The Puritans and Freedom of Religion

There’s a kind of sucker punch in many presentations of American history, wherein we are told that the Puritans left England for America because they had suffered religious persecution—and then the Puritans persecuted other religions here! The hypocrisy is apparently meant to shame Americans about their founding.

Let’s explore this situation. Yes, the Puritans did leave England because they had been persecuted for their religion.  For the whole story go to parts 1 and 2 of the Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant Work Ethic. Here, the story in a nutshell is that the Puritans were members of the official state church of England, the Anglican Church, but they felt it needed to be reformed and restructured (purified) to be more Protestant. For their loud and continual protests and complaints against the Anglican Church, the church hierarchy, and even the English monarch and Parliament, the Puritans were disliked and marginalized throughout the late 1500s and early 1600s. When Charles I took the throne and in 1630 made William Laud, a pro-Catholic, anti-Puritan church leader the Archbishop of Canterbury (and thus basically in charge of the Anglican Church), the bulk of England’s Puritan population fled England. Laud harried them out, putting a price on the heads of more outspoken and powerful Puritan ministers, making it a criminal offense to attend Puritan worship services, and generally doing his best to squash all opposition to the Anglican Church.

So in 1630 the Puritans headed to what is now New England. There was already a small outpost of Puritan settlers in Salem (now part of Massachusetts) to welcome the group headed by John Winthrop. But Winthrop’s group soon headed to what is now Boston, and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

So why were the Puritans in New England? Because they had been forced out of England. They were forced out because they wanted to reform human civilization through religion, to wipe out poverty, and to make a heaven on Earth in which everyone was free to discover God’s will for themselves. But these were not generalized goals; that is, the Puritans did not believe that any or every religion, diligently applied, could result in such a paradise. They believed that only their reformed version of Anglican Christianity could put such goals within reach.

They were not completely crazy for thinking so. In the world they knew, the world of European and especially English Christianity, the Puritans were the only group calling for an end to poverty, the only group demanding that all people, even women, be taught how to read (so they could read the Bible, God’s word), and the only group that required its members to work hard to improve the world on a person-by-person basis. Puritans were supposed to live exemplary lives in every respect so that anyone they dealt with—their customers, friends, even strangers they met—would see God through them, and be inspired to seek God themselves.

Thus the Puritans might be excused for thinking their religion was the only one that could save the world. In their limited experience of the world, theirs was the most actively reformist faith. They left England to preserve that faith, so that Puritanism would not be diluted or destroyed. They left England to create a place where Puritanism could thrive, and eventually grow so strong that when England was destroyed by God for its apostasy, the fugitive Puritans would be left to re-establish Christian civilization.

Now we see why the Puritans did not encourage religious diversity or practice religious tolerance in New England. It was not because they were terrible, hateful people. It was because they were on a mission, and they feared God’s wrath upon themselves if they failed in that mission to create a holy nation on Earth. They left England to establish a Puritan state where Puritan Anglicanism—Congregationalism—could be practiced. They did not leave England to establish a state where people were free to practice whatever religion they wanted. It is incorrect to say the Puritans wanted freedom of religion; they did not. They wanted to be able to practice their own religion freely. Those are two very different things, and we should not misrepresent the Puritans by claiming they believed in freedom of religion.

The Puritans in New England broadcast their intentions, making it as clear as they possibly could that people of other faiths were not welcome there. They made no secret of their hostility to outside religious presence. When people of other faiths insisted on entering New England, the Puritans boiled over with anger.

The question we ask ourselves at this point is, why did people of other faiths go to New England when they knew the situation there? Because they were just as zealous and single-minded about their own faiths as the Puritans. We tend to think of the Quakers who were persecuted in New England as gentle innocents who did no wrong. But Quakers in the 17th century were the most radical Protestant sect in England, maybe even in Europe. They entered Puritan towns banging pots and pans, screaming and singing, entering meeting-houses during Puritan worship and yelling to the congregation to hear their words. Sometimes Quakers stripped themselves naked in the center of town to call attention to the need to strip oneself of earthly attachments. They got the derisive nickname “Quakers” because they would go into convulsive fits during their worship services.

The Quakers, then, were a radical and alarming people who went into New England with the express mission to destroy the Puritan way and introduce their own religious beliefs. They were just as feverishly devoted to Quakerism as the Puritans were fanatically devoted to Puritanism. What we have are two radical groups with zero tolerance for other beliefs who were, once the Quakers entered New England, trapped in the same space. Persecution of the Quakers  followed, in Boston as it did in London.

It is only if we think that the 18th-century beliefs about religious tolerance enshrined in our Constitution came directly from the 17th century, then, that we can be dismayed to find no freedom of religion in Puritan New England. Almost no one in 17th-century Europe believed in freedom of religion or freedom of conscience. The Quakers did not, the Puritans did not. Almost all sects believed they alone had the truth of God and that they alone should exist. It took 150 years of religious co-existence in America to get to the point where freedom of religion could be put forward as a basic human right.

Instead of shaking our heads over the religious intolerance of the Puritans, we are better served by understanding the passions, fears, hopes and dreams that competed for the soul of Europe from the grey shores of the New World.

