The Puritans really get a bad rap these days. “The Pilgrims” get favorable treatment in some children’s books, but “the Puritans” are lucky to get a neutral description anywhere, much less a positive one. Much of the time they described in outright hostile terms, as bad people who oppressed women and children and nature and the Indians and so on and so forth.
Much of that is basically true, but what those accounts tend to leave out is that pretty much every other group on Earth was also terrible by modern standards.
You ever wonder what happened to Roanoke colonists? Chief Powhatan told Captain John Smith that he’d killed them all. Why? The colonists had gone to live with another Indian tribe in the area, Powhatan and his soldiers attacked and slaughtered that tribe for local tribal politics reasons.
As I’ve said before, hunter-gatherers (and low-scale agriculturalists) were not peaceful paragons of gender equality.
To be clear: the Roanoke (and Jamestown) settlers were not Puritans. Totally different group. I’m just commenting here on the behavior of the Powhatans, who massacred their neighbors, including the Jamestown settlers themselves (an attack that left a quarter of them dead.)
But if you pick up a children’s book about Pocahontas, do you read how the Powhatan people massacred the Roanoke colony and later tried to wipe out Jamestown? Or do you read about how the Powhatan loved nature so much they were constantly surrounded by a chorus of singing birds and magic trees?
Do you ever read a story about the Puritans in which they are surrounded by magical choruses?
I am picking on the Powhatans because they come up in the relevant literature, even though they had nothing to do with the Puritans. I could just as easily talk about the Killing Fields of Cambodia; ISIS; or folks like King Gezo and Madam Efunroye Tinubu, who became wealthy selling people into slavery and didn’t hesitate to slaughter hundreds of slaves for religious sacrifices.
History (and the modern world) has a lot of groups in it I wouldn’t want to live in or near. The Puritans, by contrast, are downright pleasant. When everyone else kept telling them their religion was annoying, they politely moved away from everyone else so they could go about their business peacefully. They were never much involved in the slave trade, worked hard, attempted to lead virtuous lives, taught their children to read, and even established schools for the Indians so they could learn to read.
So who were the Puritans?
Here we have a map showing genetic clusters in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Eastern England obviously has the most red, a product of Anglo-Saxon admixture. (Note that the A-S component isn’t a majority, even here.) Western England is more varied, showing less of the Anglo Saxon and more of the old Celtic (or perhaps pre-Celtic) bloodlines, simply because the Anglo Saxons et al landed on the south eastern shore and spread inward from there, leaving a fringe of less mixed native people on the western (and, obviously, northern) side of the Island. (Note also that “Celtic” is not a homogenous group, but more of a catch-all for everyone who just doesn’t have a lot of A-S.) Cornwall, Wales, eastern and northern England, and the English/Scottish border region all show up quite distinctly on this map.
And here we see where people from each region headed. They did not move randomly, but shipped off with their friends and families, aiming for places where people like them were already established. The Jamestown settlers, as I mentioned before, were not Puritans; they were in it for the economic opportunities and hailed largely from the western side of the island.
The Puritans hailed from the east side of the island, the Anglo-Saxon zone, but obviously were not a random assortment even here, as they were members of a relatively small religious sect that wasn’t all that well tolerated by the other locals. Personality wise, they remind me a lot of the Dutch (and not just because they lived in Holland for a few years.)
Here we can see where the various groups landed and then spread. The Puritans arrived in Massachusetts in 1620 and spread quickly:
to their fairly reliable present locations.
The Wikipedia claims that in contrast to the Jamestown colony, which was largely populated by men hoping to get rich, the Puritans consisted of a more even mix of men, women, and children who intended to raise children and build a civilization, a “Shining city upon a hill.”
The Puritans basically believed that god wanted them to run their lives via a joint-stock corporation with a semi-democratically elected board of directors.
Religiously, Puritanism is the kind of movement you’d expect from the Little Ice Age. They hated nice-looking churches, fancy decorations, and, one suspects, anything that smacked too much of “fun,” all of which they associated with their hated enemies, people who had insufficiently purged themselves of all vestiges of Catholicism. Their idea of a “good time” was attending church in a plain wooden building, then having a sedate meeting at home to discuss the sermons. (Anne Hutchinson got banished for hosting insufficiently sedate sermon discussions, after which the Puritans attempted to generally crack down on women enjoying church too much.)
Basically, the Puritans were trying to route religion through the logic parts of the brain. I don’t know if this is just because they had some other reason to hate Catholics, because they simply wanted to be rational about their religion, or if they just lacked the basic impulse toward irrational emotional experiences and so found ritual inherently strange and repellant.
Whatever the reasons for their attempt at striping down their religion to its barest, calmest bones, I suspect that religious belief is dependent on emotional rather than rational experiences, and thus attempts to conduct religion “rationally,” no matter how well-intentioned, quickly result in atheism. Ritual, symbolism, mysticism, and other altered, transcendent states instill an overwhelming sense of divine presence that mere logic cannot match.
