Thankful Thursday: Thanksgiving Day has New Meaning This Year

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts. via Wikipedia, public domain.
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts. via Wikipedia, public domain.

McMurray Family, Burnell Family (Click for Family Tree)

Pilgrims and Puritans always seemed so far removed from everything in life except Thanksgiving dinner- that was my thought in years past. The last few months, however, have revealed a much closer relationship than ever imagined. Some of our Burnell ancestors actually travelled on The Mayflower, though it was her third voyage to the colonies, not that first fateful voyage that gave us the holiday we celebrate today and the famous ‘Plymouth Rock.’ Also, we have quite a lot of Puritans in our Burnell ancestors of New England, and it is fascinating to be learning their stories.

Of course, finding this family heritage meant research into the daily lives of the Puritans. They were not the dour people we often envision. They did allow laughter and play, but everything they did was for the glory of God.

The Puritans wished to purify the English church, and rid it of any facets of Catholicism, such as priests, sacraments, ceremonies, etc. They did have much political power in England after the First English Civil War in 1642-6, but then were unhappy with the limited changes of the Reformation, and many left England. While the Mayflower pilgrims could be classified as being “Separatists” who wanted to start their own churches, likely our ancestors were “non-separating Puritans” since they followed John Winthrop and like-minded others. They did not want to leave the Church of England, but wanted to practice their religion in a more pure way. Thus, although we learned in grade school that the Pilgrims and Puritans came to the colonies for freedom of religion, technically it was so that THEY could practice THEIR religion freely; they would not tolerate others to question nor practice in any way other than that proscribed by the bible as interpreted by their ministers. (They persecuted and even executed heretics and Quakers like Anne Hutchinson.)

The Puritans believed in strict interpretation of the bible, and made their laws, which became the plantation/colony laws, accordingly. Their ultimate goal in this life was to glorify God, in the hope of being with God and an everlasting glory in heaven. They did not believe, like the Catholics, that good works would help one get closer to heaven- the chosen were pre-ordained by God, but they must also live their life orderly and properly in order to fulfill that destiny. Man was made to glorify God while on this earth, in thought, deed, worship, raising children, and even in his business pursuits, they affirmed.

The Puritans believed very strongly in the Fifth Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” This law produced the strict hierarchy ordering their lives: God was the father of man, who must honor him; man was the ‘father’ to his wife, children, and any servants, thus they would honor him by being subservient and obedient to him. He, as their ‘father,’ was required to see to their education in both religion and practical matters, and it was his duty to see that his family followed the many rules of their society. Because all persons existing at that time were “descendants of Abraham’s seed,” the bible indicated that every person was thus responsible for every other person’s behavior, because all were related. This led to townspeople going to the courts to turn another in for infractions, neighbor against neighbor, but in the spirit of tending to that neighbor’s soul. (Theoretically, of course- some was done as spite as well.) It also led to the guilt and fear of a society such that when something bad happened, like a drought or massacre by the natives- they believed that if they all had done a better job of following the proscribed laws, the bad would not have happened.

Because of their strict interpretation of the bible, the Puritans (as well as members of other religions of the time) felt that Satan was always nearby, ready to take possession of any who were weak or not cautious, not pious. This fear of demons led to a constant fear of anything unexplained. These events were thus considered as Satan’s doing, or his work through possession, or witchcraft.

The Puritans did not call themselves by that name, but felt they were “Congregationalists.” Their congregational church was made up of individuals who had come together voluntarily to worship. Only those who were “visible saints” could join- they had to experience a “conversion” in which the Holy Spirit would come to them. A person desiring admission to the church would have to explain in detail the visit of the Holy Spirit, and church members would be free to accept or reject the applicant. Children were automatically included while they lived in a parent’s household, and sometimes servants as well.  Young children were not brought to church, however- they had to be old enough, “so, as to be benefitted themselves and the Congregation not disturbed by ’em,” per Joseph Belcher. A child would have to experience their own conversion once an adult and out of the household, and apply for membership. Some references stated that our Joseph Parsons and his children had been admitted as church members, but Mary (Bliss) Parsons never did; others stated that she was a church member though regularly accused as a witch. A Puritan church was really made up of families, not individuals.

