Making Fun of the Puritans


The Scarlet Letter.  The Crucible.  “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Over at the blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, University of Pennsylvania graduate student Chris Fite suggests that our modern understanding of seventeenth-century New England Puritans have been shaped by these works.  These works portray the Puritans as Calvinist killjoys and fundamentalists and ignores their contribution to the modern age.

Here is a taste of his post:

Arguably, English and American Puritans contributed greatly to the development of modernity (to the extent that we can ever define modernity). However, the popular caricature of the Puritan relies on a different understanding of modern. In that definition, what is modern equals what is right and good in the present or recent past. In this way, the Puritans join modernity’s malcontents in the popular imagination. They become zealots who lived in dysfunctional communities. They also become fodder for jokes about ignorance, shame, and anything else considered illiberal in our own time.

Historical misperceptions are frustrating. However, they should also prompt us to reflect on our own work as historians. What do these misperceptions tell us about historical memory? How we might promote different understandings? For those more familiar with the histories of Puritanism and its historical memory, I welcome suggestions for further reading or for addressing these issues in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.