As American As Apple Pie

Sometimes, as sons and daughters of Christian Patriarchy, we tend to see our situations as unique and unprecedented. I realized today as I read a book on the history of childhood that this is simply not so. Rather, our situations are as American as apple pie. The hard decisions we have to make, the heartache we feel? Yeah, that’s not new.

The section I read that really struck me was on the Puritans, who began arriving in the American colonies in the years following 1620 and settled most of New England in the coming decades. You see, the Puritans were very similar to today’s Christian Patriarchy. They taught that children were born sinful and must have their wills broken, that corporal punishment was mandated by God, that even adult children must obey their parents, etc. The family was ordered according to a divine rule, and the father was the head of the household in every way. These similarities didn’t surprise me, as I already knew about many of them. What surprised me was the similarities in the Puritans’ tensions with the next generation, their children.

The Puritan obsession with children and youth was not, however, limited to concern about sin. It also expressed fear for the survival of the Puritan faith. With the first generation of New Englanders, with the rapid decline in conversions relative to population growth, how could the younger generation be nurtured in the faith that had motivated their parents? … To perpetuate their religion, the Puritans instituted mechanisms for indoctrinating youths, including youth-specific catechisms, covenant-renewal ceremonies in churches and homes, private religious societies, catechetical exercises, lectures, and covenant renewals, in which groups of youths were assembled on the Sabbath to renew their parents’ covenants.

No earlier people had ever invested greater responsibilities or higher expectations in their children than did the New England Puritans, but this heavy investment produced intense anxiety. The survival and success of the Puritan enterprise hinged on the willingness of the ‘rising generation’ to maintain their parents’ religious beliefs and ideals.


This is simply incredible. This description, word for word, could be applied to my parents, and so many other families like them in the world of Christian Patriarchy today. It gave me goosebumps.

So, did Puritan efforts to raise their children in their beliefs work? In a word, no. Whereas patriarchy originally succeeded because the father controlled his family through his control of land, this didn’t last. By the late 1600s new opportunities arose for young people, land in the west and new occupations not controlled by their parents, and parental control weakened. A youth culture formed outside of the control of the adult generation, and parents lost control of their children’s marital decisions. During the 1700s, moral norms relaxed as the church and the parents lost their grip on colonial society. Children left their parents’ houses for the frontier and chose their own spouses. How did the Puritans respond?

Beginning in the 1660s and 1670s, Puritan presses and pulpits produced a stream of jeremiads lamenting the sins of the rising generation and the degeneration of the young from the religion and godliness of their forebearers.


Sound familiar? Families were torn apart and hearts were broken. Wayward older children were seen as bad examples to younger children as parents worked hard to guide their children’s spirituality and ensure their salvation. Cotton Mather locked his eighteen-year-old son in his room for several days, alternately applying shame and guilt, after he learned that the lad had gotten a neighbor girl pregnant. Yet children had options – they could leave! they could go! there was a frontier to settle! – and leave and go many of them did.

What of religion and spirituality? Did the Puritans’ children abandon religion altogether? Sometimes, but not generally. What actually happened was more interesting. You see, the Great Awakening that took place in the middle decades of the 1700s was an overt attempt to  reign in the young, and instill them with their parents’ beliefs.

As early as the 1720s a growing number of religious leaders adopted a new strategy to instill discipline in the young. This was an evangelism that sought to convert young people in their teens and bring them into church membership. …  The [resulting] Great Awakening, the emotional religious revivals of the 1730s and 1740s, stressed the idea that divine grace could save the young. A majority of those converted during the Great Awakening were single young men and women; a quarter were in their teens.


The Great Awakening was huge, and religious revival spread through many parts of the colonies. So it worked, and Puritan children returned to their parents’ views and authority, right? Wrong. The Great Awakening actually backfired and ended up increasing the younger generation’s sense of independence and autonomy. Why? Because it made religion something that the young themselves could control, not something controlled by their parents.

Nevertheless, the Great Awakening did reinforce a trend toward greater youthful autonomy. Over time many young people turned away from the local churches that had sought their membership. Youthful piety increasingly found expression in religious ceremonies that took place outside the established churches, sometimes led by lay preachers. … The fervor and enthusiasm of the religious revival had drawn youth to it as a possible way to assert an independent identity.


Regardless of how they did so, the younger generation broke free from the control of their Puritan parents and established their own lives and their own beliefs. Their decisions to do so not only helped make the colonies prosperous and bustling places but also contributed to the colonies’ decision to seek independence from Great Britain.

