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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)
  1. longtooth

    Anyone who reads history knows the early settlers were fond of their beer and wine. Johnny Appleseed, an American folk hero, was revered because he spread apple trees everywhere, Apples were used to make hard cider, thus Johnny was spreading happiness. You can regret history if you like, but you can't change it.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Sunflower

      You can regret history if you like, but you can't change it.

      I have to agree with you wholeheartedly on this one..... It infuriates me how many people want to deny things that happened in history becuase it will
      1. Hurt my "feelings"....... boo hoo....Get a backbone!
      2. Insult my ethnicity.... What?????
      3. be politically incorrect..... by who's politics?
      4. be meaningless and insignificant..... to who? You? Who died and left you boss of history?
      5. make us look bad...... Hello! We DID look bad. So learn from the mistakes!

      States (like Texas) are leaving out entire chapters of history because "they don't like it'.. My God...What are we teaching our children? If we don't learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. It's ethically wrong in my opinion. I'm glad someone steps out and boldly tells the truth like this article.... Truth is something we all need a little more of...

      November 22, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  2. Epidi

    I agree about the wine & beer – they are are considered food groups in some countries. Good for you too in moderation. They weren't much different than us in the big scheme of things. Just trying to live and enjoy life but with the burden of guilt usually associated with religious upbringings. I'm so glad I am Pagan and have no such mind bender guilt trips about Deity's gifts.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  3. Mary

    I think the Piligrms and the Puritans were two entirely different groups of people.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Judas

      Hello, they all were pilgrims! They came to America dude.

      November 22, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Mike in NYC

      The Pilgrims (that we think of on Thanksgiving) were the group of settlers who landed in Massachusetts in 1620. They were indeed "puritans." The "Puritans" would include everyone that followed in New England that wished to purge Catholicism from the Church of England – both those that came here on the Mayflower, those that were born here, and those that came here after Plymouth Colony was settled. Therefore .... all of the Pilgrims were "puritans", however, not ALL of the "Puritans" were Pilgrims.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  4. Henry Heinzmann

    The so-called Pilgrims, Separatists who settled Plymouth Colony, gave us Thanksgiving. The Puritans wanted tu purify the Church of England and settled Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  5. RhodaK

    I can’t wait til Thursday!! I am making these awesome crispy sweet potato and jalapeno balls. I actually found the recipe online on this hilarious food website. It was a bit unpc so it isn’t for everyone, but if you want the recipe (and have a good sense of humor and don’t get offended easily), google “whipped & Beaten culinary works”.. the recipe is on their site on the “blogs and recipes” tab. The first entry is “Thanksgiving Sides”.. there are 4 great recipes there including the sweet potato balls.. Happy Thanksgiving!

    November 22, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Andy S

      Happy Thanksgiving!,
      whatever you do, don't watch CNN that day, they will remind you of s e x and booze.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • T3chsupport

      Back to spamming that crap again, eh?

      November 22, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • TCP

      I think I'm just gonna' get hammered and get laid...FIVE TIMES!!! Dog style, missionary, cowgirl, standing up, who knows!!!! Heck, the Puritans did it why shouldn't I!

      November 22, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Jav

      neat you've posted this everywhere.. is this a new way to drive traffic to your site?

      November 22, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  6. LJB

    What is with CNN and god. It's endless!

    November 22, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • GaiusCaesar

      It is all part of their target of getting rid of religion altogether. They slant and misrepresent it as much as possible. The only positive articles CNN ever does about religion are about the liberal, nonbiblical pastors that ontracdict key biblical points.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • HellBent

      @Gaius – clamp the tin foil hat on a little too tight this morning?

