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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.

How to talk politics at Thanksgiving table

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. Juan2Post

    Hey Prothero this is an excellent article and is definitely chuckle-worthy. Thanks!

    November 22, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  2. julianpenrod

    The cowards in charge of the iReport section of CNN are afraid to place my comments on their blog because they're too truthful, so I will place it here.
    One of their entries is "Atheist Billboard Goes Up in [sic] Time For The Holidays", about this year's delberately confrontational act of contempt by atheists in the form of a billboard by American Atheists. For the second year, they are touting the line that God is a myth. Last year, it depicted the scene of the Three Wise Men and the Star of Bethlehem, this year, it shows pictures of Poseidon, Jesus Christ, Santa Claus and the devil and says "37 million Americans know MYTHS when they see them".
    Tellingly, as in all their doggerel, they never attack Judaism and Hanukkah as a myth. Last year, Hanukkah fell closer to the erecting of their billboard than Christmas, but they did not challenge the Jews! Just as, this year, they do not question how a lamp could burn for eight days on only one day's worth of oil! The atheists are craven, power mongering hypocrites. They attack Christianity and Islam only; they claim "religion is the cause of all wars", ignoring the economic and political power factors behind the Punic Wars, the Hundred Years War, the Spanish American War, the Mexican American War, the Thirty Years War, the Revolutionary War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq!
    And, it should be mentioned, to say athiests know such things as belief in Christ are myths is to say they definitely and definitively don't believe in them. But look to the article "The Mystery I'm Thankful For" on the NPR website. In reply to comments about the illegitimacy and hypocrisy in athiest pronouncements, a number of them are actually running for cover, saying they never said religion was false and God didn't exist! They insist now that they are only saying there isn't enough evidence to prove it one way or another. But that's agnosticism! Atheism says baldly that God doesn't exist, without proof! And that's exactly what the billboad is saying!
    Evidently, the atheists are as craven and cowardly as those running the iReport section of CNN!

    November 22, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • DrogueShoot

      Ahhh, julianpenrod, we've missed your batshlt crazy posts.
      You suck so badly at thinking I'm surprised you ever learned how to use a computer.
      Doesn't it bother you that a computer is not described in the Bible? Don't you think you'd better quit using yours as this goes against what God hath ordained?
      Beware julian! Your soul is damned to HELL! Repent and stop using these machines of SATAN!

      November 22, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • GodPot

      All of us are atheists, it's just 95% of the world hasn't accepted it yet.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • Odds

      Atheists in America don't typically waste their breath fighting with Jews, not because they agree with them, but rather because (as you evangelicals are so quick to point out at every opportunity) this is a predominantly Christian nation. Christians have an overwhelming voice in this country, so the struggle for atheists here in America is understandably biased toward combating Christian influence.

      Evangelicals really have nothing to complain about here. Your voice is heard and generally respected, seemingly no matter what you have to say. Atheists have to fight for every inch of ground they can, and always have. I think referring to your beliefs as myths in such an insulting fashion is crude and unnecessary, but you do sort of bring it on yourselves with your incessant proselytizing.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • Trystan

      Not once, has a Jew EVER tried pushing his or her faith on me. And you wonder why for the most part atheists don't talk much about them.

      November 23, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  3. Jake

    FYI, it was the Separatists—not the Puritans—who came across on the Mayflower, and who were the majority of English Settlers at the first Thanksgiving. To mess something like that up really ruins the rest of the article.

    November 22, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Matthew

      On the 4th of July, he'll be writing about Canadians.

      November 23, 2011 at 6:50 am |
  4. Nate Mullikin

    Christians striving mightily to prove their coolness.

