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Debate over the legacy of Puritans in American History

Updated on July 26, 2012

Debate over Puritans

The Debate over the Legacy of Puritans in American History – by Michael Mikio Nakade

The Opening remark by the moderator:

“The legacy of Puritans in American History remains controversial. Some historians laud the contributions made by the Puritans starting in 1620 in New England. But some historians denounce the Puritans for creating some of the worst characteristics of the Americans. We will listen to both sides of the argument. Please welcome two historians, one for the Puritans, and the other against the Puritans.”

Mr. Pro: We all know that human beings are not perfect. The Puritans who settled in New England in the 17th century were not perfect. But it doesn’t mean that they were bad for America. Quite contrary, they were good for America in more ways than one. The fact that they were able to survive in New England’s cold weather during the first winter shows their resilience, grit, and ingenuity while maintaining a strong family cohesion. They set the tone for the later generations of Americans.

Mr. Anti: The Puritans came to America in order to practice their unique faith without fear of being persecuted. They established their communities and lived according to their own set of rules. The biggest trouble that I see is their intolerance toward those who held different beliefs. They advocated for religious freedom when it was convenient for them but never granted religious freedom to others. They cannot escape from this criticism in our history.

Mr. Pro: We must keep in mind that it was in the 17th century. Europeans weren’t able to practice religious freedom in Europe. The Puritans brought the same attitude to America. Because of their serious and sincere belief in the Scripture, they were not able to compromise with others who insisted on their practices that were contrary to the Scripture. As a historian, I insist that we learn to see their lack of openness in this historical context. What I really want to emphasize is that their religious beliefs helped them survive very difficult conditions in New England. They embodied such virtues as hard work, discipline, education for children, and family unity. The statistics from the 17th century indicate that people in New England led healthier and longer lives than those who lived in Virginia and other warm climate colonies.

Mr. Anti: The Puritans worked hard, but for a wrong reason. They believed in this horrible doctrine called Predestination. They assumed that most humans were dammed to hell because of their sins. And of course, they wanted to believe that they were predestined to be saved. But they were never sure, and therefore, wanted to produce visible signs that they were indeed going to heaven. So, what did they do? They worked hard to produce wealth and material success. I find such a motivation both corrupt and selfish. They showed hardly any compassion toward those who were destined to go to hell. They were a group of extremely judgmental people, and they gave a bad reputation to religious people in America.

Mr. Pro: Let me just say that they were very concerned about their final destination at that time just like everyone else. Many people joined the religious group of their choice in those days to assure themselves of a spot in heaven. Singling the Puritans out for a bad motive is not fair. For me, they represented the spirit of self-reliance, discipline, and investment into their future. I think that sociologist Max Weber was correct in crediting the Puritans for starting a modern day form of Capitalism. In this sense, their contribution to American society was huge.

Mr. Anti: How about the Puritans fanaticism and irrational fear? They accused innocent women for being witches and executed them based on unreliable testimonies of teenage girls. Today, when people use the word ‘witch hunt,’ they mean that the accused were found guilty based on false testimonies. I think we can ‘thank’ those Puritans for leaving us with this embarrassing legacy in American history.

Mr. Pro: I do not support the Puritans witch hunting in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. But, we do have to keep in mind that the witch hunt per se was something that had been going on in Europe for quite some time. The Puritans did not invent fear against witches and devils. In history, this type of tragic human mistakes happened before the Age of Science and Enlightenment. It is just very unfortunate. The fact is that the Puritans were often the most educated group of people in America at that time. Theologians such as Cotton Mather of the late 17th century and Jonathan Edwards of the early 18th century were scientific-minded and were great intellectuals of their respective day in America. Just because of the Salem Witch Hunt, many people mistakenly think that the Puritans in general were uneducated folks.

Mr. Anti: I want to bring up the issue of religious intolerance once again. In an ironic way, the Puritans deserve credit for helping the Founding Fathers ensure religious freedom and the separation of church and state in our Bill of Rights. I am grateful for that. The Puritans were so intolerant that they kicked Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson out of Massachusetts. Those two individuals had to flee to Rhode Island, and they set up Rhode Island for people who couldn’t live with the Puritans. The concept of religious freedom means something to us because of the Puritans’ intolerance. For this, I say, “Thank you, Puritans.”

Mr. Pro: That’s a cheap shot, Mr. Con. The fact is that the Puritans led by John Winthrop were determined to create “city on a hill” for the rest of the world to look up to. They had their version of a perfect city based on the biblical principle. Yes, they were intolerant to those who wanted more a relaxed atmosphere in their city. But, that’s because they were committed to building a holy community in North America. What is so wrong with having a high ideal? I think many American presidents borrowed this goal from the Puritans. John Winthrop’s ideal still inspires America’s leaders to this day.

Mr. Anti: Speaking of ideals and imposing onto others, I can see the negative legacy of the Puritans today myself. Many conservative and evangelical Christians want to ban abortion, and some of them even bomb and kill doctors who perform perfectly legal medical procedure. I do believe that those Christians today got their attitude and fanaticism from the Puritans from the 17th century New England.

Mr. Pro: That may be. It’s hard to pinpoint. But, we have to keep in mind that we exercise our right to practice and speak our convictions. Although I do not condone the bombing of the abortion clinic, the conservative Christians have every right to oppose legal abortion in America today. I want to remind you that it was the New England people in the 19th century who opposed slavery in the United States. Those New Englanders were called Abolitionists and dedicated their lives in trying to stop the institution of slavery in southern states. They were descendants of the Puritans.

Mr. Anti: Before closing, I want to recite the wonderful definition of the Puritans given by the famous American newspaper columnist, H.L. Menken. He said that Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. The Puritans are resentful of those who are enjoying life. Denying themselves of their business, but they should mind their own businesses when they see others having fun. I think the Puritans represent some of the worst elements of American heritage.

Moderator: “Thank you, Mr. Pro and Mr. Con. Now, the ladies and gentlemen in the audience will vote to decide who won the debate.”

(Information indicated in this work came mainly from The Teaching Company’s Lecture Series on The History of the United State, 1st edition, Part I Lecture Six, ‘Religion of Puritans’ by Darren Staloff, Ph.D.)


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      8 years ago

      This is very useful and enjoyingful to read about!


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