By the 1660s, just 40 years after the Pilgrims had landed, the Puritan churches were undergoing a bit of a crisis due to the children and grandchildren of the original Puritans just not being as into church as their forefathers.
This is not much of a surprise; when it comes to breeding for particular traits, one must always deal with regression to the mean. The original stock of New World Puritans consisted of people who were so concerned about the English government not doing enough to root out the last few vestiges of Catholicism from the Church of England that they decided to risk death so they could start a new community on the other side of the ocean. Their children and grandchildren, having regressed a bit toward the religious mean, were not quite so devout.
This is a pattern I see among super-religious people today; they try their very hardest to pass on their religious fervor, but their children rarely turn out as religious as their parents.
Today, the Puritan church has morphed into the basically atheist Unitarian Universalist Church and the United Church of Christ, which promotes, “liberal views on social issues, such as civil rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights, and abortion rights,” and practices open communion (that is, anyone can walk in and take communion; you don’t have to be an official member of their church like you do in Catholicism.)
The Puritans haven’t quite shaken the habit of attending church, even though they stopped believing in all of this “god” business long ago.
What else made the Puritans Puritans?
One thing I have noticed about Yanks is their almost compulsive drive to create organizations. (I swear, these people cannot hang out and watch TV together without establishing a set of by-laws and a treasury to handle snack funds.)
The Puritan colonies were not just a random assortment of huts tossed up on Massachusetts’s shores. They were company towns set up by joint-stock corporations like the London Company, Plymouth Company, and most famously, the Dutch East India Corporation, which preceded the London Company by about 4 years, making the Dutch the first people to use joint-stock corporations for international trade and settlement, which is why the whole business strikes me as so very Dutch.
I wrote about the development of these joint stock corporations and their importance in the history of the United States and Europe back in Les Miserables.
The original British and Dutch colonies of Jamestown, New York, Plymouth, etc., were literally corporations whose purpose was to make money for their stock holders by harvesting timber (England had cut down pretty much all of its trees and was reduced to burning mud and rocks,) growing tobacco, and carrying on trade with the Indians. In practical terms, this was the only way the Puritans could get the funding necessary to buy the boats and supplies they needed to get from England to New England.
Wikipedia has an interesting description of how these corporations came to be:
“On April 10, 1606 King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) granted a charter forming two joint stock companies. … Under this charter the “first Colony” and the “second Colony” each were to be ruled by a “Council” composed of 13 individuals. The charter provided for an additional council of 13 persons to have overarching responsibility for the combined enterprise. Although no name was given to either the company or council governing the respective colonies, the council governing the whole was named “Council of Virginia.”
“The investors appointed to govern over any settlements in the “first Colony” were from London; the investors appointed to govern over any settlements in the “second Colony” were from the “Town of Plimouth in the County of Devon.” The London Company proceeded to establish Jamestown. The Plymouth Company under the guidance of Sir Ferdinando Gorges covered the more northern area, including present-day New England, and established the Sagadahoc Colony in 1607 in present-day Maine.”
(The Maine colony failed.)
Different colonies probably differed in how they handled the exact details of administration, but the general gist of things is that the Puritans believed that democracy was divinely ordained by John Calvin. Adult males who were formal members of the Puritan Church and had been “sponsored by an existing freeman and accepted by the General Court” (wikipedia) were allowed to vote for the colony’s governors.
Despite a deeply held religious conviction that they should work hard and build the best joint-stock corporation they could, the early Puritans had a very rough time of it in the New World and a great many of them died, which had a major negative impact on profits for the first few years. The investors in the Plymouth Colony decided to cut their losses in 1627, and sold the colony to the colonists, at which point they were technically an independent republic. The Massachusetts Bay company followed a similar path, first by relocating their annual stockholders meeting from England to Massachusetts, and then by buying out the remaining non-Massachusetts residents’ stock shares.
The British at this time were content to basically ignore the colonies (aside from the 10,000 or so who emigrated,) until after the English Civil War, when the newly restored king decided he was going to take over the colonies and rule them himself. Of course, you know how that eventually ended; the Puritans were too numerically dominant in their area and 1700s tech still too limited for Great Britain to control them for long.
As for daily life in the colonies, once they got the houses insulated and the crops growing, it wasn’t nearly so bad. There was plenty of land to till, child mortality was low, interpersonal violence was low, and the people seem to have been basically happy and productive.
I spent a while trying to decide whether the Puritans or the Jamestown colonists were more “liberal,” and eventually decided that “liberal” and “conservative” are meaningless, at least in this context. Virginia produced democracy-loving deists like Jefferson, whereas the Puritans were, well, Puritans. Jamestown has been block-voting with the rest of the South pretty much since George Washington retired (and probably before Washington was even born), and Plymouth Colony has voted against Jamestown in almost every election, so we should probably just chalk the political divide up to “ethnic differences dating back to the Anglo-Saxon and Norman conquests of Britain” and leave it at that.