BOSTON — At Thanksgiving time in the waning autumnal months, the Pilgrims get their annual 15 minutes of fame.
Indeed, Americans have a sentimental spot for the idea of Indians and Puritans shaking hands at Plymouth Plantation in 1629. It was a "feast day," called after surviving the agonizing first Pilgrim winter in the new world - a world the Mayflower travelers identified as a New Jerusalem, with themselves as latter-day children of Israel come to build a model Christian community.
Yet these Puritans, who exist in the public mind as set-piece images in quaint white collars and tall black hats, were not what most Americans think they were.
In some ways, scholars say, the Pilgrims are the ultimate politically incorrect group. White, European, piously Calvinist, seen as intolerant and uptight, the originators of Thanksgiving can seem so alien to the modern mind that their entire 150-year civilization on the shores of the East Coast gets reduced to a footnote.
A new biography of Cotton Mather, for example, refers to the Puritan leader and clergyman as "our national gargoyle." In films like "The Scarlet Letter," Puritans are depicted as repressed and repressive by nature. One historian notes that for years Puritans were viewed as dour, austere men and women "whose only contribution to American culture was their furniture." In a sense, who could be more, well, puritanical, to use the epithet made popular by H.L. Mencken?
But in recent decades, that view has undergone a radical change, creating an enormous gap between what historians now accept about the lives, habits, and beliefs of the first English colonists and the colorless and severe picture the public holds of them.
"The popular view is pretty silly, since the Puritans in New England were one of the most literate and healthy civilizations in world history," says Charles Hambricke-Stowe, a leading Puritan scholar and United Church of Christ minister in Lancaster, Pa. "You had the largest college education per capita in the world, the lowest death rate and infant-mortality rate. These were a bold and innovative people that we can be quite thankful for."
Puritan society was not monolithic and theocratic, it turns out. Villages were highly autonomous. Almost from the beginning, civil magistrates resisted taking orders from ministers, and the first signs of separation of church and state emerge. Thanksgivings, for example, were themselves events that would be called spontaneously in separate towns, usually in response to a local blessing - a new minister, a safe voyage across the Atlantic, a good harvest, freedom from illness. ("Fast days" to show repentance and humility were more common than "feast days.")
Nor was Puritan family life cold, sterile, and humorless. Puritans loved their children so much, in fact, that ministers needed to warn them about idolizing their kids. A recent book titled "Puritans at Play" documents a full program of recreation in the Colonies.
Education was not parochial or fundamentalistic, but deeply searching. Students at Harvard College read Latin and Greek, and conversed regularly on Montesquieu and Locke.
THE perception that Puritans marched in some kind of theological lock step, without diversity of opinion, has been shattered in works such as Philip Gura's "A Glimpse of Sion's Glory" and David Hall's "Worlds of Wonder." Powerful and radical dissenting views abounded in the Colonies. Questions arose about the roles of the sexes at home and in churches. Discussions ensued about heaven and hell, or about how to reform and revolutionize society. Pamphlets, tracts, and books proliferated.
"A full understanding of New England Puritanism," writes Dr. Gura, "depends on an acknowledgment that many of those who migrated to America did not share a fixed ideology as much as a common spiritual hunger and a disenchantment with the Church of England's refusal to address the nation's spiritual famine."
In the scholarly world during the first half of the 20th century, Puritans were broadly brushstroked as a legalistic and stoic people. But Americanist Perry Miller of Harvard University permanently altered that perception by the 1950s, in works like "Errand Into the Wilderness" and "The New England Mind." His research showed a remarkable sophistication and depth to Puritan theology. This led for a brief time to a romanticized ideal, which has since been tempered by a more balanced view.
In the past decade, there's been a growing acceptance that Puritan ministers helped to advance the American Revolution. Historians Alan Heimert of Harvard University and, more recently, Harry Stout of Yale University have established that in the 50 years before the war Puritan ministers fanned the people's desire for independence.
But perhaps the most important development in recent scholarship is a recognition of the passion and piety of the Puritans, of their deep regard for what Jonathan Edwards would call "spiritual sense."
This work counters a popular view that the Puritans' spiritual world was doctrinaire and without feeling. The "Puritan difference," according to historian John Coolidge, is that the Puritans relied on experience of the Holy Spirit, not a legal or logical position. "For the Puritan, obedience to God's word must be something more than a rational adjustment of man's behavior to God's truth ...," he writes in a new study of devotional practice of early Colonial Americans. "He insists on trying to hear God's voice of command in all his thoughts and cannot feel that he is obeying God if it is 'shut out.' "
A desire to practice one's faith in the daily life naturally extends to the idea of Thanksgiving, says Dr. Hambricke-Stowe, author of "The Practice of Piety." "Thanksgiving comes from the idea that all of society is in covenant together, and that as God's people we are part of something higher and larger than ourselves. It is quite something that both the church and the state side of Puritan society could agree to such a day."