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My Take: On Thanksgiving, Puritans gave thanks for sex and booze
An 18th century illustration of the first Thanksgiving.
November 22nd, 2011
09:25 AM ET

My Take: On Thanksgiving, Puritans gave thanks for sex and booze

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

When we think of the New England Puritans who gave to us Thanksgiving, we tend to run to predictable nouns, including killjoy and prude.

But Thanksgiving is a festival, which is to say it was made for fun. And New England’s Puritans were by no means allergic to fun.

To be sure, they aimed (as their name implies) to “purify” the Church of England of every last vestige of Roman Catholicism. So they refused to celebrate Roman Catholic festivals, not least Christmas, which was banned by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659.

These Puritans were not as puritanical as we imagine, however.

Early Puritan funerals were surprisingly simple affairs. There were no fancy coffins or tombs, and funeral ceremonies were so simple as to be almost nonexistent.

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But after the corpse was buried there were lavish funeral dinners, accompanied by lots and lots of alcohol. According to historian David Stannard, “it was not uncommon for funeral expenses to consume 20 percent of the deceased’s estate,” much of it spent on booze.

Puritans denounced drunkenness, of course, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

According to Jessica Kross, another colonial historian, after some funerals, “entire communities, children included, became intoxicated.” While hard alcohol was frowned upon, beer and wine were celebrated as gifts from above.

Another gift from above was sex, which New England Puritans liked just about as much as the rest of us (or more). They sought to channel sexual desire into the institution of marriage, but inside marriage they let their lusts run free.

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In a classic article called “The Puritans and Sex,” Edmund Morgan demonstrated not only that New England’s Puritans whooped it up in the marriage bed, but also that they dealt with the sex offenders in their midst with sympathy rooted in their view of human frailty.

These Puritans looked upon the Catholic preference for sexual abstinence as abnormal and unscriptural, pointing to Old Testament patriarchs such as Isaac who “sported with Rebecca his wife.” And sex wasn’t just for men either.

New England’s Puritans disciplined church members who refused to have sex with their wives, including one James Mattock, excommunicated from his church in Boston in 1640 because he “denied conjugal fellowship unto his wife” for two years.

These passionate Pilgrims also allowed women to sue for divorce if their husbands were unable to satisfy them sexually.

To return to Thanksgiving today, we should of course imagine America’s early celebrants of this holiday bowing their heads to thank God for a bountiful harvest, and perhaps even for the Native Americans who saved them from starvation. But part of that harvest was beer and wine, and after the eating and drinking was done, plenty of Puritans thanked God for saving them from celibacy.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Holidays • Sex • Thanksgiving

soundoff (412 Responses)
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    May 18, 2013 at 8:00 am |
  2. 200 TON HAMMER

    Gotta love eel fish for first Thanksgiving
    In the so called new world huh

    November 23, 2012 at 7:31 am |
  3. profbam

    Actually, the first supposed Thanksgiving was held by Pilgrims, not Puritans. Puritans also came to the New World to escape persecution for their religious beliefs, but in turn persecuted others. One example is that Greenwich, CT was founded by a non-religious group that came directly from England while next door in Stamford, the Puritans set up. Relations got so bad, that Greenwich joined the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam for protection. And it was the Puritans who thought killing heathens was a good way to convert them to Christianity. I am not sure what the point of the article was, especially given the historical inaccuracies–a tongue in cheek exposition maybe?

    December 6, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  4. Michael

    If I recall, this cult of women demeaning monsters were on their way to the Virginian coast where they were hired by an insurance company to work. Their release from the Dutch and English was based upon this deal. The storm blew them off course and the poor people of the north east had to put up with the burning of women as witches some time later rather than the Virginians, so I guess they are grateful for that storm.

    December 6, 2011 at 5:41 am |
  5. Da King

    Actually they were thanking God for the survivors of the voyage and praying for half that died. And they were thanking God for their new freedom to live and worship Christ and to live according to the scriptures. They befriended the native Indians with a christian heart and were helpful to each other. It was a good beginning. Praise God for them.