By the mid-eighteenth century, adult control over young people’s access to economic independence had diminished, and young people were exercising greater autonomy over their leisure activities and courtship practices. A flood of advice books, philosophical treatises, novels, plays, and poems condemned prolonged submission to paternal rule and defended youthful freedom as a natural right. This antipatriarchal, antiauthoritarian ideology helped to sensitize the colonists to arbitrary British colonial authority.


You see, in Great Britain adult children were still largely controlled by their parents, as they lacked other economic options. In the American colonies, in contrast, children grew up to make their own decisions and live their own lives. The colonists applied this difference to their relationship with Great Britain: the colonies had come of age, they argued, and it was time for their mother country to set them free to make their own decisions and live their own lives. Great Britain disagreed, and stressed the importance of its authority as the colonies’ mother child and the colonies role as children who submit and obey. You think your break from patriarchy was hard? Our nation fought a war to defend its break from patriarchy.

In this way the Puritan young people who left their parents all those centuries ago and struck out on their own are representative of the quintessential American. Their parents heaped them with guilt and sought to reeducate them and keep them safely under authority, but that was not to go. The reality is that growing up to leave your parents’ authority and control and start your own life with your own beliefs, occupational choices, and marital decisions is as American as apple pie. We but follow in the footsteps of our forebearers.

Reference: Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, by Steven Mintz

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09779444962182438901 Enigma

    When I went to Patrick Henry College, our freshman year history professor was obsessed with the puritans. He painted them as misunderstood, as God's chosen people. 40% of our grade was contingent on a 6 page paper about the puritans. He told us we could take whatever side of the argument we wanted. I slanted mine toward the negative aspects of the Puritan belief system and i got a D. He said my arguments were wrong and ill-formed. Nothing about grammar or historical inaccuracies, just: WRONG.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17592869961433973844 be

    Enigma – that's awful. I am so sorry.Libby – this is very interesting! Thank you for sharing.It's normal to think of the Puritans this way, but it was recently pointed out to me that Rousseau, of all people, advocated authoritarian parenting, sheltering of young people, and micromanaging romantic relationships. It makes me think that the word "fear" is very thematic in these stories. On the one hand we have Puritan-type parents, who want to preserve and conserve the special godly status they hold. On the other hand, we have parents from painful and difficult backgrounds, who believe the promise that they can do better for their children by emulating the Puritan-types. And the result is that many Americans who consider themselves patriotic are actually emulating the British!Kind of relevant: http://georgelakoff.com/2011/02/19/what-conservatives-really-want/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15172112981244682382 shadowspring

    I feel your pain, enigma. It shouldn't happen, but for some reason conservatives (even in my state community college!) feel like its okay to downgrade position papers that don't toe the conservative religious line. I had a community college prof who gave me 100% for every paper I wrote (I can write!) before I came out as a compromiser on the abortion issue. My next two grades came back 80 and 75, and one of those assignements was only a paragraph stating three ways I planned to study for the final! The story is longer, but the moral is the same as yours. Change of subject: Libby Anne I hereby nominate you for the exalted honorary position of Queen of the Links, in appreciation for all the links you have sent me that I have passed on to others. Enjoy this lifetime honorary title for all its worth! =D

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Enigma – That's awful! The thing is, even if people like that idolize the Puritans, don't they also idolize the American Revolution and the founding fathers, which came after and in part as a result of the Puritans' children leaving and forming their own beliefs and values? You can't have your pie and eat it too! Be – I know it's not just the Puritans who are like that, but what really struck me is the load of guilt they dropped on their kids, seeing them as the only hope of continuing their godly society, the HUGE emphasis on passing on their exact beliefs, etc. That I saw as very similar. Shadow – Yay! Queen of the Links!

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Wonderful post and excellent commentary, Libby! You establish some really interesting parallels. Ir really drives home how much that level of ideological purity and demagoguery is really unsustainable for more than a few generations. I wonder if you have read a book called "Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists" by Jean Baker. If not, I think you would love it. (I could barely put it down.)It talks about the strategy of the early women's movement activists and how some of them (particularly Elizabeth Cady Stanton) sought to use exactly that same Englightenment-era philosophy that was used to argue for independence for young people from their parents and for the United States from England to argue for rights for women. (Because after all that talk about the Natural Rights of Man in the Revolutionary period, a lot of women thought 'hey, what about us?") The patriarchy movement's views on child-rearing do indeed seem to pulled directly from Puritan doctrine but they also seem to have a major fetish for the Victorian era when it comes to ideals and norms of femininity–and this is exactly what the early women's movement was fighting against (although, of course, some of the more pragmatic ones were willing to buy in to some extent if they thought it would get them somewhere.) More brave Americans in whose footsteps you are following. :-)


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