29 August 2011

Puritans and Religious Liberty

Tomorrow, I have the opportunity to give a guest lecture for a colleague at UND.  This mini-lecture (about 20-30 minutes) is going to discuss the Puritans.  The Puritans are a fairly misunderstood group.  Many people look at them as guys in funny hats and dark clothes that were against drinking and sex, while simultaneously going after witches with a vengeance.  These caricatures are not altogether accurate.  Puritans often had very big families...wonder how that happened?  They did oppose sex outside of marriage--the origin of the term puritanical.  Puritans were also in charge of giving out brewing licenses in Massachusetts Bay during the seventeenth century.  So much for being tee-totallers.  The Puritans, while they were not prohibitionists, did oppose drunkenness, however.  The Salem witch trials were an anomaly for which many later Puritans apologized.

Marxist historians have tended to look at Puritans as a proto-bourgeoisie that only concerned themselves with making money.  Marxists have tended to sneer at the deeply-held religious beliefs of the Puritans.  However, the religious beliefs of Puritans are not so much in question in recent years, which makes them even more interesting.

One of the big misconceptions about the Puritans that some like to point out, is the idea that the Puritans came to America for religious liberty.  This is both a correct statement and an incorrect statement at the same time.  You may think that I'm sounding a bit postmodern with an argument like that.  However, it's true.  When looking for religious liberty for themselves, the Puritans were all for it.  Religious liberty was one of the major reasons that the Puritans came to America (as well as attempting to show England/Europe what a true Christian Commonwealth looked like).  However, when it came to religious liberty for others, the Puritans didn't really go for that, hence the banishment of religious libertarians like Roger Williams who believed in freedom of conscience (as well as the idea that Indians should be compensated for their land). 

The Puritans were very important in the founding of America, and there are few groups who are more misunderstood.  They had a noble, although unachievable goal.  Their attempt at a theocracy failed, and their beliefs seem a bit narrow-minded in a nation that allows religious liberty for all.  Nonetheless, they are an interesting group to study.

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