Puritan wives: literate, capable, and invisible in history?

By Elizabeth Prata

The Puritans were a fascinating group of people. Hardy pioneers, committed to religious belief, literate and intelligent, yet complex, misunderstood, and historically mocked…who were these people?

One internet definition of a Puritan is

a member of a group of English Protestants of the late 16th and 17th centuries who regarded the Reformation of the Church of England under Elizabeth as incomplete and sought to simplify and regulate forms of worship.

As such, many of the men who were persecuted in England for their beliefs fled to the Netherlands. In Holland, however, the Puritans found worse conditions. It was a licentious place adversely affecting their children. William Bradford wrote,

“But that which was more lamentable, and of all sorrows most heavy to be borne, was that many of their children, by these occasions, and the great licentiousness of youth in that country and the manifold temptations of the place, were drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses…”

So the Puritans gathered up and emigrated to America in what is known as The Great Migration. (1620-1640). Some notable arrivals were:

Sir Richard Saltonstall, three sons, and two daughters
Isaac Johnson and his wife Lady Arabella, daughter of Thomas Clinton, 3rd Earl of Lincoln
Charles Fiennes
Thomas Dudley, his wife, two sons, and four daughters
William Coddington, a Governor of Rhode Island Colony and his wife
William Pynchon and his wife and three daughters
William Vassall, for whom Vassalboro, Maine was named, and his wife
John Revell, merchant, who lent money to the Plymouth Colony, and who was chosen assistant to the Massachusetts Bay Colony
Captain Thomas Wiggin, the first Governor of the Province of New Hampshire

panne-hutchinson
Anne Hutchinson

These men were married. They had wives. These women were mothers. What did the women think? What was their contribution? How did they fare? This series will be about the Puritan women. With a string of children behind them, a new world ahead, dire conditions and hardship- what was their life like?

Anne Hutchinson: Background and introduction

Having grown up in Rhode Island, I could not help but learn about the colony’s founder Roger Williams. He was a Puritan who’d emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 but was banished from it just 5 years later. He was convicted of sedition and heresy.

Williams believed the Church of England was thoroughly corrupt and advocated for complete separation (unlike the Puritans who thought it could be reformed). He also was increasingly displeased at what he saw as unfair dealings with the Native Americans regarding land purchases, and incidentally Williams was an abolitionist, too. Massachusetts Governor William Bradford declared Williams’ ideas strange and causing a problem for Williams and the church. Williams was eventually tried. Banished,Rogers established Providence (Rhode Island).

Enter Anne Hutchinson, the first entry in my new series. In an era when women were mainly quiet at home and invisible, Hutchinson was loud and active. An intelligent, complex, wayward mother of 15 children, she, too, was tried and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony just two years after Williams was exiled. Exiled in 1638 and left with nowhere to go, she traipsed to Rhode Island where she was welcomed by Roger Williams. That’s the background.

Sometimes we think of our historical brethren as backward or uneducated, but in fact Puritan Massachusetts was populated with highly literate people, and that included the women.

The early settlers of Massachusetts included more than 100 graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. One historian termed Massachusetts “the best-educated community the world has ever known.” Puritan women, though they didn’t receive a college education, were generally literate and often well-read. The only respectable female vocation in Puritan America was managing a household. But that “household” generally included large numbers of children, servants, apprentices, and even single men and women (who were required to live with families). (Source)

We read trial transcripts of one Abigail Kippin fined for wearing lace and excessive clothing or Ann Linsford who was fined for drunkenness. But aside from these incidental and sadly negative glimpses, what was the long-lasting impact and contribution of the Puritan wives? Puritan wives were busy, capable, and hardy. They are still mainly invisible and it has been hard to find other notable Puritan women besides the more well known names of seditious Anne Hutchinson, poet Anne Bradstreet, and Quaker-convert Mary Dyer (eventually hanged for her Quaker beliefs).

In the Puritan Women series I’ll look at Anne Hutchinson, Anne Bradstreet, and other women to be named later as I come across them in research. Two source books for the Anne Hutchinson essay will be-

book.jpg

Puritan wives were indispensible in building the country we now call America. Their work in the nascent nation was crucial to our growth. Because of the nature of their work – managing the household, supporting the husband – they are largely invisible to history. Trying to find the names and deeds of these women has been difficult, except for the several I mentioned above.

But were/are they invisible? Their patience, their Godliness, their contribution to American society was the children they bore and raised. Laurie Hochstetler, in the September 2013 edition of The New England Quarterly, wrote that the home was the “locus of spiritual and civic development and protection”. (Making Ministerial Marriage: The Social and Religious Legacy of the Dominion of New England).”

Thus, the Puritan home was the incubator for the men & women who came after the Great Migration and went on to populate and found the country. Puritan parents “exercised an authoritative, not an authoritarian, mode of child rearing” that aimed to cultivate godly affections and reason, with corporal punishment used as a last resort.” (Source). And the influence of the godly Puritan wife was the nexus.

Look for the first installment of Puritan Wives soon!

14 Comments

    1. Thank you! I’ve been grappling with Anne Hutchinson for almost 40 years. Her contribution to history is cemented, but historians both secular & Christian have gone back and forth on just WHAT it was. The Antinomian Controversy book suggested to me by a Puritan scholar for my research is 477 pages…so it might take a while for me to figure it out! I likely will end up starting with Anne Bradstreet first. Either way, these women, named and unnamed, are interesting. I dearly want to cherish their legacy.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m excited about this series! Living near Boston, I see the lingering (though often ridiculed) effects of the Puritans. I actually know where Anne Hutchinson’s house was before her banishment from Boston. Elizabeth, thank you for doing this series!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s kind of a wide question. There were a lot of puritans and even in the US pre-colonial era during a short span of time there were theological disagreements (The Antinomian Controversy comes to mind).

      I understand that Increase Mather did. John Gill (1700s) did. You could google some of the more famous Puritan theologians and see what their eschatological beliefs were…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Elizabeth, this is an interesting topic. And it is interesting too that these women were so much in the background that it is hard to find information on them. In a way, isn’t this just what the Lord would have for us? In this day of selfies, tattoos, purple hair, etc. the idea that someone should be quiet, unassuming, and a servant is almost forgotten. But in the scriptures this is very much what we are called to be. In Titus 2 for example, the older women are to be reverent in the way that they live. Reverent means set apart unto God.

    In Titus 2:3-5, Paul writes, Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.

    Paul begins with the word likewise, showing that just as the older men were to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance, the older women are to be likewise. Some synonyms for these words might be, honorable, sober, self-controlled, and discreet, as is fitting for older saints. I liked the dictionary definition of discreet: judicious (careful, wise) in behavior and speech; modest and unobtrusive (not a show-off or pushy). And the young women were to be sensible and pure, keepers at home. It sounds very much like the Puritan women were indeed “Titus 2” women.

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    1. thank you.

      For those who aren’t sure what a Grinletonian is, here is a summary from Wikipedia

      The Grindletonians were a Puritan sect that arose in the town of Grindleton in Lancashire, England, in around 1610. The sect remained active in the North of England until the 1660s. Its most notable leader was Roger Brearley (or Brereley). Grindletonian beliefs were Antinomian.

      A member of an antinomian religious group in seventeenth-century England, which believed in the primacy of God’s spirit over the word of the Bible and questioned the authority of ordination.

      Like

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