Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Were the Puritans Racist?

Were the Puritans racist?

New England law allowed Puritans to treat
African American women in dehumanizing ways
That was a question that was raised for me back in 2009 when I fell into the company of some North Idaho White Supremacists. As I tried to persuade them to adopt the Biblical view of race (which I articulated in 4 blog posts during our debates), their chief spokesman continually appealed to Calvinist thinkers in America's past who supposedly shared their racist ideology. More than once, the teaching of the Puritans came up.

At the time, I didn't give much heed to the question of whether the Puritans were racist, as I was more concerned with arguing from the Bible. However, the historical question came up again last year a friend from church asked me if I thought the Puritans were racist. My friend - a big fan of Puritan theology - had been listening to Propaganda's new album, which features a track called 'Precious Puritans', dealing with their alleged racism. My friend referred me to Joe Thorn's website, where he interviewed Richard Bailey, author of Race and Redemption in Puritan New England.


After briefly skimming those links, my first reaction was to be skeptical. You see, I have been a big fan of the Puritans myself, and have written articles holding some of their ideas up for us to emulate. Moreover, I tend to have a great antipathy to the contemporary obsession with dredging up as much dirt as possible on the heroes of our past, and this is especially true when it comes to the New England Puritans, who have probably been more misrepresented than any other group (as evidenced by the use of the adjective 'puritanical.'). Therefore, my first reaction was to think that if many of the Puritans did support African slavery, this was probably the result of simply being victims of their time rather than the result of any explicit racism.

The question came up again when one of my publishers expressed concern that two of the heroes of faith I had written about for them (Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield) seemed to have supported race-based slavery. That was the last straw, when I realized that I couldn't push the question under the carpet any longer. I had to know: were the Puritans racist.

After taking some time to research the matter, I have concluded that the New England Puritans were indeed guilty of a certain type of racism. Now racism is a slippery term and has even come to cover everything from taking pride in one's own heritage (if you are white) to asserting that there are differences between people of different races. But within the context of the present discussion, when I talk about the racism of the Puritans I mean the practice of treating people in dehumanizing ways solely because of their skin color. The Puritans were racist in this respect.

Now we should be frank that we can still learn from the Puritans and admire them. At the same time, however, we should not turn a blind eye to their sins. We should be able to learn from their strengths as well as their blind-spots.

I have detailed the results of my research in a series of four blog posts which I published earlier today (see links below). I have also uploaded a pdf which presents the text of these blog posts with footnotes fully referencing every claim. But for those who may not have time to weighed through all that information, it may be helpful for me to summarize the main areas of concern.

A white woman was punished by the Hampshire County
Court of General Sessions in 1760 for maintaining a
mixed-race relationship. Her punishment included being
stripped naked, being given fifteen lashes, the denial of
assistance in raising her child and being prevented from
marrying her child’s father.
  • Many Puritans associated blackness with the devil and used their understanding of themselves as the New Israel to justify burning non-whites to death.
    .
  • Black women were treated in dehumanizing ways to the degree that the law allowed their Puritan overlords to remove them from their children at a whim. New England law also permitted Puritan masters to remove a wife from her husband for the sake of economic gain.
    .
  • The racism of the Puritans allowed white women to be treated in dehumanizing if they were caught having had sex with a black man. A white woman was punished by the Hampshire County Court of General Sessions in 1760 for maintaining a mixed-race relationship. Her punishment included being stripped naked, being given fifteen lashes, the denial of assistance in raising her child and being prevented from marrying her child’s father. By contrast, a woman who maintained an illicit relationship with a white man could get out of the whipping by simply paying a fine.
    .
  • Black people in Puritan New England had to abide by a separate set of laws to the laws governing whites. This separate legal infrastructure not only legitimated the trade in human flesh, but also justified the barbarous treatment of slaves. The law did not even intervene when one Puritan minister was so abusive towards a slave that he drove him to hang himself.
    .
  • The racism of the Puritans means that they were unkind to babies that were of mixed race parentage. It could sometimes be a criminal offense to help a mother take care of such a child.

To read my entire series on slavery and racism in Puritan New England, click on the following links:



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