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Thanksgiving: Puritans, Pilgrims, and Sexual Obsession

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America's Thanksgiving holiday goes back at least 388 years to the year following the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620. The Pilgrims were among a number of sects called Puritans, and like many Puritan sects, the Pilgrims came to America essentially because they thought 17th Century England much too bawdy.(1) That England of the time was bawdy -- a raucous bawdiness in full bloom -- there's no doubt. But the idea that the Puritans (and Pilgrims) suffered from religious persecution in England is probably a myth. What they suffered from was unease (and maybe too much temptation) at the general licentiousness of English life.

So various Puritan colonies were established in America, colonies with dictatorial repression of daily life, mostly of sexual behavior. It's an American cultural heritage that few Americans ever talk about, except maybe when they read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, a novel about the miseries of an adulterous couple in a Puritan community. Our custom is for three or four generations of family to sit down at a Thanksgiving dinner with hardly a memory that what the Pilgrims and other Puritans were all about was sexual obsession.

A set of ideas about human sexual behavior so strong that the ideas result in strict rules that govern a community by threat of physical punishment easily morphs from philosophy into obsession -- and that's exactly what happened once the Puritans came into control of laws in their colonies in the New World.

The background of the Puritan obsession with sex is a fascinating thread in the history of Western culture. The obsession apparently originated in a close literal reading of the Bible, a fervent belief that the main causes of the suffering of all mankind were 1) the disobedience of Adam and Eve in seeking knowledge of sex, 2) the shame of their nakedness, and 3) their sexual desire for each other. Taking these causes as axioms for social doctrine about sexual behavior led the literalists (fundamentalists) easily into social tyranny. The sexual act itself became the "original sin" -- an irony, since the sexual act was the only means available to produce progeny to replace those who died.

The old New England children's rhyme tells it all: "In Adam's fall, we sinned all."

These ideas certainly predated the Puritans, since hatred of women as sexual saboteurs, revulsion at the sex act, and derision of marriage are on nearly every page of the writings of St. Paul and St. Augustine. The great Protestant reformers Luther, Calvin and Knox did little to change these attitudes about sexual behavior, and more or less enforced them. The classical Christian view was that any act of sexual love, in or out of marriage, was a betrayal of God. By the time the Puritans arrived, the classical view had been modified: sexuality in marriage was acceptable, but sexuality of any kind outside marriage was a sin and a crime, punishable with fines, whipping, branding, banishment, and even death.

And the origins? The fervor against sexuality evidently originated in ancient Hebrew law, the ancient fear that man was weakened by sexual intercourse, ancient references to the sex act as the "little death" and a form of castration. In their morning prayers, Orthodox Jews still proclaim, "I thank Thee, Lord, for not having created me a woman."

Sexuality was inherently evil, the sex act an abomination and a sin, women morally inferior and sources of temptation. If the sex act was needed to produce a new generation, let it be accomplished without lust. So much for the mechanics of Darwinian sexual selection. From a biological standpoint, it's a wonder the Western world did not go extinct before the Renaissance. But it's no wonder at all that countless women (and many men) were driven into madness by the incompatibility between the social tyranny of their Judeo-Christian cultural heritage and their evolved biology.

At the Thanksgiving table we think of turkey, children, and grandparents. Let it be so. We need the comforts, especially in our current time. But we should also be thankful that we've come out of the darkness of the past, the darkness of ignorance and social tyranny. That too is something that needs the giving of thanks.

Note (1). Whatever "persecution" the Pilgrims suffered in Europe was political rather than religious. The Pilgrims were Puritan separatists. The sect of Puritans who came to be known as Pilgrims wanted complete separation from the Anglican Church. Other Puritan sects did not demand separation. It was the vocal opposition of Pilgrim leaders to the Anglican Church and the King of England that caused their problems with government. The Pilgrims left England for Holland, were unhappy in Holland, and eventually achieved financing by English investors and migrated to America.

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