Saturday, October 20, 2012

Puritan Trivia Night

            Well, I apologize for having been so long away, but I consider my excuse to be a good one.  I wanted to actually read a book on Puritanism before I started saying too much about it.  I have done so (well, a few more pages to go), and I would like to share some information I've gleaned from it.
            The book is one of Oxford University Press's "Very Short Introductions," a series I would highly recommend for those trying to familiarize themselves with the broad outlines of a topic without an interest in becoming an expert.  It is called, simply, Puritanism.  It is written by a well-known New England scholar, Francis J. Bremer, a professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.  I have learned to be suspicious of much of what I find on Wikipedia, though it can be useful for small things.  An actual paper book, by a person with his career interests involved, sounded appealing.
            I'm thinking I will do only two more posts on Puritanism/The Pilgrim's Progress, so for now I think it would be fun to focus on some factual information I found interesting.  The final thoughts will probably be developing further on the facts themselves.  Full disclosure:  most of these facts are ones I didn't know prior to reading the book, and were ones which allowed me to have a less judgmental attitude towards the Puritans.  While I may not be about to advocate for a reinstatement of their system, I have gotten a little tired of throwing around the term "Puritannical" as an insult whose meaning I'm not sure I even know.
            So here is some Puritan trivia for you.  May you win big money at the next "Puritan Trivia Night" at your local bar.
            Did you know that Puritans were among the earlier Christians who insisted that all believers have access to Scriptures, and that those Scriptures be in their own mother tongue?
            Did you know that Henry VIII broke from Rome in 1534?  (I'm just throwing that one in because I think everyone should know it.)  And that most of the English church managed to get along okay for awhile, avid Protestants and simple anti-Romans alike, because of their shared hatred of the Roman Catholic Church?  It's amazing how a common enemy can convince you that you're getting along with your neighbors!
            Did you know that the color black has been somewhat erroneously connected with the Puritans?  I found this one particularly fascinating.  Black gowns were, I discovered, a sign of University education.  Puritans wanted their pastors to have University training.  In other words, they wanted them educated in more than just theology.  Their training was certainly theologically grounded, and of course Christian in character.  But "the Puritans" did not wear black, if we're talking about all of the non-clergy, because black was the most expensive color to make a fabric.  They wanted their pastors to wear black because it was a sign of the pastor's status, his education, and how much his flock esteemed him, to be wearing such a rich, expensive color.
            Did you know that in 1692, in Salem, Massachusetts, nineteen people — fourteen women and five men — were put to death as witches?  I always had a sense of it, without knowing much more.  But did you also know that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thousands of men and women were executed as witches as a result of often unruly witch hunts throughout Europe?  Just for some perspective.
            Another fact which was good for me to learn about was their opposition to icons.  I, personally, love icons.  I have a whole little altar with about eight of them.  But part of the reason the Puritans were opposed to images of God was that "such objects fixed in people's minds a specific and therefore limiting view of God."  This is a fairly obvious reason — Islam shares their concern — but what I did not know is that the Puritans were so fond of referring to the feminine aspects of the divine.  If you limit your idea of God to masculine terms, you miss out on a lot of possibility.  Peter Sterry, John Cotton, and Nehemiah Wallington all wrote about God as mother.  I think that many Christians who consider themselves perhaps the spiritual descendants of the Puritans would find Sterry's references to sucking at the breasts of the Godhead uncomfortable.
            And one last thought on sex, probably the area where we are most prejudicial towards the Puritans.  Did you know that the Puritans advanced what were actually considered the "new" views on marriage and sex?  In medieval Europe, celibacy had been seen as the higher spiritual state and sex for pleasure, even within the bounds of marriage, was often discouraged.  In Reformation Europe, and this included the Puritans, marriage was starting to be seen as something which existed for more than simple procreation.  The companionship and support marriage provided was becoming more highly valued, and sexual intercourse was seen as strengthening this bond.  Puritan ministers often encouraged their parishioners to engage in sexual intercourse "willingly, often, and cheerfully," and one Massachusetts man "was excommunicated by the Boston church for withholding sexual favors from his wife."
            Amen, Hallelujah.


  1. Sarah Vowell also wrote a book about the puritans; it seems it's more in the context of the settlers of Virginia (who were basically pirates and treasure hunters, many of them) that the Puritans would be considered conservative. It seems that many people (as you've mentioned) who would consider themselves the Puritan's spiritual heirs have also forgotten or warped the p's robust intellectual tradition.

  2. Leigh, I was pleased and entertained by this. I didn't know about the limited uses of black. I also didn't know about the healthy sexual attitudes, though on that one, I don't feel very surprised. I suspected there was an earthy, jolly side to these folks.

    And the implied point of progressive views on the role of women (how many cultures in the 1600s cared ANYTHING about the pleasures of a wife?) is also encouraging. Amen, Hallelujah, and Amen again.

  3. Graham, that's an interesting point about how different the first white settlers were. Pirates and treasure hunters would, I imagine, make even Obama look conservative. (Oh, wait! He is!)

    And John, I'm glad to hear someone wasn't surprised about the sexual attitudes. I certainly was, although I quickly realized I shouldn't have been. After all, Puritanism spread quite robustly for some time, and I always feel a good "robust" growth shows some "robust" bedroom activity. As well as, yes, sincere religious conviction.

  4. So, I'm having a flashback now to your earlier blog, Form & Usages, and a poem you wrote about the meaning of virginity. I remember, with a wince of pain, a very prudish response from a guy who basically said, Writing about sexuality on a church-ish blog was just inappropriate.

    I wanted to rip the guy a new orifice, naturally, the kind that would let some light shine on whatever connection was missing among his brain, his heart, his soul, his corpus.

    But I also would have described his response as "Puritan." I don't think I would now. So there's my own progress in my pilgrimage.