What Makes a Puritan Society?

Are we living in a new age of puritanism? And how would we know if we were?

Illustration of Richard Mather (1596-1669) by John Foster, circa 1675. *AC6.Ad198.Zz683t no.5, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

‘Puritan societies were often better than the kinds of societies that they replaced’

Crawford Gribben, Professor of History at Queen’s University, Belfast

There weren’t very many puritan societies, and none of them were especially enduring, but they were often better than the kinds of societies that they replaced.

The key word here is ‘often’. In the 17th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, puritan societies developed with different aims and objectives and different relationships to other peoples and cultures. Some puritan societies, such as that which developed in Massachusetts in the 1630s, were organised around the demands of biblical law, while others, like the one that emerged in Rhode Island, worked towards a religiously neutral state. Some puritan societies, including that of Scotland in the 1640s, seem to have enjoyed widespread popular support, while the emergence of a puritan society in Ireland in the 1650s was the expected outcome of the suppression of religious difference and resulted in ethnic cleansing.

Some of the most careful thinking about the character of a puritan society took place in Cromwellian England. Administrators made strenuous efforts to restrict the range of capital crimes, to introduce one of Europe’s most generous systems of religious toleration, to secularise marriage and divorce – and, of course, to introduce republican government. Cromwellian legislators took biblical law extremely seriously, but this often worked to introduce greater freedoms than had previously been known.

Puritans made their greatest contribution to social theory after their revolution failed. It was after the Restoration that erstwhile republicans such as John Owen began to consider the rights and responsibilities of religious minorities. During the Glorious Revolution John Locke, his former student, put those ideas to work as he defined the principles of classical liberalism.

Of course, as Patrick Deneen and others have recently suggested, classical liberalism may be losing ground as new kinds of politics take effect. Maybe we are seeing the legacy of one set of puritan ideas being overtaken by another.

Think about it: a drive for ideological purity leads to the silencing of unpopular voices. Traditional religious opinions are expressed only in private. And those who don’t sign up to new sexual norms are publicly shamed. Why does that sound familiar?

 

‘It is one where the thought police and mandatory religious worship feature prominently’

Rebecca Warren, Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Kent

Puritans have a rather bad press today. ‘Our’ imagined puritans are dour figures, dressed in black, unsmiling. Do they laugh? No. Sing, let their hair down or swear? Certainly not. They are killjoys when it comes to having fun and are, of course, also boringly pious. Who wants to spend the day in prayer? A puritan. Who reads the Bible for pleasure? A puritan. They exude an aura of disapproval and do ‘severe’ far too well for comfort. Yes, they may be dependable and even, in a weird way, admirable, but you certainly wouldn’t want to be one, would you?

That is, of course, a caricature, but, like all caricatures, it contains a kernel of truth. Puritans in the 16th and 17th centuries did disapprove of immorality and did spend much time in prayer and Bible study. Their behaviour stemmed from their personal dialogue with God and they actively sought to build a more godly society on earth, as a prelude to the heaven they hoped to inhabit after death. They believed, too, that God would punish those who transgressed or who failed to seek the redemption of those transgressors. Critically, they had little time for ‘free will’, seeing instead the hand of providence in events that unfolded around them.

So what is the concept of a modern puritan society? I suspect it is one where the thought police and mandatory religious worship feature prominently. Personal freedom is limited and sexual licence is anathema. It is a place of restriction and disapproval, where moral transgression is punished, religious practice is observed universally and activities which might be deemed ‘fun’ are frowned upon. Which means that over the intervening centuries our understanding of a puritan society has lost its awareness of the deep comforting communion with God that actual puritans experienced. We have forgotten the energy and sense of purpose that drove them to examine their consciences and offer spiritual solace to transgressors. And somehow, somewhere, it has mislaid the joy which many puritans felt, doing what they believed was God’s work on earth.

