Edwin Hall, in his book Puritans and Their Principles (1846) wrote mainly to give the history of the Puritans, focusing on the religious differences in British history which led to the emerging of the Puritans in the context of the Catholic-Protestant conflict, and later the measures against the Puritans specifically. But in the first chapter, Hall emphasizes the importance of the Puritans’ beliefs and the principled stand they took, and he traces the development of a trend towards the freer societies which eventually developed in Britain and the English colonies.
However, even in 1846, the Puritans (who no longer existed as a recognizable group as in 17th century New England) were already in disrepute. ‘Freethinking’, irreligious people despised what they thought of as the narrowmindedness and intolerance of the Puritans, and the Puritans were already derided by nonbelievers as well as those of other religious denominations. Hall believes this was undeserved and he seeks in part to rectify some misconceptions or outright lies.
To descendants of the Puritan colonists, who were the ancestors of many old-stock Americans, this purposeful smearing of the memories of our forebears is important. After all, truth matters, and those who have spread, or are still spreading, these warped viewpoints and lies should be answered.
Hall is mostly concerned with religous issues, but he does address the popular misconceptions about, and slanders of, the Puritans. Obviously those lies still persist. Hall speaks of the religious leaders who persisted in ‘with boldness’ attacking the memory of the Puritans:
“...[D]enouncing us and our Puritan fathers as rebels and schismatics; our churches as no churches […] and all people who do not submit to some Prelatical Hierarchy as …out of the pale of Gospel grace.”
Incidentally, in some places on the Internet, all Protestants in general are liable to being told similar things. According to some who think Protestants are ‘rebels and schismatics’, our ancestors are likely in Hell and we ourselves are headed there. Inter-faith differences motivate at least some of the anti-Puritan rhetoric.
However most of it is due to people simply repeating what ‘everybody else knows’, that Puritans were severe, grim ‘killjoys’ who opposed any kind of recreation or ‘harmless fun’, and they were asexual, opposed to natural human urges for companionship or procreation, especially outside marriage. In our libertine age in which seemingly anything goes, as the left dismantles — no, demolishes, with a vengeance, all rules of morality, even the common-sense ones — the Puritans are, more than ever, an object of contempt.
Hall notes the other common stereotypes of the Puritans: they had no sense of humor, allegedly. They were said to be ignorant and rigid-minded, bigoted, fanatical. However there is no evidence of this; many Puritans were highly intelligent, well-educated in the best schools, and they read widely, having had what we (unfortunately) call a ‘liberal education’. Nowadays a ”liberal education”, sadly, makes us think of those indoctrination centers, which we laughingly call ‘institutions of higher learning’, which do in fact produce ‘narrowminded, rigid, and ignorant’ people who are now self-named ‘progressives.’ Maybe this, in part, explains why some on the right try to identify the Puritans of old with the pig-ignorant, faux-pious ‘progressives’, with their fanaticism. And this is not new; it calls to mind figures like the homicidal John Brown, so moved by ‘compassion’ that he killed some of his own folk. The Puritans were not known for such fanaticism or bloodshed.
At this point someone inevitably brings up ‘Salem.’ That’s a complicated story, being made more complicated by the fact that most Western people, being unbelievers in the ‘supernatural’, think anyone who would accuse others of witchcraft, is by definition crazy. So the Salem folk, per popular belief, were not only ‘crazy’ but fanatical. This is not an easy issue, so I’ll leave it, except to say that, contrary to popular belief, in Salem not one person was ‘burned’ as a witch, or for any other crime. Hanging was the only capital punishment in Salem then, as far as I’m aware. Incidentally some of my maternal ancestors lived in Salem then, and I have read the official papers on the Salem witch trials.
The past truly is another country, and it is almost impossible for us to put ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes, though we are expected to live amongst people with beliefs far different to our own, more different than the ways of our ancestors of 3 or 4 centuries ago.
But it is vital, I think, for anyone truly educated, to read old books rather than having our knowledge come at a remove via modern (post-modern?) ‘historians’ with biased viewpoints and axes to grind. For such people everything is politicized, and subject to the fashion of the ‘culture of critique’, being torn apart and judged by today’s twisted standards. So the old books are superior for geting a fuller picture of the past, minus the craziness of the current year.
One of the principal critics of the Puritans was Scots philospher David Hume. An article in the American Conservative, from 2011, says this:
” The Puritans, and the even more radical sects in orbit around them, did not seek reform but total transformation. And “every successive revolution became a precedent for that which followed it.” [Emphasis mine].
I gather that the writer of that piece, Donald W. Livingston, is paraphrasing Hume’s point of view, rather than offering his own opinion. Hume obviously thought the Puritans wanted, or intended, to ‘transform society’. Hume thought the Puritans to be the English analogue, in the context of the English civil war, of the Jacobins. The Puritans were not revolutionaries in that sense, much less destroyers of society as the neo-Jacobins of our time are. Most people don’t get that the Puritans did not want to force their Christianity on others or to conquer anyone or rule over anyone; they simply wanted the freedom to live and worship as their faith required. They were, plain and simple, separatists. Had they not been so desirous of following their faith, they would not have left their beloved England and endured the hardships of crossing the Atlantic, fighting hostile Indians, and for a time, starving and living in primitive conditions.
They never tried to dictate to those who were not of the same convictions.
However, dissent inevitably inserted itself in the original colonies, eventually, but that’s the way of the world, and it’s another story for another time.
There is so much more to be said about the Puritan issue, and I may revisit it. For those interested, I would advise reading some of the many old sources, old books which are available on the Internet, especially on Archive.org or other e-book sites. I would recommend reading diaries or letters from some of the earlier colonists, including those of Winthrop or Bradford. They are not hard to find online.
It’s always important to counter lies on subjects like this; it’s too rarely done, and that’s the way the lies always seem to win out.