England’s sin, New England’s problem–John Winthrop’s letter from an anonymous “friend”

Posted on January 23, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

Yes, it’s taking four posts to go through the long May 1637 letter from an anonymous correspondent in England to Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop. This was a long letter. We’ve seen how this correspondent has lambasted Winthrop and his colony for its overconfidence, strayings into sin, and dangerous letter writing home to England. Now the writer turns to problems in England and what New England can do about them. All spellings are modernized.

“…whereas the hand of God hath laid upon us above these two years, by a grievous kind of pox, general through the kingdom, killing many of the aged as well as others of the younger sort, and likewise whereas the pestilence hath reigned for above [a] year, and killed between 12 and 20 thousand in London and the suburbs, and even laid waste Newcastle in the north, and is like yet further to continue; by means of which there hath been a great stoppage in trading, and much misery throughout all the kingdom, for the Lord is highly displeased with us, and there is some fear of scarcity (Oh, our sins are exceeding great!)…”

—You’ll note this begins with “whereas”: the writer is laying out reasons behind a request he is about to make of Winthrop. Because God has sent plague to England, other nations have stopped trading with England to avoid contagion, and so there are food shortages. The editors of the volume of the Winthrop Papers which includes this letter say in a footnote that 10,400 people actually died of this plague in 1636, “after an unusual mortality from smallpox and other malignant diseases for two or three years previous.” So this pestilence would have begun about 1633, shortly after Winthrop’s group left England, and was just another punishment from God that the American Puritans were able to avoid. It is all part of God’s judgment against England, to this writer, and Winthrop would likely have agreed.

“[would you in New England] be pleased to procure a general public fast throughout your plantations for us, for we stand in great need of it; afford us, for the Lord’s sake, the help and pity of brethren, and how do you know what favor this may win you, both with God and men?”

We’ve talked previously about the hostility between American and English Puritans that arose very quickly after the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The letter writer has been criticizing Winthrop and his colonists throughout this letter, accusing them of abandoning their English brethren and leaving them to suffer God’s destruction of England without a care. So this passage is particularly devious. The writer asks Winthrop to hold a fast to pray for the Puritans in England who are suffering plague and shortages, begging him to show “the help and pity of brethren” just after claiming that the English Puritans are so disgusted with the American Puritans that some of them don’t even pray for Winthrop and his group any more. And then another mafia-style encouragement, saying who knows what might be in it for you, Massachusetts? Maybe God blesses you, and maybe your erstwhile English brethren deign to accept you again.

This must have been disgruntling to Winthrop, but he went ahead and held the fast in the name of many problems in Europe and America, including “the calamities upon our native country… plague raging exceedingly, and famine… threatening them”.

“And how would such a pious course answer for you to very many (and some of them your brethren) who think you are gone from us in affection and brotherly kindness, as well as in place. And let me speak freely to you, that if so just a motion as this should find no place with you, I fear that God will be angry with you.”

—Again, the writer is one of those people who makes sure to tell you all the negative gossip about you, and all the people who don’t like you, all the while morphing from a friend who wants you to know to one of those angry haters. After saying God is punishing England for its sins with this plague, the writer does a 180 and says if Winthrop and his people don’t respond to the request for a fast and prayer, God will punish them. One might be forgiven, in Winthrop’s place, for thinking that maybe the letter writer should be more concerned about whether God is angry with him and spend less time threatening Winthrop. How “just a motion” does it really seem to have someone threaten you if you won’t help them?

“And O that some powerful sermon that would endure the reading in old England, preached with you upon such a day, might come to our hands here, how joyfully we would read it, and… how readily we should object it to all such as either condemn or suspect you of uncharitableness and unnatural affections?”

—Since the English Puritans are censored and their ministers removed from the pulpit, New England’s ministers should preach a “powerful sermon”, perhaps condemning the English government, and have it published in London. This suicidal gesture, sure to bring royal persecution to Massachusetts, would be made simply to try to win back the love of English Puritans who, as the writer points out for the 100th time, condemn and suspect the New England brethren.

“And now perhaps you may think (at least I know many among you would, for I am well acquainted with the spirits of many with you in this thing) that all these things savor of fear, unbelief, and over-much discretion.”

—At last the letter writer acknowledged that perhaps he is an exceedingly annoying person. Even in acknowledging this he is insulting: he says “you may think” and then, realizing Winthrop will take “you” to mean himself, adds “at least I know many among you would”. That is, he knows Winthrop is fine, but all the people with him are fallen, conceited people who will somehow take offense to this letter.

“But I would answer them, that what I thus write, it is for their sakes, and well may I show love, but why fear for their sakes…”

—It’s tough love here from England, cruel to be kind, and for New England’s own good that the letter writer vents his craven fear for his own safety and irritation on those lucky enough to have sacrificed everything to go to Massachusetts while he sits comfortably at home.

“…whether I shall ever come over unto you, I know not, for I desire to do the work of God and to glorify him here or there, living and dying, and I have found the Lord’s special presence with me now of late… and I can but enjoy his presence in any part of the world.”

—The last blow here repeats what many of Winthrop’s, and probably other colonists’, correspondents so often said: yes, we’ll be coming over soon, but not this year. This year’s not good for me; let’s try next year. This would go on for a decade before the pretext that the correspondents in England would ever leave there for the hardship of New England was dropped. But the letter writer here goes further, getting in another dig at what he sees as the conceitedness of the colonists who, able to worship freely, believed they were serving God more completely than any other Christians. The letter writer says he won’t be coming over, maybe ever, but, unlike Winthrop, he wants to do God’s work in England, where it is actually needed most, and unlike Winthrop, he can enjoy God’s presence anywhere, he doesn’t have to be secluded from the world in the wilderness to be close to God.

We’ll wrap this letter up next time with the writer’s craven demands for anonymity and secrecy; how would he have felt if he had known his letter would go down in history in all its carping and self-serving glory?

Next time: the end!

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Lecture from England: John Winthrop’s annoying “friend”

Posted on January 15, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to part 3 of our look at the anonymous May 1637 letter to John Winthrop from a “friend” in England. We left off with the friend really enjoying his lengthy description of how much everyone in England hates the New England Puritans led by Winthrop; now we move on to his recommendations to remedy the situation. All spellings and usages are modernized:

“Now give me leave to propose some few things, of which some perhaps, if not all, may do you good. 1. You may please in some public meeting to disclaim all such letters tending to the purpose first mentioned, and [also] to establish an order against any that shall ever be known to …send over such letters to us, and against any that shall speak among you to such or the like purpose…”

—So Governor Winthrop should hold a public meeting to officially condemn people who write letters home to England that a) mention anything about the colony’s religious discipline  or b) the threats against it from England (these are the “purpose[s] first mentioned”).  Winthrop should also make a law against sending that kind of letter [“establish an order”], and even against public speech in Massachusetts itself on the topic of the colony’s religious settlement or political situation. That’s not too draconian, apparently, for the saint in England. But if people who form a colony devoted to free practice of their religion are threatened on pain of law if they discuss their religion, what is the point of that colony? Again, one gets the feeling that the anonymous letter writer is more concerned about his own safety than the success of the Puritan project in America: if Massachusetts Bay colonists can’t write dangerous letters to England, then the letter writer in England is safe, because he will never receive such a letter.

“…so if any question be made… of these things against you, by any in our state, …your order and penalty [on letter writers] may secure you.”

