by Piet Coetzer

Final word on puritans and compromise

Uneasy bedfellows


When it comes to resolving conflicts and disputes involving divergent interests or beliefs, be it within the Mandela family about where their deceased members should be buried or Egypt’s warring population about how their government should be run, compromise becomes virtually impossible if puritans are involved.

In one sense of the word, especially when a shared interest is at stake, the word and concept of a 'compromise' means “a joint promise to abide by” a decision or agreement. That concept is underpinned by the fact that the word arrived in the English language during the 15th century via the Middle French word compromis, meaning to make a “mutual promise” from the Latin word compromissus.

The Romans in turn formed the word by integrating com (together) with promittere (promise).

But from the days of puritanism, a strictly legalistic sect in the third-century, the word or concept of 'compromise' had also taken on the meaning of endangering non-negotiable principles. Over time the 'endanger' meaning has become much broader. Now we would, for instance, warn someone that not to use a safety belt in a car might compromise his or her physical safety.

Likewise, the word and concept of being puritan has considerably broadened its scope over the centuries.

The first marked shift came on the religious front in 16th and 17th century Calvinist protestantism in England where puritanism even became an activist political movement. They demanded the simplification of doctrine and worship, and much stricter religious discipline within the Church of England.

Their leader, William Perkins, sought to replace the personal pride of birth and status with the professional's or craftsman's pride of doing one's best in one's particular calling. He emphasised the work ethic of Genesis, that "In the sweate of thy browe shalt thou eate thy breade". From there also came the notion of a Calvinist “work ethic”.

The word 'Puritan' was however not originally coined or used by Perkins and his followers but rather by their antagonists as an abuse or mockery of their beliefs. 

The 'movement', if it can be called that, spread to the Netherlands, Ireland and Wales. European migrants also took it to colonies in America and Africa. In fact many of those settlers during the early days of European migration to 'new worlds' left for new shores driven by the desire to worship in their own way.

In the increasingly secular world that developed since those days of early settler communities, the perceptions of 'puritans' have undergone quite drastic changes, as illustrated by a definition I found in a 1946 publication: “A Puritan is a man who is sincerely repentant for other people’s sins.”

In the same book, Bennett Cerf’s “Anything For a Laugh”, one finds this delightful explanation of Puritanism: “The Puritan philosophy is summed up in the reaction of the Salem maid in witch-hunting days who, kissed by her lover for the first time, burst into tears and lamented ‘This must be a terrible, terrible sin, John. It makes me feel so good!'”

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