    November 22, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  5. J

    Anyone notice how every article on this site about Christianity is always a case for believers to ignore what the bible says and live in sin? From approving of alternative lifestyles, to embracing the secular culture, to fornication, and now giving us examples of debauchary and addiction, it's hard not to think that they have an agenda to pollute and distort biblical Christianity. I wouldn't expect anything less from a liberal news outlet, but it's even worse that they try to dress it up as scholarly research. Shame on them for this, for trying to corrupt the Lords people. I

    November 22, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • DonFC

      How so with this?? It is just a statement of historical fact. I suppose you would have them rewrite history to conform with your view of Christianity? Remember, Jesus did turn water into wine at a marriage celebration and from the biblical account it was pretty good too.

      November 22, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • yeahalright

      Shame on you for your wannabe persecution complex.

      November 22, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • IN Time

      I know exactly what you are talking about. Though it could have happened, it seems as though they are trying to make Christianity seem as a scam and non-authentic. We do all sin, that is for sure. This article definitely was not written to encourage people towards Christianity.

      November 22, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • ProperVillain

      I don't know about you but a little post turkey buzz and a shag with my wife sounds like a more than perfect Thanksgiving!

      November 22, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • Miss Demeanor

      'Every' Christianity-related is not intended to belittle it. That's not fair or honest. This article intended to point out that puritans were not prudes.That would lead many people to believe these early Christians were not members of a fringe christian cult. Are you a cult-supporter?

      November 22, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • GodPot

      This would have been "J"'s response to the progressive anti-slavery papers being produced in the north...

      "Anyone notice how every article in these papers about Christianity is always a case for believers to ignore what the bible says and live in sin? From approving of alternative lifestyles, blacks marrying whites, giving up their slaves which are just Cains cursed decendants with their skin darkened by their inherent sin, to embracing the secular culture, to fornication, and now giving us examples of debauchary and addiction, it's hard not to think that they have an agenda to pollute and distort biblical Christianity which was founded on the sound principles of Gods people take what they want, i n c e s t, slavery, murder and the all basic truth that might makes right. I wouldn't expect anything less from a liberal news outlet, but it's even worse that they try to dress it up as scholarly research. Shame on them for this, for trying to corrupt the Lords people."

      November 22, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Odds

      Sort of the same thing you're doing by picking and choosing what you wish to adhere to from your Bible, hmm? You discard what doesn't make sense to you and keep the rest, colored to suit your personal tastes. Then you look down at your nose at everyone else for not holding the same values and beliefs that you do. Very "Christian" of you, sir!

      November 22, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  6. IN Time

    Mike: I apologize for my poor spelling. And this article doesn't tickle my fancy enough to investigate further. In the most descrete way possible, the world is trying its best to distance non-believers from God. By noting anything wrong that a person or congregation who claims to believe in God. I do not claim to be better than anybody, I merely just feel sorry for those who already don't believe and have to listen to claims of the world why they should continue to not believe in God's extremely precious gift. I only wish that each individual would make it their own quest to whole heartedly seek out the truth of God's amazing grace. Not doing so by researching for a few minutes, hours, or days. But doing so for weeks, months, and years. If after a longer period of time, they still don't believe then it will be in God's hands. I only wish that everybody could put what they hear on movies, tv shows, internet, and non-believers aside; and investigate the truth on their own! Uff-dah! That was an extensive post that I didn't initially intend on posting.... God-Bless!

    November 22, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • yeahalright

      You guys sure love your persecution complexes. The vast majority of people in this country are religious, and the vast majority of those are christians – like most members of congress, the supreme court, and the president. Plus most state and city legislatures and executives. But us sinister anti-religious folks are insidiously trying to separate people from your god. GET OVER YOURSELVES.

      November 22, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • Wacky Jabber

      Why do Christians feel like they are persecuted? Because they are!

      November 22, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • yeahalright

      In their own minds WackyJabber. Let's start simple...can you name another religion where most of the country has off 2 (heck, even one) of it's holidays?

      November 22, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • DrogueShoot

      What sort of idiot speaks of "the world" as if it has a mind, a purpose, etc?

