I’m always amazed at how the terms “Puritan” and “puritanical” have become universal pejoratives applied to anyone or anything the speaker or writer deems a killjoy. Those who so easily hurl these terms about, have they ever read a puritan writer? Do they know anything about the puritans? I mean anything apart from pop culture references or their memories of reading The Scarlet Letter in 10th grade English class?
I was happened upon a financial commentary today by Art Cashin, a well know Wall Street figure. I don’t claim to know Mr. Cashin, but he seems like a decent sort of fellow. Today, however, he wrote something in his market commentary that irked me a bit, Cashin wrote, “To celebrate stop by the Boston Grog Inn and explain to the Puritan on the next stool that sugar can be dangerous before it’s distilled,” as though the Puritans were a bunch of teetotalers. Cashin seems to be confusing the Puritans, who were by no means teetotalers, with 19th century prohibitionists, who were by no means Puritans.
Of course, I can’t be too hard on Mr. Cashin. Even in supposedly Evangelical circles, the Puritans are often slandered. When I was at Knox Seminary, which advertised itself as a Presbyterian and Reformed school, I had a professor who took shots at the Puritans, whining about how they shut down theaters in England and lacked poetic imagination. Of course, since we all know how morally upstanding the theater is, I can’t imagine why any group of Christians might be concerned about it. As for poetic imagination, this technique was the basis for the professor’s method of biblical interpretation. Which went something like this: Develop a slick sounding narrative that’s to your liking and then impose it on the text of Scripture regardless whether the actual Biblical text supports it. So yes, my Knox professor was entirely correct. The Puritans did indeed lack poetic imagination. They actually attempted to interpret the Bible faithfully, horrible people that they were. It would seems as with Balaam and the Israelites, in seeking to curse the Puritans, my Knox professor blessed them instead.
As an object of ridicule, the Puritans have few rivals. That the world would hate and disrespect them should come as no surprise. Such has always been the reaction of carnal minds to those who seek to honor God and live by his word. As Christians, let us take care that we not adopt the prejudices and vocabulary of the world. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “puritanical” as “having the character of a Puritan.” Though usually meant as an insult, among Christians the word ought to be held in high esteem.