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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. Dude64

    I'm thankful for peoples' opinions, and the responses they get... Makes for great comedy!

    November 22, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  2. Factually Incorrect. Recall this article CNN.

    This article is factually incorrect. Pilgrims and Puritans are two different groups. The Pilgrims were Separatists who wanted to seperate from the Anglican Church. They were forced to leave England in order to worship in their own way. The Seperatists in Massachusetts (it is called a Commonwealth not a state) became the Congregational Church. The Puritans were non-separating independents who wanted to purify the Anglican Church, but in New England they also joined the Congregational Church where each church was independent. And if you think everything was accepted and hunky dory then read some accounts (primary sources) of the punishments...

    November 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      Before you beat this guy up for his historical inaccuracys perhaps you should do a bit more reading yourself. The separatists moved to Denmark and were later added to the crew of the Mayflower along with thier English brothers and sisters whom had moved away from Catholic dogma and embraced a new protestantism. Pilgrim is a term added later to identify the original Mayflower puritans and more specifically the ones from Denmark who had gone thier to get away from English tyranny.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
    • Pilgrim v. Puritan

      Saints and Strangers...

      pilgrim...Pilgrim
      puritan...Puritan.

      For those of us from Massachusetts, please.. don't call the Pilgrims of Plymouth (the Separatists) Puritans (although some Puritans may have been at Plymouth I think the Pilgrims would have referred to them as Strangers...) and please don't call Puritans who founded Boston Pilgrims though they were pilgrims.

      Happy Thanksgiving.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Matthew

      @SurelyUjest

      It was Holland, not Denmark.

      November 23, 2011 at 7:07 am |
  3. MJ

    How could this religious scholar from Boston not know a Pilgrim from a Puritan? The Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620 and celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621. The Puritans settled in Boston in 1630. They were all Protestants from England, and they settled within a few miles of one another in what we now know as Massachusetts. But their theology, culture, and lifestyle were quite different. The Pilgrims in particular were not in rebellion against the Catholic Church, they were in rebellion against , and seeking freedom from, the Church of England. One of the leaders of the Pilgrim sect, Miles Standish, may even have been a Catholic, some historians believe. In any case, this article is riddled with half truths.

    November 22, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
  4. government cheese

    Prothero is an idiot.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  5. chuckcreig

    It just occurred to me that nearly every reader post on CNN.com is about how bad CNN sucks. Which begs the question, are we, the critical posters the butt of the joke here? I mean obviously CNN isn't IMPROVING the quality of their journalism, nor are they banning posters for slanderous comments. I think what we have here is a Howard Stern situation a la the 80's, where a large portion of the listeners were Howard haters, which only boosted his ratings. CNN survives on the volume of readers who log in everyday, like myself, to gawk in awe at how terribly conceived and written it is, and vent our daily frustrations on the ample areas for critique. Maybe one day we'll have the balls to boycott...but it's just too damn fun to laugh this hard every day.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      I would have to agree with your first inclination, stop reading it if you don't like it. If your only mission in life is to laugh at what you don't understand or make fun of how a good article is presented by attacking grammar, punctuation, spelling etc.....then your life is very lacking in deed and as you suggested YES you are the butt of a joke. Not CNN's joke but the joke you provide the rest of us by reading you day after day complain about something that you cannot turn your head away from. Evidently you are morbid or a self abusing psychophant for Faux Noise of some sort.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
    • chuckcreig

      "Indeed," son. The word is "indeed." And, in the history of human experience there may have never been a case of drawing SO many inaccurate conclusions from something, as you have from my post just now. Congratulations on literally becoming a record-breaking moron today. As for my sentiment, just read a few posts on this website, pal. You'll find I'm in the vast majority–hence the impetus for my initial post. If you're insecure about "liking" such a journalistic abortion of a news source, maybe you should consider that we're all right. Cheers!

      November 22, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Matthew

      I don't comment when the author has their facts straight. My complaint is that the author doesn't know what he's talking about. If I came across another article that talked about Ba'athists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan I'd be complaining there too.

      November 23, 2011 at 7:11 am |
  6. Rodak

    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 4:50 pm |
  7. chris

    Thank you CNN for helping to push the coservative agenda by promoting such wonderfully opinionated people. Keep up the great work!

