Puritanism: The Real Thing

Old stereotypes die hard. Often it’s far easier to hang on to misguided caricature than do the tough digging for the truth. The words “Puritan” and “puritanical” offer a good case in point. Our Canadian Oxford Dictionary, for example, after giving these terms a standard historical explanation, notes of the adjective “puritanical” that it means “one opposed to pleasure.” No surprise then that the Puritans are regularly pilloried by our pleasure-loving culture. Sure, some words that have distinct historical associations lose them after they enter into common currency. But not so with these words and their cognates.

Journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken best summed up our popular perspective on Puritanism when he defined it as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” and observed that “there is only one honest impulse at the bottom of Puritanism, and that is the impulse to punish the man with a superior capacity for happiness.” One only needs to think of some depictions of historical Puritans in the film industry to see how such definitions have been taken to be gospel.

Richard Harris’ portrayal of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan ruler of much of the British archipelago during the 1650s, in the movie Cromwell is one that he is able to carry off with nary a smile. It makes for good dramatic contrast with Alec Guinness’ brilliant role as the ill-fated Charles I, but it is hardly an accurate depiction of the man who enjoyed a practical joke from time to time, loved music and allowed dancing at his court, and had as his chaplain the theologian John Owen, who used to wear his hair powdered and adorned himself with a fashionable velvet jacket and flashy Spanish leather boots.

Much more recently, the first chapter of Charles Beauclerk’s Nell Gwyn: Mistress to a King repeats this standard vilification of the Puritans. They were men who “strove relentlessly for the light, their instincts bound like squirming devils and shoved into some dark corner of the soul.” They denied the common people of England simple pleasures like wrestling and running, holidays and theatre, and made adultery a capital offence. Evidence of the dreariness of the Puritan regime is found in the horrific names they gave their kids: names like “Abstinence, Forsaken, Tribulation,…Kill-sin and Flyfornication”!

But the truth, when examined, is quite different. As Marxist historian Christopher Hill, an expert in 17th century British history, once observed, “very few of the so-called ‘Puritans’ were ‘Puritanical’.” Granted, instances of dreary kill-joys can be found in their ranks, but they are not to be taken as representative of the whole.

The Puritans were serious people, but knew when to laugh. Smiles and laughter, Richard Bernard maintained, were part of a good life. And Richard Sibbes, an influential Puritan during the reign of James I and Charles I, was confident that “joy is the habitation of the righteous.” Nor were they opposed to sports and recreation. Cromwell gave his daughter dancing lessons. Other Puritans were into hunting and fishing, bowling and swimming, and even skating. What they were against were cruel sports like bear baiting and using up what they considered a day of rest and spiritual reflection, Sunday, for such activities. Even theatrical entertainment, which the Puritans attacked because of frequent lasciviousness, was tolerated to some degree during the reign of Cromwell. Hardly “the great iron giant of Puritanism” as Beauclerk depicts the movement.

And as for sex, William Gouge, a prominent Puritan leader, could encourage married couples to engage in sexual intercourse with “delight, readily and cheerfully,” since it was essential to marriage. Another Puritan leader, Richard Baxter, could urge married couples to remember that there is nothing the human “heart is so inordinately set upon as delight.” Husband and wife should thus take pleasure in each other. Take joy in your wife, Baxter urged husbands and then quoted the Bible, “let her breasts satisfy thee at all times, and be thou ravished always with her love.”

Finally, what is often forgotten about the Puritans is the utterly key role that they played in advancing democratic freedom. In a collection of essays dealing with “counterfactual” history, John Adamson, a Cambridge University scholar who specializes in the political and cultural history of 17th century Britain, has an intriguing essay entitled “England without Cromwell: What if Charles I had avoided the Civil War?” He reasons that if Charles I had been able to avoid the Civil War, the evolution of England’s constitutional monarchy, in which power came to be shared between the crown and parliament, may well have been set back decades, even centuries. And England could have ended up being a mirror image of Louis XIV’s absolutist France across the Channel.

As it was, the debates among the army officers around Cromwell during the 1640s about the right to religious freedom and Cromwell’s own incredibly deep conviction that freedom of religion was a natural right were crucial steps on the road to the democratic freedoms we enjoy today. It is amazing to think that—according to the reporting of the New England Puritan, Roger Williams—Cromwell once maintained in a public discussion “that he had rather that Mahumetanism [i.e. Islam] were permittted amongst us, than that one of God’s children should be persecuted,” which is a very interesting comment in light of recent events.

Well, all of this puts Puritanism in a very different light and is a good reminder that common perceptions about our past can sometimes be very misleading.