      November 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • MD

      You are ignorant if you think this is a faith based article or that it is wrong to include such references. History is what it is and the people who lived at the beginning of this nation believed in God. If that fact offends you move to a small island where it is not possible to be bothered/interacted with the rest of us.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • NiEM

      See that big thing waaaay at the top of the page? It says BELIEF BLOG.
      If you don't want to read opinions, then don't read the opinion section.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • amadeo122

      faith is the enemy of science, art, history but above all, reason.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • It's a religion column

      It's a religion column. Get over yourself.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Judas

      God mercy on us all, including CNN

      November 22, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  7. Downafewpegs

    For every Pilgrim Father, there was a Pilgirm mother.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • GodPot

      For every Pilgrim Father, there was a Pilgirm mother
      For every Pilgrim Sister, there was a Pilgrim Brother,
      And for every Brother Thomas, Brother Richard, and Brother Harry,
      The sisters and mothers would go missionary...

      November 22, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  8. Bates

    So pretty much I can be a belligerent drunk and bang my GF on the table in the middle of dinner and I could simply claim I am celebrating a Puritan tradition?

    November 22, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • GaiusCaesar

      if you believe this article, you could. Unfortunately, CNN rarely inputs truth in their stories. In fact, usually the stories aren't aired for their accuracy, but for their persuasiveness.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • MikeyZ

      Yes, assuming someone hasn't already beaten you to it.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Tom

      only if you make use of the whipp cream from the PUMPkin Pie........

      November 22, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Nikki

      No, but you could bang your WIFE..didn't you read this article?

      November 22, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • NOo..oON

      LOL... score 1 for both Nikki and MikeyZ.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  9. GaiusCaesar

    CNN is ridiculous. They dont ever miss an opportunity to try and insult Christianity. Usually they try and insult the Puritans and their way of life...but this time they try and misrepresent them as really liberal. CNN doesn't report news, they slant news.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • QS

      "Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar..."

      Wanna rethink that little rant? It's not CNN's opinion, it's the author's.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Scot

      Get a life !!!!!! You evanglicals are amazing !

      November 22, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Mikey

      Right....the historians are just making this up!!!

      November 22, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      Wow, someone has a serious persecution complex

      November 22, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Looking Back

      GaiusCaesar,

      I picture you, prostrate on the steps of the Forum, bewailing the passing of the belief in Jupiter.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • richunix

      GaiusCaesar,

      naw, "Christianity" does it all by themselves....they don't need any more help......

      November 22, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • joe

      Having a problem with the truth, are we?

      November 22, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • janemutiny

      Wait, so you're saying that nobody left of the center enjoys a s e x life? and it's liberal claptrap to suggest the Puritans did? Listen, Pal, people are people and you ought to reach way down within and find a way to admit it...repression leads to all kinds of perversions. Don't make me start listing all the horribly embarrassing examples from your side of the aisle (and that includes the church aisle). Conservative Christians enjoy s e x just as much as every other person, they're just better at pretending they don't.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • MikeyD

      This story is nothing new, nor can you blame it on CNN. If you'd actually read any history you'd know that much of our myths about the Pilgrims are just that. . .myths. As for liberal. . .who said anything about liberal. Of late it's been the most self-righteous and sanctimonious among us getting caught in the bathroom-stall-toe-tapping-rentboy episodes!

      November 22, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Nonimus

      "Usually they try and insult the Puritans and their way of life..."

      Puritans? I think this is the first Belief Blog article I've ever seen on the Puritans. How does that equate to "usually?"

      November 22, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • rod1148

      GauusCeaser. Paul Harvey reported on the beer drinking habits of our beloved Pilgrims decades ago on his "rest of the story" program. Paul Harvey– hardly a flaming liberal.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  10. Jason

    Like it! In a non-religious decision I have chosen not to drink to excess if at all. As a christian, I am VERY thankful for how God chose to facilitate procreation and marital unity – by getting my freak on.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  11. toxictown

    True. Also, don't forget that while the "pilgrims" (ie, the "old comers") were a branch of puritans, the later puritans (ie, the ones fresh from the English Civil War) were not the pilgrims. The original pilgrims or "Saints" had quite a few "Strangers" (ie, non-religious workers, seamen, etc...) in thier ranks on the first thanksgiving as well as plenty of native americans who added their own party style to the mix. Competetive games were huge to the indians so the traditional football games are not much of a stretch!

