April 7, 1630: the Puritans set sail for America

Yes, today is the 379th anniversary of the Puritans setting sail under John Winthrop for America.

These were not the Pilgrims, who had been a mixed group of about 30% religious separatists and 70% average Anglican English people who just wanted to go to the  New World. The Puritans were all people who fully embraced and believed in their mission to purify the Anglican church and redeem the English kingdom from its imminent doom (God would strike England down for failing to fulfill its commission to serve and worship God properly). Their settlement in North America had huge implications. Europe was embroiled in religious war (Thirty Years’ War, 1618-48). True Christianity seemed imperiled. If it succeeded, but the Protestants in Europe lost the war, the Puritans’ settlement might well be the last fortress of true Christianity in the world. Their colony would have to maintain Christianity in the world and repopulate England and Europe with Protestants.

So it was likely with heavy hearts that these people left England. We know from the diaries of many of the men on the Arbella that they were reluctant to leave their home land. Not only would life in America be difficult, but they felt keenly the charge made by their friends and foes alike that they were abandoning the English church, running away to protect themselves from God’s coming judgment, hiding from their duty to God, the Anglican Church, and their friends and families.

The Puritans responded that they were not abandoning their country and their fellows, but trying to carve out a safe space for English people to go to in America to escape the conflagration in Europe. Everyone who wanted to serve and worship God properly would be welcomed (and this proved true during the Great Migration of 1630-40). They weren’t closing the door; rather, they were opening a big window.

When John Winthrop made his famous “city on a hill” speech, this is what he was thinking of. This quote is often taken to mean that the Puritans thought they were better than everyone else, that their settlement would be perfect, and that everyone should envy and admire them. But what Winthrop and his hearers were really thinking of was their desire to make a new refuge for true Christianity, one that would shine like a beacon to all who wished to join them. It’s almost like the Statue of Liberty–the Puritan colony would beckon to the whole world, inviting all who wished to escape the turmoil and wrong doctrines of England and Europe to come and join them, to find safe haven in New England. Yes, you had to be on board with the Puritan version of religion–freedom of worship was never a consideration–but if you were on board, you were welcomed, no matter your social rank, poverty, lack of education, or even ignorance of true religion.

So today the journey began. Think of the Puritans over the next eight weeks; that’s how long their journey took. Winthrop recorded with relish all the “handsome gales” that thrashed their ships over and over; he could not be disheartened by any setbacks. He and the rest of the Puritans would persevere in their determination to maintain their lighthouse on the eastern shores of America.

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