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The story of religion in America is the story of Puritanism. About three-quarters of the North American colonists at the time of the American Revolution were of Puritan extraction. Puritanism1 was the dominant political and intellectual force throughout the 17th and the 18th centuries. Given all we owe to the Puritan legacy, then, it is a curious fact that the term Puritan carries with it such negative connotations today. The Puritans gave us our first written constitutions, regular elections, the secret ballot, the federalist principle, and separation of church and state. The Puritans, with their work ethic and their stress on equality under the law, made it possible for the capitalist spirit to triumph over hereditary privilege.
Many historians have made the point that Puritanism failed, and cite as evidence that there are no more Puritans to be found. But Puritanism was never a formal Christian sect. In fact, it was considered a term of derision, first used, as far as we know, by Queen Elizabeth. She had branded those who refused to conform to the "Liturgie, Ceremonies and Discipline of the Church" with the "invidious" name of "Puritane." No Puritan would have called himself a Puritan, and actually would have regarded the label an insult. The Puritans thought of themselves merely as Christians.
A Puritan might have been Congregationalist, Pres- byterian, Anabaptist, or even Anglican. St. Francis of Assisi and John Wycliffe could be considered forerunners of Puritanism, though formally they were Roman Catholics. Puritan described a tendency, not a particular denomination. What the English Puritans had in common was a feeling that the official church was not a true Christian church in the sense of resembling the church established by Jesus and his Apostles. While the Puritans had differences with regard to the zeal with which they should press their points - whether they should be Separatists, or Non-Separatists working for reform within the system - they agreed that the Anglican Church was an abomination. To many, a church under the authority of a monarch was scarcely different from a church under the rule of a pope.
Puritanism always found itself in the position of defying human authority. This was not a conscious decision, but was the result of measuring the conduct of public officials by Scriptural standards. The Puritans attacked anything resembling "popish" ritual in the English Church. In the mind of Queen Elizabeth, they were "over bold with God Almighty, making too many subtle scannings of His Blessed Will." And Thomas Hobbes, writing in the 1630s, expressed well the sentiments of the ruling class when he said that such people were poor security risks. Oliver Cromwell described the essence of Puritanism to be getting to "the root of the matter," the peeling away of the layers of human intermediaries until the individual stands alone, face-to-face with the Lord. Puritanism has always been associated with rebellion. Rebellion was an act they engaged in reluctantly, but when their government forced them, as it often did, to choose between their monarch's will and what they believed to be Christ's will, there was no doubt whom they would obey.
The Apostle Paul said that government is a divinely ordained institution, established by God for man's protection. In the Puritan mind, even a corrupt and unjust regime was better than no government at all-up to a point. Determining just where that point was remained a question to be answered by the individual conscience, after applying principles set forth in the Bible.
The point at which the individual Protestant in England decided to separate from, or rebel against, the established church varied, and thus had a bearing on the type of Protestants with whom he associated. The Episcopalian rejected the pope, but accepted bishops; the Presbyterian said no to bishops in favor of presbyters; Congregationalists shunned all ecclesiastical jurisdiction outside of the particular parish; Anabaptists were similar to Congregationalists, but were more radical in their separatist views. Perhaps more than any Christian sect, Anabaptists rejected human pronouncements and accepted as authoritative only the unadorned word of God. The branch of Protestantism one associated with usually had a bearing on one's politics. Episcopalians identified more readily with aristocracy and Toryism; Presbyterianism with republican government; Congregationalism with democracy; while Anabaptist Separatists tended to be hostile to all man-made constructions, and might be considered libertarian (though certainly not libertine). It was these kinds of people, mainly Congregationalist and Separatist Protestants, who, prodded by the royal and church bureaucracy, decided in the 1630s to leave Old England for New England. It was a mass exodus. They emigrated, in fact, in such numbers that it must have appeared as though all of England was leaving. They included men of wealth, education, and position: lawyers, doctors, merchants, college professors, and some of the most famous evangelists and theologians.