—Here the letter writer covers his tracks to say that Winthrop’s censorship law will keep him safe if a dangerous letter does reach England; he can always say he tried to stamp such letters out. This friend’s complete misjudgment of John Winthrop’s character is glaring here. Winthrop was completely devoted to the mission of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and would never let the colony suffer England’s wrath while protecting himself. He would also never dictate a law censoring expressions of religious fervor by his colonists.  These expressions, in letters home, were tools of witness to God’s grace and  protection of the colony.

“2. You may please to have further cautions given in every plantation, touching writing over to us about your discipline, [and about being] censorious of us here in their letters to us, not calling any of us, as I understand some have done, dogs and swine, especially those of the [more profane] sort among us, nor questioning our ministry and calling to it, as another with you did in a  letter written over to a godly minister and friend of both the parties and mine; for your disclaiming of these and the like odious things shall much advantage you, to the preservation of brotherly affections and peace with your friends in old England.”

We mentioned last time how the root of the problem here is that almost as soon as Winthrop’s group of Puritans left England, a divide grew up between them and their English fellows. Even before he left England, John Winthrop wrote a long treatise insisting that he and his group were not abandoning the others, would not forget them, and would do everything in their power to make a godly colony in America that every Puritan in England would be welcome in. Puritans believed that God was just about to strike England down for its refusal to follow the true religion, and many sincerely believed that those Puritans left behind in England would have to live through the apocalypse there. While the group was united in its drive to set up an American colony where the true religion could be safe, and carry on after England was destroyed, those who could not afford to emigrate, or could not leave their families, or had any other misgivings or mitigating circumstances that kept them in doomed England did feel abandoned by their luckier colleagues. Resentment and jealousy and fear turned to hostility once American Puritans started sending letters home to England about how well they were doing. All was well in America, while England continued its journey toward doomsday, and the Americans didn’t even seem to care anymore that their correspondents were living out the last days. Cold responses to American letters, and more open criticism of the religious settlement developed in Massachusetts, led colonists to lash out at their former allies, saying English Puritans were tainted by their sinful surroundings and not quite pure anymore.

So the friend here is saying Winthrop should outlaw letters home that make these insults, and gives interestingly frank examples of Massachusetts colonists calling English Puritans dogs and swine, and “questioning our ministry and calling to it”—that is, claiming that the Puritan church in England was no longer doing God’s work and was not a real ministry anymore. These were heavy accusations indeed, and one can see how they would hurt and anger people who received those kinds of letters. Then again, we must wonder what kind of letters from England might have been received by colonists that led them to strike out in this way.

Again, the letter writer knows about these accusations because the English Puritans lose no time in distributing the letters widely, sharing them with everyone they know. The letter writer heard about one letter from a friend of a friend who got the letter. Yet somehow it is Winthrop’s fault that these letters are traveling all over England, and Winthrop is the one who must enforce censorship.

“3. That any of you be advised how they do answer the letters of their friends sent over from us to you; for we hear of a letter that Mr. Cotton should write (how true the report is, I know not yet) in answer to a letter written to him by one Mr. Bernard in Somersetshire, a man though upright in the main, yet of very great weakness; wherein, as we hear, Mr. Cotton should write that we are [not really a true church], which if it be so (as you may soon understand) will do not a little hurt among us…”

—Again, the rumor mill is working overtime in England, and the letter writer feels free to complain about a letter that Boston minister John Cotton may or may not have written; indeed, the writer even says he has no idea if this letter really exists but he’s going to go ahead and complain about it anyway. The mafia-type threat in the parentheses (“as you may soon understand”) gives Winthrop to know that English Puritans basically believe that if they experience any internal dissension (“hurt among us”), they will blame the MBC for it.Rather than blame themselves for blabbing about letters that may or may not exist and may or may not insult them.

“4. That your ministers… be persuaded to please to write over their kind letters to their friends with us, especially to the chiefest of the ministers with us…”

—Winthrop here should also instruct his ministers to write nice letters praising the English ministers, and to make sure they write the nicest things to the highest-ranking Puritan ministers. The sincerity of such forced correspondence would have to be suspect, but not to the letter writer.

“…be wary how [you] receive some such books as have of late been written in our land, which have more stirred the state than ever I knew it…”

—The letter writer then goes into a lengthy description of such books that takes up two pages. Two books in particular have provoked the fury of the English government: one that condemns people who don’t observe the Sabbath; and one that says the unreformed Anglican Church is in league with the devil. The letter writer has a wonderful description of this second book, saying the author “speaks of the bishops that which the Arch-angel would not speak to the Devil”.

The English Puritans had to be careful not to condemn the Anglican church or, by implication, the King who was the head of it. They had to maintain that they wanted to improve the church, not destroy it, and they had to make the case that the church was holy enough to be capable of this improvement. But in their drive to be careful and cautious and not bring down more state persecution on themselves, the English Puritans came to undermine the purpose of their colony in America, which was to be a beacon of God’s light and the true religion. Of course American Puritans were sending to England for these books that made strong arguments for things they believed in; they had crossed an ocean to have the freedom to worship as they saw fit and to make a clear and unflinching stand against untrue religion. They did not believe the unreformed Anglican Church was holy. They did not believe bishops did God’s work, and they had no bishops in New England. Intoxicated by their relative freedom, American Puritans eagerly supported strong condemnations of the religious status quo in England, which they saw as hastening God’s judgment on that kingdom. The hesitating, over-cautious attitude of their colleagues in England baffled and then angered some Americans. If English Puritans really hated fallen England, they should make the sacrifices necessary to leave England for America. If they didn’t do this, American Puritans began to suspect that English Puritans were more okay with the status quo than they let on.

Thousands of English Puritans did leave England during the 1630s, in what we call the Great Migration. But most of them went to the West Indies rather than New England. Part of the reason for this is the animosity built up between England and Massachusetts in the early days of that colony.

Next time: signs of apocalypse in England and a plea to New England

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“A Wonderful disaffection in very many towards you” – the letter from John Winthrop’s anonymous “friend”

Posted on January 8, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part 2 of our look at Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop’s anonymous letter from a friend in England gets deeper into the “loving” complaints this correspondent makes against the colony and, by implication, Winthrop’s leadership. All spellings modernized:

“…there came over not long since a letter from you to a friend with us which, I fear, through indiscretion, the eyes and ears of many have been made privy to, to this effect, that whereas it is reported there will be a Governor and a Bishop sent over unto you, he hopes [that] God will give you grace to stand for his truth; which words will carry a strange construction with our state… and redound to the prejudice of you all.”

—We left off with the writer telling Winthrop to watch the letters coming from the MBC to England, which were often full of “weak & dangerous passages”. Here the writer says that someone in the colony wrote to England that the people in Massachusetts have heard the threats that the king is going to take over the colony and send a royal governor and bishops. This would mean the people’s elected governor, Winthrop, and their independent religious establishment would both be destroyed. The person writing from MBC says that if that happens, he hopes that God will give the people of the colony the strength to “stand for his truth”—that is, to resist. This is wrong in the eyes of Winthrop’s correspondent; no one in the MBC should be writing about how they would launch a rebellion against the crown. It’s true that this would anger the king and his government (“carry a strange construction with our state”), but on the other hand, what else should the people of the MBC say they would do if the whole basis of their colony, of their holy mission from God, was attacked? One would think that English Puritans would support a holy rebellion. And if the whole problem is that the MBC letter was widely circulated and copied, whose fault is that? The fault here seems to lie with the people in England who took a private letter and made it public, not with the colonist who confided his thoughts to friend or family.

