Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation
by Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs
AC recently received a note about one of our discussions from Dr. Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, award-winning scholar and author of the new Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners---Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation, a "vast re-analysis of the Pilgrims' early history," which can be ordered directly at (508) 746-5058.
Dr. Bangs is one of the world's leading scholars not only on the Pilgrims in America, but he's the founder of a museum in Leiden on their history in 17th century Holland before the Mayflower. To put this in context, Dr. Bangs writes:
BY GOING THROUGH THAT FULL RANGE OF AUTHORITIES FROM ALL VARIETIES OF CHRISTIANITY AT THE TIME I DEMOLISH ONE OF THE MAJOR IDEAS ABOUT PURITAN NEW ENGLAND---MORGAN'S AND FISCHER'S IDEA THAT THE EXPANDED HIERARCHICAL INTERPRETATION OF THE COMMANDMENT ABOUT FATHER AND MOTHER TO INCLUDE ALL CIRCUMSTANCES OF AUTHORITY IN SOCIETY IS UNIQUE TO THE PURITANS. THAT'S A PRETTY IMPORTANT ABOUT-FACE.
An excerpt, Chapter 10, pp. 361-368:
What Is Meant by Father and Mother?
By noting how widespread, or conversely how limited, particular ideas of marriage were we should be in a position to determine whether Puritan or Pilgrim ideas of family life, whether in Holland or New England, were distinctive. For that purpose, we shall review how the Fifth Commandment was explained by several Puritan and Reformed theologians, including John Cotton, Zacharias Ursinus, Jacobus Arminius, and Jean Calvin, as well as by Martin Luther, Desiderius Erasmus, Alexander Nowell, and the authors of the catechism issued by Pope Pius V.
Epitomizing Puritan thought, the minister John Cotton, taught that the Fifth Commandment (Ex. 20: 12), “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be prolonged upon the land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee,” comprised obligations of respect in all hierarchical relations of authority, including marriage. “What is meant by father and mother?” he asked in 1623. His answer was that “the Lord here meaneth all those whom himself hath made superiors unto us, whether in authority, such as parents are to children, husbands to wives, masters to servants in the family, ministers to people in the church, magistrates to subjects in the commonwealth, or in age, as [the] old are to the young, or in others gifts, as the rich are to the poor, the wise to the simple, christians of greater grace & riper years to babes in Christ.” Cotton is here giving an expanded list of explicit examples of relations of authority, providing particulars for the opinion expressed by Jean Calvin, that this commandment was a general rule of subjection to authority because God had ordained things to be the way they are, and consequently such relations were divinely predestined. As we have seen, this expansion is suggested by Paul in the passages cited from Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3.
Cotton was not the first to reflect Calvin’s theological justification of existing ranks and obligations. The Geneva Bible’s marginal annotation explained the Fifth Commandment succinctly: “By the parents also is meant all that have authority over us.”
More and more specific examples were added to illustrate this basic synechdochal interpretive axiom. In 1602, Festus Hommius, later a Leiden professor and friend of John Robinson’s, published his translation of Zacharias Ursinus’ Treasure-Book of Christian Doctrine, that became the principal book of catechetical instruction in The Netherlands. Ursinus listed those in authority he thought were meant by the Fifth Commandment’s words “father and mother”: (1) parents, (2) guardians of orphans, (3) schoolmasters, teachers, and ministers of the church, (4) governors, both high-level and lower, (5) all old and aged people. A wife’s obligatory obedience to her husband was explicitly commanded elsewhere in the Bible. Ursinus commented that while sometimes evil people, unworthy of honor, are placed above us, honor was due to their office nonetheless, as having been part of the hierarchical structure instituted by God. Citing Acts 5: 29, he said that it is well known that one should not obey them if they exceeded the limits of their office either through laxity in enforcing obedience to the Ten Commandments or through unrighteous and cruel tyranny.
Jacobus Arminius held identical opinions about the Fifth Commandment, generally specifying the extrapolated subordinate relations as those arising in human society, whether in political situations, the church, school, or household, whether in time of peace or war, whether ordinary or extraordinary, permanent in authority or temporary, however short-term – in other words, always in all places.
In 1604, John Dod and Robert Cleaver first published their commentary on the Ten Commandments (A Plaine and Familiar Exposition of the Tenne Commandements) that was so popular among Puritans it went through at least twenty-four editions. Two were issued in Leiden by William Brewster, who re-published Dod and Cleaver’s Tenne Commandements in 1617, in English and Dutch editions. Moreover, the book is listed in several Plymouth Colony estate inventories. The Pilgrims’ evident enthusiasm for this book allows us to assume that they shared its viewpoint on most matters except the topic of Separation. The Pilgrims must have agreed, for example, with the opinion of Dod and Cleaver that if everyone (superiors, inferiors, and equals) properly obeyed the Fifth Commandment, there could be no sins against the remaining commandments forbidding killing, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness. “For all disorders in the other, do flow from hence, that either superiors are negligent in performing their duties of governing: or else inferiors are proud and stubborn, and refuse to obey their superiors; or equals be envious or ambitious between themselves.”
The allusion to the possibility that the ordinary earnest Christian could determine when his political or social superior was “negligent in performing the duties of governing” carried with it, on the one hand, the hint of rebellion against royal authority that was an essential part of the Separatists’ claim to congregational autonomy for appointing their own ministers, and, on the other hand, implied the authority that justified wives’ complaints against mistreatment by their husbands. All were familiar with Acts 5: 29 (“We ought rather to obey God then men”), but to act on the conviction that a ruler was unjust required courage.
