Puritans Behaving Badly
Gender, Punishment, and Religion in Early America
- ISBN: 9781108478786
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: May 2020
In her monograph, Puritans Behaving Badly: Gender, Punishment, and Religion in Early America, gender historian Monica D. Fitzgerald uses church disciplinary records from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to demonstrate how the lived faith of the colony’s earliest English inhabitants produced gendered disciplinary practices. Fitzgerald tracks how New England’s Puritan churches evolved from being the “center of town, with public authority over ecclesiastical and civic affairs” to organizations with declining public authority (13). Her five-chapter volume is a social history project with gender at the center of its analysis. She finds that Puritan gender norms produced social mores that continue to impact Americans today.
Fitzgerald asserts that Puritan disciplinary processes punished men for “dereliction of duty and behavior” and women “for their sinful souls” (48). The church’s practice of gendering discipline pushed Puritan men away from the church; they transferred “their religious duties onto the civil community” (94). Fitzgerald’s assertions are a bold intervention into Puritan historiography. She finds that Puritans failed to realize the potential of their theology because many Puritan men were averse to embracing their religion’s call to purify their souls. She suggests that the submission Puritan theology demanded offered an opportunity for Puritans to create a new society that valued femininity. When Puritan men turned from the interiority of religion to the public world of state governance, they produced a public-private gender divide that Fitzgerald argues was not inevitable.
Fitzgerald engages with scholarly research by other Early American historians, most notably David Hall, Elizabeth Reis, Amanda Porterfield, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. However, her strength is her conscientious engagement with primary sources. Her sources include seventeenth and eighteenth-century disciplinary records of various congregations and the private journals of prominent New England men. The juxtaposition of these sources demonstrates that Puritanism in Early America was not monolithic.
Massachusetts Bay Colony church disciplinary records indicate that Puritan men struck a delicate balance between community responsibility and concern for their souls in their public confessions. However, the clergy’s private journals point to the internal anguish of many Puritan men. Puritan men sometimes divulged their struggles using “feminine” language, but only in the context of their private writings. Fitzgerald unveils copious evidence of the gendered differences in church disciplinary practices. Puritans Behaving Badly is a project about the nuances of language and the capacity language possesses to produce power imbalances.
Fitzgerald’s innovative approach allows her to develop two key findings. Her first finding is that first-generation Puritans offered a vision for a world that prioritized a rich inner life above societal prestige. This vision shifted by the third generation, reflecting a societal devaluation of femininity. Fitzgerald argues that first-generation Puritan ministers challenged the “gendered verbal order” by insisting that the ideal Puritan was humble and submissive before God. Over time, Puritan men began to refuse this expectation, and the clergy were increasingly permissive. Fitzgerald argues that this shift deradicalized Puritanism (75). Her unique analysis allows scholars to rethink the tendency to place the blame for sexism in early America exclusively at the feet of the religious establishment.
Fitzgerald’s second finding is that neither Puritan theology nor gender norms in colonial New England were static or monolithic. She proves the veracity of this claim in her fourth and fifth chapters. Chapter 4 explores the challenges that famed military leader Captain John Underhill’s brazen masculinity posed to seventeenth-century church authority. His flagrant disrespect for his status within Boston’s First Church and the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony revealed the complications of seventeenth-century masculinity. As Fitzgerald put it, his “masculine excesses were his downfall in a society that elevated a moderate, sober manhood” (113). To counter the example of Captain John Underhill, in Chapter 5, Fitzgerald demonstrates that any seemingly undisciplined behavior could prove deadly for Puritan women. Fitzgerald’s example is Ann Hibbins, a woman of high social standing who was hung in Boston Commons in 1654 for witchcraft. Hibbins’s societal ostracization began a decade before her execution when she complained about the price of a carpentry bill. Before his death, her husband defended her, but after his death, as a wealthy widow with no male heirs or a church connection, she was left unprotected (131).
Together, the examples of Underhill and Hibbins support Fitzgerald’s claim that gendered regulations, Puritan theology, and discipline were interconnected in Early America. In the Massachusetts Bay colony, men’s sober masculinity, demonstrated through faithful service to their families and communities, was celebrated. However, when on the battlefield, men were urged into hypermasculine performances as New Englanders sought to dominate the land and its original inhabitants. In colonial New England, the religious establishment demanded control over everyone’s public and private lives regardless of their gender.
Puritans Behaving Badly is about the relationship between disciplinary language and world-making. Fitzgerald foregrounds gender in her analysis, but future researchers might consider the impact of social class, physical ability, culture, and ethnicity on how Puritans meted out punishment. The only significant shortcoming of this slim volume is its failure to adequately discuss how other social markers, especially Indigeneity, contributed to early American conceptions of gender and compelled punishment.
Nevertheless, Puritans Behaving Badly is a compelling and accessible read that makes a meaningful intervention in American Religious History, New England History, and Gender History. Fitzgerald’s research demonstrates that when presented with the opportunity to create a world that honored people, regardless of their gender or national origin, Puritans created a culture of gender violence, religious repression, and harsh punishment. As we consider the contemporary crises of human trafficking, racial capitalism, and mass incarceration in the United States, we witness and experience the impact of their choices. Puritans Behaving Badly offers a needed history of how the social constructions of gender and religion continue to promote essentialist theories about gender, which excuse and justify ongoing violence against women and girls. This volume is essential reading for academics, religious leaders, and activists as we change how we speak about, legislate, and make meaning of gender.
Jaimie D. Crumley is a PhD candidate in the Gender Studies Department at the University of California, Los Angeles.Jaimie CrumleyDate Of Review:May 20, 2022