How Puritan Women Debunk 3 Puritan Stereotypes

A New Approach to Learning about the Puritans

I hate to say it, but Puritan stereotypes—which go all the way back to the 17th Century—are still going strong. It almost seems like no matter how many solid scholarly books are written about them, the stereotypes will live on. We like to be able to call things “puritanical” and turn up our noses to people turning up theirs. But maybe what we need is an entirely new approach. Though the average person may be familiar with Puritan men like John Bunyan or John Owen, they have often never heard of Puritan women. Yet, these ladies were quite impressive in their own right, and looking at their lives and writings does a lot to put the misunderstandings to bed! Here are three stereotypes that I think are debunked by Puritan women as we examine how they simply went about their lives.

Stereotype #1: The Puritans were religious extremists.

Out of all the stereotypes about the Puritans, I think this is the most common. Being a Puritan meant being intense—crazy even! Or at least that’s what people say. But when I first started reading the Puritans, I saw that they were actually notable for their moderate and reasonable arguments and ways of living. The writings of Puritan women show just that. Though they were very religious people in that they valued, talked about, and engaged in religious activities on a regular basis, they were not what some may call religious fanatics or fundamentalists. This is seen, for example, in the life advice that Lady Brilliana Harley gave her firstborn son Edward. She not only wrote to him about spiritual things but also his physical, mental, and emotional health. Thus, though the spiritual was often paired with these other aspects of existence, it never became so dominating that it contradicted what we would say today are balanced or holistic life principles like the importance of eating healthy, getting exercise, reminding ourselves of our own worth, affirming the worth of others when they are embarrassed, and forgiving enemies when they hurt us (all topics that Harley wrote about to her son). Puritan women (and the Puritans in general) deeply cared about religion, but they didn’t become unbalanced people because of it.

5 Puritan Women

Jenny-Lyn de Klerk

In 5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love, Jenny-Lyn de Klerk shows how the lives and writings of Agnes Beaumont, Lucy Hutchinson, Mary Rich, Anne Bradstreet, and Lady Brilliana Harley encourage the beauty of holy living and provide practical wisdom for the home and the church. 

Stereotype #2: The Puritans were anti-society.

When people picture the Puritans, they picture a group of individuals who want to make rules and use those rules to form an in-group and, consequently, an out-group. But even more than this, they picture that in-group nourishing all sorts of ideas that are hateful—we are the elect and they are the reprobate; we are holy and they are base; we are fundamentally good and they are fundamentally evil. To be fair, some of this is not entirely wrong. The Puritans did see themselves as part of a godly bunch. However—and this is the important part—that group was meant to engage with and even love those outside of it, not reject and hate them. This is seen very clearly in the lives and writings of Puritan women, but I think my favorite example is from Lucy Hutchinson. In the theological treatise she wrote for her daughter Barbara, Hutchinson argued that for Christians to grow in their thankfulness to God, they need to love people—including believers and unbelievers—more than they currently do! In fact, the more they love people, the more they will love God, because they will see just how amazing he is when he blesses every person on earth with diverse gifts—like nature and animals—so that even those who are going through severe trials have a reason to be grateful. Overall, it is simply reductionistic to say that the Puritans hated unbelievers or society in general.

For Christians to grow in their thankfulness to God, they need to love people—including believers and unbelievers—more than they currently do!

Stereotype #3: The Puritans were joyless and cold-hearted.

In my opinion, this is the funniest stereotype. Many believe the Puritans were half-humans who didn’t laugh, drink, have sex, or enjoy life’s little pleasures. My first response to this is, how do you think any of them had children? This is often rebutted with, “Sure, but they didn’t want to, and they didn’t like it!” Again, the writings of Puritan women show us that this is simply not accurate. Some of us might be familiar with Anne Bradstreet’s great love poetry about her husband, but there are lots of other examples of this kind of enjoyment of earthly relationships and things. Bradstreet also wrote about her love of her house and its furniture, Mary Rich wrote about how sensational it was to provide for the earthly needs of others, and Harley noted foods, eyeglasses, fabrics, and dinnerware she liked (and, in my favorite letter exchange with her husband, once got in an argument with him about who loved the other more!). This really should be less surprising than it is, which is something I just have to chuckle about.

Overall, these women were in some ways very ordinary, and in other ways extraordinary. They loved God and godliness, went through regular life events, and lived typical 17th Century lives; they also did extraordinary things by exhibiting great strength, intellect, and virtue, and truly attempting to live out biblical truths in all areas of life. They were neither extremists nor people-haters nor fun-squelchers but applied themselves to their religion, led balanced lifestyles, served their churches, reached out to their communities, knew when to be serious, and knew when to play, tease, and giggle. Reading their stories for yourself will show you just how relatable and inspiring they can be.

Jenny-Lyn de Klerk is the author of 5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love.

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