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Progress toward a free and open society in America is typically presented in modern history texts as coinciding with the failure of the so-called "Puritan oligarchs" to keep a grip on their people. Freedom, we are told, is purely the product of Enlightenment thought and the valiant efforts of a few noble people who battled the Puritan ruling establishment for "liberty of con science." This view of New England history is clearly false, but the figures most often cited in this context are Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, two religious dissidents who were expelled from Massachusetts Bay for persisting in preaching a theology that the General Court thought erroneous. Usually Williams and Hutchinson are portrayed as doctrinal liberals. This presentation of American history is consistent with the view that man was liberated when he freed himself from the chains of "religious superstition." The problem with this history is that it is unhistorical.
To begin with, neither Roger Williams nor Anne Hutchinson objected to Massachusetts being a strict Bible commonwealth. Their complaint was that Massachusetts, too, had fallen short of the church model provided in the Book of Acts. Both thought that Massachusetts was not Christian enough, that it had failed in its mission to establish a "City on a Hill," a beacon for all the world to follow. Neither was a proponent of humanist thought in Christianity, and neither was motivated by a concern for lack of freedom of religion. Quite the contrary; their invective was directed against what they perceived to be corruption and impurity within the polity of Massachusetts Bay. They thought the people and their leaders too worldly, too ready to compromise on doctrine in order to build church membership, and too inclined to ignore or dilute the difficult passages in the Bible.
Roger Williams, who arrived in 1631, attacked the churches of Massachusetts for failing to sever completely their ties with the Church of England, which he saw as beyond repair because of its commitment to be all-inclusive and permit the unregenerate to worship alongside the saved. Williams' position was that the Massachusetts Bay church had been too lax in admitting "non-elect" people, mixing "herds of the world" with the "flock of Christ." He went so far as to denounce the residence oath on the grounds that "a magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man." Williams was also more hard line than the mainstream New Englander on such aspects of Calvinist theology as predestination and irresistible grace. He believed that church and state should be utterly separate, not because of a desire for religious liberty, but because he believed the state poisons Christianity, and that Jesus, not some cabal of government officials, selects His people. Williams was what was known as an Anabaptist; that is, he was a radical Separatist. He represented an extreme end of the Protestant spectrum, indeed too extreme for the General Court of Massachusetts Bay.
Williams was actually very popular, even among the leaders of the colony. He was a friend of John Winthrop and Thomas Hooker and was perhaps closest to William Bradford. They knew genius when they saw it, and no doubt thought he was making some valid points. Williams probably would not have been expelled had the Bay not received news that King Charles was planning to send the Royal Navy, seize the company charter, and take over the government. The presence of a virulent Separatist, such as Williams, continuously ranting against the English Church would confirm the King's bias against the practices of this maverick colony. The Bay did not comprehend the dimensions of Charles' political problems with the Puritans in England and, therefore, could not have anticipated that Charles would never get around to dealing with the Bay. At the time, however, it appeared to the leaders of Massachusetts that the survival of the colony was at stake, and the last thing they wanted was an articulate and flamboyant dissident in their midst.
The General Court argued with Williams at length, and even brought in Thomas Hooker to reason with him. They gave Williams ample time to change his views, or at least agree to temper his most extreme rhetoric; but as the process continued, his stance grew even more intractable. He denounced as "hypocrites" several respected leaders. The General Court, feeling there was little choice, ordered him expelled. Williams was given six weeks to leave, much to the sadness of William Bradford, with whom he would correspond for the rest of his life. Williams wound up staying much longer than six weeks, but was finally told that if he did not depart soon he would be shipped off to England. In January 1636, he and five of his followers bought from the Indians a plot of land at Narragansett Bay and founded "Providence."
As it turned out, Rhode Island did become a haven for various dissident Christian denominations, in part because Williams was not at all interested in building a political community. By then, he had come to the conclusion that all human institutions were evil and ought to be avoided. "Oh remember whither your principles and conscience must in time and opportunity force you!" said Williams. "‘Tis but worldly policy and compliance with men and times (God's mercy overruling)" which leads men to "the murdering of thousands and tens of thousands were your power and command as great as once the bloody Roman emperor was."
