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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. ScotchFoster

    Pretty much on point. Every man, woman, and child was given 2 quarts of beer daily as it was the only thing pasteurized back then to drink.

    November 23, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • hippypoet

      are we forgetting wine....the very first booze ever!!! they could have made that.. and its healthier! oh and at this time in history they had whiskey, and meade as well! So beer was just there drink of choice!

      November 23, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • hippypoet

      oh and i forgot the natives drinkie poos – they had corn drink – rather nasty and thick, but it will do the job, and they ...well the southern tribes had a lovely drink made from coffee beans – today we call it kahlua! its damn good over ice...but scotch is my drink of choice – over ice, with coffee, straigth up, co-cktail style....just friggin delicious!!! hence why i am even posting on your name...do you drink scotch? if so whats your brand?

      November 23, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  2. DaveNYUSA

    What else should we expect from a college teacher? They are all pretty much dumb phuqes.

    November 23, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  3. RHB

    If the author is attempting to describe the Pilgrims who staged the harvest festival we now call "the first Thanksgiving," he has confused the separatist pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony with the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    November 23, 2011 at 9:03 am |
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      So does pretty much everyone else. As a reminder, the Separatists (Pilgrims) came to America because they couldn't force the rest of England to pray and worship the way THEY wanted, not so they could be free to worship in their own manner. Same with the Puritans, who saw the American colonies as "the Shining City on the Hill".
      As for the "celebration", please remember that the Pilgrims survived the first winter by stealing food stashes placed by various Wampanog families for their own needs before they figured out how to kill deer and turkey, and grow grain. They also were "forced" to eat Lobster, Mussels and Oysters on a regular basis. As for their drinking beer, please remember these folks still thought it was OK to use the streams "upstream" from the settlement (and their water supply) as their sewer. The beer, which made 3.2 beer look strong, was pretty week, but fairly safe.

      November 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  4. 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 23, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  5. mmi16

    Eat – Drink & do Mary

    November 23, 2011 at 1:42 am |
  6. cacique

    I feel much better now. Many times I thought of myself as the one happy to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. A few times a sense of guilt beleaguered me for that, however, knowing that almost 300 years ago the Pilgrims were doing the same, I feel much relief.

    November 23, 2011 at 12:38 am |
    • Richard Trevor

      EVER LEARNING, AND NEVER ABLE TO COME TO THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH 2 TIMOTHY 3:7

      November 23, 2011 at 3:03 am |
    • Reality

      The epistles of Timothy (and also T-itus) were, as per most contemporary NT scholars, not written by Paul, making said epistles not guided by any god.

      November 23, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  7. Steve the Goat

    I'm not wearing pants. Things are just flapping in the breeze. Ahh, sweet relief.

    November 22, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
  8. Fairplay99

    Well Steven Prothero, you have had your moment of defacating all over these people. You are a shameless individual bent on taking away from others what you lack which is dignity.

    November 22, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      As opposed to what you lack, which is the ability to check a dictionary when you attempt to use words of more than one syllable.

      November 22, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I'm sorry. My husband hasn't touched me or even looked straight at me in 20 years. I'm bitter and angry, hence why I feel the need to insult everyone I can. If you haven't been able to tell from my abusive posts to everyone, I am not a happy person. I never will be. I will die alone, and no one will bother coming to my funeral. If anyone does show up, it'll be to pee in my casket.

      November 22, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Stupid history, messing with the pretty lie you want to believe. Stupid truth, messing with your religion.

      November 23, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • cacique

      Tomie,
      Too bad you have not found the necessary liberty to free your bitterness and anger. Every two weeks have a few of your best choice and go cajole hubbie to put out with something, if not try to get in contact with the author.

      November 23, 2011 at 12:46 am |
    • Georgia Hull

      This article is badly written and sickening. For some unprofessional reason creating hate and aiming it at religion is encouraged in the press these days.

      November 23, 2011 at 7:05 am |
    • Rick

      how is this "creating hate and aiming it at religion"?

      November 23, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Lamebrain troll herbie is lame.

      November 23, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  9. TheJanitor1

    Stephen Prothero is mentally ill. Just look at his eyes....

