Reading early town and church records can often be tedious, but worth the effort when it turns up interesting incidents that undermine our common ideas about Puritans. There’s a contentious vitality just under the surface of daily life, a tension that sometimes even leaks into the official records. If nothing else, these records prove that living in a community was no easier in the 17th century than it is today.
The early records of the town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, contain references to some ideas and behavior that may challenge our preconceptions about the Puritans. Here are just three:
- In 1651 there was a controversy between groups in Lancaster over what should be held in common. As good Puritans, they looked to their Bibles for guidance in all things, and some focused particular attention on the early church practice of holding all things in common (as described in the New Testament book of Acts). One George Whaley reported that Goodwife Hall had asserted that all things should be held in common, “men’s wives also.” Later, Whaley was charged with slander, though the case was never tried.
- In the original town covenant, there was a clause prohibiting distribution of land to any people who had been excommunicated, or “otherwise prophane and scandalus,” or any known to err against the “Doctrin and Discipline of the Churches.” This was for the “better preserving of the puritie of Religion.”
- On a Sunday in 1656, after worship, a woman named Mary Gates was “called forth to give satisfaction for some offense done against Master Rowlandson,” the town’s minister. Goodwife Gates defended herself, insisting that she had already given him satisfaction. Mr. Rowlandson then replied “by sum arguments” proving that she had not done so, at which point Gates’s daughter, Marie, stood up and without permission and “very boldly in the public assembly” contradicted the minister and said she would swear an oath to it. The case went to court and, not surprisingly, Mary Gates lost her case, was fined and ordered to pay the court costs for both sides.