New England Puritan culture and recreation

The Puritan culture of the New England colonies of the seventeenth century was distinctive in its attitudes to the arts and recreation. The Puritan community was made homogeneous by a Calvinist theology that believed in a "just, almighty God"[1] and a lifestyle that consisted of pious, consecrated actions. The doctrinal emphasis on work instead of leisure led to the development of a mindset adverse to sport and recreation. Despite the prevalence of this world view, the Puritans participated in their own forms of recreational activity, including sport, visual arts, literature, and music.

The Puritans were educated and literate for their time,[2] and their culture was broadly based in the arts and languages.



Puritans were able to read early on due to their frequent Bible study,[3] which made them a very literate people. They also produced a hardy collection of literature themselves, which surfaced in three main genres: sermons, diaries, and poetry.


The sermons of the Puritans were considered to be a "fine art" due to the incredible amounts of time spent preparing its delivery.[4] The words of the sermon were the most impressive quality of the discourse, and therefore a simplistic structure was commonly applied. Historians believe that Puritan ministers most commonly used an exegesis structure to dissect the meaning and purpose of passages of scripture for the sermons.[5] An exegesis has three components: the text, the doctrine, and the improvement.[5] To introduce the sermon, the text addresses the literal writing of the verses in context of its biblical location. The doctrine section of the exegesis provides a discourse of the theological concepts which spawn from the verses. The sermon ends with the improvement which is a call for action among the congregation.[6] This outline for a sermon was common among the Puritan ministers. Their religious monologues were extensively prepared and memorized, and lasted for roughly an hour in length.[1] Some prominent leaders who provided quintessential examples of such simplistic, didactic sermons include Cotton Mather, John Davenport, and Jonathan Edwards.[1] Their sermons were often printed for the community to read in their own leisure time.[1]


Puritans as a people kept individual journals especially consistently.[1] In their spare time, the Puritans devoted time to recording the ways in which God was present in their lives and if they succeeded in carrying out His purposes.[1] Many retold narratives of their lives to include the themes of the Lord's goodness and the successes of the righteousness. William Bradford wrote and retold the occurrences surrounding the Puritan's arrival at the Americas in Of Plymoth Plantation.[5] Rather than a historical retelling of events, other Puritans, including Samuel Sewall, Hannah Dunstan, and Mary Rowlandsen, kept and published diaries that relayed the progression they personally saw within themselves due to the presence of divine symbolism found in everyday life.[5] These narratives included themes of personal conversation, gratitude, and submission.


Puritans are also slightly less well-known for the poetry that derives from their community. Edward Taylor wrote his own poetry in preparation for weekly Sunday sermons.[5] Taylor spent extensive amounts of time pondering and searching the scriptures to appropriately relay the necessary doctrine to his congregation; in preparation, he wrote poetry correlating to the doctrine he chose to teach.[5] His poetry demonstrates deep compassion and submission to the Lord on a very personal level.[5] Some of Taylor's poetry includes "Psalm Two", "Huswifery", "Upon a Wasp Chilled with Cold", and "Meditation 26".[5]

In addition to the preparation poetry seen of Edward Taylor, Puritan woman Anne Bradstreet wrote dense poetry of her own. She spoke in a deeply personal manner distant from the general understanding of the role of Puritan women. She used poetry as a mode of demonstrating her love for family, husband, and God. Her poems include "The Prologue", "To My Dear and Loving Husband", and "Contemplations".[5]


The Puritan's understanding of music erived from the early opposition to Catholic beliefs by Protestant reformers.[7] The Puritans believed that music led to laziness, and laziness was not tolerated in the puritan life because they believed with laziness, they could not focus on God more carefully. The Catholic beliefs that the Puritans rejected were twofold. First, Catholic services included music as a carefully prescribed ritual that fostered true piety.[7] Second, Catholics believed that God was praised most effectively by way of sacred expression directed at the senses.[7] The Puritans instead believed that the worship of the sacred was to be free of ritualistic practices, therefore rejecting the practice of solo musical numbers in sermon meetings and in the home.[1] This rejection of florid music within meetings applied to the production of music within the private lives of the Puritans as well, and the basic principles of the people excluded the practice of music as a profession entirely.[7] The lives of the Puritans revolved around the way that the church worked; therefore, the role of music in the lives of early Puritans was minimal if not non-existent. By way of musical instruments, the Puritans avoided all use of such materials in the church services; however, according to historians they appreciated the sound of "lutes, violins, trumpets, flutes, virginals, and other instruments".[1]

Psalm books

As the Puritan religion developed, the practices within the churches developed and altered to the will of the people. According the anthology America's Musical Life by Dr. Richard Crawford, up until the late 16th century, the Puritans picked up the use of The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Collected into Englishe Meter as hymns to compliment the sermons. These hymns from the Old Version of the psalm hymns put the words of the Old Testament Psalms into musical meters that allowed the Puritans to sing the scriptures, which was considered as service to the Lord, not an art form at this point.[1] When this sort of "psalm singing" was brought to the American continent, general historians believe that it provided a basis for an "indigenous musical life" for the New World.[7]

In the late sixteenth century, a new psalm book by the name of The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Meter was published which rearranged the words of the psalms to more aesthetically pleasing meters and tunes.[7] With this new psalm book came a new method of singing, called "singing by note"[1] which called for a lead singer and familiar melodies, both of which made the practice of congregational singing more individualized and personable.[7] This alteration caused contention among the Puritans because the new hymn book broke from the Puritan societal norms. It began the transformation of the church practices within the Puritan lifestyle.

