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Edmund S. Morgan’s The Puritan Family

Edmund S. Morgan’s The Puritan Family displays a multifaceted view of the various aspects of Puritan life. In this book, we, the audience, see into the Puritans’ lives and are thereby forced to reflect upon our own. The Puritan beliefs and practices were complicated and rather “snobbish,” as seen in The Puritan Family.

The Puritans were “Christians,” in that they believed in Jesus Christ yet some may argue that they did not lead “Christian” lives. These fanatics seemed to obssess over a major tenet of their religion, that being “Pre Destination.” That is, God Himself chose those destined for eternal salvation in the beginning of time, long before our conception and birth. This pre-ordained number is considerably miniscule, which, at times, the Puritans seemed to ignore.

The First Chapter of The Puritan Family explains to the reader the rather “backwards” Puritan mindset that a man must be destined for salvation if he commanded good social conduct. That is, he was conducting himself in such a way because he was to be saved (the conduct being the result of this salvation). Many, if not all, Christians today believe, however, that salvation would be a result of conduct – that one will be saved if one has lived a just and moral life, unlike the Puritan converse – “one must be living justly and morally because one must have been chosen.”

The Puritans also took it upon themselves to impose their beliefs upon others. Apparently, they felt that another [outward] sign of salvation was meddling in the affairs of their neighbors.

Another curious Puritanic intrepretation of Christianity was social order and subordination. The Puritans believed that God is a god of order and, therefore, human society demanded a structure, complete with a scale from the “superior superior” to the “inferior inferior.” Even in the family, this held true, as husband came over wife and parents over children, just as ministers and elders came over a congregation.

In the home, children were not expected to do more than menial tasks before the age of seven. The Puritans believed that children need time to just “be children,” including idle time filled with nothing but play.

Women were regarded to be both bad and good – a necessary evil of types. To be involved with a woman would complicate one’s life but to not have a woman was an even worse fate – to die alone.

I have several different opinions about the Puritans yet the prevailing one is of dislike. In some aspects I suppose I could see how one might respect them yet I see them, primarily, as fanatical. The Puritans called themselves Christians yet, upon reading The Puritan Family, it makes me wonder – they call themselves Christians yet they are one of the most condescending (hence the aforementioned “snobbish”) group of people that I have ever “encountered.”

During class discussions, some attemped to illustrate parallels between the Puritans and our modern American society today. I take this as an insult. The Puritans were hypocritical misanthropes with ridiculous religious notions. Today, we have Jehovah’s Witnesses and we constantly disrespect them for their ideas and actions (similar to those of the Puritans in certain ways) yet for whatever reason, we seem to “admire” the Puritans.

In all fairness, I will give to these “fanatics” their just due. I admire the Puritan belief that children need to just “be children” for the first few years of their life. Their religious fervor in itself should be respected (however, their methods of executing such faith, I believe, are questionable). Those are, basically, the only worthwhile tenets of theirs to mention in admiration. It is unfair to say that I dislike them, I am sure that some of them were good people… but one must consider some things. One primary consideration concerns one of their own, Nathaniel Hawthorne. He scorned them in his own way by writing his controversial (and rather satirical) The Scarlet Letter.

I am afraid, in some respects, that three centuries from now, people will look back upon our culture today and have the same attitude that I have now for the Puritans. One should never disrespect the dead – that is not my intention. One strong fact that supports the feelings I have regarding these Puritans is: where are they now? If they were so right and so wonderful, why don’t we see them any longer in today’s society? Perhaps some Americans could trace their roots all the way back to these early people (I cannot) yet much has been lost (especially the “defining aspects,” those which made them “uniquely Puritan”).

In closing, I must say that I enjoyed The Puritan Family from a historical and sociological viewpoint. From a personal, American, and Catholic stance, I did not dislike the book or even the contents thereof… but I did dislike the subject.

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