    November 22, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • tallulah13

      And yet, history shows that he is absolutely correct about the puritans.

      November 23, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • Georgia Hull

      I agree. There is another reason for writing and presenting this article. Maybe to hate people who love God and do good things.

      November 23, 2011 at 7:07 am |
    • Rick

      Georgia: You poor, poor, put-upon Christian.

      November 23, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • sam

      Georgia, it's obvious you're bent out of shape about something, but the article does nothing you claim it does. Go have a good glass of wine and don't come back until that frown is turned upside down.

      November 23, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  10. Trystan

    Wow. What an enlightening article. People got drunk and copulated. Never thought that happened, anywhere, ever.

    November 22, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • michelle

      lol... love it! :-)

      November 23, 2011 at 2:32 am |
  11. Toontje

    At Falcon
    Thomas de Aquina s logic was totally flawed. The existenceof god fails to true logic.

    November 22, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Jen

      Your logic is blinding you, kind sir. The Lord uses the foolish things of this earth to confound the wise.

      November 23, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • Rick

      Jen: Do you really expect that people could attach any credibiilty to beings in which they do not believe?

      November 23, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  12. Corey

    A quick visit to one news article like this ensures I'll never be back to CNN.com unless there's another GOP debate that needs to be watched.

    November 22, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  13. CAJack1

    Earth to Professor(?) Prothero: The PILGRIMS – not the PURITANS – are the inspirational basis for Thanksgiving. The PILGRIMS celebrated a successful harvest in 1621, many years before the PURITANS arrived. Puritans began arriving in the 1630s. Conversion of Chief Massasoit and much of the Wampanoag Indian confederation probably occurred before the Puritans arrived. The Pilgrims and Puritans had very different views on Christianity, and purging Roman Catholicism was hardly a driving force for either group. Between the formation of the Pilgrim's and Puritan's colonies there was a short-lived colony, Wessagusset, that was perhaps the catalyst that sowed the seeds for violence between the settlers and the natives.

    November 22, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • BobbyGB

      You're expecting too much from a CNN contributor.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
    • hippypoet

      @BobbyGB
      expecting too much from a news source.... how is that even possible.. if its true then shut up, oh and by the way, its true...everything CAJack1 said is correct, well up untill the opinion part...

      November 22, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • BobbyGB

      @hippypoet
      I don't expect accuracy and real substance from CNN bloggers. I know my history and how to differentiate fact from opinion too. ..okay....

      November 22, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • Puritan

      Check out the history of the Reformation and learn that they were called Puritans because they wanted to purify the churh.

      November 23, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  14. BobbyGB

    And we're supposed to be shocked? People drank way more back then than we do now. There are no surprises here, just a blogger judging history/religion. I'll be shocked when CNN publishes something different.

    November 22, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • GodPot

      " I'll be shocked when CNN publishes something different."

      It's called producing content for target markets, it's just their target market happens to be half-wits and moronic zealots. Of course, that is by far the majority on the planet so.... Go CNN!! Produce that sheet!!

      November 22, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  15. hippypoet

    i am Puritan, nothing goes in this body that shouldn't! AND I MEAN IT! NOTHING!

    November 22, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • waat

      Yer a loonie

      November 22, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • hippypoet

      ahhhhh, thats eating me from inside to out.... thats from a monty python movie i'm sure of it but i can't place it.... which you??

      November 22, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • waat

      No it isn't!

      November 22, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • waat

      I didn't!

      November 22, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  16. augustghost

    Yeah so "pure"... read what the sob's did to the native Indians around plymouth Mass

    November 22, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • GodPot

      you mean the native Indians around ply mouth N ass

      November 22, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  17. parrot

    AS WE SEE, THE PURITANS AND THE PILGRIMS ARE THE SAME THING....AND THE PURITANS WERE CRIMINALS DEPORTED TO AUSTRALIA AND AMERICA TO DIE.

