Puritan Prosperity: By-Product of Reverence, Integrity, Honor, and Hard Work

Americanist History, 1624-1655, William J. Jackman

Let us glance at the inner life of these colonists during the first generation or two after their settlement in the wilderness. In these earlier days the magistrates had a sort of patriarchal authority over the community, somewhat as a parent over his own household. And as the inhabitants were then comparatively few in number, and were perhaps known individually to the respective magistrates in their own vicinity, the influence of the latter was more directly exercised than when the population had largely increased. The children received instruction in Scripture lessons, and in the catechism, as well as in the very important virtue—obedience to parents. In all such matters the magistrates and ministers took a special interest, and thus aided the parents in training the young. Nor is it strange, under these considerations, that the magistrates censured the wearing of costly apparel, and the following of vain new fashions, because the people were poor and did wrong, they thought, to waste their means on dress unnecessarily expensive, and they exercised their prerogative as a parent who reproves the extravagance of his children. Their descendants sometimes smile at what they term the crude notions of these Puritan fathers; but do these sons and daughters reflect how they themselves acquired their consciousness of their own superiority over their ancestors who lived more than two hundred years ago? Their own attainments unquestionably have been the result of that severe training continued from generation to generation; each succeeding one modified and refined by the experience, the education, and correct moral influence of the one preceding; so that each generation thus profiting, unconsciously rose to a still higher plane of Christianized civilization. This result is in accordance with the God-implanted principle in the hearts of parents, to desire that their children should have better advantages than they themselves enjoyed in their own youth. The Puritans were far in advance of their contemporaries in the training of their children and households in the sterling virtues of honor and integrity; these combined influences have produced, in the course of five or six generations, the most remarkable progress known to history.

The Puritans felt the vast importance of sacred things, and were strenuous in carrying out their principles. They were careful to leave off labor at three o’clock on Saturday afternoon to prepare for the Sabbath. They went to church, heard sermons twice a day, each two hours long, heard prayers, and sang psalms of proportionate length, and enjoyed it. The tithing-man passed round with his staff of office, on the one end of which was a brass ball, on the other a tuft of feathers: with the former he tapped the heads of the men who fell asleep during the sermon; with the latter he gently tickled the faces of the drowsy women.

They were not so democratic as to make no distinction in social life. The term gentleman was seldom used; the well-born and the well-bred by courtesy received the title of Mr., while the common folk were dignified with that of Goodman or Goody. These titles were sometimes taken away by the court as a punishment. It is recorded that Mr. Josias Plaistow robbed an Indian of corn, for which he was sentenced to lose his title of Mr., and henceforth to be known only as Josias. Their luxuries were few indeed, but the women prized none more highly than that of tea. In those days it was customary for them to carry their own china cup and saucer and spoon to visiting parties. To be the possessor of a “tea equipage of silver” was deemed a worldly desire, to be sure, but not of an objectionable kind; it was commendable.

Though there has been associated with these colonists a certain austere manner, chilling the heart of cheerfulness, yet let it not be forgotten they had their innocent pleasure parties, especially when the neighbors joined to aid each other in harvest times or in house-raisings. The farmers and their families were accustomed to go in groups at least once a year, to spend a season at the seashore and supply themselves with salt and fish. They usually went at the close of harvest, when the weather was suitable for camping out. If they rejected the festival of Christmas as a relic of “Popery,” they instituted Thanksgiving, and enjoyed it with as much relish as the entire nation does today.

Within thirty years great changes had taken place in the colony. The people were prosperous; industry and self-denial had wrought wonders.

Says an enthusiastic chronicler of the times: “The Lord hath been pleased to turn all the wigwams, huts, and hovels the English dwelt in at their first coming, into orderly, fair, and well-built houses, well furnished, many of them, with orchards filled with goodly fruit-trees and garden flowers.” The people had numerous cattle and herds of sheep and swine, and plenty of poultry; their fields produced an abundance of wheat, rye, oats, barley, and Indian corn; and they could furnish fish, lumber, and many commodities for export. “This poor wilderness hath equalized England in food, and goes beyond it for the plenty of wine, and apples, pears, quince-tarts, instead of their former pumpkin pies.” “Good white and wheaten bread is no dainty; the poorest person in the country hath a house and land of his own, and bread of his own growing—if not some cattle.”

These things were not obtained without labor. Of the thirty-two trades carried on, the most successful were those of coopers, tanners, shoemakers, and shipbuilders. “Many fair ships and lesser vessels, barques, and ketches were built.” Thus the chronicler anticipates the growth of Boston, which, “of a poor country village, is become like unto a small city; its buildings beautiful and large—some fairly set out with brick, tile, stone, and slate, orderly placed, with comely streets, whose continual enlargements presageth some sumptuous city.” They had their soldiers, too, and a “very gallant horse-troop,” each one of which had by him “powder, bullets, and match.” Their enemies were graciously warned that these soldiers “were all experienced in the deliverances of the Lord from the mouth of the lion and the paw of the bear.”

Source: Jackman, William J. “History of the American Nation,” Vol.1, Chp. 11 Colony of Massachusetts Bay, p.177-181, Chicago, 1911.

Americanist History is a project of The Moral Liberal. Compiled and edited (with occasional commentary) by The Moral Liberal, editor in chief, Steve Farrell.

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