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The Puritans

You may wish to view our Digital Story about the Puritans by Michael Ray as an introduction to this section.

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No group has played a more pivotal role in shaping American values than the New England Puritans. The seventeenth-century Puritans contributed to our country's sense of mission, its work ethic, and its moral sensibility. Today, eight million Americans can trace their ancestry to the fifteen to twenty thousand Puritans who migrated to New England between 1629 and 1640.

Few people, however, have been as frequently subjected to caricature and ridicule. The journalist H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy." And particularly during the 1920s, the Puritans came to symbolize every cultural characteristic that "modern" Americans despised. The Puritans were often dismissed as drably-clothed religious zealots who were hostile to the arts and were eager to impose their rigid "Puritanical" morality on the world around them.

This stereotypical view is almost wholly incorrect. Contrary to much popular thinking, the Puritans were not sexual prudes. Although they strongly condemned sexual relations outside of marriage--levying fines or even whipping those who fornicated, committed adultery or sodomy, or bore children outside of wedlock--they attached a high value to the marital tie. Nor did Puritans abstain from alcohol; even though they objected to drunkenness, they did not believe alcohol as sinful in itself. They were not opposed to artistic beauty; although they were suspicious of the theater and the visual arts, the Puritans valued poetry. Indeed, John Milton (1603-1674), one of England's greatest poets, was a Puritan. Even the association of the Puritans with drab colors is wrong. They especially liked the colors red and blue.


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