They decided to go to the New World because the Protestant cause in England appeared dead. Under Queen Elizabeth, and even under James, there was hope that someday the English Church might abandon its hierarchical Romanized structure. But with the ascent of Charles I, all hope for reform seemed vain. In addition, the French Calvinists (Huguenots) were crushed by the French Catholic forces at La Rochelle in October 1628. The Spanish armies overran the Calvinists in Bohemia and the Rhineland. The Protestant forces in Germany had endured a 10-year string of uninterrupted defeats.
In his own way, Charles was as fervent about Anglicanism as Oliver Cromwell and John Milton were about Puritanism. Charles was no irreverent dandy like James. Charles believed that reform was needed, but reform in an Episcopal direction, not toward Presbyterianism and certainly not toward Congregationalism. Charles commissioned Archbishop William Laud to purge from England all those who attacked the stately grandeur of his royal church. Branding and life imprisonment were the usual penalties for criticizing church policy. Cropping ears, slitting nostrils, heavy fines, and long prison terms in rodent-infested dungeons were also imposed, in accordance with the egregiousness of the offense. And, because Puritans and Protestant non-conformists were usually the most eloquent preachers, sermons were outlawed. Some innovative ministers tried to circumvent the prohibition against the sermon by substituting the "lecture," which became immensely popular. Soon the lecture, too, was forbidden.
In addition, Charles had married a Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, and it was clear to serious Protestants that the Angilcan Church was looking more and more like the Roman Church with each passing day. On the horizon, the Puritans saw the possibihty of a return to the policies of Bloody Mary and a rekindling of the flames at Smithfield. The King's attitude toward the Puritan-dominated Parliament was growing increasingly hostile, as was their attitude toward him. Calling them a "nest of vipers," Charles dissolved Parliament in 1629 and put the opposition Puritan leaders in the Tower. Charles would not call another Parliament for 11 years, thus leaving the Puritans with no formal political channels to express their dissatisfaction with his regime. The Puritans had always sympathized with the cause of Separatists, such as the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock. But most Puritans had thought, at least until now, that they could work within the system. They were, after all, a formidable political, intellectual, and economic power in England. But by 1630, it appeared to many that Charles had won, that he had effectively excluded them from the political process and that conditions within the English Church had become so debased that reform was hopeless. Prospects in England and on the continent for the survival of reformed Christianity appeared extremely bleak.
Meanwhile, John Winthrop was coming of age. He would become the central figure in the Great Puritan Migration to the New World. During his early years, however, young Winthrop was far more interested in women and in getting ahead in life than in the fate of his soul. He had been raised in a wealthy family on a large estate, and by age 16 had entered Trinity College at Cambridge. He was extremely intelligent and his career prospects seemed boundless. By age 18 he was a justice of the peace. Despite all this success, Winthrop was unhappy. He knew there was a void in his life, but it was a void he was unable at first to identify. While at Cambridge, he was struck by fever and thought he was going to die. He turned to God for help; but his spiritual growth ceased when his health improved. He began faithfully to attend church on Sundays, became well-read in theology and achieved a reputation as a devout man. But existence still seemed empty and he continued to be troubled: "I upheld the outward duties, but the power and the life of them was a manner gone," wrote Winthrop in his journal. "The more I prayed and meditated, the worse I grew - the more dull, unbelieving, vain in heart, etc. So I waxed exceedingly discontent and impatient, being sometimes ready to fret and storm against God, because I found not that blessing upon my prayers and other means that I did expect."
But then Winthrop began reading William Perkins, a Puritan writer, who pointed out that pagans, with their pious rituals, had done as much to deserve salvation as had people such as Winthrop, and that the average church-goer really had no reason to believe he was saved. We are not justified, said Perkins, in expecting any mercy from God. Perkins' writings seemed to speak directly to Winthrop, who, as he himself put it, had been a "hypocrite" in matters of faith. Winthrop came to the stark realization that what he really deserved was damnation. God's grace, as he described it, came like a steel razor from the blue, tore open his soul and revealed to him a floor crawling with vermin. Whatever good works, whatever religious duties he had diligently performed, paled in comparison to the evil that permeated his life and thoughts. He concluded that his reason for despair had nothing to do with humility, but with arrogance. He believed that as long as he went to church on Sundays and persevered against his weaknesses, he could overcome sin. But now he saw that he had no virtue by himself, and that, without God, he had no power to resist Satan. "The wages of sin is death," the Bible says (Romans 6:23), and Winthrop saw very clearly that his just destination was hell.
