supernatural grace. The heart moved toward Methodist and Baptist piety. At the beginning, anyway, these movements were anti-intellectual and did not produce seminaries or colleges.

From that point on, few Christians have been able to achieve this synthesis of head and heart. Occasionally, though, you find a C. S. Lewis—a warm-hearted Christian and leading scholar.

If you were transported back to seventeenth-century Massachusetts, what would you find most enjoyable and most difficult

Well, for starters, I’m sure I’d be banished. Anyone who didn’t conform, such as Roger Williams, was expelled.

What I would find most exciting is to be part of something bigger than myself, to be connected to something that’s going to live after I would die.

What I would find most frustrating is the idea that this larger purpose requires the coercive arm of the state.

How has studying the Puritans affected you personally?

You can’t read the number of Puritan sermons I’ve read and not confront the central question of those sermons: your mortality.

The Puritans knew that this life doesn’t go on forever, and that you need to live your life in the shadow of eternity.

It’s frightening to confront your mortality. Studying the Puritans made me confront what we try so hard to avoid in this society. But it confirmed in me the sense that there needs to be an eternal hope. CH

By Harry S. Stout

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #41 in 1994]

interview with Harry S. Stout
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