The Good Old Days, Live on PBS

Think of it as reality TV for the discriminating viewer: Colonial House, an 8-episode televised adventure of a small colony of people living as if it were 1628. From the intro page, here’s the setup: “Indentured servitude. No baths or showers. Public punishments. Welcome to daily life in the year 1628!” I haven’t seen an episode yet, just a preview, but it looks like fun. What a great way to teach the kids how lucky they are for simple conveniences like central heating, refrigerators, and the Eighth Amendment (no cruel or unusual punishments).

The Governor really administers laws and punishments, including being placed in stocks (limit two hours), “a ceremony of public humiliation,” and a label pinned to one’s clothes announcing one’s transgression to the world. This offers real possibilities for a creative Home Evening lesson (and I’ll bet the kids pay actually pay attention to this one!).

I don’t think the real colonists brought lawyers along (probably why the colonies succeeded), but Colonial House has a long list of civil and criminal transgressions, including profanity, wicked tongues (that’s scolding, not kissing, but don’t push your luck), slander, lying, stealing beasts, wife beating, fornication and adultery, and lewdness to women (“Men may not make uncivil words or carriages to any woman”). There are punishments too, of course.

So when will the first Mormon-themed reality TV series pop up? And what will it be: A group crossing the plains in wagons? Cameras following a pair of missionaries as they proselyte in Peru? How about Polygamy House? You know it’s just a matter of time.


  1. Kristine says:

    “It isn’t 1628, it’s 2004 in old clothes.”

    Julie, that’s partly true, partly not. The premise of the show was not to recreate 1628, but to take modern people and see if they could tolerate the conditions of 1628. (If they’d had actors trying to play people of 1628 as well as possible, it would have been different.) They could recreate the physical and, to a lesser extent, the social structure of a 1628 colony, but they couldn’t (and didn’t much try to) remake the mental and emotional framework of the people involved.

    I wouldn’t have thought it would be a very good pick for homeschoolers younger than late jr. high age.

  2. Charles says:

    A punishment is only unusual if it hasn’t been done before or regularly. And if the offender thought it wasn’t too cruel for thier victim then it certainly isn’t too cruel for them. So much for cruel and unusual punishment. :)

  3. As I posted on OT a few days ago, there’s already a TV series about polygamy slated for fall on HBO. Not a reality show, though.

  4. Charles: I haven’t seen the show, but I do think that we do have a tendency to think “Well they were all bigots back then so the legal niceities didn’t matter.” I am skeptical. I actually don’t think that they executed people at the drop of a hat. They executed a fair number of folks to be sure, but they had trials, testimony, and demanded proof of criminal acts. Even the Salem witch hunts involved elaborate trials, testimony, and evidence before they killed anyone. (The one exception is the man who was crushed to death for refusing the plead, a strangely legalistic event in itself.)

  5. Christina,

    I think it’s fair to say the official LDS position and the position of 98% of active Mormons is likewise that “the priesthood will always be male,” recognizing that in the LDS Church almost all men obtain the priesthood and many serve in congregational leadership positions at some point in their lives.

    However, it’s also fair to say that the profile of women in the LDS Church has changed within the last generation (they now give addresses at LDS conferences and having a career outside the home, while not encouraged, is not really frowned on anymore). And there are a few women actively advocating an even more active role for women in LDS church governance, although they are definitely at the margins of what one might think of as the “mainstream LDS Church.”

    Others might see things a bit differently and they, of course, are encouraged to share their impressions as well.

  6. Kristine says:

    D.–it’s not that I feel overwhelmed; I grew up in a houseful of loquacious brothers and I can usually hold my own (you may have noticed :)), but I do like to hear the perspectives of other women, who, for whatever reason, just won’t say anything in mixed company. OTOH, I get really annoyed with the *total* avoidance of even the appearance of conflict or disagreement in RS, as well as the endless disclaimers, “well, I don’t know if this is exactly right, but I think I might have heard that maybe someone–maybe a GA–once said that, well, I don’t want to offend anyone, so don’t take this the wrong way, but that maybe we shouldn’t wear too many earrings. But I’m not saying anything about people who do wear earrings, because we’re not supposed to judge, and I totally agree with everything that’s been said so far…[voice rising to indicate that the entire outburst has been a question?]” Ugh!

