Reviews > Culture

Playing Puritan

Culture | TV Review

Issue: "Bush: Holding the line," June 5, 2004

Even PBS now has reality shows. For our ancestors, daily life was a combination of Survivor and Fear Factor, with the winners just surviving for another day. Could denizens of the 21st century manage to live as their ancestors did?

That is the premise of the "experiential history" project that has given us Frontier House, Manor House, and The 1900 House. The latest is Colonial House, which takes contemporary Americans and some Brits back to 1628 to the wilds of coastal Maine and asks them to live like Puritans.

Seventeen people are chosen to live for four months as the first New England colonists did. A Baptist minister from Waco, Texas, there with his family, is assigned the role of governor. Then there are Michelle and her husband, refugees of the 1960s who want to get in touch with nature and experience "a simpler lifestyle." They are assigned to be "freemen." Singles become indentured servants.

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The series is fascinating and educational, as voiceovers provide historical context and the modern folks find themselves working to the point of exhaustion. It is cold. Everyone is hungry. The women and children are crying. The men are complaining. Still, to their credit, most of them soldier on.

But trouble comes to the colony. One of the laws of the old colonies was mandatory church attendance. Michelle objects and refuses to attend. She gets tethered to a pole. More colonists become indignant when the scarlet letters come out and they have to wear a "P" around their necks for uttering "profanity," or an "M" for violations against "modesty." Then one of the indentured servants announces in church that he is gay. Then all the anti-Puritan stereotypes click in, about what an intolerant society these people had.

This is where the concept breaks down. The whole point of the New England colonies is that everyone shared a common faith. Their courage and their accomplishments were in large part due to their grounding in Christianity.

Contrary to the dominant "material culture" school of history, one does not understand another age by using its farm implements, dressing up in period clothes, or imitating customs. To understand those of another age or another culture, one must comprehend their beliefs. Without that, history is just a reality TV show.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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