Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Those Optimistic Puritans

My Dearest Readers, this is adapted from a presentation I recently gave to the Casas Adobes Optimist Club in Puritan attire. As we sit down to the table of gratitude once more, I feel compelled to clear the air surrounding a much-maligned group commonly associated with this day. In truth, we're more like them than we will admit...

History -- or at least the version we know -- does not treat Puritans very well. In fact, we get them mixed up with the Pilgrims. A lot of people use the words "Puritan" and "Pilgrim" interchangeably when they are most certainly not one in the same. "Pilgrims" with a big P refers to that small set of men, women and children who came across on the Mayflower. Puritans with a big P refers to something much larger. They are a religious movement that started in England -- and to make a long story short -- were opposed to many of the practices of the Church of England, especially those practices they thought were too Catholic and weren't backed up by the Bible. They also didn't believe that the king of England ruled by "divine right," which didn't make them too popular with the monarchy.

Most Puritans stayed within the Church of England, but many split and came to America, many of them forming Massachusetts Bay colony -- And so here is one of the reasons we get them mixed up with the Pilgrims. Note that the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. The Puritans didn't start coming here in large numbers until the 1630s. Like the Pilgrims, they were seeking freedom of religion, but in different ways: the Pilgrims were seeking freedom from religious persecution. The Puritans who came to America, on the other hand, believed the Church of England had corrupted itself beyond all recognition, and they felt the only thing to do was break away and start their own "pure" church.

So now that we've cleared that up, let us return to the main question. Why do Puritans have such a bad reputation? Why would anybody consider them optimists, let alone us? The truth is, they are, despite what our history lessons have taught us.

Who out there is holding the placard labeled "Number 1." Please hold it up! Ah, yes: "PURITANS WERE HAPPY PEOPLE!"

You know the stereotype: a pilgrim is a dour person, clothed in dark attire, hated dancing and drinking and lovemaking. You've probably heard that saying that comes from H.L. Menken that says Puritanism is "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

Well, my friends, the truth is a little bit more complicated.

Puritans had their radical elements, as do many movements, and American Puritans were some of the most radical, which is why they left England in the first place. They didn't approve of theatre, dancing and drinking because those things had led to corruption back in England -- not that they were bad in themselves.

But most historians have also found most Puritans, in America and elsewhere, didn't fit the stereotype. They dressed in bright colors besides brown or black. You notice I'm wearing brown here, but this is my Sunday best -- and did you notice I have my Optimist pin on? But this is the attire I choose in honour of such fine upstanding people.

[Bowing here to applause from the audience.]

We know the Puritans enjoyed the arts. The great poetess Anne Bradstreet was a Puritan. And as for dancing, they thought it taught poise. The great Puritan Oliver Cromwell, one of the leaders of the English Civil War, is said to have danced all night at his daughter's wedding! A famous book called "The English Country Dancing Master," filled with dozens of dances and how to do them, was compiled by a Puritan named John Playford.

Drinking? Puritans were not teetotalers. One historian tells me studies have been done that found the Puritans drank more rum in the 1600's than Americans in the 1900's. I'm not sure how they figured that out, but we do know this: Making rum became early Colonial New England's largest and most prosperous industry. That is not something that would happen if you had Puritan Prohibition. Of course, they believed in moderate drinking, not four ales and the floor.

And now the big one: the lovemaking. Or I will just call it, "benevolence," as they did. I will not tarry on this subject but merely tell you that the Puritan church insisted married couples give themselves plenty of it. In fact, if a husband or wife did not give each other due benevolence in due time, he or she could be excommunicated from the Puritan church.

Indeed, the Puritans note -- as does the Holy Scriptures of James -- that all these good things come from GOD. One Puritan wrote: "the Christian gospel was good, merry glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man's heart glad, and maketh him sing, and dance and leap for joy." Hardly the portrait of a dour Puritan.

Now, who has the second placard? Please hold it up. Yes. "PURITANS WERE HEARD WORKERS!"

One thing people seem to forget about Puritans is their sense of industry. They had passionate beliefs, and that passion spilled into their trades. They believed that hard work was a way of gaining honour and favour with GOD.

And so that belief has permeated deeply into what we believe as Americans, this notion that anything is possible if we're willing to work hard enough for it. My good citizens, how many of you hold this belief? Don't be shy!

[A great majority raise their hands.]

So they worked hard. But like I said earlier, the truth is complicated. All of us know people who seem to be "creatures of sloth" -- if you good people will excuse that term. In fact, it seems early America was prosperous in spite of hard work. Have any of you ever heard of Saint Monday? Well, Saint Monday was a holiday taken every Monday by otherwise industrious people who had imbibed themselves too much on Sunday.

Benjamin Franklin, who wasn't a Puritan, once said that Saint Monday "is as duly kept by our working people as Sunday; the only difference is that instead of employing their time cheaply in church, they are wasting it expensively in the ale-house."

Still, those alcoholic spirits do not dilute the human spirit. Who is holding the third placard. Please lift it, sir! "PURITANS WERE ON A MISSION!"

Puritans had a sense of purpose. They believed in creating a shining city on a hill, as you might have heard, an example for the world... especially their children. They believed they were creating something better, and they believed GOD would bless them if they did.

It's that sense of purpose that drives one onward, through daunting and dangerous tasks -- oh, like sailing away from the only homeland you've ever known, across rough and stormy seas, to a new world inhabited by mysterious beasts and unknown aggressors, with disease waiting to claim you if the weather does not.

How many of us have this sort of purpose? Granted, we don't have to settle new worlds, but we do have to build our lives, our businesses, and our communities. And at times it can feel just as tough. All of us, at one time or another, are our own personal pioneers on an uncertain and dangerous mission. And I'm sure each one of us, at one point or another, wishes we could start over, abandon everything around us to begin again like those Puritans did.

But we don't. We're not those kinds of people. Everybody in this room is here for a reason, and I can surmise that it's something more than just a good meal from our friends the Spaniards. In a few minutes, all of us will recite the creed of why we're here, but I will attempt to summarize our mission into one succinct sentence: "We are here to leave this world for our children better than we found it." I know a lot of Puritans who would agree with that mission statement.

Without that mission, without any sort of purpose at all, then we really can't answer that question, "Why are we here?" We're still out there at sea, letting the wind take our ships where it will and delivering us either to shore or to disaster. That is no way to live your life.

Please hold those placards up again. So we know they were happy people. We know they worked hard. We know they were on a mission. So why is it that Puritans, when we see the truth, still have such a bad reputation? It is because we have let the extremists define the whole. And when we dwell on the worst, we forget the best. That happens a lot in history.

So when you start passing the turkey, please give thanks to those Puritans who helped build this nation. They weren't Pilgrims, but they were still on a pilgrimage. We all are.

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