  7. Dave, you say that the official LDS position is that “the priesthood will *always* be male.” What exactly do you mean by that? I am not aware of an “official” pronouncement by the church that women will *never* receive the priesthood–either in this life or the next. The priesthood is nothing more or less than the power to act in God’s name. Is it really that odd to think that women will (officially) be given this power (at least in some capacity) when they become queens and priestesses?

  8. Dave: Check out my post at on torture in Puritan New England. You might find it interesting.

    I can’t claim to be any sort of an expert on the history of homosexuality, so perhaps you are correct that there was an established category of “gays” someplace in 17th century society. I don’t know. My only point is that it is far from obvious that our current concept of “sexual orientation” existed. I am not, of course, denying that there were people with more or less fixed same sex attraction, etc. I am simply not certain how this got thought about. For example, most Puritans thought that humanity was depraved. Hence lots of wicked, lustful thoughts, etc. would have been regarded as quite natural and hardly a reason for getting the criminal law involved. On the otherhand, all sorts of overt actions that we would regard as harmless were regarded as deeply dangerous and worth harshly punishing.

    On the witchcraft cases, I will defer to you, but my recollection (from the one time long ago that I studied these things) is that most of the people were convicted on the basis of the testimony of their alleged victims.

  9. Even assuming the 1641 statute (over at TS) protects accused women (who aren’t men) and accused witches (assumed to be conspiring with the devil), the witchcraft trials tended to acquire a certain sort of judicial momentum and even hysteria that set them apart from, say, a simple murder trial where the application of those procedural protections was more straightforward.

    I read “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman” a couple of years ago. Those investigating a woman accused of being a witch would put her in the center of a room, strip her naked, then conduct minute examinations of her body looking for “devil’s teats” as evidence of rather intimate encounters with the devil or his emissaries. It sounded like any mole or birthmark would fill the bill. For them, that wasn’t torture, just good clean investigation work looking for physical evidence. It was, no doubt, traumatic for the women involved.

    It’s ironic that the witch scene most familiar to late-20th-century Americans is not the hanging of a Salem witch or the burning of Joan of Arc but the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

  10. I am curious as to whether the announcment of being homosexual actually would really be a capital offense in 1628. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 (earliest existing New England penal code) states that:

    “If any man lyeth with mankind as he lyeth with a woeman, both of them shall have committed adhomination, they both shall surely be put to death.”

    What is interesting to me is the question of when the concept of “a homosexual” as opposed to “certain sexual activities” emerged. For example, for all of the talk of Greek homosexuality, my understanding is that the Greeks did not have a concept of “gays” or “sexual orientation.” I would be surprised if 17th century Puritans did either. I suspect that they would react with incomprehension to the announcment that an indentured servant was gay. I think that he would actually have to commit sodomy to get the death penalty.

  11. D. Fletcher says:

    I have read pieces using this exact viewpoint, Kristine, concerning girl’s schools and women’s colleges. These women liked the segregation, because they felt overwhelmed by the boys/men in integrated situations.

  12. Julie in Austin says:

    I heard severl homeschoolers who wre excited about Colonial House, so I turned it on a few nights ago. This is what I saw. An indentured servant was asking his employers (husband and wife) to sit down. He then haltingly explained to them that he is gay. They hugged him and went about their business. The narrator commented that in colonial times, his announcement would have been met with a death sentence. I turned it off.

    ack. Some reality show.

  13. I’m curious… as a Catholic, I see huge differences of opinion about the role of women in my Church. Although the Church has made clear that our priesthood will always be male, many people still argue the point. Is there any sort of equivalent movement in the Mormon Church? What is the LDS stand on priesthood and gender? (Yes, I do realize that the meaning of “priest” is quite different in the two Churches, but I’m still curious.)

