In many Evangelical Christian circles, the time of the Puritans is looked back upon almost as a golden age in American History. However, upon reading Puritan Adventure by Lois Lenski, most will conclude that, while the period might be a nice place to visit, they wouldn’t want to live there.
Puritan Adventure centers around the widowed Charity Cummings coming to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to live with her sister’s family. Unaccustomed to the more austere New England life, she serves as a colorful foil through which to view the nuances and complexities of colonial Puritan existence.
Noted for speaking her mind and for what to the Puritans seems her flamboyant mode of dress, Charity becomes a bit of a thorn in the side of community authorities. Charity’s more easy-going nature is contrasted throughout the story with the sterner outlook of a number of the Puritan settlers, particularly the so-called “Tithing Men” charged with the business of getting into other people’s business in the name of proper behavior and decorum.
While many Evangelicals today pine away claiming they long for the kind of close-knit sense of community characterizing Puritan life, from the incidents depicted in this researched narrative, it is doubtful few of us would find their way of life all that enjoyable. For example, town officials enforce the ban on Christmas and the Tithing Men chastise children along the street daring to whistle because, “Knowest thou not that running will scandalize good folk (104)?”
Some will probably think Lenski fabricated her depiction of the Puritans from her own imagination. However, in the forward she carefully documents that much of her story is based upon assorted original sources and she includes an ample bibliography at the end.
Of her sources, Lenski writes, “I have incorporated in my story many quotations taken from early New England writers. It is these phrases, so rich and suggestive, in the original sources, which give this long-past age a glow of reality and truth. In them we hear our founders speak, think, and act. They are the rightful heritage of American children (page XI).” Lenski also does a service to history by pointing out that, while the Puritans seem unduly harsh to us, in their time Christmas was marked by drunken bawdiness and in terms of severity Puritans were “soft” on crime as they had only ten crimes punishable by death whereas England had nearly thirty.
In her trial before town authorities for introducing the children to Christmas, Shrovetide, and May Day, in her defense Charity Cummings says, “We came to this fair land to build a new world, a New England. If I then look back to the Old, if I remind you of the life we lived there, ‘tis because I wish to preserve the best in the old ways for a goodly heritage. So away with Old England’s wrongs, I beg you, but hold fast to its good, and make your new world the richer (215-216).” Likewise, we as their descendants should not dismiss the Puritans in their entirety but rather retain from them those dispositions that have withstood the test of time while guarding against those darker tendencies that in various forms have plagued mankind throughout all of recorded history and not just among the Puritans.
Taken by itself, Puritan Adventure does not paint a complete picture of the pivotal contributions to the American way of life made by this sect. However, when studied alongside other introductory sources such as Pilgrims & Puritans by James and Lincoln Collier, the reader will have a good understanding of these complicated Forefathers.
Frederick Meekins is an independent theologian and social critic. Frederick holds a BS in Political Science/History, a MA in Apologetics/Christian Philosophy from Trinity Theological Seminary, and a PhD. in Christian Apologetics from Newburgh Theological Seminary.