      The world includes you, idiot, so your whining is that much more stupid when you speak of "the world" as having some sort of mystical consciousness. You are so fcked in the head I am not surprised you are a believer in nasty insane things.

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

      "What sort of idiot speaks of "the world" as if it has a mind, a purpose, etc?"

      That would be a Jehovah's Witness. I have several workmates who are JW's and they fill me in. Everyone else thats not a witness is a "Worldly" person, and they try to be in the "world" but not part of the "world" which is again, everything outside of their organization. And the world has an "air" that act's as if it has a mind or a purpose, attacking any of the faithful with it's demonic missiles, trying to get them to turn away from their faith.

      See? So simple.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • Odds

      Listen to yourself. What would you say if I told you to seek the truth of anything for YEARS of your life? You'd take me seriously and make that your life quest? Of course you wouldn't! Especially not when it runs counter to your core beliefs! Yet you can casually ask that of complete strangers as if it were a reasonable request?

      I'll tell you what. I'll trade you. I'll become an evangelical when you become an atheist. To hear each of us tell it, we'd be doing the other a service, right?

      ::sigh:: I really do dislike evangelicals. I've never met a group of people so uniformly difficult to tolerate. You push yourselves on everyone with disgusting self-righteousness and extreme prejudice, yet you call it "love". And you can't understand why we don't all see the world as you do.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:42 pm |
    • IN Time

      I didn't expect anything less. Atheists will continue to know everything over those who have a personal relationship with God. I am not condemning anybody for not believing, I was merely trying to get them to think on their own, rather than listen to the non believers who diss Christianity. For once, don't get so defensive. I wasn't acting defensive when i wrote this, I was trying to put a thought your minds that says, "Hey, maybe for once I'll do a little investigating in the Bible and find out for myself; rather than listen to everybody else." I am not an evangelist, I am an ordinary man who puts my trust in God. Have you ever wondered how God has endured the test of time, how the Bible has stood through all time. If God wasn't so great, how come the Mayans god didn't save their belief? How come many of the native americans' gods didn't preserve their beliefs? How come all of the pagans different gods haven't preserved their seperate beliefs? Maybe, just maybe it's because God is real and he keeps a close eye on his Word, which is found in the bible. I'm sure you're going to have a quick answer like the Christians have destroyed many of those false religions..... well why did their false gods over come the Living God? It doesn't take a genious to figure this out. I understand there will continue to be quick, narrow minded answers to counter this. But I challenge you to think for yourself, deep in your heart and answer that question. I may never be able to prove God to you, but you'll never be able to disprove Him to me. From my experiences, atheists are know it all fools who can't be told a thing. Until you find God, you will always have a hollow spot in your hearts which can not be filled, without Jesus Christ.

      November 22, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
    • You are not only too late you are a fool

      I went from having delusions to being rational.
      But your weak-mind cannot grasp any fact that does not agree with your religious delusions.
      How sad. How pitifully pathetic.
      To think that your "god" exists simply because you have forced your religion on other people is one of the most ignorantly stupid things I have ever seen!
      Truly, people like you deserve nothing but exile or death.
      You cannot be trusted or relied upon for anything having to do with the real world.
      You should be permanently banned from having communications with other people except for your fellow mental cases.
      Why not go live in a small community somewhere? You can live in peace as long as you stay away from us.
      Isn't that what you really want? To live in a place where everyone thinks like you? Then why are you here?

      November 22, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
  7. Reilleyfam

    WHO F'ING CARES!!! I live in the 21st Century.

    November 22, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
  8. bluemax77

    Too right...!!

    November 22, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
  9. Bill L

    You are an ass parading around as a reigious scholar.

    November 22, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • GodPot

      And here I thought he was just a religious scholar parading around as an a s s...

      November 22, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Reilleyfam

      You're just an a ss.

      November 22, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Chris

      Bill L, what are you parading around as? Oh, never mind, you are pretending to be a human being. Good luck with that!