  14. Charles says:

    I’ve been watching this from the begining. Its actually quite fascinating to learn some of the things that weren’t so obvious taught.

    More than anything, I find it fascinating to see how a group of people, accustomed to todays freedoms reacted to some of the laws enacted by the protestants.

    It was interesting to really visualize the conditions they lived in and the process for coming to the americas.

    The man assigned to be govenor is a Baptist preacher, the town’s lay preacher is a professor of religion in CA. The main drive for the colony is far more economic than it is religious.

    If you judge the entirety of that show by one scene you are really doing yourself a diservice. You may not agree with what you see, many of the laws I find absurd and I thing the govenor is not choosing his battles wisely with which ones are enforced, but everything I have seen so far seems very true to what life would have been like. I’m a big fan of Frontier house and previous shows of this genre from PBS.

  15. D. Fletcher says:

    I’ve felt this about Priesthood and RS for some time. Why do they need to be segregated? (Although I’ve heard from some women that they like this, because it’s the only time they enjoy Church.)

    I was around when the consolidated schedule was implemented. Before this time, RS was something the women did during the week, when they could.

    But suddenly, it became a commandment kind of meeting, like Priesthood, and without the commensurate revelation printed in the D&C. How did this happen?

  16. D. Fletcher says:

    It wasn’t you, Kristine, who I was referring to when I said certain women felt overwhelmed — it was those women you mentioned who couldn’t talk in other meetings except Relief Society.

    But one thing I’ve always heard about RS, is that it is far, far superior to Priesthood Meeting, because the women prepare the lessons and are motivated to comment (even the silly way you’ve described).

    Priesthood Meetings should be about 10 minutes, introduce visitors, sing a song, assign home teaching, sign the role, closing prayer. The lessons would never be missed.

  17. Julie, nice to hear from someone who has actually viewed an episode. Yes the harsh treatment of homosexuals in the past is a piece of reality that makes many people uncomfortable. But I’m guessing it’s the program’s implied approval of homosexuality (by criticizing its prior harsh treatment) that rubs you the wrong way. Uh, I’m hoping you are at least a little bit uncomfortable with treating homosexuality as a capital crime.

    I’ll admit there is a “reality disconnect” in that no homosexual indentured servant in 1628 would have admitted it to his employer, so portraying such an admission was, in that sense, not an accurate portrayal.

  18. Just in response to the whole “when did Relief Society thing become a commandment” issue that arose in some earlier comments — my mother has sometimes felt that members of the church want to make weekly activities more significant — almost a basis for whether a person is “active” or “inactive.” My Mom goes to her Sunday church meetings faithfully but almost never participates in Church activities during the week, some of which are sponsored by the Relief Society. I can’t remember if it’s called homemaking or enrichment night …

    Anyways, my mother had a temple recommend interview once and the stake presidency counselor was asking her a question about meetings that seemed unusually and unnecessarily vague. She didn’t like the intonation and wording that was being used and finally insisted that he read the question “exactly as it was in the book.” He didn’t want to comply but finally did, and she was able to answer, truthfully, that she attended all her “church meetings.”

  19. Julie in Austin says:

    Just to clarify: I am fully in support of Church teachings that we treat our homosexual brothers and sisters with love and charity. (If I had a servant–what a delicious thought, to have household help!–tell me that he were gay, I’d hug him and get back to business, too.) What I object to is the gross historical inaccuracy of the show. It isn’t 1628, it’s 2004 in old clothes.


  20. Charles says:

    By your same examination, the offending servant wouldn’t say that he was gay. He may not have a category to put himself into but he may have felt the pulling apart inside that he knows himself to be a good person aside from his carnal deliquency.

    He may have confessed to his actions. Even if there were a category to place himself into, I’m sure many people, the law and commoners both, would not distinguish between a homosexual per se and the act involved. They would be seen as the same.