“Another among you writes… that you are like to have wars the next year with old England!”

—It’s not surprising that people in the MBC believed they would be at war with England when they heard several reports from people in the know that England was going to wage war with them by taking over their colony. We don’t know how the colonist writing the letter in question meant this statement—he may have been grieving and terrified at the prospect. But the statement here is represented as boasting, and the MBC takes the blame for once again stirring up trouble by talking rebellion.

“Others have written as freely and unadvisedly about your discipline, [and] the opinions and tenets you hold, whether all of them as they relate, or not, we know not; which hath caused a wonderful disaffection in very many towards you, [which] if it be not maturely healed, [will cause] a great rent in affection between you and them, that though we are like to see sad times, yet there are, till they be otherwise informed, who are resolved to undergo much misery here, rather than ever remove hence.”

—Many colonists are writing home describing the church discipline they have set up in the MBC—that is, the laws governing religious practice. The whole point of going to America was to establish a state where purified Anglicanism could be practiced freely, and that practice could be clearly thought out and described and a pure church law could be written. But many English Puritans did not like the church doctrines being developed in America. The divide between American and English Puritans developed almost instantly, and only grew as the decades passed. English Puritans, persecuted by their government and trying to keep the faith alive, were more cautious and less willing to make bold statements than American Puritans. English Puritans never developed a church doctrine; for them, there were always other things to do, and they used their persecuted state to paper over the fact that they could never come to any agreement on how their church should be structured. The MBC Puritans were a smaller group, they had sacrificed everything to start a new, godly state, they were in agreement about their purpose, and they lost no time in coming to agreements about how they would worship and codifying that worship in a church doctrine called the New England Way.

This drive and achievement grated on English Puritans, who felt shown up by their erstwhile brethren. Jealous of the American group’s unity and courage, English Puritans turned their achievement into an accusation and used it to give those who were reluctant to suffer privations and cold in New England a good excuse not to emigrate. As the letter writer says, the alarming religious doctrines expressed in the MBC have caused such distaste amongst English Puritans that they find themselves kind of hating the American brethren (“disaffection”), and they would rather stay in England and be persecuted than go to America to join them (“though we are like to see sad times here, [some] are resolved to undergo much misery here rather than ever remove hence”). Winthrop was no stranger to friends and family members claiming every winter that they would be with him in America come the spring, then writing every spring to say they weren’t coming. “Just wait til next year” was the common cry of those who, while rejecting all that sinful England represented, were not so disdainful of living in a civilized nation with a big modern city and all the comforts of home. Those foot-dragging saints now had an excuse for failing to jump ship from doomed England, and they would use it often.

“And one of not mean rank, and of long approved holiness, hearing of your renouncing us to be a church… contrary to your declaration at your first going over, professed secretly to one that told it to me, that he could scarce tell how to pray for you.”

—This is particularly cold. The writer is saying that a high-ranking Puritan saint has heard rumors that the Puritans in America have separated from the English church—that they have rejected Anglicanism. This would have made the American Puritans no longer Puritans but Separatists, like the hated Pilgrims in Plymouth. Now that saint in England doesn’t even believe that he can pray for the people of the MBC, because they are no longer Christians but tools of Satan (as was everyone who was not a Puritan). These are very cruel attacks to relay to Winthrop. First, if a high-ranking Puritan, perhaps someone in the government, turns his back on the colony, the danger of its being taken over by the crown grows exponentially. Second, for someone of John Winthrop’s great devoutness to hear that people he considers to be friends and religious leaders no longer think they can mention his name to God without offending God would have been a terrible blow. It would have really made Winthrop doubt himself. Third, how does the letter writer know of this high-ranking person’s hatred? The high-ranking person told someone about it and that person gossiped it to the letter writer. Again, mean-spirited gossip and skulduggery are flourishing amongst the godly in England, and the Puritans in New England are blamed for it. Last, the letter writer has absolutely no proof that the Puritans in America have rejected Puritanism or separated; it’s just a piece of malevolent gossip. But he gives it full credit and passes it on to Winthrop as chastisement.

“…my intention is to show what a rent and alienation there is like to be, [not] a little fearing the consequences that will come hereby, both to you and us, from others… that, if possible, as much as in you lies, you may endeavor a prevention of them.”

—Here the weaselly nature of the writer really comes clear: he is only telling Winthrop all these things because he doesn’t want the MBC to be hurt… or for himself to be in danger. The consequences that will come “both to you and us” seem to appear to this writer as mostly dangers to “us”—that is, the Puritans in England. And he puts the onus completely on Winthrop to stop this danger from coming, as if it were a) all New England’s fault, or b) Winthrop’s duty to fix things in England, or c) within Winthrop’s power to censor all letters leaving Massachusetts for England. What about the English Puritans’ responsibility to a) stop spreading gossip, b) keep private letters private, c) stand up for themselves to their government, or, failing that, d) emigrate to New England and be free of England’s persecution?

“[The] whole kingdom begins… to be full of prejudice against you, and you are spoken of disgracefully and with bitterness, in the greatest meetings of the kingdom. The pulpits sound of you, and the judges begin to mention you in their charges [A circuit judge in London said] that they should take notice of such as inclined towards New England, for they were the causes of error and faction in Church and State.”

—What we notice here is that the letter writer seems at this point to take a malicious pleasure in telling Winthrop about the hatred his group in America inspires in England. The tone is most decidedly not mournful or outraged here, but is more Iago-like, as the letter writer fills Winthrop’s head with threats and problems then disappears, once the letter is read, into the safety of England to leave Winthrop to try to figure out what is true and what is not and what he should do. The letter writer is tacitly blaming the MBC for heightened persecution of English Puritans by saying that the colonists’ religious doctrine and supposed heresy against Anglicanism has led the government (in the shape of this circuit court judge) to put the clampdown on Puritans trying to emigrate to America. But this seems to be just another excuse for English Puritans not making the journey to America. Of course English Puritans were persecuted by people in the government; that’s the whole reason there was an MBC. To blame the colonists for making this worse is just an indictment of the timidity of Puritans remaining at home.

We’ll see as we continue that this tension between American and English Puritans is the underlying, mostly unspoken theme of this letter and many others at the time. It’s a sad but not unusual truth that despite the best efforts of those who left England for America, those who stayed behind felt abandoned and disdained, and this suspicion that American Puritans were glad to be rid of England and their English brethren, that they had run out on their English brethren, leaving them to face the apocalypse that was coming when God destroyed England, would poison relations between New England and Old England swiftly and surely over the coming decades.

Next time: censorship, censorship, censorship

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Most annoying colonial correspondent: John Winthrop’s anonymous “friend”, May 1637

Posted on January 3, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , |

As governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and arguably its leading citizen from the colony’s founding in 1630 to his death in 1649, John Winthrop, Sr., received and wrote a great deal of correspondence. People great and common wrote him asking for help, favors, advice, and news. Many letters to him have been preserved over the centuries, thanks in large part to the work of the Massachusetts Historical Society. One in particular excites our notice: an anonymous letter written in May 1637 from England.

