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Sex in the City on a Hill

By Phoebe Kosman

For Heaven’s sake, leave the Puritans alone. In a Dec. 4 column in The Washington Post bewailing the violent commercialization of Christmas (literally violent: apparently, Wal-Mart shoppers recently trampled a woman in their quest to buy bargain-priced DVD players), George Will unimaginatively blames the Puritans for the carnage.

“Puritanism,” Will writes, “inculcated Scrooge-like asceticism, deferral of gratification, green-eyeshade parsimony and nose-to-the-grindstone industriousness. But those led to accumulation, investment of surplus capital and, in time, prodigious production and a subversive—to Puritanism—cornucopia of material delights.” And having adopted the pedantic tone of a Just-So story, Will continues in that vein: “Soon there were department stores, those cathedrals of consumption.” America’s progression from the Mayflower to Macy’s to mayhem was, Will suggests, a predestined one.

While it seems unreasonable to attribute people’s being flattened in Wal-Mart parking lots to Increase Mather, Will’s indictment of Puritanism is hardly unique. In section and dining hall discussions, “Puritan” may be understood as shorthand for “obsolete, sexually repressed, joyless prude.” It is one of Harvard’s milder ironies that vilifying Puritans has become something of a pastime at the College that was once a cradle of the Puritan orthodoxy. In October, on this very page, for instance, Joe P. Flood quoted Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary definitions of Puritanism: “The haunting feeling that someone, somewhere, might be happy” and Puritan: “A pious gentleman, who believed in letting all people do as he liked,” as the epigraph to a column entitled “The Smoke-Free Path to Hell.” And in criticism of Massachusetts’ recently-repealed blue laws, pundits’ wrath often fell on, yes, our forefathers and -mothers, whose vision of a city on a hill didn’t include a liquor store that was open on Sundays.

But all of this Puritan-maligning has made me suspect that our picture of 17th century New England was not entirely accurate. I am not sure that it is possible for a society to be as gloomy as the one we imagine the Puritans inhabited. Surely extreme asceticism is as doomed a societal ethos as extreme hedonism. This suspicion drove me to e-mail David D. Hall ’58, the Divinity School’s Bartlett Professor of New England Church History.

Professor Hall—who in his Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England reveals, among other things, that John Winthrop twice tried suspected murderers by having them touch the corpses of their alleged victims to make them bleed—confirmed the injustice of Will’s attack on the Puritans.

“Will’s diatribe,” Hall wrote, “has a lot to do with ‘materialism’ and lots of other pejorative stuff.” Puritans of the 17th century, it turns out, were not the Scrooges Will portrayed; instead, they “were basically agricultural artisan, not proto-industrialists; no evidence that they stinted, etc. They liked rich food and strong colors, and danced at weddings (well, some hints of disapproval of this!). I.e., they weren’t hostile to the ‘material world’ at all, but welcomed its fruits and blessings.”

Hall wrote that the idea upon which Will’s criticism was founded—“the ‘repression’ idea,” which also posits that Puritans were “mean to kids, didn’t like sex, etc.,” wasn’t accurate either. Hall directed me to Edmund S. Morgan’s forthrightly-titled essay “Puritans and Sex,” in the December 1942 New England Quarterly. And it turns out that Puritans were by no means the prudes we imagined. One Boston minister, for example, criticized “that Popish conceit of the Excellency of Virginity.” Court records, Morgan writes, reveal that “[w]hen fornication, adultery, rape, or even buggery and sodomy appeared, [members of the Puritan establishment] were not surprised, nor were they so severe with the offenders as their codes of law would lead one to believe. Sodomy, to be sure, they usually punished with death; but rape, adultery, and fornication they regarded as pardonable human weaknesses.”

This is not to say (even setting aside the executions for sodomy) that Puritans were faultless—even the sympathetic Edmund S. Morgan admits that 17th century Puritan New England “was not a society in which most of us would care to live, for the methods of prevention [of sexual transgression] often caused serious interference with personal liberty.” But it does suggest that our criticism of them is unfair. As heartening as it is to define ourselves in relation to the Puritans—so we don’t get out much? So we’re socially awkward? Hey, at least we’re drinking more and getting more play than somebody!—this approach may not be historically justified. Hall noted in his e-mail that in fact Puritans “were great drinkers”; Morgan concludes his essay, “in matters of sex the Puritans showed none of the blind zeal or narrow-minded bigotry which is too often supposed to have been characteristic of them.” Emulating the Puritans as they were (and not as Will imagines them) may be more fun, it turns out, than condemning them.

Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column usually appears on alternate Mondays.

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