At Thanksgiving time in the waning autumnal months, the
Pilgrims get their annual 15 minutes of fame.
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
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.
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
Education was not parochial or fundamentalistic, but deeply