In no society are the formal or official tenets those which necessarily determine action, yet many observers find in the Puritan community a discrepancy between profession and practice that seems abnormally wide. Critics at the time, and since, have argued that the piety, with its degradation of man and its exaltation of God, should have driven its votaries in solitary flight to the desert and attired them in the hair shirt of repentance, after the example of the more straightforward saints of the Middle Ages. But the only desert into which Puritan saints fled was New England, where such as could afford it wore crimson waistcoats and expensive cloaks. Later generations have been puzzled, as was young William Ellery Channing, over the spectacle of their fathers pronouncing approval upon the morning's sermon -- "Sound doctrine, Sir" -- and then going whistling home to a warm house and a good dinner. The conclusion seems to them inescapable that the Puritans were arrant hypocrites.
This judgment proceeds upon an assumption concerning the nature of the piety. When critics accuse Puritan society of glossing its avarice with sanctimoniousness, or of taking solid satisfaction in the things of this world while pretending to despise them, they presuppose that the piety was a gloomy, otherworldly, and tragic conception of life, which ought to have forbidden such relaxations. Yet I think it very doubtful that any seventeenth-century Puritan so interpreted his creed. There can be no denying that Puritanism did give rise to Pharisaism and accentuated the complacency of men like Cotton Mather; it was also ruthless in inflicting its will upon dissenters and those whom it judged sinners. Yet in everyday life Puritanism did not mean that because Puritans were virtuous there should be no more cakes and ale. It was only after the piety had abandoned the essentials of true Puritanism,