Revisiting the Puritans: Recreation, Community, and the Christian Mind

Revisiting the Puritans: Recreation, Community, and the Christian Mind
An interview with George K. McFarland
Conducted by Nathaniel Schmucker

George K. McFarland is the Dean of Faculty at the Delaware County Christian School in Newtown Square, PA, where he has taught history for the past 37 years. He has also served as an AP Exam Leader and Reader for U.S. History for the past 23 years. After graduating from Taylor University with a B.S. Ed., he taught history at Salem Academy in Oregon. He has an M.A. in history from Temple University, an M.A. in history from Bryn Mawr College, and a Ph.D. in history from Bryn Mawr College. His dissertation was a social and cultural analysis of Boston and Albany from 1630 to 1750. He has written a number of book reviews for professional publications. He is a Ruling Elder and Adult Bible School teacher at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.


How did you develop an interest in studying the Puritans?

My interest in the Puritans be­gan chiefly because of my grandfa­ther, who avidly read them, but I became extremely interested in the Puritans in graduate school, where I did my Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr Col­lege in American colonial religious history. My dissertation covered as­pects of the Puritans, studying the cultural-social analysis of their com­munity in Boston and the Dutch Reformed community in Albany between 1630 and 1750. Also, as a Christian myself, I have found these people to be very helpful, so, in ad­dition to my professional interest, I have studied them as part of my devotional reading.

What do most Americans think of Puritan culture, especially regard­ing their views on recreation?

Unfortunately, most Americans have a very low opinion of the Pu­ritans. This has come mostly since the 1920s, when there developed a strong movement against the Pu­ritans. People began to think they were “killjoys” and boring people. As a result, the culture of America since then has looked back upon the Puritans very cynically, often condemning these people unnecessarily, viewing them as very heavenly minded and consequentially of no earthly good.

There is some truth in the stereotypes that have developed. They were very hard working people and did not have as much time for the music and the arts as we do today. But also, there is a lack of understanding of the differences between the Puritans in America and those in England. The Puritans that came in the 1630s were far more affluent and were much more a people of the arts than William Bradford and the other Pilgrims that had come on the Mayflower a decade earlier. Our connotation with all Puritans is sometimes shaped by those who came here in the 1620s with very little, and who tried to make ends meet in very difficult circum­stances. This connotation comes even in light of the tremendous scholarship of Perry Miller in the 1930s and 40s.[i] Perry sought to redeem the Puritans. Even though he was certainly no sympathizer with their theological beliefs, he yet had great respect for them: for their minds, for what they did, and for the way they sought to deal with some of the crucial issues of life.

In terms of recreation specifically, they did hold to the view that they could participate in recreational ac­tivities. The Puritans were not despisers of the culture, but what they wanted was a proper balance in life. The mind, body, feelings, and emotions were all to be put in their proper, ordered places. Moreover, the Puritans simply did not have the time benefits of this day. At that particular time. there were not the recreational levels that Americans had by the end of the nineteenth century, when people began working five days per week, rather than six. The Puritans were hard workers, working six days and worshipping on the seventh. So, they were cautious about their recreation both because of a desire to keep recreation in balance and because of the restraints on their leisure time.

How much of the limit on recreation was due to their theological beliefs and keeping life in balance, and how much was due to time restraints connected with moving to America?

It was probably more the latter than the former, for they came to America under very adverse condi­tions. Regarding the former, to the Puritans, rest meant rest from their labors of work. They believed in the creation ordinance, “Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God,” and so it was their theological belief that ultimately steered them.[ii] But the chief ob­stacles to recreation facing them in America were not anything in the Scriptures themselves limiting such ac­tivities. Because of the obstacles they faced in settling a new world, creating a new government, establishing a church, and trying to create a society built upon their principles, they simply lacked the time to have recre­ation or rest. The Puritans certainly had more recre­ational activities in England than in America, though still not to any extent what we have today.

Those that did have time engaged in what sort of recreational activities?

The Puritans had a number of recreational activities including archery, horseshoes, dancing, and taking walks. Jonathan Edwards would go on long horseback rides or walks in the forest where he had time alone to contemplate. Dancing, too, was a part of Puritan life; Oliver Cromwell even spoke about dancing until the wee hours of the morning at his daughter’s wedding. He and the Puritans as a whole did not have anything against dancing, but they did oppose mixed dancing. That to them was something they felt was inappropriate, for it could arouse sexual responses to the other partner. So, though they forbad mixed dancing, they did participate in square dancing and dancing of other sorts.

Dancing was a part of Scripture, as even King David danced.[iii] On very joyful occasions such as weddings and times of civic or church celebration, the Puritans did dance. Dancing was for a specific reason, and it was a good reason that had Scriptural support.

