PURITAN WOMEN: WORK AND RELIGION
According to Christine Leigh Heyrman, Puritan women, beginning in the early to mid 1600’s in Pre-Colonial America, played numerous major roles in regard to work and religion and were quite knowledgeable on a wide variety of topics, especially those related to child-rearing, household duties and serving the Church. Yet despite being “subordinate to their husbands” at both home and church, “Puritan ‘goodwives’ played an important part in the economies of their households and husbands entrusted them with a wide range of practical responsibilities” (”Religion, Women and the Family,” Internet), including maintaining the needs of the household and actively performing in church functions while leading a “Puritan” lifestyle based on religious purity, chastity and devotion to one’s family, husband, children and fellow men and women within their communities.
Historically, Puritanism was a vast religious reform movement which emerged from English Protestantism in the 16th century and was intended to restructure the Church of England as founded by King Henry VIII in the mid 1500’s and instill the desire within all English citizens, whether of royal birth or part of the lower stratums of society, to practice religion on a daily basis in the form of prayer, contemplation and piety. For the Puritans, the Holy Bible was the ultimate authority on all religious and work-related matters and served as the basis for their beliefs and practices.
With the so-called “Word of God” as espoused in the Holy Bible, the Puritans devised a holy commonwealth in which they felt it was their duty to remain free of secular influences, especially those linked to the “Age of Enlightenment” which fostered a belief in the power of reason over religious faith. Compared to other Christian denominations, Puritanism stressed a very specific process for attaining salvation and wholly supported the tenet that God had chosen certain persons to be saved via His mercy and love. This religious doctrine also stressed the idea that salvation could not be attained simply by performing good works for one’s fellow man and woman.
Of course, the Puritans themselves left their native England during the early years of the 17th century and settled in America, where they heavily influenced the development of the first American colonies, particularly that of Massachusetts. Basically, the Puritans longed for religious freedom in order to practice their own religious beliefs in an atmosphere devoid of persecution. In addition, the Puritans left England due to believing that “God was about to punish the nation for refusing to obey His commands to reform” and that “the final day of judgment was near” (Bercovitch, 167). For the women who were a part of this great religious movement, the development of a theocracy in America placed them in a very precarious situation, due to the fact that Puritan men virtually controlled every aspect of a woman’s life, from the house to the church and from the cradle to the grave.
One prime example can be found in the case of Anne Hutchinson, a famous Puritan dissident who believed that church membership, usually reserved for male officers, had to be expanded to include all those who practiced good behavior, including the wives of the church elders. As a result of this, Hutchinson was banished from America which only decreased the roles of women in the Puritan church and community.
As Patricia Tomczak relates, Puritan women, regardless of age or social status, “were suppose to be dutiful daughters, submissive and faithful wives, wise mothers, prudent household managers and kind neighbors” and were not advised by their husbands or clerical leaders to “take an active role in the political or the religious life” of Puritan society, due to the patriarchal system in which they lived and worked (”Women and Religion,” Internet).
It should also be pointed out that the congregation was the main unit of their religious society and of the government that eventually developed within Massachusetts which soon became a very populated commonwealth, leading to migrations to other towns, cities and territories in New England. These congregations, usually led by ministers and other clerical figures, often transferred the Puritan religious ethic far beyond the confines of Massachusetts and although the Puritans were not officially a democratic body, their policies paved the way for the spread of democracy into all regions of New England and later into what was then considered as the Far West, being the land beyond the Ohio Valley and the Mississippi River.
Not surprisingly, Puritan women found much comfort in their religious beliefs, partly due to being rather taken advantage of my their indifferent husbands. However, this comfort was also in direct conflict with the belief in a personal devil and the fear of punishment from God for thinking sinful thoughts. In a letter to her husband, dated 1637, Margaret Winthrop states that she finds herself “in an adverse spirit and a trembling heart, not so willing to submit to the will of God as I desire. There is a time to plant and a time to pull up that which is planted. . . But the Lord knoweth what is best and His will be done. . . ” (178).
Although Puritan women were not permitted to speak their minds at home nor in the church, they were not denied the basic privileges of religious observance and worship and were generally encouraged to meet with their fellow sisters in Christ to pray and meditate on a vast range of subjects, especially those related to personal piety and growth. In a number of documents that have survived since the days of the Puritans, many wives and daughters are spoken of and praised for their charitable works linked to the church, such as helping those suffering from mental anguish or living in dire poverty.
The topic of witchcraft, being so closely interlinked with the religious beliefs of Puritan women, deserves some attention. Obviously, most people do not understand the connections between the Puritan religion and witchcraft, but historically speaking, the execution of many so-called “witches” at Salem, Massachusetts in the mid to late 1600’s proves that there does exist a relationship between Puritan theology and witchcraft. Once again, Margaret Winthrop provides some startling data on the attitude of Puritan women regarding witchcraft, for she declares that a certain Miss Jones in 1648 was found guilty of witchcraft and thus hanged for her crimes against God and his commandments (196).