    November 22, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • waat

      There's plenty of rabid Christian extremists in Australia. You should read some of their news. They have idiots there who are so intolerant they are just Nazis about tons of stuff.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
  18. kc

    Nick you do not know if there is a GOD, belief is different than knowledge. You can believe what you want but knowledge is more than faith or feelings, it is based in fact. You simply feel there is a god but you cannot prove any proof except how you feel.

    November 22, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
    • Falcon 78 in Northern VA

      Saint Thomas Aquinas would disagree with you–you can use logic to prove there is a God. Read that portion of his great work, Summa Theologica. I'm guessing Saint Thomas is far and away smarter than you are–you, KC, who is obviously flying by the seat of your pants with your "feelings."

      November 22, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • Keith

      What logic do you use to provide proof in something you'll never see? Falcon 78, try again. Get on your failboat and set sail.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • Observer

      "you can use logic to prove there is a God". Nope. If anyone could PROVE God exists, we wouldn't be debating it.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • GodPot

      Three friends are travelling and stop at an Inn for the night. The manager is out at the moment so the bellhop tells them its $30 for the room and so each pays $10 and head to the room. A bit later the bellhop returns and says the manager let him know that if guests come in after 9:00pm the rooms are only $25 so he hands each man $1 and they tell him to keep the $2 as a tip. So the friends end up paying $9 each and giving the bellhop $2 which means 9+9+9+2 should equal $30 right? Thats how religious logic can prove God exists...

      November 22, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • Corey

      The part of your equation that is missing: It is possible to have knowledge and still deny its truthfulness. THAT is why we're still having this debate imo.

      November 22, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • DrogueShoot

      Aquinas made glaring errors in his logic that religious people refuse to acknowledge because he could be very persuasive using false arguments that agreed with their beliefs.
      Try reading his stuff without preconceived notions. That is, if you even know how to do anything like that.
      Pretend his works were written by a clever but ignorant student, and you'll find plenty of errors.
      Epistemology was not his strong suit, being afflicted with religious delusions. But he tried pretty hard. And still failed.

      November 22, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Logically speaking, there is no proof that any god ever existed.

      November 23, 2011 at 12:12 am |
    • Chitown Jason

      Dam it godpot...you just blew my mind. In my defense though, I have been enjoying some of these alleged Puritan celebrations tonight, so my mental faculties are not quite at 100% at the moment....

      November 23, 2011 at 12:54 am |
    • Georgia Hull

      This comment is simple. Perhaps from a simple minded unaware person who's anger and regret have lead him to try and "prove" his unawareness is important to anyone else.

      November 23, 2011 at 7:15 am |
  19. AGuest9

    The guy "denied conjugal fellowship unto his wife" for two years? Did it take her THAT long to miss it?

    November 22, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      He was probably married to a bitter old hag like me.

      November 22, 2011 at 11:32 pm |
  20. OrangeW3dge

    There are some people who try to propagate the past in order to honor those that have passed. But it is written that: Those who live for the dust, shall also perish in the dust...

    November 22, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Do tell. Where is that written, aside from your diary?

      November 22, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      How, exactly, does one "propagate" the past, Orange?

      To quote Inigo Montoya, "I do not think that word means what you think it means."

      November 22, 2011 at 10:57 pm |
    • fred

      Tom, you aren't exactly the literary genius you think you are.

      World English Dictionary
      propagate (ˈprɒpəˌɡeɪt)

      — vb
      ( tr ) to transmit (characteristics) from one generation to the next

      Now, get back to your dungeon.

      November 22, 2011 at 11:37 pm |
    • tallulah13

      It is also written that there is no proof that any god ever existed. We all end up as dust (or ash) and there is nothing wrong with that.

      November 23, 2011 at 12:15 am |
    • Bob

      Great progress for you fred, using a dictionary. Good stuff.

      Now use your new-found knowledge that your god is an unfair jerk (as you have acknowledged, after a lot of tooth pulling) and leave your sick Christian superst-itions behind.

      Or just get on with that animal sacrifice, so your god-ass-hole doesn't send a storm at you, or worse.

      November 23, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      herbie, you poor thing. One doesn't "transmit" the past. How stupid are you? Oh, wait. Never mind.

      November 23, 2011 at 9:35 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.