Winthrop, like most MBC colonists, had a steady correspondence with friends, family, and colleagues who remained in England. As Puritans, Winthrop and his correspondents practiced mutual watch, which meant they alerted each other constantly to potential pitfalls along the way to seeking God’s righteousness, pointing out errors they felt their friends were committing and gladly receiving correction, as they would have called it, for their own mistakes. Puritans remaining in England were particularly watchful of the state of the fledgling Puritan colony in America. So much was riding on its success; if the MBC could thrive and remain on a path of righteousness, then a) all the English Puritans could leave England, where they were seriously endangered, and flee confidently to Massachusetts; b) true religion would not perish from the earth when God destroyed England; and c) England and its church might actually be reformed if they could clearly see that God was blessing the Puritans in America while battering the Anglicans in England.

1637 was a crucial year in this anxious watching and waiting to see if God would really bless New England. There were many doubters even amongst the English Puritans. Many early emigrants to America had permanently returned to England, bearing tales of hardship, starvation, cruelly cold weather, and, most importantly and worryingly, religious and political apostasy. (It is somehow poignant to note how shocked English people were by the winter weather in New England; English colonists had not yet encountered American cold [having only been in Virginia] and some believed that the extreme temperatures, so unlike anything they had ever experienced in England, were a sign that New England was not the promised land, and that God did not bless their venture there, and was trying to drive them out.) Returnees and even MBC colonists writing letters told enough about the political innovations of the colony to make English Puritans worry that the colonists were practicing treason (making all adult males freemen, for example, and allowing them to vote for their governor and legislature, and having all freemen swear a loyalty oath to the colony rather than the king). English Puritans, while persecuted by King Charles I, did not want their colony in America to launch a rebellion against him because that would only lead Charles to make the MBC into a royal colony under his direct control, which would have meant an end to the Puritanism practiced there.

English Puritans were perhaps even more alarmed at word of religious “innovations” being introduced in Massachusetts. They worried that the complete freedom colonists had to worship as they saw fit in America, and their release from the state persecution that had knit English Puritans tightly together as a resistance unit, was leading to pointless and divisive arguments about how to worship, which was leading to new ideas and unsound theology.

These fears were confirmed for many by news of the Antinomian Controversy, which began to reach England in 1637. This religious civil war, led by John Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson in Boston, was thoroughly and luridly described in letters from New England and publications from Boston and in London, and seemed to show English Puritans that the MBC was going off the rails, reaping the harvest of its chaotic religious arguments. The Antinomians were condemned, but so too were some of the conclusions their opponents came to in Boston, and John Winthrop’s description of the errors Wheelwright and Hutchinson had been condemned for only convinced many English Puritans that New England had quickly become a place where any lunatic could raise a devoted following.

This bad press came at a time when anti-Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud was working hard to have the MBC’s charter, or patent, revoked; this document gave the colonists permission to settle in America and to form their own government. Many English Puritans saw the MBC as irresponsibly sabotaging its own chances of survival, and they took the opportunity to write to their brethren in America to complain.

One such letter, and a perfect example of the genre, is an anonymous letter sent to Governor Winthrop in May 1637. He must have received it in late June or July. It is an astounding piece of work, doing three things at once: warning Winthrop of the dangers to his colony in London; praying for the colony’s survival; and taking every opportunity to slag off the MBC and everyone in it as lousy, degenerate, lazy jerks whom everyone in England hates. But with love. It is a tribute to John Winthrop’s complete lack of ego that he saved this letter,and likely responded to it very patiently. (We have many more letters that Winthrop received than letters he wrote; as governor, he felt it a duty to posterity to save his correspondence, but the people he wrote to were not as careful.) Let’s go over this remarkably long and haranguing missive, if not in full, then in large part (spellings modernized):

“Myself and many others are daily petitioners to God, for his grace to abound to you in New England, that you may increase in faith, wisdom, humility, love, zeal, patience, brotherly kindness, etc., enjoying such a competency of outward prosperity as may make you to live in the service of the Lord the more comfortably. And we are exceedingly glad to hear of your welfare, and especially your growth in holiness.”

—Already this first paragraph might irritate us as modern people, but it is in line with the usual Puritan watch and “exhortation”; Winthrop would have been grateful that so many in England were praying for his spiritual success and that of the colony, and he would not have seen this opening paragraph as implying that he and the colonists were not all they should be. It’s interesting here to see the writer say that he hopes the colony’s economy will improve (“competency of outward prosperity”) so that the people can “live in the service of the Lord more comfortably”—it’s unusual for a Puritan to admit that it’s a lot easier to devote yourself to prayer when you’re not poor and starving.

“I have been much moved of late… to write my slender advice to some prudent man among you, and one gracious with the plantations, and thereby able to give counsel to them, and to prevail with them in things conducing to God’s glory and your own prosperities.”

—He is writing to Winthrop because Winthrop is that prudent man whom everyone in New England loves (“gracious with the plantations”); now the burden is on Winthrop to listen to what the writer has to say because he is the only man in New England who has the clout and the respect to give its people advice. Winthrop, thus deliberately singled out, becomes at once someone to pass along the criticisms in this letter and the victim of those criticisms, since, as the colony’s leader, the implication is that he should have been stopping the bad behavior there on his own without having to be told to do so.

“First, I have read and heard of sundry letters written from some with you unto others with us, (and I fear there have been very many such sent over to us into diverse parts of our land,) wherein there are many weak, and some dangerous passages, which if they should come to the eyes or ears of any one of the many thousands of your adversaries, it would afford them matter enough to attempt your undoing, what in them did lie.”

—People in the MBC are writing home to England, not just to London but to many different locations in England, so the things they say are widely known, and most of those letters say stupid things that could bring down royal control on your colony (which would be its “undoing”). Who would be angered by these letters? Why, any of the “many thousands” of the colony’s enemies. This first reference—and there will be many, many more—to people in England hating people in New England might not have raised John Winthrop’s suspicions; he might have thought that the writer was referring to anti-Puritan Anglicans. As the letter goes on, however, Winthrop must have wondered two things: if these “adversaries” didn’t include those who called themselves the colonists their “dear brethren”; and whether their criticisms weren’t directed at him in particular and not just those ignorant colonists who wrote careless letters.

Next time: what the dangerous letters from New England say 

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Puritan myth-busting: an interview with David D. Hall

Posted on September 24, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

There is a great, if short, interview with Dr. David D. Hall from the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts (in four parts) that every student of the Puritans should see. Here’s the bio from his web page at Harvard:

“David D. Hall has taught at HDS since 1989, and was Bartlett Professor of New England Church History until 2008, when he became Bartlett Research Professor. He writes extensively on religion and society in seventeenth-century New England and England; his books include The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century; Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England; Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology and, most recently, A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England (2011). He has edited two key collections of documents: The Antinomian Controversy of 1636-1638: A Documentary History and Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England: A Documentary History, 1638-1693. Another interest is the “history of the book,” especially the history of literacy and reading in early America. He edited, with Hugh Amory, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, the first of a five-volume series of which he was the general editor. He continues to study and write about religion and culture in early America, with particular attention to “lived religion,” and is presently writing a general history of Puritanism in England, Scotland, and New England c. 1550 to 1700, to be published by Princeton University Press.”

A Reforming People is one of the HP’s favorite resources, easy to read and transformative for the new student of Puritanism, informative and surprising for the experienced scholar. Unfortunately, YouTube videos will not embed here, so we can only send you to the site indirectly. Enjoy!

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Puritan law, oligarchy, and the Body of Liberties

Posted on September 11, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Politics, Puritans, Revolutionary War, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our series on the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first codification of law in Puritan New England, in which we wrap up our look at this groundbreaking American political document with some thoughts on its meaning in its own time, and in ours.

