Challenging the enduring legacy of Puritans as dour and joyless disciples of a fastidious religious life, the author remakes the Puritan past, showing them as they so often were: at prayer and at play.
Any resistance our culture displays to excesssexual, emotionalis said to be the result of our early American forebears casting their long, repressive shadow over our lives. But Daniels (History/Univ. of Winnipeg), who has specialized in New England's history, far from overstating his case, examines the Puritans' relationship to "fun'' for the complex, often torturous thing it was. The phrase "sober mirth,'' originating with the Puritans themselves, embodies the ambiguous nature of this relationship. The concept seeks to describe a state of enjoyment that was at once free and controlled, that had the quality of an innocent and sudden burst of laughter cut short before it degenerated into mockery or ridicule. But as was true with all things Puritan, "mirth'' had its sinister side, shot through with the seductions of sin. Given its natural course, mirth might quickly fall into licentiousness, into wanton and wicked abandon. Have fun, the Puritan fathers counseled, but not too much. Perhaps the most interesting part of Daniels's history is his focus on the civic dimensions of recreation. House-raisings and barn-raisings were occasions for communal parties, events that renewed the members' dedication to one another and the common good while offering the chance simply to have a good time. These "productive parties'' changed as the colonial period progressed, duty becoming less a reason and more a pretext for recreation, showing how secular ideas of fun began to evolve in the Puritan community.
Daniels's account is a serious contribution to Puritan scholarship, serving to recharacterize our Puritan fathers in their full human dimensions.