In the depth of Winthrop's despair, God suddenly seemed to reach down and grab the young attorney. It was as if in God's infinite mercy, He had said, "John, you live in Satan's world and alone you are doomed. Hold on to me and you will live. Please, John, lay hold to Christ's promise of salvation!" Winthrop stretched out his hand, and shouted, "O Lord, forgive me!" and went on to recall: "I acknowledged my unfaithfulness and pride of heart, and turned again to my God, and watching my heart and ways. O my God, forsake me not!" Tears welled up in Winthrop's eyes, as he realized that he had been saved. Winthrop decided that he would reject worldly ambition, for "I found that the world had stolen away my love for God." He would strike out on a path that was new, and devote every last breath in his life to God's glory. He had experienced what the Puritans meant by Christian conversion. It was not a merely intellectual understanding of the tenets of Christianity, but a spiritual rebirth. Jesus himself describes the phenomenon in the New Testament: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . That which is born of flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:3,6-8).
Winthrop could not understand Jesus' words before, but the wind of the Spirit had blown on his heart and he saw clearly now. He had had a personal encounter with God that radically changed his life, and which, in turn, empowered him to radically change the world: "Teach me O Lord," he cried, "to put my trust in Thee!"
In August 1629, an important conference took place at Cambridge University, the intellectual center for the Puritan movement in England. The meeting would have a profound impact on the future of America. The Puritans at Cambridge had talked often of settling in the New World, particularly since the Pilgrim Fathers had proven it could be done successfully. Their leader was 40-year-old John Winthrop. He and a number of Puritan businessmen decided at the conference to assume control of the Massachusetts Bay Company, which needed investors, provided the following conditions were met: Officers of the company would be selected solely from immigrants to New England; the stockholders would agree to sell all shares of stock to the settlers; and, most important, the colonists would take with them on the voyage the King's charter for the company:
It is fully and faithfully agreed amongst us,... that ... we will be ready in our persons... to embark for the said plantation by the first of March ... to pass the seas (under God's protection) to inhabit and continue New England. Provided always, that before the last September next, the whole government together with the patent for the said plantation be first by an order of the court legally transferred ... [and will] remain with us... upon the said plantation.
This was the key provision in the compact, the writing of which came as naturally to the non-separahng Puritans as it had to the Mayflower Pilgrims. It would permit Massachusetts Bay to operate as an independent commonwealth. Winthrop was elected unanimously as governor, and the first ship, the Arbella, set sail in February 1630. By June, 14 ships were making the transatlantic journey. Historian Percival Newton, in his book The Colonizing Activities of the English Puritans, assessed the significance of the expedition: "The Massachusetts migration was an event entirely without precedent in the modern world; Virginia, Newfoundland, and Guiana had attracted merely adventurers and the needy." But these were people of substance, and Winthrop and his followers, as Newton put it, "guided as they felt by a Higher Power, were resolved upon a course that honey, they predicted, America would become a barren wilderness, merciless and brutal, unwilling to yield fruit to the sojourners, and would wreak havoc on the colony. As Winthrop told his passengers, "The Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, be revenged of such a perjured people and make us know the price of the breach of such a covenant." The weight of the world was on their shoulders. All civilized humanity was watching, most hoping they would fail. Should they embarrass God by their actions, "we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the word of God," said Winthrop; and then God would feel compelled to make an example of them, "a story and a by-word through the world." John Cotton echoed the warning, citing precedent from the Bible: "Do not degenerate as the Israelites did."
Both Winthrop and Cotton knew that God had given them a task that was not easy. Following the Lord's will was always difficult, as Adam and Eve found, as the Israelites and even Christ's own Apostles discovered. But, said Cotton, God keeps His commitments: "What He hath planted He will maintain." For to trust in God's promises was the essence of the covenantal relationship: "We are entered into a covenant with Him for His work," Winthrop told his people. And all who went agreed that God would, in turn, honor their commitment to His ways. They knew there would be hardships; but, as Cotton put it, the Lord "hath given us hearts to overlook them all, as if we were carried up on eagles' wings."