Winthrop also points out that many Puritans, especially the women, believed that the devil was constantly on the prowl to destroy the Puritan church which made it possible for those living outside of the church to be viewed as disciples of the devil. The “saintly wife” of Giles Cory was summarily executed three days after the horrible death of her husband and although she never truly confessed to being a witch, she was nonetheless sentenced by her Puritan church elders for the crime (216). This demonstrates that Puritan women, perhaps as a direct result of their piety and restrained natures, were viewed as prime candidates for witchcraft, due to being soft-hearted and pliable for the manipulations of the devil and his evil cohorts.
Since Puritan women lived in an age when the so-called “gentler sex” was viewed as secondary to the male-dominated hierarchy, the overall work customs usually began and culminated with the family, made up of children of all ages and relations, such as cousins, nephews and nieces. These hard-working women were usually married by the time they were in their early twenties and had as many as eight or nine children, perhaps even ten or more.
The main reason for this high number of offspring had much to do with the participation of the children in common, ordinary duties both inside and outside the home, like helping out in the fields during harvest time or tending to farm animals for milking and the making of butter and related foodstuffs. Male children were especially valued, for they were often given other tasks which the female children were incapable of doing, such as chopping wood for the fireplace or hauling water, often walking for better than a mile or so to the nearest river or lake.
For most Puritan women, maintaining a household encompassed many things and was often required much physical labor. Beside the number of children which these women were forced to bear and raise and the number of children that succumbed to an early death via a conglomerate of communicable diseases, such as smallpox and measles, they also had to face natural dangers, home-related accidents and diseases for which there were no cures. Also, a woman’s physical strength was a great commodity, for she was forced to make do with some very primitive household appliances and work for many long hours on a variety of household duties.
For example, Puritan women, due to living for the most part in crude dwellings, were compelled to keep their homes spotless, a sign of their religious purity in the eyes of the church and in the minds of the church elders. Also, all clothing had to be washed by hand, either in large wooden tubs or hauled to the river’s edge. Of course, Puritan women were also given the task of preparing food for her husband and children. Every single morsel or meal had to be prepared by hand, for there were no canned food or meat which could be purchased at the nearest grocery store or kept in cold storage except during the long winter months.
If a woman lived on a farm on the outskirts of the town or village that served as the center of the Puritan lifestyle, she was compelled to raise and slaughter all of the livestock and then cure it for consumption by her family. Vegetables also had to be picked and canned and bread, being one of the main staples of the Puritan family table, had to be hand-made with flour made from grains harvested in the fields, usually by the women and their children.
In order to cook the food, a large fire needed to be built which was not a very easy task, considering that there were no implements to start the fire which had to be ignited by very primitive means. Even at night, when the Puritan woman was tired from her long day of working in and around the house, she had to keep the fire burning in the fireplace in order to guarantee that the morning’s breakfast could be prepared relatively quickly.
There were also other tasks that the Puritan woman had to contend with on a daily basis which made her life one of constant toil and physical effort. A woman’s house had to be constantly stocked with many items needed on a daily basis, such as candles which were made by hand in huge iron kettles. As Bercovitch relates, “the constant demands of the great fireplace must have made the candle season a period of terror and loathing to many a burdened, hard-working wife and mother” (256). In addition, the Puritan woman and mother had to act as a doctor on many occasions, tending to sick children or husbands and making concoctions from herbs that resulted in medicines like bitters, syrups and ointments.
Thus, the Puritan woman existed under at times severe conditions and hardships which made her daily life one of much work simply in order to exist and tend to the needs of her family and husband. In such a world, it is amazing that these hardy and industrious women survived at all, yet they undoubtedly prospered and contributed a great deal to the bounty and comfort of their families. But strange as it may seem, these women did not truly object to these conditions, for in many instances, they “considered it unnatural to desire other forms of work and viewed the neglect of their homes as something akin to a sin against the church and God” (Bercovitch, 267).
The Puritans continued to prosper well into the 1700’s, yet by the time of the American Revolution, most Puritans living in New England were faced with many new challenges and problems. When the American colonies decided to break away from Great Britain and seek independence from British rule and domination, the religious aspects of American life took on new meaning, for the old ways of thinking linked to the Church of England quickly perished and were replaced by the Enlightenment ideals propagated by men like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Slowly and inexorably, the Puritans and their lifestyle, one of strict adherence to Puritan ethics and morality, faded away and mingled with other religious movements.
Yet the Puritan work ethic endured and highly influenced all aspects of American life in the colonies well into the early 1800’s. Thus, the Puritans and the women who represented them created a new arena dominated by personal integrity and self-individualism which can still be sensed, even some three hundred years later, in the America of today.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. Aspects of Puritan Religious Thought. New York: AMS Press, 1984.
Heyrman, Christine Leigh. “Religion, Women and the Family in Early America.” National Humanities Center. Internet. 2000. Accessed October 3, 2005. http://www.nhc.rtp.nc.us:8080/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/erelwom.htm.
Tomczak, Patricia. “Women and Religion in America, 1600-1900.” Illinois Women and Religion. 2005. Internet. Accessed October 6, 2005. http://history.alliancelibrarysystem.com/IllinoisWomen/rel.cfm.
Winthrop, Margaret. A Puritan Wife to Her Husband—1627. Boston: Charles Webster, 1887.