This first codification of Massachusetts law was, as we saw in part 1, not easily drafted, as the people of the colony resisted doing so for two reasons: first, they felt a body of laws should develop naturally over time, as it had done in England, allowing precedent rather than law-makers to rule the day; and second because their colonial charter forbid them to create any laws “repugnant” to the laws of England, and they were not certain whether the laws they drafted would violate that tenet.

The uncertainty sprang, of course, from the fact that there was no written code of law in England at that time—its famously unwritten constitution was composed of centuries of local custom. But the Puritan leaders, and a growing number of freemen, in Massachusetts were worried about following that tradition in the New World. They worried that legal and court decisions would be made based on opinion, prejudice, or personal agenda rather than an objective striving toward justice. Just four years after landing in America, the Puritans began the lengthy process of drafting a code of laws with input from all the towns, and after six years of canvassing, drafting, reviewing, and revising, the Body of Liberties was published, with copies sent to all the towns to be read aloud and voted on.

The Body was only the first of many Massachusetts codes of law. In 1660 the Body was updated and enlarged (and renamed “Laws and Liberties”), with addenda added each year from 1662-6, and again in 1668. The Laws were revised and rewritten again in 1672, and would evolve over the decades into the state law of Massachusetts.

In its own time, the Body of Liberties was daring and innovative. Daring in that it established an independent government for the colony, with laws clearly not part of English law. The Puritans broke their charter to create their laws, and this is just one example of the commitment the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made to independence almost from the moment of their arrival. As we’ve seen elsewhere in Puritan New England on the Edge, 1637, the people of the MBC feared a royal takeover of their colony, expecting warships from England to arrive in Boston harbor at any moment. Their response was to build forts overlooking the harbor and arm them with cannon, making the decision to fight to the death to preserve their religion, their laws, and their liberty.

The Body was innovative in that it set out a relatively brief yet comprehensive set of laws that reinforce a) the rights of freemen; b) the principle that no one is above the law; c) the right to a fair day in court; and d) the need for buy-in from the people themselves, who  first helped draft and then voted to approve and accept these laws. This was proto-democracy, and it was not being practiced in any other American colony—or many other places anywhere else in the world.

Today, the Body is mostly unknown to Americans. Most Americans, if asked what they think Puritan laws were like, would come up with the most repressive, draconian, irrational suggestions imaginable. (One example: on a recent tour of sites along the Freedom Trail in Boston, an acquaintance was told by the tour guide that Puritans put people in the stocks for sneezing on a Sunday. The Body, as readers of this series will note, contains no references to sneezing.) Modern-day Americans think of Puritans as witch-crazy religious nuts whose only goal was to oppress people. But we see from our study of the Body that to say this image is unfair is an understatement.

Why the Puritans continue to get such a bad rap is fairly clear: very few people actually read their documents. They read The Scarlet Letter in high school, hear the term “city upon a hill” used to refer to smug arrogance, and learn that Anne Hutchinson was persecuted, along with Quakers, for trying to spread religious tolerance. The overall effect is a rejection of the Puritans as unpleasant and even evil people, a fleeting example of intolerance that was stamped out by later Americans who created a fair Constitution.

Those who actually read what the Puritans wrote, and know what their beliefs and ideals and goals were, may not always come away happy and approving, but they have a much more accurate understanding of these revolutionary people, whose laws, and ideas of justice, in having shaped the political consciousness of Massachusetts, played an important role on the road to American independence and the Constitution we revere today.

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Capital crimes in Puritan Massachusetts

Posted on September 6, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Politics, Puritans, The Founders | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to part 6 of our series on the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, in which we wrap up this 100-law codification of Puritan law with the section on capital crimes and the section on churches. We won’t look at each of the laws in these sections, for time’s sake, but pull out the laws that are most indicative of the nature or gist of the Body. If you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.

We should note here once again that “man” is used pretty consistently, except in the short section devoted to the liberties of women and minority populations. Otherwise, it’s all about “men” in the Body. This does not mean that the laws that follow did not apply to women. It means two things: “man” was used to mean people; and some of the laws were about men only (such as the laws about military service). Women could be banished and fined just like men, so laws about those things applied equally to both sexes.

Some might assume that the Puritans assigned capital punishment to all infractions, including sneezing; the truth, of course, is that the section on Capital Laws is very short—12 laws. As we read, we need to keep in mind that relatively few people were executed in Puritan Massachusetts, and that like capital laws in England in the 18th century, these laws were meant to scare people straight, and were often bent to prevent an actual execution. Let’s take a look. (All spelling has been modernized in the following excerpts.)

94. Capital Laws

1. “If any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other god but the lord god, he shall be put to death.”

—You get one strike on worshipping false idols, then you are put to death. This is straight out of the Ten Commandments—thou shalt have no other gods before me. Law 3 in this section also dips into the Commandments, punishing blasphemy—“high-handed blasphemy”.

2. “If any man or woman be a witch (that is hath or consults with a familiar spirit), they shall be put to death.”

—Yes, at last it’s a law about witchcraft! and the only one in the Body. Note that it applies to men and women equally, and that it narrowly defines witchcraft as communicating with a “familiar”, or evil spirit. This would be very hard to prove, and there would be few cases of witchcraft that made it through court in Massachusetts (see Puritans and Witchcraft: more method, less madness and  Did the Puritans believe in witchcraft? for a more in-depth study).

4. “If any person commit any willful murder, which is manslaughter committed upon premeditated malice, hatred, or cruelty, not in a man’s necessary and just defense, nor by mere casualty against his will, he shall be put to death.”

—This is the first of three laws about murder. #4 states that premeditated and cold-blooded murder will be punished with death. Self-defense and accidentally killing someone (“mere casualty against his will”) do not count. This definition is enhanced in the next law, #5, which states that slaying someone “suddenly in his anger or cruelty of passion” is a capital offense, making crimes of passion capital crimes. Law 6 in this section spells out that killing someone “through guile, either by poisoning or other such devilish practice” is a capital offense.

The next three laws are about sex. #7 forbids bestiality, and orders that the human culprit be killed and the animal be “slain and buried and not eaten.” #8 forbids homosexuality;  interestingly it is only applied to men—“If any man lies with mankind as he lies with a woman”. In actual fact, Puritan records show cases where men repeatedly had sex with animals (generally cows) or other men and were not executed because they confessed their “sin” and vowed to repent. It generally took several occasions for someone to finally be executed. #9 addresses men who commit adultery with “a married or espoused wife”, saying “both of them have committed abomination [and] both shall surely be put to death.” Again, these cases came up fairly often and were often handled without recourse to execution (the offending parties were given a chance to repent), but unrepentant adultery was met with execution in most cases.

10. “If any man steals a man or mankind, he shall surely be put to death.”

—This oddly worded law seems to apply to enslaved or indentured people.

11. “If any man rise up by false witness, wittingly and or purpose to take away any man’s life, he shall be put to death.”

—This hearkens back to the sections on freemen’s rights and judicial proceedings, where committing perjury in court is punished.

#12 is about treason: “If any man shall conspire and attempt any invasion, insurrection, or public rebellion against our commonwealth, or shall endeavor to surprise any town [or] fort therein, or shall treacherously and perfidiously attempt the alteration and subversion of our frame of polity of government fundamentally, he shall be put to death.”

—It’s telling that this law equates an actual, physical invasion or rebellion with attempting to alter the colonial government. The Puritans of Massachusetts believed passionately in their proto-democracy, which they had created basically out of whole cloth, on their own, and it was  a powerful component of their identity. They would fight and, later, die to protect the liberties they had established for themselves, and anyone who threatened them was a traitor.