      November 22, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
    • AGuest9

      There is a difference?

      November 22, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Is there a difference, you ask? Not if Chris is the religious scholar.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  10. Capercorn

    The use of mind altering substances, and messy forms of procreative entertainment are the fancies of brutes.

    I for one will be glad once humanity evolves beyond libido and addiction.

    November 22, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • Bill

      Ain't had much lately, huh?

      November 22, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • GodPot

      "I for one will be glad once humanity evolves beyond libido and addiction."

      Thats like saying "I for one will be glad once monkeys evolve beyond eating bananas and swinging in trees."

      Oh, wait, libido and addiction are next on the "evolve" list so maybe staying at bananas and swinging isn't so bad...

      November 22, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • A

      And I, for one, am glad I'll be dead before that happens. You sound boring.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • LisaP

      @ A: HAHAHAHAHAH!!! Perfect. Almost fell out of my chair!

      November 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • TRH

      Hey, uhhh....tell me more about these "messy forms of procreative entertainment"....LOL!!!!!!

      November 22, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • SteveO

      Being human means being an animal. Those animal pleasures go a long way.

      November 22, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • DrogueShoot

      Evolution doesn't work that way you repressed little prude! We are just as likely to evolve the other "way". Duh.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  11. IN Time

    Where is this guy getting his facts? I've never heard of this.... and I consider myself to be a descent history buff. I am not doubting that this sometimes happened, but seriously where is he getting his information? Anybody know?

    November 22, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • OrangeW3dge

      I guess you glossed over the various author's names in the article...

      November 22, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • IN Time

      Yeah I did.... Thanks for pointing that out. Unfortunately I don't care enough to investigate their sources and forms of information.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Mike

      descent – act or process of descending
      decent – fairly good

      November 22, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
    • Mike

      ??? – You care enough to ask what his sources were but not enough to verify their authenticity?

      November 22, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • Cando

      You are contraciting yourself. Kindly SFU.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Wacky christian logic: Deny knowledge, ask for sources, and when sources exist, feign disinterest.

      November 22, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
  12. OrangeW3dge

    And the "good" folk come to burn thee.
    The question is not which is the current God, but more relevant is the question of how many Gods there have been in the history of Mankind. Indeed, where are they now? It is this that indicates to me that we are the inventors.

    November 22, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • GodPot

      But we must be democratic about it! Which God or God's are more people worshiping at the moment? That should determine which is the true God, right? He who lies for the most souls wins, right?

      November 22, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Nick

      Sure, but there is one true God. The same God that choose the Israeli people as His chosen people. Not to exalt them or say that they are better, but He choose them as a representative. This is the same God who said they would reject His Son, the same God that then spread his own people about the nations of the world only to bring them back as a nation in their home land again. (Amos 9:11) Their nation was born from impossibility into reality when they rose from the ashes of the Holocaust. One day soon the entire world will again turn its back on Israel, but God will deliver them, not for their sake but for His. namesake.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • OrangeW3dge

      Pretty sure Amos was a man, too.

      November 22, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • yeahalright

      Nick don't you get that EVERY religion says their god is the true god/s??? And they each have exactly the same amount of proof (zero)?

      November 22, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • GodPot

      "And they each have exactly the same amount of proof (zero)?"

      Well, they each have different amounts of proof, that is if by proof you mean believers, and truth is democraticly determined. If 95% of the planet said that the color of the text you are reading is "Mangellotto" then this text is the color mangellotto. Truth? So when 95% of the world believed the earth was flat, the same logic tells us that it must have been flat, but then changed later by Satan just to claim religion got something wrong and cast doubt on their beliefs...right?

      November 22, 2011 at 7:24 pm |
    • tallulah13

      It cracks me up when people cite the bible as the proof of anything.

      November 23, 2011 at 12:01 am |
  13. Keith Fogg

    Another trying to change history.. What an Educated Idiot..

