How would someone describe the attitude toward arts and culture of the Puritans during the late-16th and early-17th centuries?



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With a moniker -- no doubt well-earned given the extreme punishments that could be meted out for adulterous behavior or pre-marital sexual relations -- it is no wonder many people believe that the Puritans were adamanatly opposed to the arts.  In fact, they weren't; Puritans enjoyed the written word, especially poetry (and, it is worth mentioning that John Milton was a Puritan), but also visual depictions of family and mundane matters like farming.  Historian Samuel Eliot Morison put it succintly: 

"The Puritan was not insensible to beauty, although he could not regard it an an independent quality, separate from use or morals.  His attitude toward art was one of indifference rather than active dislike -- which is not far from the average American attitude today.  The Puritans cared nothing for 'objects of art,' as such...These objects had to be useful, otherwise they were 'vanities'." [Morison, "Those Misunderstood Puritans"]

Similarly, Puritans were not adverse to music; it simply, again, had to bear a direct relationship to worship of God or of family.  A 1956 article in American Heritage magazine described the relationship of Puritans to music as follows:

"The congregational song of the Sixteenth and early Seventeenth centuries was the sublimest there has ever been.  The thrill, in religious exaltation, of singing familiar yet new and great music, with masses of one's fellows, gave the triumphal cry of a liberated faith." [Beatrice Hudson Flexner, "The Music of the Puritans," December 1956]

The Puritans held strong beliefs on morality; on that, there can be no doubt.  That they somehow inhibited the development of culture, or disdained the arts, however, is not historically accurate.

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