The Puritans do get a bad rap

Oh, it’s hard for me to admit that, at least in light of the early persecution of Friends. I started out with my new book, Quaking Dover, assuming the Puritans were a monolithic opponent of religious liberty for others.

I did know, however, they weren’t always as uptight as they’ve been portrayed. In some ways they were liberal, with high literacy rates for men and women. Startlingly, a woman could divorce her husband if he didn’t sexually satisfy her. Besides, in England their Parliamentarian armies were the vanguard of the radical World Turned Upside Down that toppled the king. And they did love their beer.

As I researched my book, I began to sense that the old adage about coming to America for religious freedom but not extending it to others wasn’t exactly on target, nor was the part about neighboring colonies like New Hampshire being founded purely for monetary gain. As for Rhode Island? You see, it complicates.

For starters, the Puritans’ Massachusetts Bay charter was a commercial document, like the one for the East India Company, with their brilliance coming in immediately moving the annual stockholders meeting to the New World rather than London, under the King’s eyes.

The Pilgrims at Plymouth, too, had come under a commercial charter, one that left them strained by heavy debt. The majority of the first settlers at Plymouth weren’t even fellow Separatists in faith, but here for economic opportunity.

What the Puritans envisioned was a utopia, one within an economic, political, and religious worldview. While it’s sometimes described as a theocracy, ministers were banned from town office – not so elsewhere in the colonies.

Two of New Hampshire’s first four towns, meanwhile, were founded by ministers fleeing Massachusetts. That’s Hampton and Exeter.

And then, the Puritan fundamentalism somehow evolved into a liberal Unitarian strand and more mainstream Congregational wing, now part of the United Church of Christ denomination.

I’ve previously noted an essay by Marilynne Robinson in the August 2022 Harper’s Magazine, delineating ways Massachusetts was far more liberal than Virginia or the Carolinas when it came to religion and liberty in general. In early Virginia, for instance, missing church three times or speaking ill of the King merited a death sentence. Let it be noted, too, that Puritans, along with Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and Roman Catholics, were unable to gain much of a foothold anywhere in colonial Virginia, with its ruthless Anglican state denomination.

There are even arguments that the persecution of the upstart Quakers in both New England and the southern colonies was based more on political and monetary motivations than religion.

The historian at First Parish church in Dover had me seeing that the opposition in New England wasn’t nearly as monolithic as I’d assumed, and then that New Hampshire’s four local congregations had somewhat different characters from those in Massachusetts.

More recently, I’m facing Carla Gardina Pestana’s contention in Quakers and Baptists in Colonial Massachusetts that Friends went out of their way looking for trouble. It does rather thicken the plot. The Baptists somehow found ways to fit in more agreeably.

Considering current attacks on freedom of speech (and printing), some of it under the guise of religion, I do wonder about the status of the separation of church and state.

Sometimes history isn’t so far back there as we’d like to suppose.


One thought on “The Puritans do get a bad rap

  1. A lot of interesting fun facts there. Gives a whole new meaning to Puritan. One that might shock some grandparents and other elders, church included.

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