This was the first time a people, en masse, agreed to establish a society wholly on Christian principles. The spirit of those who went was expressed well in the opening lines of a poem, entitled "Upon the First Sight of New England," penned by an obscure Puritan settler:
Hail holy Land wherein our holy Lord
hath planted his most true and holy word;
Hail happy people who have dispossessed
yourselves of friends, and means, to find some rest
for your poor wearied souls, oppressed of late
for Jesus' sake, with envy, spite and hate...
For this would not be an empire such as Constantine's, where people were compelled to call themselves Christians. This would be an association of "saints," of people who had made a conscious decision to reject the ways of the world and devote their lives to the service of Christ. As Winthrop explained to his passengers: "It is by mutual consent through a specially overruling Providence, and a more than ordinary approbation of the churches of Christ to seek out a place of cohabitation and consortship under a due form of government, both civil and ecclesiastical." The people were committed to building a holy commonwealth, a voluntary assembly of Christian men and women, "knit together in this work as one man," to live under laws spelled out clearly in the Bible, and "to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8).
In this light, we can see why the removal of the corporate charter from London to Boston was so critical. They did not want to form a corporation administered from England by a board of directors whose sole motive was profit. They sought to build a new society; one that would fulfill the promise of the Reformation, and enable an entire people to follow the example of Christ's Apostles, of Francis of Assisi, of John Wycliffe, and of William Tyndale. Their aim was to create a society where such men would not be persecuted for their beliefs, but would rule instead. Had the charter remained in London, this project would have been doomed from the start.
Winthrop and his people landed safely, during strawberry season.2 They prepared as best they could for the coming winter, and even got a crop planted. Indeed, they had brought with them 200 head of cattle. But still, the beginning was difficult. Lady Arbella, after whom the ship was named, died as the leaves were turning; her heartbroken husband, who had invested heavily in the expedition, soon followed her to the grave. Moreover, the dread symptoms of scurvy were rampant. Winthrop sent the supply ship Lyon back to Bristol with an urgent letter to his son John, still in England, saying that if provisions were not sent immediately, the colony would perish. The ship, loaded with grain, peas, barreled beef, and lemon juice to cure scurvy, reappeared in February, just in time to save the colony. Winthrop made the occasion a day of thanksgiving.
Two hundred of the 1,500 settlers died before the ground began to thaw. Nevertheless, distinguished graduates from Cambridge and Oxford, "silenced" by Laud, poured into the colony, and many brought whole congregations with them. The houses of worship they built were bleak. There was no organ music, no stained glass, and often no heating. The benches they sat on were hard. But nowhere in the world was the Gospel expounded more masterfully from the pulpit.
Because Massachusetts had in effect declared its independence from British rule by transferring the royal charter from London to Boston, it was crucial that they establish a government. Ordinances were framed by the General Court in March 1631. Fourteen years were needed for the colony to evolve from a trading company to a full-fledged commonwealth; but from the beginning, the Congregational principle of lay church rule planted the seeds of a democratic political system. By 1632, the governor, his deputy, and his assistants were positions determined by general election, rather than appointments by the corporate board of directors.
Some historians have disparaged the Massachusetts Bay settlement for having restricted the vote to Christians. But this stands to reason when one considers that the purpose of the journey to New England was to establish "A Model of Christian Charity." Given this goal, it would hardly make sense to permit unbelievers to rule the colony. No doubt, a non-Christian would have felt uncomfortable in Massachusetts Bay. But, then again, no one was forced to live in Massachusetts Bay.
The Massachusetts Puritans were in fact the most advanced in their political thinking of any people of their period, and they made essential contributions to the evolution of republican democracy. First, they abolished all hereditary privilege. It made no difference whether a voter - or freeman, as he was called then-was rich or poor, educated or uneducated. Social rank was unimportant. The political franchise was narrow (by modern American standards); voters had to be Christians, a certified member of God's "elect." But, as Professor Ralph Barton Perry points out in his landmark book, Puritanism and Democracy, the electorate (that is, those who had final authority over the affairs of the colony) cut vertically rather than horizontally through the community. Thus the franchise could easily be expanded. Moreover, the New England Puritans were less interested in building a government on democratic than on biblical principles. If wealth, social rank, and education were unimportant to Jesus Christ, then they would also be unimportant in Massachusetts Bay. If faith in Christ was critical for admission to the kingdom of God, according to the Puritan logic, then it should be required of voters.
