Our Puritan Ethic

a sermon preached by Rev. Khleber M. Van Zandt V at the First Unitarian Church of Alton on November 12, 2006

Happy Birthday!   Happy 170th, First Unitarian Church of Alton!   And to celebrate happy birthdays, we usually want to talk about things relevant to our past, our present, and our future.   SO, why “Our Puritan Ethic” on such an auspicious occasion?  

Well, the puritans are ours - as Americans, we honor the Pilgrims and the Puritans every Thanksgiving as those who “brought forth upon this continent a new” settlement if not “nation.”   And as members of the Free Church tradition, we draw a direct line through those early religious freedom-seekers to our own present-day practice of gathering in covenant rather than creed.

And Ethic ?   We have an ethic, whether we can articulate it or not.   As human beings, we do normally look to the ones who came before us for help with the development of an ethic, which is a set of principles of right conduct or a system of moral values.   As much as we may prize individualism - even to the point, sadly, of seeing ourselves as self-invented - it seems obvious that there is actually nothing new under the sun and that we are indeed beholden to so many who came before who in their time here expressed truths that they held to be self-evident but that we ourselves have had to pass through the fire of thought and experience and decide whether to hold onto or to let go of.   So yes, we need an ethic.

But puritan - why bother?   The modern usage of the word puritan connotes a strict view of sexual morality and an aversion to experiencing pleasure in any form.   It was H. L. Mencken who said that “a puritan is a person who worries that someone, somewhere might be having fun.”   This is indeed the part of their legacy that is problematic for us in our day and time.   The portion that I hope we hang onto, however, is a covenantal understanding of what we do together, of how we act within our free associations, especially our religious ones, for it is in that covenantal promise and practice that we find both the seeds of democracy and the ordered liberty that is the framework of our connections to our neighbors, our world, and all that is larger than ourselves.


Our puritan forebears believed in the sacred authority of the Bible, especially the Law as given in the Ten Commandments but also in the life and teachings of the historical Jesus.   They felt themselves to be servants of God and that it was their duty to glorify God in the world.  

They valued education:   they looked to an educated clergy who could expound on history and theology from the pulpit and read the biblical and sacred sources in their original languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.   (H-m-m.   Guess I have more to learn…)    The puritans also valued education for the masses, especially as a pathway to God’s glorification by each believer.   They believed in the priesthood of all believers;   rather than investing all religious authority in a pope or in an elite priestly class, they recognized the responsibility of each member of the church to embody the values of the community.

They had more faith in institutions than in people, believing that the church was instituted by God but that people, fallen and tainted by sin, were the true source of evil.   They relied on the institution of the church to lift and care for those in the community that came on hard times.

Public service was held in high regard:   the ideal person was a lawyer or judge, as the ultimate embodiment of the state, or a minister as the ultimate embodiment of the church.

Generally urban in origin and values, they considered arrogance, pride, and provincialism to be the worst of the vices.


Puritanism had arisen in England in the sixteenth century as a response to the perceived excesses of kings and queens in their dealings with the Church of England.   From the radical reformers across the rest of Europe, they learned of simpler ways of doing church and sought to get back to what they could find of the processes and practices of the early Christian church when it was, as they said, biblically based and before it was, as they believed, polluted by its contacts with pagan cultures, especially that of Rome.   They eschewed ornamentation and excessive ritual as idolatrous, some even going as far as banning all music from their worship.

Early puritan thinkers, known as Dissenters, were not separatists but reformers, wanting to remain within the Church of England.   (The people we know as Pilgrims were separatists; the puritans were not, though they get mixed up in the popular imagination.)   But over time, the religious and political situation in England made it clear that the Church was beyond reform.   The Great Migration of the early seventeenth century saw about 21,000 British citizens of puritan persuasion venture over the Atlantic to New England.  

One of the things they sought was freedom from tyranny, religious and otherwise.   But here in the New World, without their homeland hierarchies to push against, they had to make do for themselves and could no longer afford to simply dissent and reject other people’s ideas;   they had to come up with new ideas and new systems of their own to govern themselves and to provide the safety and resources any community needs to succeed and prosper.  