    November 22, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  8. Scott Wallace

    He did say it was his take on it. Lighten up people. Have a beer. Go get laid. You'll feel better.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Timmy

      Amen Brother!!

      November 22, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  9. Reality

    No electricity and therefore entertainment was limited to se-x and booze by default. Think back to the last power outage in your neighborhood.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Josh

      ... and all the babies born 9 months later. :D

      November 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  10. A thankful Naturalized American

    "... thank God... and perhaps even for the Native Americans who saved them from starvation"?
    Thank God and ESPECIALLY the Native Americans, for feeding and showing mercy to those British strangers, in this strange new land.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  11. Bill Mulligan

    This is not news–Morgan's article was published 50 plus years ago. Also, the PILGRIMS, a distinctly different group from the PURITANS celebrated the first Thanksgiving. There views were similar, but confusing the two groups is a serious error and does not inspire confidence.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Bill Mulligan

      Sorry for the typos.

      November 22, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • pattha

      Actually the three leading members of the "Pilgrims" on Mayflower that landed at Plymouth rock were leading Puritan members. The puritans trace their roots to 1517 and the start of the Protestant Reformation. The settlers that were to become the "Pilgrims" were already living in the Netherlands. The Mayflower left London for South Hampton to pick up supplies and their settlers who were sailing in from the Netherlands. The Puritans had been persecuted in England and fled to the Netherlands. There were Puritans who came to American in later waves; but the original group didn't call themselves Pilgrims. That was started later and has become part of our American tradition and through historical references identifying the original Plymouth settlers Pilgrim to distinguish them from later waves of settlers. It is a common misconception that the two are distinction different religious groups.

      November 22, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Righton

      It's OK, you can take a mulligan.

      November 22, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • Factually Incorrect. Recall this article CNN.

      For Pattha, from Plimouth Plantation:

      Why “Pilgrims”?

      A pilgrim is a person who goes on a long journey often with a religious or moral purpose, and especially to a foreign land. After the Mayflower arrived, the first baby born was a boy. His parents (William and Susannah White) named him Peregrine – a word which means travelling from far away and also means pilgrim. The writer of Mourt's Relation in 1622 refers to the Plymouth Colonists as pilgrims. Governor William Bradford calls the Plymouth settlers pilgrims when he writes about their departure from Leiden, Holland to come to America: “They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country; and quieted their spirits.” Governor Bradford also wrote a poem in which he refers to himself as a pilgrim.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  12. Thom Ripley

    CNN continues with the NWO agenda...

    November 22, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  13. Lineman

    I am going to make sure my wife reads this. If you are going to be Puritanical you might as well do it right.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  14. Stavros NJ

    Since this author writes to the open public about the Puritans and the way they observed the Thanksgiving day, I wished that he would have the courtesy to name just a few, to substantiate his point. In his article he did not say anything about them, but he said a great deal of himself. Perhaps, it would benefit him a lot if he read the life, for instance, of William Bradford, and after reading it, if he would rewrite the article again. Second, providentially he happens to live in the state of Massachusetts, which most of these men came with their families, and if we are silent the stones will cry out.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Dennis

      Completely agreed.

      November 22, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
  15. longtooth

    God has just asked me to tell you all to shut up and enjoy life, each in his or her own way, as long as nobody gets hurt. I have spoken.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  16. Jesus

    Keep religion out of my news.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  17. Htay

    How was this under opinion?

    November 22, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  18. Jim

    I don't understand what Stephen Prothero is writing about. The Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving and were forced to leave England so they could practice their religion without persecution by the Angelican Church. If he can't get that right what's with the rest of the article.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  19. George

    Mr Prothero is a very biased writer and his thoughts come through here. He doesn't like Christianity nor what it stands for. He advocates a trans-denominational theology, which ultimately says, "we all serve the same god". Unfortunately, he's wrong! I would highly recommend that you not pay attention to his writings at all.

    November 22, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Automatic translator for George

      "I don't agree with his views, therefore, no one should read what he writes."

      November 22, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      In other words, you want to do our thinking for us? Typical conservative.

      November 22, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • Fed-up

      So , just how many Gods are there bud hummm?

      November 22, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  20. Thinker

    Yawn

    November 22, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Judas

      Oh, you got the right!

      November 22, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
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About this blog

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.