This sentiment remains strong in certain Christian denominations in America, who believe politics and government to be so corrupt and ungodly that Christians are advised not to participate. But this position is counterproductive. While certainly all human institutions are fallen, how much more corrupt will government be if left to non-Christians? If Lenin, Hitler, and Mao had been Christians, the world would be a far better place - far more hospitable to the spread of Christianity. If Christians refuse to involve themselves in the affairs of state, the totalitarians and authoritarian despots will gladly step in. Wililams' error was to permit the perfect to be the enemy of the good, for human institutions always will be flawed. To forsake society and community altogether, as Williams did, is detrimental not only to freedom's prospects, but also to Christianity. Christ, after all, waited until the Roman Empire was at its pinnacle to make His entrance into the world, no doubt seeing the spread of civilization, however imperfect, as the best vehicle to also spread the good news of eternal life.
Ultimately, Williams rejected the label Anabaptist for himself, thinking it too sectarian and institutional sounding, preferring instead to be called merely a "seeker." Williams is often called a pioneer of "religious liberty." But one should not equate liberty with the rejection of civilization. The credit for beginning the evolution toward republican constitutional democracy in America, leading ultimately to separation of church and state, goes to Winthrop and Hooker, who progressively broadened the political franchise and loosened standards for church membership as time passed, and as it became apparent that by doing so the commonwealth would not degenerate into anarchy. Williams may have inadvertently contributed to this process; but one can hardly give him credit for promoting civil liberties of any kind, given that he was uninterested in civil affairs and shunned society altogether. Moreover, Williams would be shocked if he knew that his legacy would be routinely cited by revisionist historians as a victory for the cause of liberal humanism in religion. His sin, in the minds of the magistrates of the Bay, was not that he was a humanist or some sort of theological liberal, but that his religious enthusiasm was too extreme.
The same can be said of Anne Hutchinson. The various twists and turns within Puritan theology seem alien to the 20th-century mind, which is one reason we have not delved deeply into theological distinctions in these pages. But to ignore completely the doctrinal issues is also a mistake, because they are critical to understanding the mind of the 17th-century Puritan and the substance from which a distinctly American character and stream of political thought was forged.
Anne Hutchinson got herself into difficulty when she launched a campaign against the minister of the Boston Church, John Wilson, whom she despised because she thought his preaching was not at all compelling. This was a serious misjudgment, because Wilson was both influential and popular, though Hutchinson was right about his preaching, which was lackiuster and difficult to hear (he had a tendency to mumble his words). Her dispute with Wilson might have been ignored if she had not gone on to make pronouncements on the qualifications of ministers throughout the colony. According to her count, there were only two truly Christian - "sealed" - preachers in all of Massachusetts. They were John Cotton, whom she called "the voice of the beloved," and her brother-in-law John Wheelright. The rest were hypocrites, liars, and on their way to perdition. But she singled out Wilson (no one knows exactly why) as especially pernicious. One day she caused a scene by abruptly leaving a Boston meeting after it turned out that John Wilson was preaching when she expected it to be John Cotton.
For a woman in the 17th century to be launching such invective against a prominent member of the community was unheard of. John Winthrop tried to defend her behavior on the grounds that women must be given more latitude because of their weaker intellects. But even though the Bay leadership was inclined to make allowances for "female troubles," it was thought that Hutchinson had gone beyond the pale. She seemed to be passing judgment on others, which the Bible says is the sole prerogative of the Lord. The General Court convened to investigate her behavior, and to ask who she thought had given her the authority to decide whether John Wilson, or anyone else, was ‘'sealed" or not? Anne answered that she had been given "an immediate revelation" from God, and that "the voice of His own Spirit" had spoken to her soul.
This answer sealed her fate in the minds of the General Court. For not only was she treading very close to something like the "inner light" followed by the Quakers, but apparently she had elevated herself to the status of prophet, by claiming she could receive divine revelations not available to everyone else who read Scripture. The Bible, in the Book of Revelation, addresses a warning to "everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book," saying: "If anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book" (Rev. 22:18-19).