As the years went along, some began to chafe under what had become a strict theocracy.   Leaders of non-puritan groups were banished from Massachusetts.   (Parenthetically, this had the unintended consequence of founding other American colonies that then became religious havens for other sects.)   The torture and imprisonment of those who dissented from the regime led to widespread disillusionment;   the Salem witch trials of the early eighteenth century eroded support even further so that puritan political control of Massachusetts began to fade by 1750.

But many of the ways of living put in place by those early puritans remain with us today.   We still prize education, both for our leaders and for the masses, as did the puritans.   We still seek religious freedom, as did they.   We still believe in the priesthood of all believers, better known among us as the ministry of all souls, and we don’t give away our power to a priestly class (my own misgivings about that notwithstanding).

We’ve changed somewhat the way we feel about scripture, having both a broader view of what constitutes scripture, and a more critical way of determining what any particular scripture might mean for us.   I hope we’re beyond theocracy, at least in this country, though some of us have worried about that over the last few election cycles.   And as for sexual morality, I don’t know how any of us in this culture could still be said to be prudish;   I have to think most of us have left any puritan sensitivities in that area far behind.

One of the criticisms that can be leveled at our puritan forebears concerns their tendency toward ethnocentrism.   When one lives too exclusively among people who look like themselves and act like themselves and think like themselves, one may begin to disdain any differences in looks or behaviors or ideas.   This ethnocentrism can be said to have led to the killing of indigenous people, to the theft of native lands, to Manifest Destiny, to international imperialism, indeed to the jingoism and xenophobia we still witness today, even among ourselves.


If we cannot any longer celebrate the way the puritan settlers came ashore and began immediately stealing land already inhabited by others, we can celebrate the outcome of the meeting they had onboard ship before they landed.   Blown far off course by storms, they had no “legal” right to the land on which they were about to embark - the land given them by the king was hundreds of miles to the south.   Before they left the ship, they gathered and made the decision to form a covenant with one another.   This covenant, signed on November 11, 1620, became known as the Mayflower Compact, and says that those present agreed to be together in certain ways, to care for each other and for the group, to help one another discern the proper ways of behaving in the world and towards each other.   It codified an ordered liberty - not simply a freedom to pursue one’s personal preference or to do whatever felt good, but a freedom to live out one’s calling and to participate in community by giving of one’s gifts to the greater good.  It is this way of living together by covenant rather than by creed that is the basis of our religious tradition and the basis of the way we engage the world.


On our birthday:   Eight score and ten years ago, our forebears brought forth within this region, a new community of faith, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men and women should enjoy the fruits and bear the responsibilities of religious freedom.  

It has been an experiment that has yielded great benefits for the people of this area.   As I reminded you two weeks ago from this pulpit, the public schools, the city library, the symphony, the park system - all were founded by members of this church.   The integration of the public schools was accomplished with help from the folks of this congregation - I still meet people across the area who came to this very building to attend multi-racial social events and teen dances before such activities were legal or accepted practice.   Rose and Mike Hoshiko came to this church to get married before it was legal to perform interracial weddings in neighboring states.   And just this week, I spoke to a young woman who came to this church wanting to discuss the possibility of having a wedding ceremony celebrating her union with her partner, surrounded by friends who she worries would not be welcome in any other religious community.   She very nearly cried when I told her that we’d love to help her fulfill a dream she’s had for many, many years - a wedding day with the one she loves, in front of the friends she holds so dear.

It may not be within a purely puritan ethic to agitate for such monumental movement forward, but it is certainly within the covenantal framework of our forebears to have agreed to be together for the betterment of ourselves and the wider community.   And it is certainly within our covenantal framework to stand together to support religious freedom and social change and an ordered liberty in our time and in our place.  


After a hundred and seventy years, this is still an important institution at an important time in an important place.  

A few blocks to the east stands the monument to Elijah Lovejoy, a martyr to freedom who was killed by elements loyal to a dead past.   A couple of blocks to the west is a monument to Abraham Lincoln, the man who, “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” best articulated a living vision of “a new nation, conceived in liberty.”

And so here we are, standing together on a bridge between an old world and a new vision.  

What will we do to bring that vision to life and to fulfill our covenant?

What will you do?


So may it be.


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