The most powerful and influential government in New England was that of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the (now) Boston area. King Charles I issued a charter specifying that the power to make laws and elect a governor with no less than eighteen assistants would be in the hands of the General Court. This would ensure that at least a portion of the general population had a say in yearly elections.
But these Puritans had other ideas. Before they even left England, 13 men formed the Massachusetts Bay Company and appointed leaders and assistants among themselves. They then decided to allow voting only among themselves. They tried to deny the General Court the power to vote, but failed when some folks asked for a peek at the King’s charter. But instead, they decreed that only church members could vote. Church membership was decided by members of the Company who severely tested their applicants.
Although there was progress made in the way of greater representation, from 1630-1684, a small group of men had the majority of the power over the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans’ main motivation to leave England was due to religious persecution and oppression. You would think having been the victims of intolerance they would be more tolerant themselves. But that’s not how the Puritans rolled. Nope, instead they became some of the most preachy, persecuting, and powerful people in our country’s past. (Which is really saying something.)
While I read up on these Colonial times, I decided to put together a top ten list of sad and startling discoveries regarding the daily life of the Puritan people in the Massachusetts Bay Colony:
1. Sleepy Sinners Smacked Down
First of all, it was illegal not to attend church. Citizens could be fined or imprisoned if they did not attend. You couldn’t snooze through the service either. Folks would congregate in the town meetinghouse and “policeman” patrolled the aisles to awake any sleepy sinners. They were kind enough to merely tickle the women’s faces with a feather on the end of long rod, but the men got a quick smack on the head with either the rod or a ball attached to the rod. No rest for the wicked.
2. Tattle-telling Terrorism
The supervision didn’t end after the service though. The Puritans banned work and recreation for the full day of the Sabbath. You were to meditate on your inevitable torments in hell, not cook, or clean, or go for a walk. Citizens would report on their neighbor’s slip-ups. When Captain Kemble of Boston returned from a three-year voyage in 1656, he had the nerve to kiss his wife in public! On the Sabbath! He was placed in the stocks for two hours as punishment.
Lovemaking between husbands and wives on the Sabbath was considered a most serious sin. Clergymen at the time believed children were born on the same day of the week they were conceived. Born on Sunday? Your parents must have got busy on a Sunday. Some clergymen would refuse to baptize children born on Sunday. One renowned Reverend Israel Loring of Sudbury, Massachusetts enforced such a policy until his own wife gave birth to twins on a Sunday. His policy changed after that.
3. Cancel Christmas
Puritans disapproved of the celebrating of Holy days and Saints days including St. Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Christmas. The Massachusetts Bay Company even devoted a few paragraphs to their “General Laws & Liberties” regarding the celebration of Christmas. Anyone caught feasting or merrymaking would be fined five shillings.
4. Orthodox Overreactions
Women were reported for crimes of “Exorbitancy of the Tongue, in Railing and Scolding” i.e. nagging their husbands. Consequences included wearing a gag in her mouth for a week, standing for hours on a public stool, or having her head dunked repeatedly in water.
Swearing citizens would be arrested and forced to wear cleft sticks in their tongues. Thieves would be beaten, branded with the letter ‘T,’ or in some cases, sold as slaves. When law-abiding citizens, with non-Puritan religious pasts, voiced complaints regarding having to pay taxes without the right to vote, they would be fined, whipped, have their ears cut off, and/or banished from the colony.
On the upside, this led to the foundation of colonies like Rhode Island, which established religious freedom and separated church from state.
5. Capital Crimes
As laid out by the laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, capital crimes calling for the death penalty included: adultery, sodomy, bestiality, idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, poisoning, false witness, kidnapping, rebellion or conspiracy, hitting or cursing your parents, rebelliousness in sons, rape, rape of a child, and nonappearance in a capital crime. Although the death penalty was rarely applied for minor crimes such as adultery or cursing, the threat was always present.
6. Fining the Fornicators
The most popular crime of the time was fornication, often between an engaged couple. Sometimes friendly neighbors or loved ones would report the fornication years after the couple had been married. But they were still subject to punishments including whippings and fines. In 1632, Nicholas Frost was accused of theft and fornication and his punishment was a severe whipping, a brand with a hot iron, a fine, and banishment.
7. Divine Distinctions & Divisions
Marriage or occupation outside of the social class in which you were born was not tolerated. In the Puritan view, God decided to place you in a certain class and social station when you were born. If you attempted to marry or find an occupation outside of that class, you were questioning and disobeying God.
8. Forbidden Fun
Puritans viewed the arts and anything employing creativity or imagination as promoting idleness and immorality. They outlawed theater and dancing, banned books, and even forbid organ music during church. In 1670, they outlawed the mere possession of cards or dice. Even poetry was considered taboo. If it wasn’t a sermon, it was a sin.
9. Witchy Women
In response to being caught red-handed playing or dancing, children would claim they had been bewitched by other citizens in the community. This led to the famous Salem witchcraft trials, where at least twenty were executed and hundreds imprisoned. The physically and mentally ill were popular targets, as well as the disabled.
Some had the decency to step forward to apologize and repent after the hysteria had died down, but of course, that did little to help those already dead.
10. Shiny Souls for Sale!
By 1776, there were roughly 16,000 black slaves in New England. Less than an eighth of families owned slaves, but around 160 of the more powerful and wealthy families, including many clergymen and governors (like John Hancock), participated in and promoted slavery.
In the 1620s, roughly 75,000 Native Americans lived in New England. By the 1680s, only 20,000 remained. Most had died from disease, war with the European settlers, or alcohol. New England settlers confined the Native Americans who remained to reservations or sold them into slavery or servitude.
Many people opposed slavery on religious and moral grounds and by 1790, slavery was outlawed in New England. Despite the change in law, black citizens were treated as inferiors and struggled in an economy where businesses still banned black workers and favored white laborers. Although some found success, many remained domestic servants who faced the same discrimination as when they were slaves.