 

‘In puritan societies, civil and religious practice go hand in hand’

Malcolm Gaskill, Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia

The term ‘puritan’ has always found most use in opposing something else: as the historian Patrick Collinson once said, puritanism was ‘one half of a stressful relationship’. It started out as an insult among Catholics and moderate Protestants in Elizabethan England, as when, in 1565, Thomas Stapleton derided puritans as ‘zealous gospellers of Geneva’. This implied that, gripped by the strictures of Calvinism, they were opposed not just to Rome but to the Church of England, too. Puritans, then, risked censure as traitors to the state as well as to the established faith, which meant that a puritan society – one where religion was entirely purged of ‘popish’ ornament and ritual – was, until Cromwell’s rule in the 1650s, no more than a dream, unfulfilled yet sustained by a sense of providential destiny.

Puritanism was most successful on small scales: the individual and the community. The ‘godly’, as puritans called themselves, have come down to us as joyless and repressive, but they were surprisingly emotional. Sinners experienced rapturous conversions, where they felt their icy hearts melted by the warmth of God’s grace. To be persuaded that one was divinely chosen was hard on others – the unregenerate – but to individual ‘Saints’ it was an epiphany. Communities – sections of congregations, that is – formed splinter groups so they could worship in secret according to their radical convictions. Some became separatists and fled to New England, where they founded new communities, many of which were puritan not only in worship but in social discipline, with legal codes based on the draconian laws of Moses. 

For in puritan societies, civil and religious practice go hand in hand – which explains our stereotype of the censorious disciplinarian. Puritans forbade festivals (pagan), secularised rituals (superstitious), censured immorality (ungodly) and persecuted witches (devilish). Adulterers were shamed – in New England, a few were hanged – inspiring Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which informed Margaret Atwood’s police state in The Handmaid’s Tale. Puritan societies depend on conformity but, like all utopias, cannot achieve it without coercion. 

 

‘A term, mainly pejorative, has acquired the hot smell of the culture war’

Matthew Sweet, Author of Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves (Picador, 2018)

In 1610 this question was a burning one. Elizabeth I set fire to Anabaptists who did not observe Easter. After her death, their co-religionists waited for James I to take a gentler approach. And waited. Which is why, in Ben Jonson’s drama The Alchemist, Dol Common says their puritan neighbours ‘scarce have smiled twice since the king came in’. 

But for readers of History Today, this is a matter of historical correctness: a term, mainly pejorative, with both a precise and a promiscuous meaning, has acquired the hot smell of the culture war. Covid closed the theatres, social media is judgemental as hell, columnists and the government, forgetful of the days when Maoists assaulted Hans Eysenck at the LSE, are scandalised that students have voted to remove a photo of the Queen. Is puritanism back?

Maybe Laura Ormiston Chant can help. She was Winston Churchill’s opponent in the battle of the Empire, Leicester Square. In 1894 she persuaded the London County Council to force the music hall to erect a screen between the auditorium and the bar, making it harder for prostitutes to do business on the premises. ‘I am not a Puritan’, she insisted. Churchill disagreed. ‘Ladies of the Empire, I stand for Liberty!’, he declared, as his mates demolished the partition. The Graphic newspaper sighed: ‘One is at a loss to say which of the combatants proved himself the most disagreeable – the misguided and somewhat bigoted Puritan or the loud-voiced advocate of freedom.’ 

Laura Ormiston Chant won the argument. The Empire still stands. It’s a cinema now, and the diciest pleasure it offers is a plastic tray of jalapeno nachos. Men who want to see a prostitute after the show must consult their phones.

Purification is a chemical process, but societies cannot be purified. Their views about what’s dirty and what’s clean are ephemeral. (The video nasties banned in the 1980s, for instance, are now a luxurious Blu-Ray box set.) But radical arguments can be made and, if accepted, slowly become orthodoxies. A faster transformation would require some form of social alchemy. And, as Ben Jonson knew, alchemy was a fraud. Though it was deeply attractive, even to puritans.