    November 24, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • chief

      and they were thanking God that they could steal from and kill the american indians that were here first.... i think its hilarious when people spew out all this religious freedom crap when this country was built on denying it? have some more turkey

      November 24, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • chief

      re da king.... to say they crap you said means your a republican and most likely would vote for palin or bachman.... while your sitting on your fat behind talking about how godly this country is and immigration.... go take a walk....

      November 24, 2011 at 7:20 am |
    • Da King

      chief, I'm glad God's grace could disturb you so much this morning.

      November 24, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • I was gonna go to the Red Cross, ...

      Puritans were invited to live and practice their faith in the Netherlands and did so for awhile, but were appalled by the very culture of religious tolerance that accepted them. They went to America not to be free of persecution, but to be free to persecute. The puritans had successfully rebelled against the monarchy but were so awful during their own rule, the populace turned against them. There is nothing the least bit warm and fuzzy about this group.

      November 24, 2011 at 9:04 am |
    • jonathan

      I hate to agree with you Chief but have some real Jesus.. :)
      Most people who profess Jesus Christ cannot even tell they are pretenders.. I checked re-checked and double checked Jesus out.....cause , I did not want to become one of the fakers.. you can find Jesus in the Pentecostal way and you will never be disappointed..Every man is born with the seed of faith in him..and the opportunity to discover the kingdom of heaven for himself by Jesus Christ...I apologize for the near 1500-1700 years of hypocrisy...after 1500 years or so the Pentecostal way began in this very country in about 1905 and spread throughout the world.. :)

      November 24, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Ichiban

      Actually, they were giving thanks they hadn't come down with the diseases good ol' Chris and his crew had given to the Indians for free, and praying that they wouldn't get them, particularly STDs.

      November 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      @chief a c t u a l l y t h e I n d i a n s k i l l e d a l l o f t h e s e t t l e r s o n t h e J a m e s R i v e r i n 1 6 2 2 O h , I k n o w , t h e y d o n o t t e a c h t h a t i n t h e s c h o o l s y o u a t t e n d e d t h e y h a v e r e v i s e d a c t u a l h i s t o r y T h e n t h e F r e n c h P A I D t h e H u r o n s t o k i l l w h i t e s e t t l e r s a g a i n T h e y b o u g h t s c a l p s T h e n T e c u m s e h l e d a n a s s a u l t u p o n W i l l i a m H e n r y H a r r i s o n a t T i p p e c a n o e a n d a l s o T h e n t h e F r e n c h P A I D t h e H u r o n s t o k i l l w h i t e s e t t l e r s a g a i n T h e y b o u g h t s c a l p s T h e n T e c u m s e h l e d a n a s s a u l t u p o n W i l l i a m H e n r y H a r r i s o n a t T i p p e c a n o e a n d a l s o T h e n t h e F r e n c h P A I D t h e H u r o n s t o k i l l w h i t e s e t t l e r s a g a i n T h e y b o u g h t s c a l p s T h e n T e c u m s e h l e d a n a s s a u l t u p o n W i l l i a m H e n r y H a r r i s o n a t T i p p e c a n o e a n d a l s o p a r t y ( N e z P i e r c e ) ( T r u e e n o u g h t h a t C u s t e r a n d N e l s o n M i l e s w e r e b a d m e n a n d t h e T r a i l f o T e a r s w a s i n h u m a n ) B u t f o r t h e m o s t p a r t w h i t e s w e r e n o t k i l l i n g I n d i a n s

      November 25, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • RightTurnClyde

