Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Saturday, August 13, 2011

How Pure Were the Puritans?

How pure did you have to be to be a puritan? Just how did they practice their faith?

I pointed out in my last post that "puritan" referred to their desire to "purify" the Anglican Church of all Catholic influence. It did not mean that they were ascetics or kill-joys. HL Mencken once defined puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." No, no, no, people. Puritans definitely took a more serious view on life, but they -- well, they had their jolly side, too.

Take partying. Puritans loved good food and good drink. They were not teetotalers; Prohibition came via crusades in the nineteenth century, not the seventeenth. These guys were not Victorians -- they were Elizabethans (plus a generation) and had no ethical problems with tipping a mug. They lived in a hard-drinking age, too; the bar bills for events like weddings and even ordinations is impressive. Now, they were firmly opposed to drunkenness; that would bring you to the attention of the authorities. But drinking itself? It would not have occurred to a puritan to not drink.

It would have also been almost impossible to abstain, as well. Beer was the standard drink for all meals, for all members of the family, since the water was often contaminated. Rum was more of a man's drink, but everyone drank beer, even at breakfast. Coffee and tea did not make their appearance until around the 1660s.

But it was the food that they really loved. Puritans were always cautious about enjoying the pleasures of the world -- they knew how easily they could go from enjoyment to an excess that pulled their heart's devotion from God. But it seems that they worried less about the dangers of really enjoying food. Some of the most voluminous diarists of the New England puritans devoted pages to describing feasts. They observed days of fasting and prayer, but they also involved days of giving thanks -- and like our Thanksgiving, those days involved lots of food.

Now, if we picture a group of puritans at a party, with a plate in one hand and a rum punch in the other, can you really imagine they would be solemn and stern? Of course not; such things don't go together. I would guess that a puritan party never got to "raucous." Standards of behavior still applied. But was it fun? Did they laugh and relax? Sure.

Puritans were also huge supporters of marriage. It was the medieval Catholics, not the Protestant puritans, who glorified celibacy. Like all Protestants of their century; puritans defined themselves away from Catholics sharply on this subject. Marriage was ordained by God, they said; that is clear in the very first chapters of the Bible. It was meant to provide children, but it was also for the comfort and support of both husband and wife. Married sex was not simply for procreation; it was one of God's good gifts to humanity. Now, I suspect that even in the bounds of marriage, there were certain boundaries that puritan couples observed. But in affectionate, loving marriages -- and there were many of them in New England -- likely the bed was not cold.

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