Thursday, June 5, 2008

Facing the Puritans

When people think of religion and early America, the Puritans are sure to come up--and sure to be misused.

The Puritans will be described as:
--the Pilgrims
--people who wanted to found a nation dedicated to religious freedom
--horrible fanatics who persecuted and killed anyone they could
--people who didn't have sex
--a cautionary tale about the need to have a sharp line drawn between religion and state

The Puritans were none of those things. And the reason why it's important to understand the truth about the Puritans is that their ideas about government and the relationship between church and state had an immediate impact on colonial America and strongly shaped the ideals of the Revolutionary Founders.

First, the Pilgrims were not Puritans. Puritans were members of the Anglican church (state church of England) who worked desperately in Parliament to "purify" the Anglican church of its lingering Catholic--and therefore sinful--ways. Pilgrims were former Anglicans who disavowed the Anglican church, separated from it, and left it behind so that when God struck the Anglican church they would not suffer.

The Puritans only left for America when King Charles I installed Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1630. Laud began a devastating campaign to purge England of all dissenters. Puritans reluctantly left England, deeply worried that the country was going to be punished--maybe even destroyed--by God for its sins.

This being the case, I have to disagree with Nicholas Guyatt's claim that the Puritans in New England put their faith in the divine destiny of England. To the minds of John Winthrop and his settlers, England had forsaken its divine commission to carry out God's laws. That's why they took the radical step of leaving England. Only devastation awaited that country, as God delivered a terrible punishment there.

No, the Puritans believed that they now had a new commission in New England, and their thoughts were uniformly and unswervably focused on that. Their new country would not be a haven for freedom of religion, of course; they had come to New England to found a pure, Congregational, Protestant country, and all others were unwelcome. And I do mean all others: Catholics, members of any of the other myriad Protestant sects, Separatists like the Pilgrims, the Dutch, the French, the Native Americans, English settlers in Virginia, and even, very quickly, the English government were identified as threats to the survival of New England.

The Puritans in New England were immediately threatened by the long arm of Charles, Laud and their purges. Just four years after the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop received a letter from Parliament demanding that he send back the patent for the colony to London. Winthrop and his magistrates knew this would result in the patent being annulled, and the colony given over to royal control. They politely declined to send it, and kept doing so for another 10 years, until Parliament was in the hands of the English Puritans (1642).

In those earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (MBC), forming a good government was uppermost in the minds of the people. Religion was important, but the formation of the Congregational religious structure was kept strictly separate from the construction of the government.Those Puritans took many steps to set up a representative government that strictly limited participation of the clergy:

1. According to the terms of their patents, the MBC set up a government of one governor, an assistant governor, and nine assistants (magistrates). This was the General Court.
2. Against the terms of their patent, the MBC gave all freemen in the colony the right to vote for assistants (who then voted for the governor and asst. governor).
3. The General Court later restricted the definition of "freeman" to a church member, but disallowed ministers from running for governor, asst. governor, or magistrate.
4. As the colony grew, the General Court then bowed to complaints from the people that restricting voting rights to church members was unfair, and allowed all freemen in the towns to choose representatives to the General Court.
5. By 1635, just five years into the colony, the General Court was drafting a body of laws, unwilling to rely on each successive governor's personal judgments about right and wrong and appropriate punishments.

During this time, in the very earliest days of Puritan Massachusetts, the Puritans quietly dropped the oath sworn to obey the English king from their swearing-in ceremony for magistrates, refused to surrender their patent to Parliament, and worried constantly that the King would take over the colony. The Puritans actually formed militia units to face an English "invasion."

So the Puritans of New England did not believe God sent them to a new land to set up a religious paradise led providentially by England. They believed that they were forced to leave a doomed England, and that God was giving them the same chance God gave every nation: a commission to keep God's laws. Their new country would worship God as they saw fit, but when it came to government, business, and politics, religion had very little to do with Puritan decisions. They created a government that could establish laws everyone could live with. They created a governmen that encouraged business and trade. And politically, they were focused on maintaining their independence from a hostile Parliament and King. It was the beginning of a long history of being Massachusetts men first, English citizens second.

This is just the tip of the Puritan iceberg. As we go into future posts on these American forebears, we'll explore more thoroughly their political philosophy and actions, and their legacy to the Revolutionary Founding generation will become only more clear.


Brad Hart said...

Excellent post! I'm glad we have somebody who knows a lot about the pre-American Revolution history of early America. I will look forward to your stuff!

As for your claim that the Puritans felt England had, "forsaken its divine commission to carry out God's laws," I agree in part. One of the things Guyatt points out is that it was not until the English Civil War in 1642 that people began to change their providential views on England. I do agree with you that the Separatists were angry with the Anglican Church of England, but I do believe that it took some time before people began to see America as having a separate providential destiny. While most English settlers hailed the "New World" as a blessing and safe haven prepared by God, they still maintained a loyalty to England that lasted until the Revolution.

Lori Stokes said...

Hello Brad! The Civil War did raise American Puritans' hopes, but only very briefly. The English Puritans quickly decided to establish tolerance of all Christian religious practices, and also presbyterianism. Presbyterianism gave the government control of religion by setting up a hierarchy of bishops chosen by the state.

This was anathema to American Puritans, who quickly disowned the new Parliament and returned their focus to America as the only faithful religious community.

The loyalty to England, thus, was mixed... I mentioned how the Massachusetts men dropped allegiance to the king from their loyalty oath within 5 years of settlement. More to come on this!

(One last thing: The Puritans were not Separatists!)

Brad Hart said...


Do you have a source on the loyalty oath being dropped? That would be nice to have. I would love to put that in my "collection."

Lori Stokes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lori Stokes said...

In John Winthrop's diary on April 1, 1634, he records that "all housekeepers and sojourners being 20 years of age and not freemen" were administered the oath of loyalty. The text of the oath is in the "Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, 1628-1686" (ed. Nathaniel Shurtleff, published in 1854). The king is not mentioned.