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 [If this seems a touch out of date, wait another week.]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

3 comments on “A Nice Word About Puritans

  1. A says:

    The Puritans are known popularly as a closed-minded authoritarian group of people.

    Therefore, I appreciate that you have brought to light the fact that they were originally a group that stood for freedom of speech and freedom of thought.

  2. A says:

    Once we lose our right to free speech, we slowly lose all other rights.

  3. feralplum says:

    Well, the Puritans demanded their own freedom. And they didn’t kill people for thinking or talking. But This was early in the modern era. They didn’t stand up for everybody. Neither did they institute an inquisition. They had been on the receiving end too often, Saint Sir Thomas More burned at least six protestants at the stake and starved, tortured and persecuted others.
    It was not an era of freedom and tolerance, or it was the first glimmering. Anne Hutchinson was convicted of heresy in Massachusetts. She was banished. She had to go all the way to Rhode Island. About seventy miles.Roger Williams also went to Rhode Island. They repay study in understanding.
    And they had the terrible scandal of the witchcraft trials. [ Our family may have been involved in that. I don’t know even which side they would have been on. I am afraid to look into it.] On the other hand, our society is not yet past witch hunts. The McMartin Preschool scandal of recent memory proves that.


    The dawn of freedom of thought. Not the full light of noon.

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