The Puritans had barely arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony when they banned gambling. And then they banned a lot of other things.
On March 22, 1631, the General Court issued the following ordinance:
It is … ordered that all persons whatsoever that have cards, dice or tables in their houses, shall make away with them before the next court under pain of punishment.
More social control soon followed. Seven months after gaming was outlawed, the Massachusetts Puritans decided to punish adultery with death (though the death penalty was rare). They banned fancy clothing, living with Indians and smoking in public.
Missing Sunday services would land you in the stocks. Celebrating Christmas would cost you five shillings. The only holidays they celebrated were Election Day; Commencement Day, to celebrate college graduation; and Training Day, which involved military exercises.
Young single men were especially suspect. Just to live in a community, they needed the express permission of the town if they weren’t married or had no servant or if they weren’t a public officer. The penalty for breaking that law was 20 shillings a week.
No wonder H.L. Mencken said, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
To be fair, the Puritans did have some fun. Hunting, fishing and archery were allowed, and they held athletic contests. They drank beer, wine and liquor, but not to excess. The Town of New Haven in 1656 required that anyone licensed to serve alcohol had to make sure his customers didn’t get drunk, didn’t drink past 9 pm and didn’t ‘continue tipling’ for more than an hour.
The Puritans viewed life’s pleasures as nothing but chimeras, especially when compared to the happiness of heaven.
Puritan theologian Richard Baxter explained,
I cannot but look upon all the glory and dignity of this world, lands and lordships, crowns and kingdoms, even as on some brain-sick, beggarly fellow, that borrows fine clothes, and plays, the part of a king or lord for an hour on a stage, and then comes down, and the sport is ended, and they are beggars again.
With thanks to The Puritan Tradition in America, 1620-1730, edited by Alden Vaughan. This story was updated in 2020.