    November 22, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Your pastor gave you the story you like, therefore, that's all the history you want. Don't let a silly thing like the truth change your views.

      November 23, 2011 at 12:03 am |
  14. wut

    pretty dumb article.

    November 22, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  15. orlop

    But the people on the Mayflower were Pilgrims not Puritans. Were they not the ones to give us Thanksgiving?

    November 22, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • rick

      They were pilgrims and Puritans.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • TRH

      I think they were one in the same. A pilgrim is a traveler. These people were separatists and were being persecuted by the Church of England. They fled around Europe most notably to Holland then finally set out for the New World.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
    • clown

      The people (35 Pilgrims) on the Mayflower were not Puritans, they were Separatists who broke away from the
      Church of England. The Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England. These Pilgrims, not the Puritans, were
      the ones who celebrated their harvest with the first Thanksgiving.

      November 22, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • John

      They also slaughtered a tribe of Indians (men, women and children) so that the rival tribe could help them through the winter. That was the first Thanksgiving. Most people received their Thanksgiving lessons from Charlie Brown rather than from the actual accounts?

      November 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Matthew

      No. The Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay colony under the leadership of John Winthrop in 1630, 9 years after the first Thanksgiving in 1621. The first thanksgiving was celebrated by the Plymouth Brethren who founded Plymouth colony and were most assuredly NOT Puritans.

      Even though both groups were English, settled in modern-day Massachusetts and start with a 'P' it's not really hard to understand that they were different groups of people, is it?

      November 23, 2011 at 7:03 am |
  16. humtake

    Another article about past partying with no mention of how prevalent smoking herbs was. The smoking of herbs was more widespread than alcohol consumption. Of course, nobody likes to report any of that.

    November 22, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
  17. Hashim

    You can learm more about God in book - king of Bat'ha

    November 22, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • GodPot

      I so wamt to learm, but sonethimg is wromg with ny braim.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      GodPot, I guffawed. I even chuckled warmly.

      November 22, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  18. the fundy-fathers-of-fantasy-tour

    And that would be which god? Yours?

    November 22, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  19. High IQ'er

    LOL!

    November 22, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  20. Franklin

    How many gods are there? Only one, and I think Mr. Prothero may need to get better acquainted with Him.

    November 22, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
    • Dave

      Franklin, don't you think all religions think of theirs as the "one, true religion"? How do you possibly reconcile that?

      November 22, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • 3vix6

      And Sir, how do you know? Do you have 100% proof that there is a Jesus Christ and that there is a God?

      Didn't think so.

      Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

      November 22, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
    • The old man's cousin

      Franklin, you mean Zeus, Jehova, Buddha, Mars, Allah, Vishnu, Wotan, they are all the same? great!!
      Much less confucius lol that way.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • really?

      typical self righteous christian............i cant be fooled...............DON'T TREAD ON ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      November 22, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • rick

      And you know that how? Oh, that's right....you don't.

      November 22, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Nick

      We know because of the CROSS. We know because of the love that God showed us. We know because we have been one with the world, we have thought with the world, we have partied with the world, we have been in lust with the world and in the end it left us empty, dry and burned out searching for the real meaning of our existence. If love is the ultimate expression of one human caring for another then where does true love come from? From chemicals in your brain? No. It isn't an illusion, love came from the Father in the physical form of His Son. God loved us so much that He sent His Son to come and take the punishment for us all. Don't think there should be someone that is accountable for all the death and destruction in the world? I highly doubt it, once you realize it is you and I that have done this to ourselves by our own choice, it is crazy to think that God did love us this much that He would do this for you and I. Worship what you wish, I will worship the ONE TRUE GOD! JESUS CHRIST! :)

      November 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Truth is, Franklin, there have been thousands of gods, all of them with just as much proof of existence as yours.

      November 23, 2011 at 12:05 am |
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