The development of church music furthered musical interest and knowledge. Singing schools were founded where boys and girls were taught how to read music and sing it in a musically correct and therefore pleasing manner.[7] Some went as far to say that these sorts of program were "social gatherings, providing a rare chance for boys and girls to mingle".[7] The Puritans therefore underwent a movement from only using strictly congregational hymns to providing musical education for the purpose of enhancing musical ability.

Visual arts

There was no Puritan view against beauty in the arts, and therefore no objection to visual fineries; however, the pragmatism intrinsic to the Puritan mindset limited the amount of art produced in the Americas.[1] The practical activities of life generally outweighed any sort of extravagance in the Puritan community. Aside from simplistic decorations within homes, embellishments on buildings, and small decorations in the simplistic home, paintings did surface during the era that the Puritans occupied the land, however. The Freake paintings by the Freake-Gibbs painter as well as Captain John Smith's self-portrait each represent a Puritan and therefore show Puritan involvement in blatantly visual arts.[5] Aside from the rare paintings as mentioned above, Puritan women created handicrafts.

Physical activity

There is very little documentation of any sort of sport in general Puritan lifestyle. The Puritan doctrine advocated a life intent on avoiding idle action.[4] The Puritans placed significant emphasis on the value of work and saw it as a duty to the Lord as his chosen people to spend all time productively. Distractions from that narrow lifestyle was seen as a vice.[8] Sport was often considered a form of leisurely or idle activity, and therefore a vice. This prevented sport flourishing in the American colonies among the Puritans.

Despite the general understanding of sport to be contrary to the work of the righteous, the Puritan doctrine of uniting the spirit and the body in a collective health was advocated by William Burkitt, a Puritan theologist, as well as by other Puritan leaders.[2] Burkitt refers to "lawful recreation" as "both needful and expedient" in the perfecting of the people.[9] Scholars recorded in the Standion journal note that as Puritan theology evolved, its understanding of the body shifted from an inherently sinful entity to a "neutral" quality of life.[8] The Puritans, therefore, sought a productive and consecrated use of the body.[8] This understanding of the body allowed for greater interpretation concerning what was appropriate and what was not.[4] Organized game was rarely established within the Puritan lifestyle; however, according to various historians, physical activity was prevalent in Puritan New England by way of manual labor.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Bremer
  2. ^ a b Daniels
  3. ^ Schucking
  4. ^ a b c Miller
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Baym
  6. ^ Colacurcio
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Crawford
  8. ^ a b c Brailsford
  9. ^ Wagner


  • Brailsford, D. (1975). "Puritanism and sport in seventeenth century England." Stadion, 1(2): 316–330.
  • Bremer, F.J. (1976). The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards. New York: St. Martins Press.
  • The Cambridge companion to Puritanism (2008). Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Colacurcio, M.J. (1984). The province of piety: moral history in Hawthorne's early tales. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Crawford, R. (Ed.). (2005). America's musical life: A history. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Daniels, B.C. (1991). "Did the puritans have fun? Leisure, recreation and the concept of pleasure in early new England". Journal of American Studies, 25(1): 7–22.
  • Daniels, B.C. (1993). "Frolics for fun: Dances, weddings, and dinner parties in colonial new England". Historical Journal of Massachusetts, 21(2): 1–22.
  • Howard, L. (1986). Essays on puritans and puritanism. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  • Jable, J.T. (1976). "The English puritans – suppressors of sport and amusement?" Canadian Journal of History of Sport & Physical Education, 7(1): 33–40.
  • Johnston, A.F. (1991). "English puritanism and festive custom". Renaissance & Reformation/Renaissance Et Reforme, 15(4): 289–297.
  • Miller, P. (1939). The new England mind: The seventeenth century. New York: Macmillan.
  • Puritanism: Opposing viewpoints (1994). San Diego: Greenhaven Press.
  • Scheucking, L.L. (1970; 1969). The puritan family: A social study from the literary sources. New York: Schocken Books.
  • Wagner, P. (1976). "Literary evidence of sport in colonial new England: The American puritan jeremiad". Stadion, 2(2): 233–249.
  • Wagner, P. (1976). "Puritan attitudes toward physical recreation in 17th century new England." Journal of Sport History, 3(2), 139–151.
  • Wagner, P. (1977). "American puritan literature: A neglected field of research in American sport history". Canadian Journal of History of Sport & Physical Education, 8(2): 62–75.

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