The Puritans believed these words ought to be applied to the Bible in its entirety; that God's revelations were inscribed in the Scriptures, were accessible to everyone, and were not exclusive to any particular individual. The General Court ruled that Anne Hutchinson was a heretic, and a dangerous one at that. She was banished from the colony as a "woman not fit for society." She traveled first to Roger Williams' settlement in 1638, but found Rhode Island as unsuitable for her version of Christianity as Massachusetts. She then set off for Long Island where she was killed by Indians.
Hutchinson, like Williams, in many history texts is included in the pantheon of forerunning secularists crusading for religious freedom and hounded out of the Massachusetts theocracy by intolerant oligarchs. Hutchinson was many things, and dead wrong on a number of counts. But one thing she wasn't was a secularist. Nor was she the least bit concerned about expanding either church membership or the political franchise. She was the opposite of a civil libertarian. According to her count, there were only two ministers in Massachusetts who would be forgiven for their sins and given eternal life with God. She was expelled because she was a religious fanatic who spent much of her time slandering the reputations of good and honorable men. She had violated both the laws of the Bible and of acceptable conduct needed to hold society together. To characterize this episode as "The Persecution of Anne Hutchinson," and to present her as a lone heroine battling for liberty of conscience, or as some sort of early feminist up against the "Old Boys Network," as is commonly done, is an abomination of the truth.
The expansion of New England was accomplished almost entirely under the auspices of migrating congregations. There were, of course, the highly publicized dissidents who left the Bay under unfavorable circumstances, such as Williams and Hutchinson. But most, like Thomas Hooker, adhered fairly closely to the Christian practices of the mother colony. Some settlements were less theocratic, while others, like the religious settlement in New Haven, established by John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton, were more strict and less lenient with deviants. By 1640, English Puritan settlements dotted the Atlantic coast from New Netherland to Maine.
John Winthrop was the architect of the New England Confederation. Formed in 1643, its purpose was to settle trade and boundary disputes that might develop among the various Puritan settlements, and to provide a mutual defense against possible aggression on the part of the Spanish, French, or Dutch colonies. After the first meeting at Boston, Hooker wrote to his "Honored Friend John Winthrop Esquire, Governor of the Plantations on Massachusetts Bay." Hooker praised Winthrop for his "candid and cordial carriage in a matter of so great consequence" and his "special prudence to settle a foundation of safety and prosperity in succeeding ages." The New England Confederation would play a major role in King Philip's War of 1675-76, thwarting the Spanish monarch's colonizing ambitions in North America. It also introduced the federalist principle, which would become another cornerstone of American constitutional democracy, making it different from all other forms of government.
Surprisingly, the most serious threat to the independence of early New England came not from King Charles, but from the English Puritans during the ascendancy of their leader Oliver Cromwell during the 1640s and 50s. Charles was beheaded in 1649, and Cromwell assumed his role as Lord Protector of the empire. One would think that New Englanders would have considered this a great victory for the cause of Reformed Christianity. But Puritans who prevailed in England under Cromwell's leadership were largely Presbyterian, while those who settled New England were predominantly Congregationalist. Presbyterians and Congregationalists considered themselves allies on most theological matters - broadly speaking they were Calvinist. But they had different conceptions of church government. Presbyterianism was really Low Church Anglicanism, which means, in essence, that most Presbyterians of that day believed firmly in a national church, but one that was more stark in appearance, more Protestant, and administered by presbyters rather than bishops. Congregationalists adhered strictly to the principle of the autonomous local church. This difference between Presbyterians and Congregationalists helps explain why Puritans in America succeeded in building a free society, whereas Puritan rule in England failed.
In this light, John Winthrop's insistence on maintaining neutrality for Massachusetts during the civil war in England between the Puritans and the Crown is significant. Winthrop went so far as to punish a privateer for firing upon a royalist ship in Boston Harbor. And when some Puritans in Parliament offered Massachusetts special favors for supporting their cause against Charles, Winthrop convinced the General Court to decline on the grounds that it would be hazardous to the independence of the Bay to suggest that Parliament had any jurisdiction over the colony. In Winthrop's mind, Parliament had no authority to grant favors to Massachusetts, because it was a self-governing commonwealth. To Cromwell and most of his largely Presbyterian followers, Congregationalism seemed too loose a way to conduct church affairs, which they thought needed tighter controls so as to prevent both political and doctrinal chaos.
