Minimalists in History: The Puritans

petrified wood

“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

– Luke 12:15 (The Bible)

Most of us who grew up in the U.S. learned about the Puritans when we were young children.

I didn’t remember much about them, though. Something about them coming on the Mayflower to Plymouth Rock and cartoonish images of the first Thanksgiving celebration.

Oh, and they burned witches in Salem. Or is all that the Pilgrims?

“Many look at the shining and glittering of prosperity – but not at the burdens of prosperity.”

– Thomas Watson

It turns out that the Puritans were a Protestant religious group that wanted to “purify” the Church of England of its Roman Catholic liturgy, vestments and episcopal hierarchy.

The Pilgrims (aka Separatists) were Puritans who felt that the Church of England was beyond reform. They chose to separate from it to form their own independent local churches.

Both groups came to the New World (at least in part) to escape religious persecution.

Simple living in history

You might wonder why I’m even thinking about Pilgrims and Puritans. After all, it’s not anywhere close to Thanksgiving.

The reason is that I recently began reading The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture, by David E. Shi.

This book, subtitled Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture, discusses many of the advocates of simple living in American history, including the Puritans.

“We are never to desire more than we can make good use of.”

– John Cotton

The Puritans, who settled in Massachusetts, believed that Christians had a duty to work hard, but that they must do so for the glory of God.

Although they were not against prosperity, there were opposed to greed and selfishness. They felt that the wealthy should act as stewards of God’s material blessings rather than live lives of luxury.

“We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities.”

– John Winthrop

John Winthrop, the colony’s first governor, stressed the simple spiritual life. Even during the voyage to the New World, he warned his followers about material success, saying they must make sure that “the good of the public oversway all private interests.”

In pursuit of this goal, the colony regulated prices, wages and markets. “Sumptuary” laws were passed, including one banning clothes of “great, superfluous, and unnecessary expense.”

Puritans in the Real World

Of course, real life isn’t so simple.

Given that the religious tenets of Puritanism included the value of hard work, many of the colonists were highly successful. This naturally presented a conflict in those who wanted to enjoy the riches they were earning.

Add to this that the Puritans always intended to keep the rigid social hierarchy they’d left, but the new-found prosperity meant that many common people were now able to afford luxuries that had once been attainable only by the elite.

“Intolerable excesses…have crept in among the people of mean condition, to the dishonor of God.”

– Massachusetts General Court, 1651

Unhappy about this, the ruling classes began to enforce the anti-luxury laws only for the common people. Naturally, the commercial classes weren’t happy about being singled out.

Many of them saw the admonition to practice simple living as a “rhetorical cloak employed by those enjoying elevated status and material wealth to hide their selfish interests.”

The gap between what Puritans claimed to believe and their behavior grew.

The Puritan ethical system slowly changed from one that recommended hard work, simple living, concern for others and spiritual devotion to one revolving around hard work for the purpose of material gratification.

 Want to learn more about the Puritans?

The above is, of course, a greatly simplified description. For more information about the Puritans, look for The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture at your library.

And just for fun, check out A Boy Named Humiliation: Some Wacky, Cruel, and Bizarre Puritan Names (thanks to Find a Simpler Life for tweeting this).

7 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: The Puritans

  1. Hi Christy,

    Thanks for another great essay. Nice and useful history lesson. I think it’s important for us to remember that consumerism and materialist excess existed before the mid-20th century – it was just available to a smaller range of people. We can take good example from people who lived several centuries earlier. Take it easy and keep writing the good stories!

    • I also think it’s fascinating how people keep trying – and failing – to build a simpler society. I wonder what we need to do differently.

    • I’m glad you like it. I do plan to write about the Shakers and a whole bunch of other people and groups, eventually. Feel free to let me know if you have any other suggestions.

  2. Hello Christy, A very interesting post. I enjoyed reading it. If you get the chance, come visit Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Plymouth Plantation is a favorite of mine. It’s a living museum that shows the original settlement of the Plymouth Colony.

    • I’d love to. I always enjoy seeing history so much more than reading about it. Which is odd, since I love to read. It just seems more alive somehow.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.