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.
I guess Missionary style was out of the question...
Some of us approach our faith much like the fearful servant in the Parable of the Talents. We take what little we have been given and bury it, never seeking to grow it into some thing more, certainly not a faith that would lead Christ to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things; I will set you over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord."
Sadly, for many people, their religion is largely a matter of proximity. Author and noted atheist, Bertrand Russell, said this:
“…people choose the book considered sacred by the community in which they are born, and out of that book they choose the parts they like, ignoring the rest.”
It is hard to argue against that point. Do we really choose our faith or is it largely chosen for us by our parents and the culture into which we happen to be born?
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keep christ out of christmas
Take your spam and shove it where the sun don't shine.
The author needs to do more homework. The Pilgrims WERE NOT Puritans, they were Separatists.
http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/puritans.html perhaps, or maybe not
James, that article makes no mention of the Plymouth Colony, which is where the First Thanksgiving was celebrated. Not sure what your point is.
We don't need an opinion, we have in writing what they were thankful for ...
"...I always distrust people who know so much about what God wants them to do to their fellows.
I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires..."
Susan B. Anthony
In 1963 President Kennedy recognized that the first thanksgiving was held at Berkeley Plantation, Virginia on December 4, 1619. If a person writing an article can't get the background to his or her story correct, it becomes very hard to give any creditability to anything else that might said.
Thank thee for the booty... I mean the bounty for which we are about to receive. Amen!
CNN has become so liberal that they even allow these "stupid" opinions to be published ! This guy has absolutely no idea about thats Giving and he is writing his "out of mind" ideas and surprisingly a national leader in news is publishing this nonsense !!
Sense...we need you to make some.
If you are offended by that, read " Albion's Seed" by David Hackett Fischer, a conservative historian: his graphic accounts of the personal lives of people in coloncial America will extinguish the idea that articles like this are the work of Liberals. He's about as right-wing as they come with regards to his politics, but what was in this piece echos what he and other historians have recognized for decades: our myths about the Puritans are, well, myths.
While I think his tone is a bit off...emphasizing the boozing it up quite a bit for some reason...his facts are undisputable. Puritan families were very, very affectionate. Poets such as Anne Bradstreet, who longed for her husband when he was away on state's business, and others leave us much evidence. Contemporary laws, sermons, and other writings all combine to show us that Puritans were neither joy-killers nor prudish in any way. They loved God, and celebrated the gifts He had given, and they read in Scripture that the marriage bed was undefiled...and believed and acted upon that! :) Good for them!
I (and everyone else) lost you at THATS Giving. Come on, proofread your worthless, mis-guided opinions.
Thanksgivings without booze, why do so many families not allow booze at there Thanksgivings? It drives me nutz! My families don't allow it, my fiance's family doesn't allow it, LAME! I'll just have to drink enough Wednesday night so I'm still buzzed into the day on Thursday, but then when it wears off I'll be too hungover for good ol' lovin. Better just let us drink what we are thankful for.
To the alcoholic mind, the alcoholic life seems to be the only natural one. Is it that difficult to spend time with your family sober?
You've never met jimbo's family!
What are we waiting for??? let's celebrate Thanksgiving....early style!!
Native Americans saved them from starvation and look at what they did to them in return for that.
We gave them guns and helped them get rid of those pesky bison.
Because all Europeans who came to America were on the same team?
I'm not sure what the point of this article is. OK, good, the Puritans weren't as prudish as we're led to believe. And...? No offense, but if there's an opinion in this opinion piece, I missed it.
No point. It's written like so many pieces now. Blog-like, stream of conscientiousness with no structure like in the old days. You get left wondering what the whole point is.
I'm not sure what the point of this article is. OK, good, they Puritans weren't as prudish as we're led to believe. And...? No offense, but if there's an opinion in this opinion piece, I missed it.
The best thing about Thanksgiving is you don't have to be religious to celebrate!
FOOD I HAVE ALWAYS HAD....SO U GUYS JUST GAVE A VERY GOOD REASON TO STIMULATE MYSELF FOR THE HOLIDAY...THANK U ALL
They also saw no problem with women feeding babies in public... It seems we are far more prudish then our puritan foreberrers
Please put your teat back in its pocket. Feed your baby in private. You might as well poop on the cross-town bus while you're at it. Disgusting.
I have a feeling 'f' doesn't actually know where babies come from.
edit above: Puritans arrived in 1630.
Pilgrims arrived in Nov. of 1620 on Plymouth Rock.
@Caral from SoCal
Right... so if the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 and the Puritans arrived in 1630, what does that mean about the Puritans involvement in the first Thanksgiving?
Usually I just skim Belief articles, this was fun and interesting. I hope to enjoy those two things on Thanksgiving too.
Religion can try to suppress human nature all it wants, but it's a losing battle. People will get drunk and fornicate no matter what.
You really hate Christians don't you?
I think you missed the whole point of the article. Our "purtanical" notions of the Puritans is based on stereotypes of what religious people are like, both past and present. The Puritans enjoyed life just like anyone else. The difference is that they saw that there was a time and place for enjoyment as well as a time and a place to refrain.
You're not much of a historian if you can't tell the difference between a Puritan and a Separatist. the Puritans did not have Thanksgiving. Nor did they land in Plymouth. the Pilgrims (Separistists) arrived in 1620. The Puritans arrived in 1620. The Pilgrims had Plymouth Colony. The Puritans had Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Pilgrims paid the Indians for land. The Puritans seized Indian lands. The Pilgrims had a Democratic consensus of government. The Puritans were Authoritarian. The Pilgrims separated from the Church of England. The Puritans "Purified" the Church from within.
RIGHT ON...WE'RE 7 BILLION ALREADY AND COUNTING...THAT IS PROOF...
Joe, you are really splitting hairs a bit. Once in the new world, pilgrims vs. puritans did not apply. Certainly the 1620 crowd believed the "fix" for the problem was a bit different than that the 1630 crowd desired. The fact is that the groups blended once here. Their religious beliefs were similar, just in their approach to the Church of England did they differ.
Well, I consider myself a Christian and I will definitely be giving thanks for both booze and s3x this thanksgiving! Whose with me?!?!
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.