Thus, when Dr. Robert Child, a Presbyterian, arrived in Massachusetts, he was welcomed as a Protestant reformer, and friend of the Winthrop family. But bad feelings rapidly arose when he discovered that as a Presbyterian he could not be a church member, and therefore could not even vote. This festered into a serious problem for Massachusetts because Dr. Child was an intellectual of towering stature, even by New England standards. He had a master's degree from Cambridge, an M.D. from the University of Padua, and had completed further graduate work in Holland. Moreover, the younger John Winthrop had persuaded Dr. Child to invest and settle in New England. So one can imagine Child's chagrin when upon arrival in 1645 he discovered he was excluded from the political affairs of the colony. He could have moved to Hooker's settlement and voted, but he chose to stay in Massachusetts Bay and fight. He quickiy gained a following of people who were in a similar situation.
Child challenged the Bay's independence from Parliament, and argued that "civil liberty and freedom be given to all." Child demanded that all members of the Church of England (who, being largely followers of Cromwell, were now mostly Presbyterian) be admitted to the Massachusetts congregations, and then announced that if this were not done he would appeal directly to "the honorable house of Parliament.', In one respect Child's grievance was legitimate. One could sympathize with his desire to vote, and it would have been wise for Massachusetts Bay to let him do so. Indeed, if he had confined his complaint to that issue, in time he probably would not only have been given church membership with all its advantages, but might have been elected governor. His mistake was to overreact to what was really nothing more than a glitch in the system, and to challenge New England's independence from the British government. The General Court reacted angrily to Child's threat of appeal to the British authorities and fined him 50 pounds. It also issued the following statement, which no doubt would have startled English officials had it reached their eyes: "Our allegiance binds us not to the laws of England any longer than while we live in England, for the laws of the Parliament of England reach no further, nor do the King's writs under the great seal."
Child decided to leave the colony for the home country. Still, Winthrop saw that it was crucial to institute safeguards against central administrative control, such as could be imposed by a Presbyterian-dominated British government.
In 1648, ministers from the Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut called a "synod" (a term that was later changed to "an association of ministers" to avoid Presbyterian implications). The result was the Cambridge Platform, an historic charter codifying the Congregational Way as the accepted form of church organization. It defined Christ's church as the body of believers, and specified that no visible church larger than the individual congregation would be recognized; that the selection of officers was the sole prerogative of the congregation; and that church discipline, such as excommunication, was strictly up to the particular church and was not a civil matter. John Cotton expressed well the spirit of congregationalism when he said in one sermon that "no particular church standeth in subjection to another" and that "all the churches enjoy mutual orderly communion amongst themselves." Under the congregational system, a synod carried with it no official authority, was strictly advisory and the individual congregations were free to accept or reject its recommendations. If, however, a particular church trespassed beyond standards agreed to at the synod, the other churches might decide to withdraw their fellowship. The Cambridge Platform further italicized the federalist concept as a central feature of American civilization. It was both an improvement on and an affirmation of the New England Confederation conceived by John Winthrop.
The tendency of Protestant theology was always toward smaller and smaller religious establishments. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson took this tendency to an extreme by rejecting the fellowship of practically every Christian, and ultimately society.
John Clark's story is somewhat different. He was another Anabaptist disrupter, friendly with both Williams and Hutchinson. He followed Williams to Rhode Island, but decided to return to Boston in 1651 to propagate his Baptist beliefs. He and some of his followers were fined, probably less for their views than for the fact they were making public nuisances of themselves. Clark subsequently published a small tract titled Ill News from New England, in which he outhlined abuses of civil liberties taking place in the Bay and argued that Christ gave no man the authority to compel the consciences of others. Clark's arguments convinced enough New Englanders of the merits of his case, and soon other Baptists were also preaching, for the most part unmolested. By 1686, most Puritans had decided that Baptists were indeed brothers in Christ and permitted them to establish meeting houses. By 1700, there were ten Baptist churches operating successfully in Boston, Plymouth, and Rhode Island.