    What I find interesting in the show is that there are a multitude of laws that by today’s standard seem rediculous. The governor does not seem to be picking his fights very well. He is happy to assign a ‘scarlet’ letter for profanity. The idea is to shame a person to avoid it. Shame doesn’t work when more than half the colony is guilty and proudly wears the letter.

    Its an interesting parallel to imorality today. As more and more people call evil good, less people feel shame for doing bad things.

  21. Nice point, Nate. A confessing homosexual in 1628 might have to be really insistent to get his point across to a bunch of American farmers. But urban society in England didn’t have any problem conceptualizing homosexuality or what might now be termed “sexual preference.” And it’s not like New England elders were squeamish about using confessions to convict–they were often the primary evidence asserted against accused witches (another capital offense).

    I’m curious–did witchcraft ever come up on Colonial House?

  22. Kristine says:

    No Mormon angle to this comment, but one of the families on Colonial House is from my kids’ school, so I’ve heard the inside scoop on all the things that went wrong, the behind the scenes gossip, etc.

    OK, I did think of a vaguely Mormon angle–you’ve seen the trailer where one of the women says something like “well, fine, then, put me in the stocks–I’m not going to church for 3 hours on Sunday morning!” She told us that she didn’t object to church so much because of its content (though she’s not religious in real life), she just felt like there was so much work to do all the time, and the work was so gender-segregated that Sunday mornings were the only time she could spend with her husband and son. I always feel like that after Sunday School–aww, c’mon, I haven’t actually *sat down* in the same room with my husband all week. Don’t make us go our separate ways to Priesthood and RS!

  23. On RS being a “commandment kind of meeting,” it is interesting to note that the temple interview questions ask whether you strive to attend all your “sacrament and priesthood meetings.” No mention of RS. I suppose then that you gals aren’t “commanded” to go to RS, until, of course, you get the priesthood. :>)

  24. Re: the ‘missionary’ reality show mentioned by Wendy. If I remember right (or left here at BCC :), the LDS Church yanked its support of the show. Perhaps a reason to watch or not-watch?

    re: no lawyers in the colonies. Hm. Interesting counter-factual. Perhaps we would still have punishments that children would pay attention to then if the dirth of lawyers had continued & the 8th Amendment was misconstrued out of all possible proportion by “lawyers.” :)

  25. Kristine says:

    Some of us already have it, Randy ;>)

    And there is a record of an early RS that was organized into quorums of Deaconesses, Teachers, and Priestesses…maybe the temple recommend questions are more profound than we thought? :)

    I actually do like meeting separately for RS, because it’s the only time any women (besides me, of course) comment on the lessons. Gospel Doctrine class is pretty male-dominated in my current ward (and in most wards I’ve been in)

  26. Sorry, typo, the statute is over at TC, meaning the website Tutissima Cassis.

  27. Charles says:

    There has been no mentioning yet of something like witches, although the lay pastor’s wife would look good in a black pointy hat.

    Serioulsy though, I think that the show is interesting. The govenor is a baptist minister in the real world and made it clear that he wanted to pattern the village after teh puritans.

    It was also pointed out several times that the vast majority of those who came here did not do so to escape pursecution but rather for economic reasons. The companies that funded the colonies offered pretty good incentives for people to relocate.

    What I find very interesting is this thought. If people came here to escape religious persecution, there sure were a lot of religoius laws enforcing christianity and conformity. It is very clear that the corporations used religion as a tool to control the people rather than enlighten them.

  28. There was a documentary on PBS a couple of months ago that followed some missionaries around on their missions in Munich, Germany. It was good. I didn’t go on a mission, so hadn’t seen firsthand the some of the things they showed, like the reactions missionaries got at street meetings, and in visits in people’s homes, etc. The filmmaker was given an unusual amount of access, by Mormon PR standards — she filmed the missionaries receiving their calls, going to pep talk type meetings with their mission leaders, going on splits, etc. Here’s a link:

  29. D. Fletcher says:

    When I was at NYU, my proposals for dramatic works based on polygamy stories were always met with wild enthusiasm. Polygamy, to most people, is like sanctioned orgies, reprehensible but fascinating to watch.