Friday, April 1, 2016

Puritans: Victims of Inaccurate Historians?

In the Capitol rotunda, visitors see an 1843 painting by artist Robert Weir. It shows the Puritans, some of the earliest permanent settlers in North America.

Viewers are surprised to see them dressed in rainbow of colors - garments are yellow and red, green and beige, blue and purple. The image is historically accurate - and the Puritans were not always dressed in black and white.

Diaries, journals, and letters described such colorful clothing. Commercial records recorded transactions of colored and dyed cloth.

The Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. They are not to be confused with the Pilgrims, who settled at Plymouth in 1620. As their name indicates, the Puritans hoped to “purify” the Church of England: to improve and reform it, returning it to what they perceived to be the original and foundational concepts of the faith.

In the case of the Puritans, “purifying” the faith did not mean the introduction of strict rules, but rather an emphasis on joy in daily life.

Happy people wearing brightly colored clothes - this might not correspond to the cliches and stereotypical images of the Puritans which modern media present. How did these cheerful people get a reputation for being “drab, glum and pleasure-hating,” as Mark O’Keefe phrases it?

Through distorted versions of history, people seeking freedom from restrictions placed on their expression of religion came to be seen as

religious zealots whose idea of fun was burning someone falsely accused as a witch, or narrow-minded prudes best described by the adjective they spawned: “puritanical.”

Take the witches as an example. Fewer witches were accused or tried in North America than in Europe, both in absolute numbers and as a percent of the population. Yet the Puritans get the blame, much more so than Enlightenment-era Europeans. Why this misconception?

Part of the answer is popular fiction. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850 and adapted several times into film, is a perennial favorite, as is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a 1953 play adapted for the cinema.

While dramatically powerful, neither work is accurate. Historian Richard Godbeer notes that

Most of my students are quite surprised by what I have to say about Puritan sex and Puritan life in general because they bring preconceptions they've absorbed.

Novels and theatrical works are entertaining, powerful, and emotionally moving, but they often do not reflect the actual evidence about the events as they occurred. Yet because of their dramatic force, the images they present remain in the collective consciousness, despite the fact that such images conflict with data about the people and places in question.

Exemplifying the Zeitgeist of the 1920s, H.L. Mencken began using the word ‘puritanism’ in a negative sense - in contrast to the upbeat image associated, until 1850 or a bit later, with the Puritans.

Colorful clothing, dancing, music, beer, wine, and a healthy dose of romantic attraction between men and women - these are the characteristics of how the Puritans actually lived. The images handed to viewers by the media are simply sadly wrong.