    November 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  12. Roman

    The Pilgrims choose Plymouth because: "We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it being now the 19th of December" (Mourt's Relation, 1622, commonly attributed to colonists William Bradford and Edward Winslow)"

    In short they landed at Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer and as 19 December 1622 was a Sunday, the package stores were closed.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • toxictown

      LOL!

      November 22, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • GaiusCaesar

      Before water purifying techniques, beer was the safe drink of choice. Of course, the beer then would go bad during the voyage, so it isn't any surprise they were ready to end their voyage and concentrate on re-ing up.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Downafewpegs

      Well played, sir.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Boston Joe

      The Packy is closed? oh my gawd!

      November 22, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  13. satan

    what ever you do ,,,,dont accept jesus

    November 22, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Crouching Tiger Hidden Firefighter

      Whatever you do, ACCEPT Jesus!!!!!!!!! For He is our Lord and Saviour!!!!!!!!!!!!! No exceptions!!!!!!!!!

      November 22, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • claybigsby

      "Whatever you do, ACCEPT Jesus!!!!!!!!! For He is our Lord and Saviour!!!!!!!!!!!!! No exceptions!!!!!!!!!"

      according to the fallible MEN who wrote the bible....weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

      November 22, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • LBam

      BUDDHA is my homeboy...

      November 22, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Judas

      Please convert! You are still kicking. Jesus is Awesome! Take it from my name.

      November 22, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  14. Princess

    Thank you, God, for everything,
    The big things and the small.
    For "every good gift comes from God"...
    The giver of them all.
    And all too often we accept, without any thanks or praise,
    The gifts God sends as blessings, each day in many ways.
    And so at this Thanksgiving Time, we offer up a prayer...
    To thank you, God, for giving us a lot more than our share.

    First, thank you for the little things
    That often come our way,
    The things we take for granted
    But don't mention when we pray,
    The unexpected courtesy, the thoughtful, kindly deed,
    A hand reached out to help us in the time of sudden need.
    Oh, make us more aware, dear God, of little daily graces
    That come to us with "sweet surprise"
    From never-dreamed-of places.

    Then, thank you for the "Miracles"
    We are much too blind to see,
    And give us new awareness of our many gifts from Thee,
    And help us to remember that the Key of Life and Living
    Is to make each prayer a Prayer of Thanks
    And every day Thanksgiving

    –Helen Steiner Rice

    November 22, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  15. hippypoet

    run run as fast as you can, if my bullet doesn't get you my cold sure can! muhahahahahahaha, oh thanks for all the fish!

    always fun to fit a movie line in there!
    because we as all know – this article is dead on balls arcuate...... its an industry term. :)

    November 22, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  16. Bob Morton

    @Woof What about "The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those..." do you not understand? Opinions aren't facts. Opinions aren't truth.

    November 22, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • George

      I caught that "opinions expressed" also. So my question is, what was opinion, and what was fact? This is indeed a VERY different take on the Puritans than I have ever seen before. Where are the references? Far as I can tell, it is ALL opinion.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  17. HZD

    Ah, as much as I love him, Nathaniel Hawthorne is responsible for our grim picture of Puritans running around wearing black and frowning at everyone. Thanks for reminding us of a slightly less gothic version of our history.

    November 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  18. mark

    typical liberal BS

    November 22, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • ncjd

      Don't be a fool.

      November 22, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • rod1148

      Mark. Paul Harvey reported on the beer drinking habits of our beloved Pilgrims decades ago on his "rest of the story" program. Paul Harvey– hardly a flaming liberal.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • Fookin' Prawn

      Someone needs a dictionary.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  19. toughenup

    As a direct descendant of Gov. Wm. Bradford and William White, I heartily concur. Enjoy the simple pleasures of life for those are the only ones that really matter. Happy Thanksgiving!

    November 22, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  20. The Woof

    Another great myth exposed to the light of truth!

    November 22, 2011 at 1:51 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.