Union or slavery?

We were rereading David Potter’s timeless book The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861 and thinking about how it sounds to us today to read that some Americans valued union over abolition.

It sounds awful. It sounds like cavilling, cowardice, inhumanity, and loathsome empty-headed pseudo-patriotism.

But that is because this is not 1850, or 1858, or any point antebellum. It’s so hard to forget or to avoid the impact of hindsight on historical vision. We know that the Civil War did not end in permanent disunion, that the United States continued, grew, and thrived after 1865. But as Americans before 1861 contemplated the possibility that slavery might cause a civil war, they did not know any of this. They only knew that a civil war might erupt over slavery.

Think of it this way: what if right now, as you sit reading this, the United States was in danger of civil war. Some group of states had actually written up papers outlining how they would secede, and they had the power and the foreign backing to do it. Imagine that every week you read about how these states—let’s say 15 western states—were ready to actually sever their ties to the U.S., and leave the nation with 35 states and a big hole.

It’s impossible for us to really imagine this. We are faced daily with serious threats to our economic, intellectual, and political unity—there’s constant talk about red and blue states and how the coasts hate the  middle and vice-versa, etc.—but we cannot imagine this translates into a threat to our actual political unity. We can’t picture facing the possibility that civil war would break out over these issues and that the United States as we know it would cease to exist.

And all over one political and social issue. An important issue, to be sure, but not one that you thought could destroy the United States. Say it was illegal immigration. It’s been simmering for decades, but it’s begun to boil in the past 10 years, and people’s emotions are getting stronger about it. What do you think will happen in this situation?

Well, you expect it to keep dragging along as a divisive issue that will someday get enough minor legislation to die down, and be replaced by something else. Inertia or a solution, those are the options.

You never expect it to cause an actual civil war, with people in your state fighting people from another state. You don’t expect to see armies formed in the western U.S. states to fight the U.S. amed forces. You don’t expect to have your home destroyed by battle next year.

And that’s the way Americans viewed slavery in the antebellum years. It was a divisive issue, and was getting hotter after 1848, but civil war? Really?

Once it became frighteningly clear that the southern states really were prepared to secede, and really were gathering an army to fight the rest of the U.S., many Americans clung to union as a sacred obligation in order to forestall war. And you can see why, if this thought experiment has worked. If our nation were about to actually go to war over illegal immigration right now, wouldn’t you protest that union was more important than this issue? that the issue could surely be worked out legislatively instead?

Of course, illegal immigration is not truly like slavery, but the conditions many illegal immigrants work and live in here in the U.S. can approach slavery. And the hatred and revulsion some Americans feel for these people is equal to the hatred and revulsion some Americans had for enslaved black Americans. And, like free black Americans, even legal immigrants are in many cases mistreated and denied equal access to the law. Still, could we possibly go to civil war over it?

Americans felt the same way in the antebellum period: yes, slavery was a big issue, but it was just one of a half-dozen big issues. Why go to war over slavery? It seemed irrational. It seemed much less of a sacred cause than union, the great union of states that shone the light of democracy over the world.

This is just an attempt to really put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors. When we do so, we can better understand why the cry of “union!” was stronger for many Americans than the cries of secession or abolition. Only when we truly try to put ourselves in those shoes can we begin to understand the seemingly incomprehensible decision to support union over abolition that many of our ancestors made.

The first separation of church and state–ever!