If the Puritans were not musical Philistines, what types of music did they have?

Music was far more a part of life for the Puritans in England than in America. We have, for instance, the flute that John Bunyan carved while he was in prison. Although they had instruments, the Puritans brought few to America due primarily to the inconvenience of the journey. John Winthrop was a very affluent law­yer who lived in the southeast portion of England, but there were many things he could not bring to America but had to leave behind.

When the Puritans came to America, they put to­gether the Bay Psalm Book, which was their worship songbook with text set to music. Although they only had seven or eight melodies the Bay Psalm Book went through thirty editions, which was amazing in that time period. The Puritans were very cautious about the role of music, but it played a very integral role in their community and culture.

Did the Puritans play sports?

In sports, the Puritans were balanced in the ways they participated. One Puritan author, Isaac Watts, said, “religion never was designed to make our plea­sures less.”[iv] Sports were not forbidden in the Scrip­tures. If sports were forbidden the Puritans would not have participated, but since they were not forbidden the Puritans did participate. Yet, it was always to good balance; they sought to develop the mind, the heart, and the spiritual aspects of life without neglecting recreation and the enjoyment of one another. Square dances and individual sports of different sorts were part of life but were not overwhelming in their time.

How do the Puritan and the contemporary Ameri­can philosophy towards sport compare?

The way that the Puritans viewed sport is radically different from the way we view sport. Sport today is frequently an end in itself and is all consuming. They would see our culture as out of balance, having lost the perspective of the mind and having lost perspec­tive of God’s commands for us to be whole persons within his creation. They would not have approved of sport on Sunday or of professional sports where money is of great value. They would have disapproved of the amount of time we spend on sports. Time to them was very precious, and they would look at our use of it as almost heathen or pagan in philosophy. In contrast to our over emphasis of sport at every level, to them, the training of the mind from the youngest level was ut­most, whether that be teaching the scriptures or teach­ing the liberal arts.

Can you discuss their view towards alcohol? You mentioned earlier that the 1920s were a pivotal time in thinking about the Puritans. Did that mindset shift come due to the rise of teetotalism and the Prohibi­tion?

Absolutely I think in that era Americans looked at the Puritans and saw a people that was rule-driven, too heavenly minded, legalistic, and of no earthly good. The stereotype developed that held that Puritans were teetotalers. This is not the case at all. There are ref­erences to the Puritans drinking beer and alcohol at carnival occasions. Oliver Cromwell, John Owen, and others did drink at times of celebration and of great joy. But they held to the scriptural injunction that they were not to overindulge and be drunk with al­cohol. Paul writing to Timothy talks about taking a little bit of wine for the stomach’s sake.[v] Proverbs like­wise speaks very clearly about drunkenness.[vi] Certainly drinking merely to consume one’s self in indulgence would never have been part of a Puritan community.

What was the theology that formed the foundation of the Puritans’ understanding of leisure and work activities?

One of the most important things they held was that Scripture is a guide for and is authoritative for all of life. They held that if the Bible speaks about some­thing and forbids doing it, then we are to not do it; if it does not address an area, we are given liberties, as Paul talks about in Romans, to participate in it with good judgment and good sense.[vii] Their foundation in all things was the Scriptures, which forbad some things specifically and for others gave liberty to participate with good balance and good sense.

For their work ethic, they looked to verses like Colossians 3:23, which says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”[viii] The Puri­tan work ethic believed that you did your work as unto the Lord: you did it honestly, diligently, and with in­tegrity, serving the Lord rather than one another. Out of that came a notion that if you are working and do­ing well, that is good testimony to your own salvation.

The Puritans saw society as rooted in Scripture and shaped towards doing what is Godly. How does this compare with contemporary American individ­ualism, where we value pursuing our own desires and pleasures?

Individualism in America began chiefly at or around the time of 1776, where we begin to see talk of individual rights. Prior to that, people including the Puritans looked at life as built around communi­particu­lar point, “When once we are in Christ, we live for others, not for ourselves.”[ix] The Puritans certainly did that. Their founding document, the Mayflower Com­pact, was a compact for a community and not an indi­vidualistic item. What Bradford says in the Mayflower Compact is that if one of us suffers we all suffer; if one rejoices we all rejoice. When they looked at life, they did not think in terms of what they could do to their own enjoyment while not hurting others. Rather, they thought that if something does not hurt anyone and they were free to do it under the Scriptures, then they had certain allowances to do that in their recreation, food, or drink, provided it were done to the glory of God for the betterment of the commu­nity. The Puritans sought to elevate the community in all areas. They sought to give greater honor to the Lord through their work in the community by being responsible to one another.