Education was very important to the Puritans, so that their children could read the bible for themselves. They were not taught to think for themselves, however- only to have the knowledge and understanding of the bible needed to follow the laws to be pious. New England laws proscribed the education of a child- all children, even if it was only a weekly catechism taught by a parent. The town selectmen would go to each home in the plantation (what they called their towns, rather than ‘colonies’ as we call them), and quiz the children on their catechism plus their understanding of it; a parent would be admonished if his children were not properly learning.

Generally both boys and girls attended schools, with some boys moving on to an apprenticeship after learning to read and write, and girls moving to service in various homes in order to learn the skills of housekeeping. Most children were farmed out to other homes in order that they did not become too close to parents, and so that they would learn respect, which might decrease in the teen years if they had stayed with doting parents. Some boys went on to higher education, including Harvard University, which was originally a Puritan institution that mostly produced new ministers for the faith.

While the Puritans did not allow the arts such as drama, they did allow music for the Psalms, but no musical instruments in the church service. They did love their children, although discipline, even very harsh discipline (which was to be a last resort, though that was not always followed), was the duty of a parent or master in order to help ‘save’ the pious life of a child. They loved each other too, within marriage, and were not prudish about sex in the married state; sex outside marriage, however, was severely punished and could be a capital crime. There still exists a very sweet set of correspondence between John Winthrop and his wife, as he was often away. They did take pains, however, to keep their love for each other within bounds, and couch it in terms of their actions glorifying God.

Love was actually desirable in a Puritan marriage. Puritans often married at a slightly older age than many of the time, often mid-20s. All were required to live in a ‘family’ situation by law- no wild singles living on their own without others to see to their soul. Thus children lived with their parents until married, or until a young male was able to afford a household with servants. Sometimes a couple would ‘fall in love,’ but often a person would determine it was time to marry, and then look around at the pool of eligible spouses. Meetings would occur, and if a person thought they could love a person, negotiations were begun. The father of each would negotiate how much they would contribute o the new household, with the groom’s family providing twice as much as the bride’s, in general. Puritans seldom married across class lines, and if all were in agreement at the settlement, the marriage would proceed. Marriage was not a religious ceremony in Puritan society but more a contract, thus the ceremony was performed by a civil magistrate. Unfortunately the words of wedding ceremonies do not exist today- it would be very interesting to know what each spouse promised. Second marriages were left more to the adults to negotiate. It was common to have large blended families since so many spouses died young- often one spouse was marrying for the second, third, or even fourth time, and the other had been married once or more. Women bore children into their forties sometimes, and may have been having children for over a quarter of a century- Mary (Bliss) Parsons, our family’s accused witch, was one of those.

Surprisingly, one can find divorce in Puritan families. Generally divorce was reserved for egregious wrongs- the lack of performing marital ‘duties’ of any kind, whether for physical or willful reasons; abandonment/disappearance (they travelled more than I realized, and may have not made it back from a trip, or just moved on); and sometimes even for verbal or physical abuse .

Understanding Puritan society helps us to understand their lives in a richer deeper, way.

This Thanksgiving Day, thinking of these ancestors and how hard their lives were in the frontier of the New World, yet how they worked to gain glory in each act, will be a part of my reflection of gratitude. Understanding their lives helps us to understand more of our own society and personalities, as well as religions.

There is much more to come about our Puritan and early New England ancestors!

Happy Thanksgiving to all.


Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. The Puritan Family. Religion & Domestic Relations in Seventeenth Century New England by Edmund S. Morgan, the premier Puritan historian. Harper-Perrenial, 1966 edition.
  2. Wikipedia- Puritans –


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