Getting the Puritans Right

Getting the Puritans Right November 25, 2010

From David Hall, in NYTimes and a professor at Harvard Divinity School:

Why does it matter whether we get the Puritans right or not? The simple answer is that it matters because our civil society depends, as theirs did, on linking an ethics of the common good with the uses of power. In our society, liberty has become deeply problematic: more a matter of entitlement than of obligation to the whole. Everywhere, we see power abused, the common good scanted. Getting the Puritans right won’t change what we eat on Thanksgiving, but it might change what we can be thankful for and how we imagine a better America.

Oh, and what did they eat? Although the menu in 1621 is nowhere specified, it certainly included venison, Indian corn, fish and “wild turkeys,” one species of the fowl that the Pilgrim Edward Winslow reported were accumulated in abundance just before the celebration.

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  • Interesting editorial. I like the note that they were about and for the common good. And not with a sense of entitlement. This is what we need today. More of this note, and less the sense that we’re all in this for ourselves, that each of us has the right to pursue our own good without consideration for the good of others.

    Interesting too how what is contrary to what is portrayed here won the day. Understandable in part when one considers the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

  • Technically, it wasn’t the Puritans who celebrated the first Thanksgiving. It was the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims were separatists and settled Plymouth Colony, as well as Salem. The Puritans (reformers, not separatists) began to arrive about ten years after the Pilgrims and founded Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Bay Colony eventually swallowed up Plymouth but in 1621, the Puritans has not arrived.

    From an economic standpoint, the Pilgrims arrived as part of a corporation where everything was to be held in common. The first two years were a disaster. Finally, they allotted private land to each of the colonists. Productivity improved and the rest is history. While they still had many communal responsibilities to each other, private ownership of property became essential to their survival.

    On my “to read” shelf I have Mark Valeri’s “Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America.” The thesis is that over the first four generations the Puritans went opposing many market activities to embracing markets as a divine construct. Markets were married to strong senses of personal and corporate piety. I’m looking forward to reading it. I think the story of Puritans and pursuing the common good is more complex than ideological partisans try to make it.

  • Michael, I suspect you are quite right. Most everything ends up being far more complex than most any of us understand. Just the same I think everyone’s feet need to be held to the fire of loving neighbor as one’s self, especially for those of us in Jesus and of God’s kingdom as we try to grapple with what is just and good in this world. So that private ownership is good, but not apart from certain constraints, both self as well as externally composed.

  • imposed, not composed
    (annoying habit I still have of not rereading my comments, or not rereading them well enough!)

  • Good points Ted. I just like to remind folks that neither stewardship nor generosity are possible without property rights and ownership. You can’t be a steward of something over which you have not been given authority (ownership.) You can’t give what you do not own. People mistakenly go after property rights and ownership as a nemesis. Rather the issue is understanding our obligations as property owners. As Tony Campolo has often side, ten percent is set aside for the tithe. The big question is what are you going to do with the other 90% of God’s money. 😉

    Our liberty and our property were once seen as yoked to a set of obligations. The challenge is not to diminish property rights but to reconnect our liberty and rights with obligations.

  • Mich

    By all means let’s get the Puritans right–for the “common good” the expelled Roger Williams.