A Nice Word About Puritans

Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything.      –  Stephen Hopkins


Amanda and Johnathan,

It is nice to have a chance to say something nice about your Puritan forbears.

There’s been another fatwa calling for the death of someone who said controversial things about Mohammed. [If this seems a touch out of date, wait another week.] Americans sometimes get quite upset that people are so intolerant as to forbid thoughts and speech of such innocent things.

Americans have it entirely wrong. Throughout history bad thoughts were one of the things most likely to get you killed. Monty Python excused, everybody expected the Spanish Inquisition or the local version.

Socrates was killed for introducing new and foreign gods and saying the Sun was an incandescent ball far away in the sky. He did no such thing. But Socrates asked embarrassing questions and challenged the powerful.

John Wycliffe and his followers had a silly suspicion that the Church had accumulated traditions and heathen superstitions that were unsupported in – or contrary to – the scriptures. And that such accumulated changes were favorable to the distant top leaders of the Church. Papal infallibility was also suspect as there were at least two quarreling popes at the time. For the terrible radical idea that if one were to believe that which was in the scriptures one should know what they said, and for translating the scriptures into English, the Holy See sought to declare him a heretic. It didn’t work. He had the support of the Crown and Parliament. His Czech follower in Bohemia, Jan Hus was granted safe passage to a Church council to explain his beliefs. The council then decided that safe passage was only to – not from – and burned Hus alive. Then the Holy See dug up Wycliffe, burned his remains, powdered his bones, and flung the residue into the river to deny his followers a shrine. This was a century before Luther.

Well, the suspicious behavior of the Church lead to people actually reading the things they were sworn to believe. I know, shocking. And finding that which they were taught didn’t match the things said in the Bible lead them to crazy habits. Like arguing about what the words meant in the Bible. This is when the Protestant habit of carrying a Bible to church developed. It was less to appear holy by holding a sacred talisman than an implicit threat to the preacher that he had better not contradict the scriptures.

The Church lost more credibility when they declared a Crusade against Hus’ followers in Bohemia, the Hussites, and then lost.

Wycliffe’s followers had to be able to decide what the scriptures said. So they had to read, and argue, and criticize. [The great literacy of the Protestants later lead to military power in the religious wars.] People said these folks wanted to purify the Church of a millennium and a half of learning and traditions. So they called them Puritans. The name stuck because it was true.

This is an important moment. This is when the right to argue about and challenge the most holy writings in the West came about. And if you and I can argue and disagree about the nature of God, who was going to get too angry about arguing about anything less. This is freedom of inquiry. This is freedom of thought.

Mind you, prototypes are always frightfully imperfect. And each little group only wanted freedom for themselves. But this is where it started. This is when people stopped expecting the Spanish Inquisition. This is when Protestants went a wee bit nuts.

Just one example: We know Christmas wasn’t in December. The shepherds were out in the fields. And we know the date in December corresponds closely to Saturnalia and the Feast of Sol Invictus. So many Puritans wanted to dispose of Christmas as a festival tainted with paganism. Just a wee bit crazy.
[ Imagine for a moment the celebrations if Christmas had been conflated with Lupercalia! Attend to the secondary meanings of ‘lupa.’ Before Wycliffe I could have been killed for that quiet, scholarly joke.]

So while you are away at college remember to have a sip of tea in honor of your crazy ancestors who fought, often stupidly, for the right to challenge and argue about even the most sacred things. And remember, too, to spit in the eye of anyone who says ‘You Can’t Say That!’ Constraint of thought is too powerful not to challenge.

Your Uncle David


Contented Triumph


I was speaking to an East Asian lady yesterday.

When I lived in Boston ascertaining Korean, Chinese or Japanese was the effort of a nonce. But now in Montana it took me five minutes to convince myself that her accent was Mandarin. At the end of the conversation I thanked her in Mandarin. She left and at a count of five came back and asked if I said that in English or Chinese. ‘I don’t look in the least Chinese,’ I said. When she turned to go I said good-bye in Mandarin. A count of two this time. ‘That was Chinese!’

That is the golden moment. If you can make someone unaware of which language you used, your accent is sufficient.

Or maybe a fat, white, blue-eyed devil isn’t expected to understand.

But I cherish the moment.