So ends the section on capital punishment. Now to the final section, “A Declaration of the Liberties the Lord Jesus hath given to the Churches”. Notice that these liberties are given by Jesus, as opposed to the 97 other liberties in the body, which are given by the General Court. This interesting division of labor means that the liberties in this section are purely theological; they describe how Congregational churches in Massachusetts operated. Four years after the Body was published, in 1645,  minister John Cotton would spell out the basics of Congregational doctrine in The Way of the Churches of Christ in New England… a book that led to a codification of church law known as the New England Way. For now, the Body gives a brief overview of purely church law, outside civil law.

95. 1. “All the people of god within this jurisdiction who are not in a church way, and be orthodox in judgment, and not scandalous in life, shall have full liberty to gather themselves into a church estate, provided they do it in a Christian way, with due observation of the rules of Christ revealed in his word.”

—One of the things Puritans railed against in England was that every citizen was required, mandated, to attend their local church, no matter how sinful they were. They were required to take communion, even if they did not believe in God, or blasphemed God. The Puritans wanted their churches to be voluntarily populated by believers only. This liberty states that the godly have the opportunity to go to church, and to gather together to found churches. Only the godly may do this, which means the churches stay pure and membership remains voluntary.

The next eight liberties all deal with the freedom and independence of each congregation to govern itself: “full liberty to exercise all the ordinances of god,” “free liberty of election and ordination of all their officers [ministers, deacons, etc.]”, “free liberty of admission [and] dismission…of their officers and members”, “no injunctions are to be put upon any church”, “every church of Christ has freedom to celebrate days of fasting and prayer”, “the elders of churches have free liberty to meet… for conferences and consultations about [church] questions”, “liberty to deal with any of their members in a church way”, and “liberty to deal with any magistrate, deputy of court or other officer whatsoever that is a member in a church way”.

These liberties do not mean that a congregation was above the law, free to do whatever it wanted. They mean that there would be no over-arching church governing body—no bishops, no regional or national conferences, no governing body of ministers who decided policy for all churches. Unlike the Catholic or even the Anglican churches, the Congregationalist church did not have a small group of high-level officials assigning ministers to churches, settling church disputes, or disciplining churches or ministers. Each church was in complete control of its own affairs. The congregation chose their minister and officials, and each church disciplined its own members. Earlier in the Body it is made clear that when it comes to breaking civil law, no church member, minister, or official is above the law—they can’t get out of their due punishment because of their church standing. But these liberties are about church self-government, covering strictly religious issues. Just as an earlier liberty said a minister can be charged with breaking civil law and punished, so here the last of these liberties states that civil officers (politicians) can be charged with breaking church law and be punished.

Having outlawed any kind of over-arching church governing body, the section clarifies in the next liberty that churches can, if they wish (“with the consent of the churches”), send their ministers and elders to meet once a month to spend a day “in public christian conference about the discussing and resolving of any such doubts and cases of conscience concerning matters of doctrine or worship of government of the church as shall be propounded by the brethren of that church, with leave also to any other brother to propound his objections or answers for further satisfaction according to the word of god.” That is, while ministers can’t hold meetings in which they mandate church policy, they are allowed to gather once a month to debate and come to agreement on issues facing their church members. Crucially, those church members are also allowed to attend these meetings, to speak, and to object publicly if they don’t agree with the solutions the ministers arrive at. This is to help prevent the trampling of individual congregations’ rights—“no thing may be concluded and imposed by way of authority from one or more churches upon another, but only by way of brotherly conference and consultations.” If church A comes up with a solution it likes, but church B doesn’t like it, church B cannot be forced to go along.

In the next liberty, the civil authorities are asked to respect these ecclesiastical liberties, and to allow “full power and liberty to any person that shall be denied or deprived of them, to commence and prosecute their suit”.

Wrapping up, Liberty 98 states that every law in the Body be “read and deliberately weighted at every General Court that shall be held within three years, and such of them as shall not be altered or repealed they shall stand so ratified.” It’s very like the Puritans of Massachusetts to take six years to write up the Body of laws, six years of writing to the towns to get their draft laws, and sending drafts back to the towns to be approved, and then to say, Now that we agree on these laws, there’s still a three-year trial period to confirm that we’re all on board with them. If any General Court failed “or forget” to read them each year, every Assistant would be fined 20 shillings, and every deputy 10 shillings.

And so we come to the end of the 1641 Body of Liberties. In the next and final post, we’ll recap its significance, in its own time, and for us today.

Next time: summing it up

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The rights of minority populations in Puritan Massachusetts

Posted on August 29, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, The Founders, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

Part 5 of our series on the 1641 Body of Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay Colony leads us to the rights, or liberties, of minority populations—women, children, servants, “foreigners and strangers”, and “brute creatures”. As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the fact that there are special sections for these categories within the Body does not mean that the other liberties described in the document do not apply to women, children, etc. It means that while some of the laws in the Body were about men only (such as the laws about military service), women, servants, and others had recourse to the law—they could bring law suits and defend themselves in court, they could be banished and fined just like men, and so laws about those things applied equally to all people. In these special sections, however, the Puritans addressed issues that could only apply to the groups mentioned, issues they wanted to call out and make clear within the law.

We can actually look at each of the laws in these sections, because there aren’t many. This is a sign that the Puritans of Massachusetts saw all its people as covered by the Body in general, with only a few occasions where special populations needed special protections.  If you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.

Modern spellings are used throughout.

Liberties of Women

79: “If any man at his death shall not leave his wife a competent portion of his estate, upon just complaint made to the General Court she shall be relieved.”

—Men have to provide for their widows. Some men would leave all their estate to their children—their sons or sons-in-law—in order to pass down the estate intact to their line, reckoning that their widows would remarry and benefit from some other man’s property and goods. But the Body shows an understanding that this may not be the case, and that every husband has a duty to provide for his wife, and thus allows wills to be contested in the widow’s favor.

80. “Every married woman shall be free from bodily correction or stripes by her husband, unless it be in his own defense upon her assault. If there be any just cause of correction complaint shall be made to authority assembled in some Court, from which only she shall receive it.”

—No husband can beat his wife (“stripes” meaning whipping). A man bodily attacked by his wife can defend himself, but in all other cases, if a husband has a complaint against his wife (a “just cause of correction”) he can go to court and present his case. If the court finds a wife guilty of an offense—of breaking a law in the Body—the court will fine or otherwise punish her. Domestic disputes are the domain of the law, not the whip.

Liberties of Children

81. “When parents die intestate, the elder son shall have a double portion of his whole estate real and personal, unless the General Court upon just cause alledged shall judge otherwise.”

—This is fairly clear: an estate will be broken out amongst the surviving children, with the eldest son, if there is one, receiving a double share. The chances of a law- and lawsuit-loving Puritan dying without a will were likely small, but it could happen.

82. “When parents die intestate having no heirs male of their bodies, their daughters shall inherit as co-partners, unless the General Court upon just reason shall judge otherwise.”

—Women, even girls, can inherit land and estate from their parents. As we’ve mentioned before, it was rare for the Court to overturn a legal will, so women who inherited land and estate generally kept it.

83. “If any parents shall willfully and unreasonably deny any child timely or convenient marriage, or shall exercise any unnatural severity toward them, such children shall have free liberty to complain to authority for redress.”

