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. Kachoto

    I guess Missionary style was out of the question...

    November 22, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  2. brooksjk

    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?

    Excepted from The Four Pillars of the Kingdom
    Available now on Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats.


    November 22, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • ralpho

      keep christ out of christmas

      November 22, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • waat

      Take your spam and shove it where the sun don't shine.

      November 22, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  3. Matthew

    The author needs to do more homework. The Pilgrims WERE NOT Puritans, they were Separatists.

    November 22, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • James

      http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/puritans.html perhaps, or maybe not

      November 22, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Matthew

      James, that article makes no mention of the Plymouth Colony, which is where the First Thanksgiving was celebrated. Not sure what your point is.

      November 23, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  4. ba

    We don't need an opinion, we have in writing what they were thankful for ...

    November 22, 2011 at 3:43 pm |

    "...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

    November 22, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  6. Rick

    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.

    November 22, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  7. KindaSorta

    Thank thee for the booty... I mean the bounty for which we are about to receive. Amen!

    November 22, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  8. james

    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 !!

    November 22, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • Fookin' Prawn

      Sense...we need you to make some.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      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.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Caral from SoCal

      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!

      November 22, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • Nina Pinta Maria

      I (and everyone else) lost you at THATS Giving. Come on, proofread your worthless, mis-guided opinions.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  9. jimbo

    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.

    November 22, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Robert H.


      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?

      November 22, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • sam

      You've never met jimbo's family!

      November 22, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  10. John

    What are we waiting for??? let's celebrate Thanksgiving....early style!!

    November 22, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  11. marc

    Native Americans saved them from starvation and look at what they did to them in return for that.

    November 22, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • johnsmith998

      We gave them guns and helped them get rid of those pesky bison.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • joeseattle

      Because all Europeans who came to America were on the same team?

      November 22, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  12. And...?

    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.

    November 22, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Charles

      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.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
  13. And...?

    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.

    November 22, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • And...?


      November 22, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  14. jimbo

    The best thing about Thanksgiving is you don't have to be religious to celebrate!

    November 22, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  15. yoreal


    November 22, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  16. Amanda

    They also saw no problem with women feeding babies in public... It seems we are far more prudish then our puritan foreberrers

    November 22, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • f

      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.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Fookin' Prawn

      I have a feeling 'f' doesn't actually know where babies come from.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  17. Joe

    edit above: Puritans arrived in 1630.

    November 22, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Aaron


      November 22, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Caral from SoCal

      Pilgrims arrived in Nov. of 1620 on Plymouth Rock.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Matthew

      @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?

      November 23, 2011 at 7:23 am |
  18. Lila

    Usually I just skim Belief articles, this was fun and interesting. I hope to enjoy those two things on Thanksgiving too.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • My God's Bigger Than Yours


      November 22, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  19. Andrea M

    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.

    November 22, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • MrHanson

      You really hate Christians don't you?

      November 22, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Brian

      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.

      November 22, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Joe

      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.

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


      November 22, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Caral from SoCal

      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.

      November 22, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  20. Joxer the Mighty

    Well, I consider myself a Christian and I will definitely be giving thanks for both booze and s3x this thanksgiving! Whose with me?!?!

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


      November 22, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
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