The movement toward democracy in Massachusetts, in other words, had nothing to do with following a liberal, or "Enlightenment," political philosophy. Rather, it was a natural byproduct of the Puritans making a conscious attempt to build a commonwealth in accordance with God's precepts. Christian and democratic institutions are compatible, which is why the Whigs3 and the Puritans could so easily become allies against the Crown throughout the political struggles of the 17th and 18th centuries. Thus, we begin to see how American ways of government and American political thought can be traced directly to religious and political institutions in colonial New England. The movement toward political equality, meaning the "one-man, one-vote" principle, in New England stands in stark contrast to the aristocratic characteristics of New York, Maryland, the Carolinas, Georgia, and even Virginia, where feudal institutions were transplanted and remained, at least partially, until the American Revolution. It was in New England soil that the seeds of liberty were planted, took firm root, and eventually spread to other regions of the country.
Americans are fickle voters. A continuous source of amazement to non-democratic societies is how the United States can have so many changes in leadership and still maintain a vi-able government. A President who makes it through two terms is something of a rarity. The genius of the American system is that it has institutionalized revolution without bloodshed. The restless nature of the American electorate seems to have its origins in the politics of Massachusetts Bay. No voters demanded more exacting standards from their leaders than the Puritans. Winthrop, considered by many historians to be second in stature only to George Washington in the pantheon of American political leaders, was thrown out of office in 1634. Thomas Dudley defeated Winthrop for the governorship on the grounds that Winthrop had lent 28 pounds of gunpowder to Plymouth without a vote by the Court of Assistants. The campaign was a heated affair with charges and counter-charges. But in the end, the two leaders reconciled their differences. Winthrop held a banquet at his home in celebration of Dudley's victory, and wrote in his journal that Dudley was "a wise and just man." Winthrop would later regain his governorship after a series of political gaffes by Dudley.
The General Court, which was made up of the "visible saints" (eligible voters) held annual elections for governor, deputy governor, and the governor's assistants. The General Court was the highest legislative authority, while the governor's assistants served as the Supreme Court. But a conflict arose between the Assistants and the General Court over a dispute about Goody Sherman's stray pig. As documented by Samuel Eliot Morison in his book, Builders of the Bay Colony, Robert Keayne, a rich merchant, confiscated the errant swine, which had trespassed on to his property. The Court of Assistants, composed mainly of wealthy merchants, ruled in favor of Keayne. But the less magisterial General Court claimed veto power, and overturned the ruling, something it had never tried in the past. This incident was America's first constitutional crisis, and all of Massachusetts was in an uproar. Winthrop argued for the veto as an additional check on the magistrates, thus making abuse of authority less likely. But if the Assistants were to give up their judicial supremacy, then the General Court would have to give them at least equal authority in legislative matters. Winthrop saw merit in this arrangement, and in a discourse on government, said he believed that "democracy is, amongst most civil nations, accounted the meanest and worst form of government." Some have cited this opinion to suggest that Winthrop was hostile to the vote, and favored aristocracy. Quite the contrary. Winthrop was a republican rather than a democrat, who believed there ought to be safeguards in the system preventing a tyranny of the majority. The law-making body was subsequently divided into the House of Assistants and the House of Deputies, and henceforth represented the first bicameral legislature in North America.
Thus, in the amusing squabble over the ownership of Mrs. Sherman's pig, we can see the origins of our Senate and House of Representatives, beginning a tradition of intense rivalry between the branches of government that continues to this day. But, as Winthrop recorded, the politicians of Massachusetts, though they badly wanted to have their way, still "feared God, and endeavored to walk by the rule of His word." They took seriously Jesus' warning to His disciples that "a house divided against itself shall not stand" (Matt. 12:25). Therefore, Winthrop noted, "In all differences and agitations they continued in brotherly love."
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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.
© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart