The Puritans Ban Gambling and a Whole Lot of Other Things

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:

Must have missed church on Sunday

Must have missed church on Sunday

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.

Haunting Fear

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.



  1. Joan Vaughn

    March 22, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    Bah Humbug. The Puritans were their brother’s keepers.

  2. Bobo Leach

    March 22, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    A whole hour of tippling? Nice.

  3. Stephen Bowden

    March 22, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    they sound a lot like some other extremists that are around these days

  4. Roy Littlefield

    March 22, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    They should bring back the pillory as a means of punishment.

  5. Molly Landrigan

    March 22, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    That might be a good idea, Roy.

  6. Lori Jones

    March 22, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    One way to get a good laugh… Looking back at my “wonderful” Puritan ancestors! (they were nuts!) 😛

  7. Bill Jones

    March 22, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    This country was founded on Sharia law, yet the populists are loath to admit it.

  8. Deva DeRocher Barron

    March 23, 2014 at 2:51 am

    I agree with Roy and Molly! In person name and shame in the village green /city center!

  9. Linda Brayton

    March 23, 2014 at 7:21 am

    A “war against” single young men? Huh.

  10. Daniel Mitchel

    March 23, 2014 at 11:17 am

    As usual, Puritans get no respect, even from writers from a historical association who should know better that to pander to popular perception. New England society did not have the resources to put 5% of their citizens in prison, and extort political contributions from prison guards or outsource and privatize the prison if the contributions don’t materialize. So they put people in stocks. They also let them out of the stocks. Let me be blunt: Puritan critics have no clue what the culture of England’s ruling class was doing to English society. The folk’s who left “Old England” for New were trying to return to how they thought nature and the creator intended humans to live. They were desperately poor and working hard to carve a civilization out of wilderness. Trotting out H.L. Mencken to back up the anti Puritan narrative is the easiest parlor critic trick of all. NEHGS you can do better. In hopes of better to come. Daniel Mitchel.

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