Some fundamentalist Christians give unreserved praise to America’s Puritan ethic. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, even states in his 1989 book The New World Order that the Puritan society in Massachusetts Bay Colony was a model of Christian governance.
The Puritan ethic has its good points, such as living simply, working hard, and being thrifty. But fundamentalists overlook the harms caused by the Puritan opposition to many forms of pleasure. The Puritans’ history supports the position, which is held by neuropsychologist James Prescott and others, that societies opposed to pleasure are likely to be violent.
The rabid anti-pleasure attitudes of the Puritans resulted from literal belief in the Bible. Jesus indicated that laughing in this life can cause eternal damnation of one’s soul. He said, “Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:25) Christ also promoted a sorrowful attitude by promising salvation to those filled with gloom in this world: “Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21)
That ascetic philosophy, which requires Christians to wait until a supposed afterlife before they can have fun, is seen throughout the New Testament. Galatians 5:21 says those engaging in “revellings” shall not inherit the kingdom of God. Ephesians 5:3-4 proscribes “jesting.” Titus 2:2 says men should be “sober” and “grave.” James 4:9 admonishes Christians: “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laugher be turned to mourning and your joy to heaviness.”
Based on such biblical teachings, Puritans and other Christians often viewed laughter, happiness, and pleasure as suspect and undesirable. Making matters worse, they frequently tried to impose their doleful philosophy on others. As the nineteenth-century abolitionist and women’s-rights activist Wendell Phillips reportedly said: “The Puritan’s idea of hell is a place where everybody has to mind his own business.”
John Calvin is considered the founder of the Puritan ethic. The theocracy he established in sixteenth-century Geneva, Switzerland, prohibited dancing, drinking, gambling, card playing, ribaldry, fashionable clothes, and other amusements. Theaters were closed and attempts were made to drive taverns from the city.
Proclaiming “the chief duty of man is to glorify God,” Calvin required religious instruction for all, public fasting, austere living, and evening curfew. According to the town records, a man was imprisoned for three days for smiling during a baptism.
When the Puritans temporarily gained control in England, they banned entertainments, closed theaters, opposed festivals, and prescribed the death penalty for sex outside of marriage. Lord Macaulay said the Puritans “hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”
Sex researcher Aileen Goodson, Ph.D., states the Puritans who came to America emphasized biblical interpretations that considered the human body as inherently impure and depraved. She further reports they “had neither the time nor the inclination for frivolity. Their body guilt and shame became the law of the land, and this law was even more extreme in the United States than overseas.”
The anti-sex attitude of the Puritans is also described by historian John Demos. He reports that throughout the seventeenth century, the Puritans in Plymouth Colony had “a steady succession of trials and convictions for sexual offenses involving single persons. ‘Fornication,’ in particular, was a familiar problem.” Demos says the punishment for fornication was “a fine of ten pounds or a public whipping – and applied equally to both parties.”
Although the Puritans had serious and even pathological hang-ups about pleasure, they were into violence. Calvin’s Geneva beheaded adulterers. Religious dissenters were hanged, decapitated, or burned at the stake. Christopher Hitchens describes Calvin as “a sadist and torturer and killer, who burned Servetus (one of the great thinkers and questioners of the day) while the man was still alive.”
In England, Oliver Cromwell’s Bible-carrying, hymn-singing Puritan army became notorious for slaughtering Anglicans at home and Catholics in Ireland.
Puritans in Massachusetts set up a religious police state in which deviation from their religion could result in flogging, pillorying, hanging, banishment, having one’s ears cut off, or having one’s tongue bored through with a hot iron. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston after repeated whippings and banishments failed to drive them away. President Taft was obviously correct in commenting that the Puritans “came to this country to establish freedom of their religion, not the freedom of anybody else’s religion.”
Massachusetts Puritans also had a law, based on Leviticus 20:9 from the Old Testament, that a child who curses his or her parent shall be put to death. Calvin would have approved, for his government used the same verse to justify beheading a small boy in Geneva for striking his father.
As a result of the command at Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” Puritans were responsible for the insanity of the Salem witch trials. Those proceedings led to 20 people being executed and 150 imprisoned after confessing, under torture, to such acts as flying through the air to attend witch gatherings, partaking of witch sacraments, signing a book presented by the devil, and receiving Satanic baptism.
The hardships of life in the American wilderness, combined with the bizarre aspects of Puritan philosophy, made life especially difficult for the women of that time. As the early feminist Lillie Devereux Blake said in 1892: “The Pilgrim mothers not only had to endure all that the Pilgrim fathers suffered, but had to endure the Pilgrim fathers as well.”
The Puritans’ biblical-based opposition to pleasure has been shared by other Christian groups. At least until well into the twentieth century, it was not unusual for many churches to denounce activities such as dancing, drinking, card playing, gambling, attending movies or plays, listening to certain types of music, reading novels or poetry, rolling dice, going to horse races, wearing jewelry and makeup, having thoughts relating to sexual pleasure, and engaging in any type of recreation on the Sabbath.
George H. Smith relates: “Throughout its history, Christianity has been steadfastly not only anti-pleasure but pro-suffering. . . . The puritan era was simply an extreme manifestation of what amounts to a deep-seated suspicion of pleasure of any sort. While sexual pleasures were the chief source of condemnation, the pleasure inhibition in Christianity was generalized to relate to many other areas.”
Unfortunately, some Christian groups continue to make the lives of their adherents and others miserable by puritanical doctrines that are anti-enjoyment, anti-aesthetic, and anti-worldly.
Their teachings are completely at odds with modern science’s findings that laughter is good medicine. For example, laughter improves digestion and circulation, and some studies indicate it is as beneficial as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise.
Other forms of pleasure – when indulged in moderately and sensibly – can also promote physical and mental health.
Additionally, the refreshment and rejuvenation brought by pleasurable activities can enable people to be more productive and creative in their work lives.
Further, authors John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney point out that, particularly in difficult times, “Humor can be invaluable in helping us gain insight or keep our sanity.” Or as Bill Cosby put it, “Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers.”
Because abused and unhappy people sometimes become mean people, it’s probably no coincidence that, just as the Puritans did, today’s ascetic religious groups usually support intolerant and violent doctrines. Nor should it be surprising that they also follow the Puritans’ example of trying to enact laws denying others the same freedom, pleasure, and happiness they reject.
For the good of the world, those people need to loosen up and have some fun, whether they like it or not.
[For more information on the inverse relationship between the amount of pleasure and the incidence of violence in societies, please see the article titled “Touch Deprivation and Violent Behavior.”]