The Not Quite Puritans by Henry Lawrence

Common is the view that the Puritans of newly born America were all prim, proper, and ferociously religious people. Novels like the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and famous events such as the Salem witch trials, have pounded this stereotype in our minds. One only has to search any history book to find them mentioned with highlights on their extremely regimented world and unbelievable laws. Religion having been the topic of utmost importance to them, we only see the strict, and rather boring, lifestyle of Puritanical America. In Henry Lawrence’s book, The Not Quite Puritans, however, a lighter, and sometimes wilder, side of these people is revealed. Lawrence shows that like all people, the Puritans had their flaws, and frequently became involved in the very things they despised. From drunkenness and unauthorized courting to extravagant clothes, they had their far share of ‘unholy’ behavior. As he says, “…these early New Englanders were spiritually akin to our present generation. Some few of them were saints; a few more were hypocrites; but most of them were neither.” The overall thesis of the book is that the Puritans, while outwardly strict and controlled, often behaved just as unruly as other people. The book is primarily filled with examples to support the theme of each chapter. These examples show that the Puritans often broke their own outlandish laws, and sometimes even the laws of the less ‘godly’ people. One chapter, entitled “Smart Dressers and Their ‘Wicked Apparel’”, is entirely devoted to how extravagant clothing and hairdo’s were looked down upon. It discusses the laws made against wearing certain things, an example being the following, “no person, either man or woman, shall hereafter make or buy apparel, either woolen, silk, or linen, with any lace on it, silver, gold, silk, or thread…all gold or silver girdles, hat-bands, belts, ruffs, beaver hats.” This shows that the Puritans are adamant about people not wearing any clothing that was in any way unconventional to their standards. At that time, the common choice of fashion was a plain coat, pair of trousers, and shoes for men, and a fairly simple dress for women. The new styles that began to become popular were too different for the liking of many Puritans. Throughout history, fashions have changed, and the current fashions were just deviating from the accepted plain clothing previously worn by the people. Other cases of making and breaking strange laws are littered throughout the book. In the chapter, “’Blue Laws’”, it is explained that dogs were not allowed in the church, though in some places owners could pay a fee to have their furred friends join them in the services. The Puritans also got wilder as the children grew up, with many mentions of how the unruly younger generation broke the laws. For example, the whole chapter “The Terrible Younger Generation and How They Were Educated,” is almost entirely devoted to the mischief of young Puritans.
Probably one of the most recurring topics in the book is the dreaded ‘tithingmen,’ who made it their duty to find any wrong doers. The chapter entitled, “The Sleuths of God and the Advertisement of Crime” is almost entirely devoted to these holy detectives. During Church service, their job was to keep children in line and wake those who feel asleep. The tithingman had a black staff for this purpose, about two feet in length, with brass on one end and a squirrel’s tail on the other. The brass end was used to nudge men, and the tail was used to tickle the woman, and in this way the sinful nappers were awoken. They controlled traffic as well, but their main job was to report any wrong-doing in the community. They counted curse-words, monitored jokes, searched houses, reported drinking and unkind words towards the government, and occasionally received a portion of a criminal’s fine to repay them. They were allowed to spy on anyone that appeared suspicious, and were free to search their houses. The punishments faced by those who were convicted of a crime varied from fines, lashes, time in the stocks or a cage, and having to wear a letter representing their crime. The very man who created the first stocks was boarded up for public exhibition, according to the book, “for his extortion in taking one pound, thirteen shillings, seven pence for the plank and woodwork of Boston stocks is fined five pounds & censured to be set and hour in the stocks.”
Many times books of non-fiction, and especially those written in the early 1900’s, are dreadfully dry and boring. When told that I had to read this book for school, and seeing that it was written in 1928, I will admit that I cringed. I fully expected this book to be yet another boring required reading assignment for school, but I was pleasantly surprised. I found that the author’s style of writing was easy to read, and unlike other author’s of his time, he didn’t tend to drone on about the same subject for whole chapters. There are truly few aspects of history that I enjoy more than scandalous behavior in civilized societies, and a book about how the strict, proper Puritans had their own law-breakers is a joy to read. I loved how he listed the ridiculous laws of the Puritans, and described the severe punishments for something so harmless as bringing your dog to church or staying out after 9 p.m. The author applied enough wit and clever use of quotations to keep me interested, even when reading parts that would otherwise be a bit dull. The quotations, especially, kept me interested. The many quotes from Reverend Cotton Mather, for example, are always very interesting, especially when he seems to say one thing, and then promptly contradict himself. I always find that direct quotations, if not overused, give a certain life to any work of non-fiction. The use of quotations also give me a bit more confidence in what the author is saying, convincing me that he didn’t twist the truth more than necessary to support his own view. The 228 pages went by fairly quickly for me. I was very surprised to find that after finishing the book, I had thoroughly enjoyed myself.
The author’s style of writing was very good and well developed. His tone throughout the book is amused and matter-of-fact, occasionally mocking the ways of the Puritans, without sounding too satirical. Lawrence uses several example situations involving the same people, such as Samuel Sewall, Reverend Cotton Mather, and John Winthrop, allowing the reader to get attached to these people and put further interest into what you’re reading. It was very well written, with no confusing facts or language, and it was on a topic that many people know well from simple history lessons. The arrangement of the chapters was obviously well thought out, as each chapter draws on information given previously. His use of quotations and wit manage to keep the book light and interesting, and allow it to flow nicely. His facts appear to have been researched thoroughly, and he goes beyond merely listing his sources by describing them. As Lawrence himself said, “…the purpose of this list is to indicate the quality, rather than the number, of the authorities consulted…”

I frequently find that required reading for school, and quite honestly most non-fiction, is extremely dull. It usually takes a bit of an effort to pay attention, and I often feel like I’ve missed something when I’ve finished. This book definitely exceeded my expectations. It kept me interested, was on a unique topic, and I learned something. The author did a very good job of providing information while not being boring, and his way of writing made it easy to understand. The quotations and reappearing people in the book helped give it a sense of life, even though it is non-fiction. Overall, this book was a surprisingly good read. I definitely recommend this book to anyone looking to learn some very amusing facts about our Puritan ancestors.





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