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The Puritans: Setting the Record Straight

From Essay on Milton (excerpt)

Thomas Babington Macaulay

“The Puritans were men whose minds had derived a peculiar character from the daily contemplation of superior beings and eternal interests. Not content in acknowledging, in general terms, an overruling providence, they habitually ascribed every event to the will of the Great Being, for whose power nothing was too vast, for whose inspection nothing was too minute. To know Him, to serve Him, to enjoy Him, was with them the great end of existence….

Hence originated their contempt for terrestrial distinctions. The difference between the greatest and meanest (lowest) of mankind seemed to vanish when compared with the boundless interval which separated the whole race from Him on whom their own eyes were constantly fixed. They recognized no title to superiority but His favour; and, confident of that favour, they despised all accomplishments and all the dignities of the world….

On the rich and the eloquent, on nobles and priests, they looked down with contempt; for they esteemed themselves rich in a more precious treasure, and eloquent in a more sublime language, nobles by the right of earlier creation, and priests by the imposition of a mightier hand…. The very meanest (lowest) of them was a being to whose fate a mysterious and terrible importance belonged, on whose slightest action the spirits of light and darkness looked with anxious interest; who had been destined, before heaven and earth were created, to enjoy a felicity which should continue when heaven and earth should have passed away.

Events which short-sighted politicians ascribed to earthly causes had been ordained on his account. For his sake, empires had risen, and flourished, and decayed. For his sake, the Almighty had proclaimed his will by the pen of the Evangelist and the harp of the common foe. He had been ransomed by the sweat of no vulgar agony, by the blood of no earthly sacrifice…. Thus the Puritan was made up of two different men; the one all self-abasement, penitence, gratitude, passion; the other proud, calm, inflexible, sagacious. He prostrated himself in the dust before his Maker, but he set his foot on the neck of his king.” (Selected from Essay on Milton, by Thomas Babington Macaulay.

For the full text of this essay, see Essay on Milton.

 

Hawthorne’s Book, The Scarlet Letter, Misrepresents the Puritans

The Scarlet Letter is not a historically accurate picture of the Puritans.  In the Preface to the novel, Hawthorne describes discovering the scarlet letter that Hester wears in the story as punishment for her adultery, while working in a Salem custom house.  Hawthorne’s account is purely fictional; he never ran across such a letter in real life.  Furthermore, Hawthorne (who wrote two centuries after the original Puritans) used the Puritans in his story for satiric purposes, and it is a convention of satire to exaggerate the negative feature of the thing being attacked.  It is a great tragedy that the only picture that many people have of the Puritans comes from works of literary satire that make no pretense of being sources of accurate history.”  (From Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were, Zondervan, 1986, page 188-189—emphases in italics are his, in bold are Ed's.)

The Puritans and their Sexual Freedom

But, then came the Puritans.  The Puritans were anything but sexual prudes (as they are often confused with the Victorians who were dishonestly prudish).  The men highly valued their wives and proclaimed the passion and enjoyment of sexuality within marriage.  Women expected, and sometimes demanded, regular sexual activity with their husbands.  Thomas Hooker wrote:

The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves ... dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at the table, walks with her when he travels ... She lies in his bosom, and his heart trust in her, which forceth all to confess that the stream of his affection, like a mighty current, runs with full tide and strength.

After all, this attitude of sexual pleasure in marriage is only a reflection of what God intended and what He portrayed in Proverbs 5:18ff and The Song of Solomon!

[These thoughts and quotes for this section come from Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Zondervan Academie Books, 1986), Chapter 3.]



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