Today, to be called a Puritan is no compliment. The term incurs notions of close minded, stoic men, dressed in black, and looking disapprovingly at fun as sinful. That reputation, though not a complete understanding, is well deserved. The Puritans like most religious groups believed that their views were correct, and anyone that disagreed was wrong. Today such behavior is deemed intolerant, but the Puritans were proud to be intolerant.
Where the Puritans differ from other groups is their ambition. They were not only a religious group; they wanted to create a government based on their belief system. The quintessential modern view of Puritans comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne, a descendant of Puritans including a judge in the Salem Witch Trials, was highly critical of Puritanism. In the novel, the crime of adultery and the people’s treatment of the adulterer is the prime example of all that is wrong with Puritanism. Today, adultery is not a crime, but it can be costly during divorce proceedings.
The reason adultery was a crime in Puritan Massachusetts Bay, was because it was a crime against God, and in Massachusetts Bay church laws and state laws were the same. Men who did not attend Puritan church in Massachusetts Bay were not allowed to vote. If men were so sinful or had such poor judgment that they did not attend church, then the Puritans would not want that person to have any say in the government proceedings.
Puritans were trying to build the greatest place and the greatest government on Earth. As John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts Bay and Puritan religious leader believed Massachusetts Bay would be “a shining city upon a hill.” Devotion to God would result in Massachusetts blossoming, in the creation of better citizens, and hopefully in a religious movement in England.
Editors Note: Travis Childs is a history instructor at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. He is a graduate of Midway High School and lives in Bluegrove. He is currently president of the Clay County Historical Society.