—The old image of the stern, horrid Puritan father refusing to let his child marry—or forcing her to—is undone here, along with the image of the Puritan constantly beating his child. While children were not allowed to bring suit to or testify in court, they could be represented in court by an adult, and could give their testimony to that representative.

84. “No orphan during their minority which was not committed to tuition or service by the parents in their lifetime shall afterwards be absolutely disposed of by any kindred, friend, executor, township, or church, not by themselves without the consent of some court, wherein two Assistants at least shall be present.”

—A child whose parents die can’t be abandoned to a life of indentured service by uncaring relatives, their town government, or even their church. Unless a parent arranged for a child to go into service, that child had to be taken in and cared for by some family. This was so important that we see that not even a court could send an orphan into service without at least two Assistants—members of the governor’s council—hearing the case and agreeing. The Puritans believed in the necessity of nurture to raise up a godly child, and did not want extended families shirking their duty to orphaned nieces, cousins, grandchildren, etc.

Liberties of Servants

85. “If any servants shall flee from the tyranny and cruelty of their masters to the house of any freeman in the same town, they shall be there protected and sustained til due order be taken for their relief. Provided due notice thereof be speedily given to their masters from whom they fled. And the next Assistant or constable where the party flying is harbored.”

—No servant has to endure harsh treatment, and all servants, male and female, have the right to leave a house where they are physcially harmed. Masters have to be told where the servant fled to, and the town constable (or, if in Boston, an Assistant) has to be told about the situation as well. Liberty 87 is also about violence against servants, specifically stating that a servant who is maimed or disfigured by a master’s abuse is immediately free from that master’s service and may be entitled to a cash settlement.

Liberties 86 and 88 deal with fair treatment of servants. 88 says diligent servants who have served for at least seven years can’t be dismissed without pay (“shall not be sent away empty”), and, conversely, bad servants can’t be dismissed until they have “made satisfaction” to their masters.

Liberties of Foreigners and Strangers

Liberty 89  protects religious and other refugees (“any people of other nations professing the true Christian religion [who] flee to us from the tyranny or oppression of their persecutors, or from famine, war, or the like… they shall be entertained and succored amongst us”); and Liberty 90 states that shipwrecks or foreign ships will not be looted but the goods “preserved in safety”.

Liberty 91 states that “there shall never be any bond slavery, villainage, or captivity amongst us unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel concerning such persons does morally require…” This allows prisoners of war and Africans to be enslaved. The boggling clause in this liberty is “such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold”—thus equating voluntary entry into slavery and being forcibly sold as a slave. This is the first liberty in the Body to contain such a bald, disturbing contradiction, and keeps this liberty from truly limiting slavery to those, like enemy soldiers, who might possibly “deserve” it.

Of the Brute Creature

92. “No man shall exercise any tyranny or cruelty towards any brute creature which are usually kept for man’s use.”

—The same phrase used in the liberties concerning servants, “tyranny or cruelty”, is used here to prevent cruelty to animals.

93. “If any man shall have occasion to lead or drive cattle from place to place that is far off, so that they be weary, or hungry, or fall sick, or lame, it shall be lawful to rest or refresh them, for a competent time, in any open place that is not [a corn field], meadow, or enclosed for some particular use.”

—Land ownership was the be-all and end-all of the Puritans. Disputes over land were unending, as borders were disputed and people fought over who had rights to use common land (which was not purely common; people paid to use it). There were many disputes over livestock, as people sued for crop damage and destruction of property caused by animals allowed to stray off their own land. So to have a liberty here that says any animals who are being exhausted and endangered by a long journey have the right to graze and drink water on land that is not being used is a big deal. People at this time did not see any land as totally free—if land was not being used, it was fair game to be claimed. Travelers who rested animals on open land ran the risk of someone suing them because he had informally claimed that land. So long as animals did not trespass onto land that was clearly being tilled, they had the right to use the land themselves.

Thus end the special sections of the Body. We see that these sections do not represent every law or the only laws that applied to these categories of people and creatures, but are special cases that could only apply to these categories. There are many instances in the Body’s other sections where it is stated that the liberties being described apply to all inhabitants, be they strangers or servants or women or children. These sections, then, are like a little Bill of Rights for the minority populations, expressly stating liberties that are not made explicit within the other, general sections.

In the next post we’ll look at a very short section on capital crimes—one might expect that to be the longest section of a Puritan body of law, but it is not. It does, however, at last provide us with the single mention of witchcraft in the Body… which applies to men and women equally.

Next time: capital offenses

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Separation of Puritan church and state – the 1641 Body of Liberties

Posted on August 27, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, The Founders | Tags: , , |

Welcome to part 4 of our series on the 1641 Body of Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Last time we looked at judicial laws; this time we focus on freemen’s liberties. One of the first things John Winthrop did, at the second Court in May 1631, was expand the definition of “freeman” in the colony to include almost all adult males—there were no property-ownership requirements. So the liberties we’re about to examine applied to 99% of the adult males in the colony.

Did they apply to the women of the colony? As we pointed out in part 2, there is a short section in the Body devoted to the liberties of women. That section, which we’ll cover later in this series, specifies a woman’s treatment by her husband, disallowing abuse and mandating that a wife be fairly treated in her husband’s will. Otherwise, it’s all about “men” in the Body. This does not mean that none of the laws applied to women. It means two things: “man” was used to mean people; and some of the laws were about men only (such as the laws about military service). Women could be banished and fined just like men, so laws about those things applied equally to both sexes. In this section, however, we are dealing with voting rights and jury rights, and so these apply strictly to men.

We won’t look at each of the laws in this section, for time’s sake, but pull out the laws that are most indicative of the nature or gist of the Body. If you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.

Modern spellings are used throughout.

Liberty 58: “Civil authority has power and liberty to see the peace, ordinances, and rules of Christ observed in every church according to his word, so it be done in a civil and not in an ecclesiastical way.”

—This reminds us of Liberty 1, in that it seems to blur the line between church and state, but in reality it is once again mandating that separation by saying that the civil government does not have authority to govern the churches—it can’t exercise power “in an ecclesiastical way”. This means that the civil government can intervene if a problem in a congregation is causing civil disturbance, but it can’t step in to meddle with or dictate how a church operates. On the other hand, church disputes will not be allowed to interfere with civil government or the peace of the colony. This is most likely hearkening back to the Antinomian crisis of the 1630s involving Anne Hutchinson, where problems in the Boston church led to near civil war, as the elections for governor were disrupted and rioting broke out.

Liberty 59: “Civil authority has power and liberty to deal with any church member in a way of civil justice, notwithstanding any church relation, office, or interest.”

—Another separation of church and state, this one saying no one can be above the law, no matter how high a position they may hold in a church. Church officials, ministers, and pastors are under civil authority…

Liberty 60: “No church censure shall degrade or depose any man from any civil dignity, office, or authority he shall have in the Commonwealth.”

—…and vice-versa: if a church member or official is removed from his church office, or is censured for a religious matter, he will not also be removed from any government position he may hold. Remember that ministers and pastors were not allowed to hold political office; this would apply only to church members or men serving as deacons.

Liberty 66: “The Freemen of every township shall have power to make such by-laws and constitutions as may concern the welfare of their town, provided they be not of a criminal, but only of a prudential nature, and that their penalties [shall not exceed] 20 shillings for one offence. And that they be not repugnant to the public laws and orders of the country. And if any inhabitant shall neglect or refuse to observe them, they sall have the power to levy the appointed penalties by distress.”

