Pumpkin Piety: 9 Quotes About American Puritanism

Lillian Gish in “The Scarlet Letter,” 1927 © MGM

Editor's Note:

Who doesn’t love a good quote? For more like this, check out our quotations archive.

Early settlers arrived in America from all over the world, by all sorts of means, but for some reason the Puritan ethic and aesthetic still have a stranglehold on the public’s perception of our national origins. Must be all the shiny buckles?

As we lurch through yet another Thanksgiving season tinged with moral panic (last year I recommended not going home for it at all, and still stand by that suggestion), it’s important to remember that all cultures manifest extremism and persecution – Americans have merely perfected it.

The following quotations serve as a seasonal reminder of the machinations at work behind the bonnets and buckles that return year after year in our holiday decorations. Centuries later, they still haunt us, especially whenever a public figure deflects worthy accusations by raising the specter of a “witch hunt” – or even worse, excites the crowd into actually initiating one.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850
“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

Benjamin Franklin, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Franklin, 1772
“If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practised it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England, blamed persecution in the Roman church, but practised it against the Puritans: these found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here and in New England.”

Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, 1652
“The best course to prevent falling into the pit is to keep at the greatest distance from it; he who will be so bold as to attempt to dance upon the brink of the pit, may find by woeful experience that it is a righteous thing with God that he should fall into the pit.”

Henry James, Roderick Hudson, 1875
“He had sprung from a rigid Puritan stock, and had been brought up to think much more intently of the duties of this life than of its privileges and pleasures.”

Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries : The Making of the King James Bible, 2001
“A puritan is such a one as loves God with all his soul, but hates his neighbor with all his heart.”

Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, 1980
“Till men have faith in Christ, their best services are but glorious sins.”

Lewis Bayly, The Practice Of Piety, 1611
“Beware of singing divine psalms for an ordinary recreation, as do men of impure spirits, who sing holy psalms intermingled with profane ballads: They are God’s word: take them not in thy mouth in vain.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850
“The Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single holiday, they appeared scarcely more grave than most other communities at a period of general affliction.”

E.P. Roe, The Works of E. P. Roe: V4, 2005
“People will have their excitements, and a good rousing persecution used to stir things like the burning of Chicago or a Presidential election in our day.”