They didn’t come to America to establish freedom of religion, and they didn’t hate sex. Writer Lori Stokes helps clear up five myths on Puritans. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

 Lori Stokes is an independent scholar who studies the founding decades of Puritan New England and Congregational church history.

As Thanksgiving approaches, Americans look back on the first English settlers in what is now New England. Since these Puritans fill the earliest chapters of the American story, they make plenty of appearances in our shared imagination. But debates over who the Puritans were, what they stood for and how they contributed to our sense of national identity are shrouded in misunderstandings. Here are a few.

Myth No. 1
The Puritans established a theocracy.

As the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences puts it, “With the Puritan migration to New England during the 1630s, theocratic governments were established.” And the Encyclopedia Britannica echoes the claim, stating that “the Puritans established a theocratic government.”

It’s not true. A theocracy is a government run by religious authorities claiming divine sanction for their political leadership. In 1631, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s governor, John Winthrop, expanded the franchise to all free adult males in the colony. These men voted for their representatives to the General Court (their legislature), who then voted for the governor and his council of assistants.

None of these elected officials were clergymen, because no minister was allowed to hold political office. Equally important, anyone holding political office who was censured or excommunicated by his church could not lose his office because of his religious difficulties. While it’s true that the first generation of men were required to be full church members in order to vote or hold political office, that requirement was modified in 1658 and permanently retired in 1664. The Puritan government in Massachusetts did frequently seek the advice of its ministers, but it was under no obligation to take that advice, and it frequently did not.  

Myth No. 2
Puritans had a special hatred of American Indians.

The Puritans’ supposed white-hot hatred of Indians is often invoked around Thanksgiving, as Americans reflect on the circumstances of our nation’s founding. Many articles point to the slaughter of Pequot men, women and children at the tribe’s village, near present-day Mystic, Conn., in 1637, during the Pequot War, as evidence of the special enmity between Puritans and Indians. Capt. John Underhill, a militia leader, described the carnage in that battle: “Down fell men, women, and children. . . . Should not Christians have more mercy and compassion? Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents. . . . We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.” It’s true that Puritans mistrusted Indians, deplored their religions as savagery and devil-worship, fought them, and enslaved them.

But this wasn’t much different than the approach they had taken to different groups back in Europe, where some of them, like Underhill, fought in the Thirty Years’ War, and many pressured King James I to send English troops to assist Protestant forces on the continent. The massacre at Mystic was quite similar to the scores of town-burnings in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War: Twenty thousand were killed in the 1631 razing of Magdeburg, Germany, for instance. In November 1631, a visitor to another sacked village in Germany “was appalled to find the vineyards and fields red with blood, with corpses scattered in bizarre positions over a three-mile radius.”

If you had to choose a group the Puritans really had a special hatred for, it would be Catholics. (After that came splinter groups like Quakers and Anabaptists, and then anyone else who was not a Puritan.) In one regard, the Puritans cut Indians more slack than Catholics. They preferred to try to convert Indians first, believing that, unlike Catholics — who had sworn loyalty to the pope and chosen to resist Protestantism — the Indians couldn’t be blamed for their heathenism. In parts of New England, Puritans and Indians lived in neighboring towns, did business with each other, sometimes worshipped together and had complex loyalties. This was evident during King Philip’s War in 1676-1677, when some settlers refused to fight their Indian neighbors.

Myth No. 3
Puritans hated sex.

In the Huffington Post, science writer Dan Agin described Puritans’ “dictatorial repression of daily life, mostly of sexual behavior.” Anya Taylor-Joy, star of the 2015 movie “The Witch,” said she learned from the film’s script that “everything about being a Puritan . . . seems to be going against what it means to be human.” Even the word “puritanical” is usually taken to mean sexless and joyless, as in a New York Times article chalking up American prudishness to Puritan roots.

What, then, are we to make of this letter from Winthrop, many times the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to his fiancee, Margaret Tyndal? “Being filled with the joy of thy love, and wanting opportunity of more familiar communion with thee, which my heart fervently desires, I am constrained to ease the burden of my mind by this poor help of my scribbling pen. . . . Love was their banqueting house, love was their wine, love was their ensign; love was his invitings, love was her faintings; love was his apples, love was her comforts, love was his embracings, love was her refreshing.”

The Puritans believed that the love between married people was the closest humans could get on Earth to experiencing the joy of being united with Christ in heaven. And love in marriage had no higher expression than sex. The Puritan minister at Cambridge, Mass., Thomas Shepard, often described the passion people felt in marriage in his sermons: “In all marriage bonds there is a choice made, and, if love be great, there is little standing on terms — let me have him though I beg with him.”

Myth No. 4
Puritans came to America to establish freedom of religion.

It’s hard to suppress disappointment with the Puritans when one reads that they “pulled up the gangplank behind them” once they arrived in America, as one author put it, not allowing Quakers and others to worship freely — especially because many works of U.S. history, including the PBS documentary “First Freedom,” locate the origin of American views on freedom of religion with our earliest Puritan founders.

But the Puritans didn’t leave England to found a society where all religions would be tolerated. After all, they were granted the pejorative moniker “Puritan” in England because of their efforts to purge Catholic influences from the Anglican Church. They sought religious freedom only for themselves.

In 17th-century Europe, every kingdom had an official religion, and the monarch was the head of the church. There were a few exceptions, but it was certainly the case in England, where King Charles I led the Anglican Church when the Puritans left for America. Since the Puritans wanted to change Anglican worship by, among other things, ridding priests of expensive robes, putting an end to kneeling for Communion and doing away with the Book of Common Prayer, they were persecuted for treason — for challenging the king’s authority to dictate forms of worship. So they went to America to create a political entity where their brand of “reformed” Anglicanism was the only religion.

Myth No. 5
Puritans were relentless witch hunters.

Because of the infamous Salem witch trials, in which 20 people accused of witchcraft were executed, the New England Puritans are often framed as a wildly superstitious and persecutory people with a special hysteria for sniffing out witchcraft. “Witchcraft was portentous,” Stacy Schiff wrote in her recent book on the Salem trials, “a Puritan favorite.”

It’s true that the Puritans believed in witchcraft, as did every society in Europe at the time. But they were not hysterical about it, and the number of witchcraft cases that made it to court is vanishingly small. From the first witchcraft trial in New England in 1638 to the last in 1697, excluding Salem, 65 people were tried, out of a population of tens of thousands. More than half were acquitted. Only 16 were executed.

The Salem episode was the only time in Puritan New England’s history that an actual panic developed over witchcraft. That’s what makes Salem memorable: It was an anomaly.

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