How did the colonies transition from community-focused in 1630 to indi­vidual rights-focused in 1776?

One of the early aspects was in 1648 when one of the members of the Mas­sachusetts Bay Colony appealed to the English Parliament to have citizenship within the Puritan community while not having the then-required church membership. Even from the very be­ginning there was a breakdown of the Puritans’ vision of unified community, church membership, and family. At the same time there was the arrival in Amer­ica of other people and communities influenced by the Enlightenment. These people emphasized man’s individual freedom as opposed to the responsibili­ties to the community as a whole.

How do you think that we can form a balance between the Puritan value of the community and Enlightenment value of the individual?

First of all, Christians must commit to their re­spective churches. When we as Christians commit to our church we commit to its community. It is not that the things we have through civic freedoms are unim­portant, but unfortunately I am afraid to say that we have probably overemphasized them to the exclusion of our responsibility to the community. As Christians, we need an understanding of what it means to live within the body of Christ found in the church. So, if we are not members of a church or are not engaged in a church community, we lose what Christ wants for us within a body where we are praying for one another and hearing needs within the community. I believe that if we are diligent there, then God will make us increasingly sensitive to the greater con­cerns within our community—to the poverty within our country as well as the great needs socially and eco­nomically within our cities. It begins with our heart for knowing Christ, following him, and being obedient to him. Then God, by his Spirit, works in us so that we are not islands to ourselves. And I honestly believe that is where we have missed it. We think that it is all about us to the exclusion of others, but rather it is about the work that God is doing within the world. We need to have that same vision that Christ has for the world.

Are there any lessons that Americans today can learn from their Puritan predecessors?

One I have already alluded to is that the Bible needs to be our authority and be seen as sufficient for all of life, whatever that might be. Although many will affirm that they believe in the authority of the Bible, we need to move one step further in practice. As the Puritans did, we need to understand that the Bible is sufficient for all of life, and not only that, is necessary for all of life. So we do what the Bible says and in areas where the Bible is silent we are given latitude of free­dom and good, wise judgment.

Second, the Puritans believed that God is the cre­ator of beauty, art, and culture. We need to see that the beauty of the arts, the beauty of culture, and the beau­ty of the written language represent the magnificence of the Creator. Christians should not be despisers of the culture. In that way, we may need to be people unlike the Puritans. There were instances where the Puritans were very cautious about participating in the arts, theater, and other aspects of the broader culture. We need to see these things as reflecting God’s creation and representing it. Not to worship the arts by any means, but rather to keep it in perspective. Ultimately, Christians exist to glorify God even through their rec­reational and artistic endeavors.

Have the Puritans, despite the negative attitude toward them, left any lasting impact on American society?

Absolutely. One of the most significant things that they have left behind, I believe, is the emphasis on a liberal arts education. John Harvard gave his whole livelihood to Harvard College and ministers of early New England and certainly of England were well edu­cated. They were not, as Arthur Miller has portrayed in The Crucible, a people who were indecisive and had a hard time making decisions. These were men of great education, and I cannot help but believe that one rea­son we have such a great educational system in America is because of this original vision of the Puritans. They sought to train the mind for Godly purposes, that is, to train the mind to understand the world that God has created in order that we might know the Creator better. And I think that is one of the great legacies that we enjoy to this day.

Further reading

Cotton Mather’s Diary
Diary and Journal of David Brainard
John Winthrop by Francis Bremer
The Life and Times of Cotton Mather by Kenneth Silverman
The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century by Perry Miller
The Puritan Family by Edmund Morgan
Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England by Bruce Daniels
Quest for Godliness by J.I. Packer
Remarkable Providences by Increase Mather
Roger Williams by Edmund Morgan
Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were by Leland Ryken

i. See Perry Miller’s seminal book, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, first published in 1939.
ii. Exodus 20:9-10 (KJV).
iii. When the Ark of the Covenant returned to Jerusalem at the start of David’s kingship, II Samuel 6:14 (ESV) says, “David danced before the Lord with all his might.”
iv. Isaac Watts was the great Puritan songwriter. This line comes from his hymn, “Marching to Zion.” See J. I. Packer, Hot Tub Religion (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987) 71-2.
v. I Timothy 5:23.
vi. See Proverbs 23:19-21, 29-35.
vii. See Romans 14.
viii. Colossians 3:23 (ESV).
ix. Richard Sibbes, “Christ is Best; or, St Paul’s Strait” in The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, D.D., Master of Catherine Hall, Cambridge; Preacher of Gray’s Inn, London. vol 1, ed Rev. Alexander Balloch Grosart (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1862) 344.

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