…well, at least in the western world. It happened in Rhode Island, in 1663.
This was the year that the colony received its royal patent. In 1643, Roger Williams had received a charter from Parliament, during the interregnum. When Charles II came to the throne, Rhode Island received a new patent from the king. It is a remarkable document. There’s no room to get into all the details here, but pick up Early New England, A Covenanted Society by David Weir for a terrific in-depth discussion.
In the 1663 patent, for the first time the English king/government acknowledged not only that there were religious conflicts in New England, but that differences in religious opinion were unavoidable–and even valid. Here is how the charter describes the people who left Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Connecticut colonies for Rhode Island “…some of those oure subjects not being able to beare, in these remote parties, theire different apprehensions in religious concernements, and inn pursueance of the afforesayd ends, did once againe leave their desireable stationes and habitationes, and with excessive labour and travell, hazard and charge, did transplant themselves into the middest of the Indian natives…”
Here, for the first time, the crown acknowledges that the religious beliefs of its people are truly heartfelt, and real. These are not seditious traitorous rabble-rousers, but people who leave their desirable stations in life and their homes for the excessive labor and hazard of the wilderness. The king will justify and honor those beliefs and actions with this patent.
With religious diversity up-front as the founding cause of the Rhode Islanders, the charter goes on to allow the people of Rhode Island to travel safely into other colonies where their views are unwelcome, and, most importantly, the freedom to set up a society that rejects the state religion of England itself. “[A] most flourishing civil state may stand and best bee maintained among our English subjects, with a full libertie in religious concernements; and true pietye rightly grounded upon gospell principles will give the best and greatest securiety to sovereignetye, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyaltye.”
This is truly remarkable. It is indeed the first time in the west that a government “[legally] separated the civil magistracy from civil religion and an established state church. We should note that civil religion is not the same thing as the established state church. The state church is an institution with records, buildings, financial dealings, and personnel; civil religion is something more amorphous, and can be described as a cluster of ideas that can be sustained by the state church (or by the state itself) and that form the often submerged foundations of societal life” [Weir 53].
In granting its charter, the crown recognizes that in Rhode Island, civil religion was the antithesis of the English state religion, and was not even uniform itself–many religions were tolerated in Rhode Island, and each contributed to the cluster of ideas that created the civil religion there. The crown also sees that maybe people who are allowed to live according to their deepest religious beliefs will be the most loyal citizens, as they will be grateful to the king for granting them that freedom.
The big news here is that it is no longer treason to challenge the Anglican church. Religious freedom is not heresy (so long, of course, as one’s religion is still Christian), or political treason, or anything but a private, personal matter.
What’s unusual is that this great religious freedom was granted to America at the same time the crown was clamping down hard on religious freedom in England itself. The laws of the Clarendon Code maintained uniformity and orthodoxy. The Corporation Act of 1661 required all town officials to be Anglicans. The 1662 Act of Uniformity required the clergy in England to use only the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Conventicle Act of 1664 forbid groups of five or more people holding dissenting religious views to gather together. And the Five Mile Act of 1665 made it illegal for a dissenting minister to live within five miles of a town unless he had taken the Oath of Allegiance, which was unlikely. These measures sent more English Puritans to America.
So why did the crown decide to grant religious freedoms in America that it was actively stamping out in England? Perhaps the answer lies in the distance between them. We know that Charles II, leaning more and more towards Catholicism, and later converting on his deathbed, hoped to create more religious tolerance in England. But Parliament, wary of another religious convulsion, took away the king’s power to make religious law altogether, and embarked on its coercion of uniformity. Events in the small and still financially unimportant colonies in New England were not as pressing to Parliament, trying to keep things under control at home after the Restoration.
But a precedent was set in New England by the Rhode Island royal charter. Massachusetts Bay colonists would never accept people of different religious beliefs to live amongst them, but they did trade with Rhode Islanders, hold markets together, and allow them to travel through and stay overnight in MBC. Gradually MBC, with its natural, un-coerced uniformity, came to be seen as the anomaly–even by its own people! And generations of Americans grew up not only expecting religious diversity to be tolerated, but, crucially, expecting civil religion, not state religion, to be the order of the day.
Therefore it was no stretch 100 years later to set up a government in which religion was important but uncodified by law. Americans were used to this kind of separation of church and state, and comfortable with the primacy of civil religion over state religion. Belatedly, in the late 20th century, attempts were made to open up the public to the idea of state religion, but it will likely be an uphill battle to convince Americans to accept this 17th-century idea.

“People in colonial times never took baths!”

Oh, this is vintage Truth v. Myth.

How often you hear the lives of people in olden times completely subverted by some tour guide, narrator, or instructor claiming that they never took baths. I was once taken on a tour of a historical house where the tour guide informed us that in the 19th century, country people simply sewed themselves into their one-piece long underwear for the winter, never took it off, and so never bathed (or, apparently, used the bathroom).

These stories imply that people living before the 20th century, be it 1800 or 1800 BCE, were gross and somehow completely accepting of torrid personal filth. It’s condescending, to say the least.

So okay. Time to look this over.

Let’s think about the American colonies in 1750. If you lived then, you were most likely living on a small family farm. The house had four rooms: kitchen, two bedrooms, parlor. Your family lived there, let’s say six people, and let’s say you had two extra workers living in.

When would you take a bath? You are busy working from sunup to sundown. How would you take a bath? You would need someone to help you, by heating water over the fire and minding it so it didn’t get too hot, then carrying it into the parlor, since there wouldn’t be room to set up a tub in the busy kitchen. So now two people are taken off their vital chores to set up and to take a bath. It will take several pails of water to even half-fill the tub, so someone will have to go to the well to get a lot of water (three people now involved in the bath). It takes a while to get and to heat all that water, so you’ll have to set aside about an hour.

The parlor is in use, too, and people are constantly coming in and going out, so privacy is nil. You have to be willing to have everyone see you naked. And if it’s not summer, then it’s going to be freezing in the parlor as you bathe. Once the bath is over, you need at least two people to help haul the tub outside and dump it out.

Now we get an idea of why people in colonial times didn’t take a lot of baths. But they were, of course, very clean, because they washed up at the wash basin.

In the bedroom was a pitcher and a bowl and a towel, and soap. You stripped to the waist and washed your upper body, then put your shirt back on and stripped off (or lifted your underskirt) to wash your lower body. Voila! Simple, fast, easy, private, and clean. You could wash off at the wash basin several times a day if you wanted.

So no, people in colonial times didn’t take a lot of baths. But that doesn’t mean they simply didn’t notice or care about odor or dirt, and were content to be filthy. These are your ancestors, you know! It behooves us to cut them the same slack we cut ourselves, and to think outside of our life-of-easy-appliances-and-running-hot-water boxes.