More Than Stiff Collars, Funny Hats
At Thanksgiving time in the waning autumnal months, the Pilgrims get their annual 15 minutes of fame.Skip to next paragraph
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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.