The New England Puritans were a remarkably contentious people. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that they argued over just about everything. Their early town records are full of reports of extended disputes over everything from the location of the meeting house to acceptable hairstyles. Many of the most heated quarrels were over religious practices. Though – or perhaps because – the Puritans were bound in covenant together, they struggled to see eye-to-eye. But it was not always easy.
• Music in worship: “old style” (singing lined out psalms to any tune the individual wished) vs. “regular way” (singing all together in an ordered way to specified tunes).
• Wearing wigs: Although many viewed wigs as “worldly fashion” the clergy led the trend to wear them. Ministers were considered the most eminent gentlemen in the colony and wigs were status symbols in Restoration England. This devolved into a small-town/big-town dispute and was part of a general debate over the wearing of fancy clothes.
• Organ music: a new variation of the music controversy erupted in the late 1600s with the introduction of musical instruments in churches. For many Puritans, the organ symbolized the hated Roman Catholic services but its music was undeniably beautiful, “a snare to the soul and an uncommon danger.”
• Baptism and church membership: Should “unregenerate” (ie: unconverted) children of baptized members have full church membership privileges? This was called the “Halfway Covenant” and was one of the most heated controversies of the 17th century.
• Same-sex dancing versus mixed-dancing: Puritans weren’t against dancing per se. After all, it was in the Bible. But they argued over how restricted it should be and some towns forbade organized dancing, especially between men and women (which was considered “lascivious.”) When dancing schools opened in Boston in the late 1600’s, Increase Mather became nearly apoplectic in denouncing it, proclaiming that it was a “regular madness” and the Devil was its first inventor. However, when Massachusetts became a royal colony in 1692, dancers rebelled and balls and dances became very popular, spreading throughout the colony and beyond.
• Christmas: early New England Puritans forbade the celebration of Christmas, and even made it a crime not to do regular work on Christmas Day. But as time went on and more and more English migrated to the colonies, and there was increased disagreement over observing the holiday.
• Funerals: In Massachusetts Bay Colony, first-generation funerals were secular events; loved ones were buried quickly without ceremony. But twenty years later English rituals and practices were surfacing and people began to argue about appropriate funeral customs, including refreshments following a funeral, the use of caskets and gravestones, the presence of ministers, and the wearing of “funeral finery,” including gloves, scarves, ribbons, and rings.
• Theater and plays: The theater arts were at the popular center of Elizabethan entertainment culture, but the Puritans associated it with monarchy and homosexuality. Many argued that it encouraged heresy and religious sedition.
Although the issues are different, this long tradition of arguing over local issues continues to this day and is alive and well in that emblem of New England community life: the annual town meeting.