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Mayflower 400: how society feared and ridiculed puritans

Three male figures dressed in 17th-century outfits.
John Lacy, a Restoration actor and playwright, satirised puritans, including in his role as Mr Scruple in The Cheats by John Wilson (right). John Michael Wright (died 1694/National Portrait Gallery

England in the 17th century was what’s known as a “confessional state” – everyone was supposed to practice religion in the way the government decided. But puritans didn’t much like the way religion was practised by the Church of England.

Puritans thought there should be more stress on the bible and opposed any religious practice not clearly sanctioned by it. This included everything the Church of England retained from Catholicism: clerical dress, images, the Common Prayer Book and the church festivals associated with it. Non-puritans thought such objections unreasonable and a threat to the authority of both church and state. Thus the government increasingly sought ways to counteract the puritans’ influence.

Many of the things puritans argued about caused social friction. They wanted to outlaw non-religious activities such as drinking and sports on Sundays, putting them at odds with ordinary people who wanted to enjoy their only day off. Another issue was the puritan habit of “sermon gadding” – going elsewhere to listen to popular preachers, instead of their own parish church. The authorities were suspicious of people who travelled about: “vagabonds” were enthusiastically whipped and Quakers later imprisoned for their peripatetic evangelism.

Puritans were a minority, but could not easily be ignored. Their powerful supporters amongst the elite lobbied for religious change and pointedly criticised the Church. The government responded by suspending some puritan clergy, fining and excommunicating sermon-gadders and separatists meeting outside the church. In 1637 three of Charles I’s most prominent puritan critics had their ears nailed to the pillory and cut off. But state persecution of puritanism was more limited than that imposed on Catholics, who were seen as the greater threat.

Laughter as a weapon

Persecution risks creating martyrs: powerful things in England where Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – an account of the burnings of Protestants under Mary Tudor – was a key religious text. A more sophisticated and politically palatable way of dealing with a threat was to make it socially unacceptable via ridicule.

My research shows that anti-puritan satire took many forms: anecdotes, poems, parodies, character-sketches, and particularly – since puritans opposed the theatre – the stage puritan.

First appearing around the 1590s, the stage puritan was stereotypically a tradesman, ill-educated and suspicious of learning. “Zealous Knowlittle, a Boxmaker” in The Rivall Friends (1632) was a typical example.

Puritans were portrayed as hypocrites, claiming virtue while secretly both sexually voracious and corrupt. “Thus do we blind the world with holiness,” says a character in the comic morality tale A Knack to see a Knave (1592).

Poems mocked the puritan preaching style: “eyes, all white and many a groan, as well as their habit of speaking "through the nose”. Many joked about the ridiculous affectation and noisiness of puritan sermons – and their length, which made congregations fall asleep or desperate for the toilet.

For a century the basic formula hardly changed. But during the English Civil Wars the tone darkened. Earlier anti-puritan satire is playful. “Zeal-of-the-Land Busy” in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614), tears down idolatrous gingerbread stalls, before losing a debate with a puppet. The aim was to belittle puritans, not acknowledge them as a potential threat or understand them.

Shakespeare was the exception, creating sympathetic, if wrongheaded, puritan characters, such as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, and Angelo in Measure for Measure – a prescient thought-experiment as to what might happen if puritans ran the state that anticipated the English Civil Wars by 40 years.

Power of the word

From 1640-1660 puritans dominated Church and state, radically reforming English religion by military force. Nobody now thought them harmless. Pamphlets warned of the strange religious sects now emerging and catalogued the trades of artisans – cobblers, soap boilers and button makers – getting on to tubs to preach.

The mood of defeated royalists was black – their satire became unrestrained invective. One compared sectarianism to the rape of a dismembered woman, another joked about a nonconformist’s lack of testicles. They relished the grotesque murder of an adulterous puritan minister, his brains, struck by an axe, spilling out of bed into “an open Close-stool” (a covered chamber pot).

Misogynistic depictions of sexually rapacious female devotees became a staple feature, part of an atmosphere of abuse that endured for decades after the Restoration. The daughters of a Northamptonshire minister were “infamous whores”, wrote one loyalist in the early 18th century, in a letter held in the Walker archive at the Bodleian Library, “who have given the Pox to some Gallants, that have adventured on them”.

The restoration of the monarchy and traditionalist Anglican religion in 1660 ushered in a flood of satire targeting the outgoing interregnum puritans. Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (1663), a clever parody of epic romance with a puritan anti-hero, was a bestseller.

Two men on horses surprise two other people and overturn table. Dog barking in foreground.
Hudibras Sallies Forth: Puritans were a rich source of satirical targets in the 17th and 18th centuries. William Hogarth

Even bishops staged mock-Presbyterian sermons. Dramatists, like musicians working variations on a familiar theme, populated their plays with puritans of a rich variety of type and setting. Mr Scruple, in John Wilson’s popular The Cheats (1663), engages in a verbal duel with an astrologer for obtuseness of doctrine.

An elderly practical joker in Thomas Otway’s The Atheist (1684) disguises himself as a “Phanatique Preacher” to receive a deathbed conversion. In George Etherege’s Man of Mode (1676), the puritan chaplain spends the whole play in a cupboard. Strange puritan names like “Praise-God Barebones”, were laughed at and imitated. There was a trend for character names beginning with “s” to suggest the slippery, serpent-like duplicity of the stage puritan: Snarl, Smirk, Scruple. This persisted: Obadiah Slope in Barchester Towers (1857) and even Severus Snape from Harry Potter reveal how the puritan archetype of the sour-faced, black-clothed kill-joy has persisted.

Puritan values were an important influence on American culture, and can be seen today in their individualistic work ethic, their attitudes to drink and their tendency to divide people into winners and losers, just as the puritans separated the elect and the damned. In England, meanwhile, the reaction against them was more significant. Most English people loved everything the puritans hated: drink, theatre, sports, silly traditions, Christmas. Above all, English humour and irony, the seeds of which were sown during the interregnum, was the only antidote to powerful people who took themselves far too seriously.

Read more: Mayflower 400: were the Pilgrims asylum seekers or subversives?

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