      @chief (sorry about the double post .. I am blocked from posting most of the time .. they do not like Latin based words .. ) . . . .a c t u a l l y . .t h e . .I n d i a n s . .k i l l e d . .a l l . .o f . .t h e . .s e t t l e r s . .o n . .t h e . .J a m e s . .R i v e r . .i n . .1 6 2 2 . . . . .O h , . .I . .k n o w , . .t h e y . .d o . .n o t . .t e a c h . .t h a t . .i n . .t h e . . . .s c h o o l s . .y o u . .a t t e n d e d . .. . . .t h e y . .h a v e . .r e v i s e d . .a c t u a l . .h i s t o r y . . . T h e n . . . .t h e . .F r e n c h . .P A I D . .t h e . .H u r o n s . .t o . .k i l l . .w h i t e . .s e t t l e r s . .a g a i n . . . . . . .T h e y . .b o u g h t . .s c a l p s . . . . .T h e n . .T e c u m s e h . .l e d . .a n . .a s s a u l t . .u p o n . .W i l l i a m . .H e n r y . .H a r r i s o n . .a t . .T i p p e c a n o e . .. . . .a n d . .a l s o . .T h e n . . . .t h e . .F r e n c h . .P A I D . .t h e . .H u r o n s . .t o . .k i l l . .w h i t e . .s e t t l e r s . .a g a i n . . . . . . .T h e y . .b o u g h t . .s c a l p s . . . . .T h e n . .T e c u m s e h . .l e d . .a n . .a s s a u l t . .u p o n . .W i l l i a m . .H e n r y . .H a r r i s o n . .a t . .T i p p e c a n o e . .. . . .a n d . .a l s o . .T h e n . . . .t h e . .F r e n c h . .P A I D . .t h e . .H u r o n s . .t o . .k i l l . .w h i t e . .s e t t l e r s . .a g a i n . . . . . . .T h e y . .b o u g h t . .s c a l p s . . . . .T h e n . .T e c u m s e h . .l e d . .a n . .a s s a u l t . .u p o n . .W i l l i a m . .H e n r y . .H a r r i s o n . .a t . .T i p p e c a n o e . .. . . .a n d . .a l s o . .p a r t y . .( N e z . .P i e r c e ) . . . . .( T r u e . .e n o u g h . .t h a t . .C u s t e r . .a n d . .N e l s o n . .M i l e s . .w e r e . .b a d . .m e n . .a n d . .t h e . .T r a i l . .f o . .T e a r s . .w a s . .i n h u m a n ) . . . . .B u t . .f o r . .t h e . .m o s t . .p a r t . .w h i t e s . .w e r e . .n o t . .k i l l i n g . .I n d i a n s . . .

      November 25, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • photogman20

      In fact they were thanking God for they fact that they and a friendly tribe had snuck up on another tribe of Indians and had killed everyone of them (men women and children) without any of the Puritans getting hurt. The fact that you are repeating the children's story taught in the first grade shows the terrible education you live with.

      November 26, 2011 at 4:50 am |
  6. Lisa

    What in the world does this article have to do with Thanksgiving? I thought this article was strangely written.

    November 23, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • CLOUD OF SMUG

      Even stranger still are some of the stupid comments.

      November 23, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  7. ScotchFoster

    haha you know it. I'm a Lagavulin fan myself, but in a pinch I do like a nice Oban.

    November 23, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • hippypoet

      glenfiddich all the way, Oban isn't bad, but it has an evil after burn!

      November 23, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • derp

      Balvenie Doublewood

      MMmmmmmm

      November 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • hippypoet

      now i do like Balvenie as well, but is it odd for my to prefer the youngest year from Balvenie over the oldest – which is normally the better of all the years?

      November 23, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Kandelmer

      Lagavulin is nice, but I prefer Laphroig!

      December 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  8. ScotchFoster

    @hippypoet, I believe wine is healthier for you, but beer holds more nutrition. More vitamins etc..

    November 23, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Rick

      Scotch: Aren't those two statements inconsistent?

      November 23, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • AGuest9

      Red wine. Good for cholesterol and lowers blood pressure.

      November 24, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.