The Baptist view was about as far as reformed Protestant Christianity was willing to go in terms of separatism. The Quakers were the most radical, relying less on the Bible than on what they called their "inner light." This approach violated the central Puritan tenet, of which there could be no compromise, which is reliance on the written word of God as the sole standard by which the conduct of human affairs should be judged. There is no more precedent in Scripture for the Quaker "inner light" than for Anne Hutchinson's "immediate revelations." Both could lead to dangerous religious enthusiasms, and, more alarming, elevated the opinion of the individual above the Bible. What common denominator is there, what moral absolutes can one appeal to, what standard of right and wrong can we refer to if everyone is guided by their "inner light"? The Quaker approach seemed a prescription for both moral and social anarchy. In the Puritan view, the Baptists, though not held together very tightly through an institution, were connected to the body of believers through Scripture.
Agreement about the supremacy of the Bible over all human pronouncements and all man-made traditions was the thread that held Protestants from all denominations together. New Englanders came to believe that there was room for argument about church structure; but to dispute the ultimate supremacy of God's written word, to make Him secondary to the "inner light," was outside the realm of discussion. As the American Revolution approached, Puritanism in America found itself tending more and more toward the more virulent Baptist Separatism, a position that seemed more and more correct with every encroachment by the Anglican Church on American religious practices.
An important difference between the New England settlers and the Spanish, French, and Dutch colonists, was that the English considered the New World to be home. The other Europeans saw their stay in America as temporary, and eagerly waited for the day when they could return to their motherland. The English Puritans planted roots in American soil and their number increased steadily throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Though unanticipated, this turned out to be a tremendous boon to the British colonizing enterprise, as English-speaking people increased their advantage in terms of sheer manpower over the competing European powers. London had little difficulty in routing the Dutch in New York and winning the French and Indian War because of the indigenous population of dissenting Protestant Englishmen who fought willingly on the side of England in order to preserve their way of life.
Cotton Mather in 1684 was the first European on record to use the term "American" to describe his nationality. He was proud to wear the label. But he also considered himself an Englishman, as did the other New England Puritans, and this worked to the tremendous benefit of the British government. How foolish the British were to treat the colonists in America as second-class citizens, as competitors rather than allies. If England had permitted its American colonies to trade freely and to worship as they saw fit, unmolested by burdensome taxes, nosy regulators, and Anglican clergy, London would have had no better friend in the world.
Modern historians, in painstaking fashion, have combed through the history of the New England Puritans and picked out their faults. Certainly the Puritans had shortcomings. They were, after all, human. We can find instances of intolerance in their heritage. Indeed their daily lives were very strict by the standards of cosmopolitan America. But by 17th-century standards, even 17th-century English standards, there were no more forgiving people anywhere. Archbishop Laud sent thousands to rot away in King Charles' dungeons for failing to adhere strictly to every item in the Book of Common Prayer. Seventeenth-century Spain and France was no barrel of laughs, and life grew progressively grim as one traveled east into the heart of Islam and the Orient. Only with extreme reluctance was anyone ever expelled from Massachusetts Bay. It is pure myth that the Puritans prohibited alcoholic drinks. A Harvard student could be fined five shillings for drunkenness, unless it was "a very aggravated drunkenness," in which case a student might be expelled. But the Puritans enjoyed liquor, consumed in moderation, and derived much of their income from the sale of rum. Nor were the Puritans preoccupied with hellfire and damnation, but actually tended to be very cheerful about life and spoke often ofthe "tidings of great joy" given them by their faith in Jesus. And when they wore drab clothing, it was more often because they lacked money and lived in the wilderness than because of religious conviction. When they could afford brightly colored clothes, they generally bought them and wore them cheerfully to look their best—in order to attract the opposite sex.
The Puritans would be the first to admit that their people often strayed from the spirit of Christ, that perversions and corruptions often crept into their communities, that some of their ministers and government officials became more enamored with personal power than with following the path of righteousness. But these were exceptions. What Puritanism stood for over the course of 200 years was personal integrity, sincerity of purpose, living in accordance with the Gospel, and always seeking God's will. The Puritan was far quicker to judge his own behavior than to judge the actions of others. His intellectual strength came from his mastery of the Bible. His moral power came from living the Bible. Perhaps this has something to do with why the Puritan heritage has been so thoroughly denigrated in modern times.
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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.
© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart