David D. Hall: Peace, Love and Puritanism





[David D. Hall, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, is the author of the forthcoming history “A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England.”]

THANKSGIVING 1971, the 350th anniversary of the “first” of the harvest celebrations in Plymouth, Mass. Invited to speak to a local historical society about that long-ago event, I described the ritual significance of food to the colonists and the Native Americans who attended. Afterward, someone asked, “Did they serve turkey?”

This was no idle question, for it captured the uneasiness many of us feel about the threads that connect past and present. Are our present-day values and practices aligned with the historical record, or have they been remade by our consumer culture? Is anything authentic in our own celebrations of Thanksgiving? And isn’t the deeper issue what the people who came here were like, not what they ate in 1621?

To return to the first of these harvest feasts is to return to the puzzling figure of the Puritan, the name borne by most of the English people who came to New England in the early 17th century. What did they hope to gain by coming to the New World, and what values did they seek to practice?

The easy answers simplify and distort. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who came along a couple of centuries later, bears some of the blame for the most repeated of the answers: that Puritans were self-righteous and authoritarian, bent on making everyone conform to a rigid set of rules and ostracizing everyone who disagreed with them. The colonists Hawthorne depicted in “The Scarlet Letter” lacked the human sympathies or “heart” he valued so highly. Over the years, Americans have added to Hawthorne’s unfriendly portrait with references to witch-hunting and harsh treatment of Native Americans....


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