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Fear of an oath: Piety, hypocrisy, and the dilemma of Puritan identity

John M Lund, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Despite the fact that Puritans viewed themselves as honest embodiments of God's Word, they were routinely condemned as consummate liars, dangerous sharpers, and seditious malefactors. The perception of Puritans as hypocrites and tricksters began in Elizabethan England and gained wide currency during the Stuart monarchies. The disreputable attributes attached to Puritans followed them across the Atlantic when they settled New England. Throughout the seventeenth century the stigma of dishonesty and deceptiveness tainted perceptions of the Puritan plantations. By the eighteenth century, the English speaking world universally held New Englanders in low repute. Like their Puritan forebears, New Englanders during the decades prior to the Revolution were seen as deceptive, dishonest, and crafty. In Old England, Puritans created a cultural identity based upon privileging oaths as a sacred form of discipline and this preoccupation with oaths played a major role in generating their reputation for dishonesty and hypocrisy. They antagonized their neighbors by attacking the popular vernacular habit of swearing low-grade oaths. Worse still, they lied or found ways of lying to circumvent the oaths mandated by the crown and church to enforce religious conformity. Their reaction against English state oaths made them enemies of the crown and church and led them into exile on the Continent or in New England. In New England, Puritans created a civil and ecclesiastical polity complete with its own loyalty oaths which substituted the English oaths of allegiance. These innovations enraged the home government and generated scathing denunciations of New England Puritans. Resistance to English trade regulations, especially the subterfuge practiced around the required customs-house oaths, similarly contributed to Puritan's low repute. Puritans fretted over their reputation for dishonesty. In New England, the social structure they created aimed to eliminate hypocrisy and identify the godly. Nonetheless, the decades of oath controversies led Puritans to become adept at verbal play and resorting to literal interpretations of truth. These characteristics came to be recognized as a key component of the region's identity and endured into the eighteenth century to become the hallmark of the ‘Yankee’ personality.

Subject Area

American history|Religious congregations

Recommended Citation

Lund, John M, "Fear of an oath: Piety, hypocrisy, and the dilemma of Puritan identity" (2001). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3012160.