The Puritans had barely arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony when they banned gambling. And then they banned a lot of other things.
On March 22, 1631, the General Court issued the following ordinance:
It is … ordered that all persons whatsoever that have cards, dice or tables in their houses, shall make away with them before the next court under pain of punishment.
More social control soon followed. Seven months after they outlawed gaming, the Massachusetts Puritans decided to punish adultery with death (though the death penalty was rare). They banned fancy clothing, living with Indians and smoking in public.
Missing Sunday services would land you in the stocks. Celebrating Christmas would cost you five shillings. The only holidays they celebrated were Election Day; Commencement Day, to celebrate college graduation; and Training Day, which involved military exercises. Oh, and Thanksgiving.
Young single men were especially suspect. Just to live in a community, they needed the express permission of the town if they weren’t married or had no servant or if they weren’t a public officer. The penalty for breaking that law was 20 shillings a week.
Haunting Fear of Someone’s Happiness
No wonder H.L. Mencken said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Mencken, in his Book of Prefaces, attacked the Puritans in an essay, “Puritanism as a Literary Force.” In it, he argued the Puritans banned ideas–other people’s ideas, that is.
The Puritan’s utter lack of aesthetic sense, his distrust of all romantic emotion, his unmatchable intolerance of opposition, his unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views, his savage cruelty of attack, his lust for relentless and barbarous persecution – these things have put an almost unbearable burden up on the exchange of ideas in the United States.
One idea the Puritans censored was that anyone should spend Sunday afternoon playing or watching sports. In England, King James I had tried to counteract Puritan influence by ordering his Book of Sports read in every church. The book encouraged certain fun activities after Sunday services. Those included archery, leaping, vaulting, Morris dances and Whitsun-ales.
The Book of Sports also said people could either conform or leave. So thousands of Puritans sailed to New England between 1620 and 1640.
Puritan Fun, Sort Of
Thomas Morton went to his grief breaking Puritan rules. A free-thinking entrepreneur, he set up a trading post in the future Quincy, Mass. He called his little settlement “Merrymount.” He horrified his neighbors in Plymouth by consorting with native women.
One May Day Morton went too far. He put up a Maypole, something the Puritans abhorred. Myles Standish led a party of armed men to Merrymount, seized Morton and put him in chains. Then he chopped down the Maypole.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about it in his story, The Maypole of Merrymount. “Jollity and gloom were contending for an empire,” he wrote.
To be fair, the Puritans did have some fun. They allowed hunting, fishing and archery, and they held athletic contests (never on Sunday though). They drank beer, wine and liquor, but not to excess. The Town of New Haven in 1656 required that anyone licensed to serve alcohol had to make sure his customers didn’t get drunk, didn’t drink past 9 pm and didn’t ‘continue tipling’ for more than an hour.
The Puritans had a reason for their dour outlook. They viewed life’s pleasures as nothing but chimeras, especially when compared to the happiness of heaven.
Puritan theologian Richard Baxter explained,
I cannot but look upon all the glory and dignity of this world, lands and lordships, crowns and kingdoms, even as on some brain-sick, beggarly fellow, that borrows fine clothes, and plays, the part of a king or lord for an hour on a stage, and then comes down, and the sport is ended, and they are beggars again.
The Puritan sensibility over time loosened gradually, though not completely. In 1756, the priggish John Adams wrote, “Let others waste their bloom of life at the card or billiard table among rakes and fools.”
Christmas didn’t win wide acceptance in New England until after the Civil War.
And in the 20th century, critics would call Boston-born Bobby Kennedy “the last Puritan.” They viewed him as ruthless, idealistic and not a lot of fun. One FBI agent recounted how J. Edgar Hoover tried to catch him in an indiscretion. “We used to watch him at parties, where he would order one glass o scotch and still be sipping from the same glass two hours later.”
With thanks to The Puritan Tradition in America, 1620-1730, edited by Alden Vaughan. This story was updated in 2023.