I thought I’d do a search for Puritans on YouTube and see what’s out there. There’s a lot, it turns out, of varying purpose and quality.
Today, I’ll share a video simply called “Puritans”:
This video states that it wants to clear up the negative myths about the Puritans, and counter their bad image in popular culture, by explaining all the wonderful things the Puritans did, their legacy to modern Americans. You know I’m on board with that! But this video fails, however, to give those explanations, constantly telling us that the Puritans were amazing but never telling us why. “There are few more misunderstood people in America,” it claims, but does little to provide understanding.
My favorite moments are:
The video uses images from the 18 and 19th centuries at will. Some of those images don’t even pretend to show Puritans, but they are marshalled for the cause. At 1:36 you see a Victorian drawing of a Puritan woman, tightly corseted, wearing blush, and sporting a fashionable beauty mark.
At 2:15 an image that looks like a representation of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe is used to illustrate the Puritans’ “in-dome-itable” spirit.
At 2:21 an 18th century image is slowly scanned as the narrator says, “By the end of the 17th century, the Puritans forever altered the world in which they had arrived, finding success where others found only death and desolation.” This odd claim must apply to English colonists, since Americans had been successfully living in North America for thousands of years. But many colonies were thriving by the end of the 17th centuries; Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland were paradises of plenty that put Massachusetts to shame. The odd claim is made odder by the painting being scanned, which includes a Native American on his knees as if crawling toward busy 18th-century Puritans gathering firewood and cooking out in the middle of a wintry forest.
At 2:55 Puritan ministers are claimed as some of the earliest, most outspoken opponents of slavery, which is untrue if one means slavery of Native Americans or Africans. The claim is then quickly made that the Puritans wrote the first diaries and the first love letters, which isn’t even debatably plausible if restricted to New England, let alone British North America or, perhaps, the world.
The video ends tantalizingly with this: “Who were the Puritans, and what did they actually believe? How did one of the most influential societies in America turn itself inside out? Enter the world of those who called themselves the godly…” I don’t know what they mean by turning itself inside out. I would have liked to hear that theory, because it sounds interesting. One might hope that the video itself would explain what they actually believed and how they were influential. As this narration rolls, a painting of Pocahontas’ wedding in London is scanned.
So this video has a good idea—truth v. myth—but doesn’t deliver. Surely my next visit to YouTube – Puritans will uncover something more promising.
4 thoughts on “Puritans on YouTube”
Everything very well said. I thoroughly enjoyed your breakdown of the video. 🙂
I have also enjoyed your other posts about Puritans–I have been studying the Puritans during my undergraduate in English and appreciate your perspective. I also feel they are misjudged and misrepresented, and while I don’t deny the wrongs committed within the Puritan community toward Indians, religious outsiders, “heretics,” “witches,” and even those in their own congregations, I have gained an appreciation for their practices and ideals as I have studied them in their historical, political, and religious context.
I am currently studying the missionary efforts of John Eliot and the varying perspectives toward the Native Americans from 1630-1661 or so. It is so interesting to find a majority of ministers and laypeople who preach conversion and yet avoid and even persecute the natives in reality, while finding staunch missionaries and traders oddly coupled together as the most active in developing settler-native relations.
I would love to hear your thoughts on missionary efforts of the early 1600s.
Your blog is excellent.
Hello Katie; thanks for writing. I’m about to begin a short overview of the 1641 Body of Liberties that can help shed further light on how people in Puritan Massachusetts were really treated, so stay tuned.
The MBC missionary effort was very half-hearted. In fact, when the Body of Liberties was written up in final form the copyist sent a few notes to the magistrates, first of which was this: “1. It is propounded to the one chief part of the charge, or office of the Council intended, to take care that the conversion of the Natives be endeavored.”
He was noting this perhaps because there was nothing in the Body about evangelizing Americans, and specifically in reference to one of the 100 laws in the Body that allowed churches to be made of only “orthodox” Christians, which the Native Americans could never be. The Body was adjusted to allow for “any such companies of men as shall henceforth join in any way of church fellowship” so long as they informed the Council in Boston and were approved.
The missionary effort was weak because the Puritans were much more interested in creating and ordering their own society than in helping Americans (or any non-Puritan) see the light. They had spent decades in England trying to win over skeptics and non-believers, and once they were set free in America, they wantd to devote all of their precious (and, they suspected, limited) time to perfecting a godly state. Arguing with non-believers about what was right, just as they had done in England, was not high on the list of priorities. And, of course, most Puritans believed it was thankless work to try to enlighten the ignorant, be they Indian, Catholic, Quaker, or any other non-Puritan.
But there were devoted missinonaries, Eliot chief among them, and their work has great importance to historians today. Good luck with your work!
Thank you for your thoughts! I just finished my paper on varying Puritan attitudes toward native conversion. I have definitely learned a lot. It is amazing to me how critical the recent scholarship has been of the Puritans when it comes to Native American relations/conversion. If Puritans weren’t advertising the Indian as a curiosity shop item (Rivett), they were justifying their poor diplomatic choices by the early epidemics that wiped out so many natives (Silva), or their missionaries acted as deceiving playwrights in their conversion process (Bellin).
This criticism is probably the result of trying to come to grips with the moral/social wrongs committed by Puritan groups in the name of religion, but it seems to me that it would be better to seek for the Puritan complexities of belief that parallel our own conflicted human natures rather than seeking to condemn and assign ill-will or evil motive.
I’m going to go read your new Body of Liberties posts now. Cheers!
You’re right that we tend to assign certain groups identities that remove them from the realm of shared human complexity. Good luck with all of your work! I think it will go a long way toward remedying that error.