To emphasize this implication of the Fifth Commandment was to admit the possibility of righteous criticism against a ruler by any serious Christian, even to call for such criticism. John Gigordus, studying theology at Geneva under Calvin’s successors Theodor Beza and Antonius Faius (Antoine de la Faye), had explicitly defended this position about the Fifth Commandment, warning that “We are yet to take heed, that we yield not to our Parents, Magistrates, or yet to any man, more than is meet: that is, that we have them not in Gods stead. And therefore, they do grievously sin, who hold, that whatsoever pleaseth the Prince, ought to have the force of a Law.” Furthermore, “Yet can neither the subjects with a good conscience obey their Magistrates, when they command them things that are manifestly impious and unjust, nor the flocks yield obedience unto their false Pastors, who go astray from the will of God.” But, backing away from this firm call for personal responsibility to oppose injustice and defend the truth, Gigordus reined in his plea for the revolutionary duties of conscience and echoed Calvin by stating that open revolt was not directly authorized by the commandment. “Yet it is not lawfull for private men, to rise or oppose themselues violently against the Magistrates, that deal tyrannously with them: but it is their duty, when any such thing cometh to pass, either to betake themselves to prayers and patience, (which notwithstanding must not carry us away from that which God requireth of us,) or to fly unto them unto whom the Law hath given authority to bridle and to restrain such tyrants.”
By analogy, a wife oppressed could ask the church to bridle and restrain a vicious husband, but she had to pursue the appropriate hierarchic channels within the church patriarchy. As Calvin put it, the fault of the husband did not absolve the wife of her duty of obedience. That, at least sometimes, appeals to church leaders evidently did succeed in curbing cruel husbands is seen in the records of Leiden’s Walloon Church consistory. The problem was not supposed to arise, however, for the ideal of Christian marriage was that there be mutual love and understanding, with no place for any such brutality. Wife-beating, like cruel treatment of children, was punished with excommunication.
Calvinists thought hierarchical patterns of authority were established by God. This was, however, not a specifically Calvinist innovation; in fact, it was no innovation at all. A much milder, yet ultimately similar, version is seen in Martin Luther’s Larger Catechism (1530). Luther approaches the same commandment (following the alternate numbering, as the Fourth Commandment) with an emphasis on the love and honor due from children to their parents. Luther does mention rather far into his discussion that by analogy members of a household are to treat their master as in a child-father relationship, and that subjects owe similar honor to civil governors, and that church members owe such respect to their pastors. “Thus we have two kinds of fathers presented in this commandment, fathers in blood and fathers in office […] Besides these there are yet spiritual fathers […]” Luther does not discuss the subordination of wives to husbands in reference to this commandment. Nor does he, at this point, discuss the godly obligation to oppose tyranny, instead informing subordinates that rebels have no favor or blessing. No remedy is suggested besides the thought that rulers should be wise, just, and God-fearing, because God “does not wish to have in this office and government knaves and tyrants.”
Again, the expanded interpretation of hierarchical relationships is part of Erasmus’ explanation of the Ten Commandments (1533). “This precept doth not only appertain to fathers & mothers: but also it appertaineth to bishops/ to teachers/ & to officers and rulers/ which after a certain manner do bear the room [place] and stead of parents.” Alexander Nowell, author of the official catechism of the Church of England (1562, translated into English 1570), explained the scope of the commandment as extending beyond parents to “all those to whom any authority is given, as magistrates, ministers of the church, schoolmasters, finally, all they that have any ornament, either of reverent age, or of wit, wisdom, or learning, worship, or wealthy state, or otherwise be our superiors.”
The Roman Catholic catechism issued in 1566 by Pope Pius V explains the “Fourth Commandment” by asserting that “We are bound to honour not only our natural parents, but also others who are called fathers, such as Bishops and priests, kings, princes and magistrates, tutors, guardians and masters, teachers, aged persons and the like.” This catechism instructs that wicked and unworthy rulers “should not be obeyed, since in such a case they rule not according to their rightful authority, but according to injustice and perversity.”
Calvin, Erasmus, the Church of England, and the Roman Catholic Church thus agree on this wide-ranging interpretation of the commandment regarding hierarchic social authority, and Luther also eventually gets around to including some degree of assumption of the extrapolated expansion of the commandment. There is not and therefore cannot be anything distinctively Puritan in such an application of the commandment, where Edmund S. Morgan would have us see a salient characteristic contrasting, explaining, and defining Puritan family life in seventeenth-century New England.
The pervasive assumption of the righteousness of hierarchic paternalistic authority underscores the extraordinariness of Robinson’s rigorous exegesis that led him to conclude that Paul had made a mistake in forgetting that women have an obligation to speak out in church under some circumstances, as discussed in Chapters 7 and 8.
This universal reverence for customary patterns of authority, when applied to marriage, led to John Cotton’s question and answer, “What is the honor which the husband & wife do equally owe the one to the other? To cleave one to another in delightful love, in trust, in care, to please one another in one house & in one flesh, to help one another in doing good & not evil, the one to the other, in soul, in body, in goods, & good name, in bearing the burdens one of another & in holding up, & ordering their family with both their hands together.”
Footnotes below, in the comments section.