—Towns are semi-independent: each makes its own laws, so long as they do not assess unfairly high fines and so long as they don’t go against the laws of the colony. This tradition of town meeting, where each town made its own laws and public comments on colony affairs, was a powerful galvanizing force during the run-up to the revolution, and continues in Massachusetts today.

Liberty 67: “It is the constant liberty of the free men of this plantation to choose yearly at the court of election out of the freemen all the general officers of this jurisdiction. If they please to discharge [these officers] at the day of election by way of vote they may do it without showing cause. But if at any other General Court we hold it due justice that the reasons thereof be alleged and proved. By general officers we mean our governor, deputy governor, assistants, treasurer, [and military] general. And our admiral at sea, and such as are or hereafter may be of the like general nature.”

—Freemen elect all civil officers; this is a liberty found in very few places in the world at this time. Elections were annual, held each spring at the General Court (the Court in October was for writing laws). This liberty says that anyone can be voted out of office without explanation, but once someone is elected they can’t be removed from office without some cause; they have to be accused and then proved of some wrongdoing. So you can’t be elected in May, show up for duty in October and suddenly be told you’re out.

Liberty 69: “No General Court shall be dissolved or adjourned without the consent of the major part thereof.”

—England in 1641 was about to collapse into civil war, in large part because King Charles I refused to allow Parliament to meet. He had dismissed Parliament in 1629 and refused to call it until 1640. This “Eleven Years’ Tyranny” was unpopular amongst the small but growing number of English people who believed Parliament should be a permanent partner—and counterweight—to monarchical rule. In Massachusetts in 1641, the people took the step of making their Parliament, the General Court, incapable of dissolution without its consent. No governor could ever exercise “personal rule” by shutting out the freemen from their government, as Charles did.

Liberty 70: “All freemen called to give any advice, vote, verdict, or sentence in any court, council, or civil assembly shall have full freedom to do it according to their true judgments and consciences, so it be done orderly and inoffensively for the manner.”

—The participation of freemen in their government was not figurehead. They were meant to truly advise and shape their government without any pressure, and their only obligation was to act honestly and according to their own judgment, and to conduct themselves in an orderly fashion.

Liberty 75 is quite lengthy, so we’ll paraphrase here to say that it states that if a Court makes any laws that concern religion, lead to war, or result in a public Article, and there are members of the Court who disagree with the majority vote, they are to publish their dissenting decision (their “contra remonstrance”) and have it recorded in the records of the Court.

—This is a voice for the minority that makes governing by precedent more informed, and makes the members of the public aware of the dissenting opinions in the Court.

The section on the liberties of the freemen, then, secures separation of church and state, the right of freemen to vote for their politicians, the independence of town governments, a voice for dissent, and the right of the legislature (General Court) to exist, thus preventing tyranny by the governor and his assistants. The rights and duties of juries are also covered in this section.

We’ll look next at the sections on women, children, “foreigners and strangers”, and brute creatures. As we shall see, these are positive laws and are called out in separate sections only to emphasize that these populations had rights as well.

Next time: wills, physical violence, and “smiting”

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Puritan justice—a fair day in court

Posted on August 20, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

Part 3 of our series on the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties takes us to section 2, which focuses on judicial proceedings. It’s the longest section of the Body: 40 of the 100 laws in the Body are contained here. As Puritans enjoyed leisurely writing, we’ll paraphrase each of the laws, but if you’d like to read the whole Body of Liberties, and the codes of law that followed it and incorporated it, you can find it in libraries or for sale online under the title The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: reprinted from the edition of 1660, with the supplements to 1672, containing also the Body of Liberties of 1641.

Liberty 18 allows people to post bail so they don’t have to stay in prison while they await trial.

Liberties 19 and 20 address midconduct by judges, establishing fines for “miscarriage” by a justice and censure for those who demonstrate misconduct in court (“demean themselves offensively in the Court”).

Liberty 22 sets fines for false claims and nuisance lawsuits. This ties in with Liberty 24, which states that if you bring a suit against someone and then are found to be at fault yourself, your suit will be dismissed, and with Liberty 37, which reiterates fines for false claims (“false complaint or clamor”).

Liberty 26 is interesting because it says that if you are unfit to plead your own case in court you can ask someone to represent you. When you study the Puritans you quickly learn that they were a litigious people, constantly bringing suits to court, and often very complex ones, but you might fail to register that there were no lawyers in Puritan Massachusetts. Many of the Puritans, including founder and governor John Winthrop himself, had been lawyers in England. But in their new world, they did not have lawyers. Everyone argued their own case in court. The Puritans had seen and bewailed the corruption of the English court system, and protested the use of legalese that average people could not understand. In Massachusetts, they rid themselves of both problems by getting rid of lawyers. Liberty 26 allows people to have someone else plead a case for them—with one significant detail: that person can’t be paid for his service (“Provided he give him no fee or reward for his pains”). There would be no professional lawyer class in Massachusetts if the original settlers had their way.

Liberty 30 says jurors can be challenged by both plaintiff and defendant in any case. “And if his challenge be found just and reasonable by the bench, or the rest of the jury, as the challenger shall choose it shall be allowed him [to have a new jury called].” This is a liberty no one had in England.

Liberties 32-35 are protections of individual liberty. The first allows a defendant whose goods have been seized to recover them, and the last forbids a court to seize crops that would be spoiled and ruined by the time a defendant is able to recover them. The other two make imprisonment a last resort (“no man [shall be] arrested or imprisoned upon execution of a judgment… if the law can find competent means of satisfaction otherwise from his estate”) and punish constant nuisance litigation (“vexing others with unjust frequent and endless suits”). The image many people have of scores of Puritans languishing in prison, victims of irrational laws or charges of witchcraft, are unfounded.

In fact, you may be noting that we are a good way into the Body without one mention of witchcraft, which many Americans today take to be the only crime Puritans acknowledged or cared about. We will see that there is only one mention of witchcraft in the entire body, and it is a passing mention. The Puritans, as we’ve mentioned elsewhere, believed in witchcraft but very rarely believed someone was a witch. Their courts were scenes of countless arguments over land, boundaries, and livestock, but rarely over witchcraft.

Liberty 36 allows for appeals by defendants found guilty in court, Liberty 41 demands a speedy trial (“…cases shall be heard and determined at the next Court”), and Liberty 42 says no one may be tried twice for the same offense—a pillar of our own justice system.

Liberties 43, 45, and 46 forbid cruel and unusual punishment—no whippings of more than 40 stripes, and no torture to force a confession… in most cases. If someone was found guilty of a capital crime, and it seemed clear he had partners in that crime, then that person might be tortured to give up the names of his partners, “yet not with such tortures as be barbarous and inhumane.” It’s not clear what a humane torture may be, but it is clear that the Puritans knew what they meant, and drew a line between humane and inhumane torture, for they reiterate in the next Liberty, 46, “For bodily punishments we allow amongst us one that are inhumane, barbarous, or cruel.”

Liberty 48 established a Sunshine policy, stating that every inhabitant of the colony had the right to “search and view” all court records, and to request written transcripts for a small fee.

Jury duty is covered in Liberties 49 and 50, saying no one can be forced to serve for more than two years in a row, and that all jurors will be chosen by the freemen of their towns (and not by the government in Boston).

The section wraps up with Liberty 57 saying that if there is a suspicious sudden death in a town, the constables of the town will summon a 12-person jury to carry out an inquiry, and present their findings and conclusions at the next Court.

Judicial proceedings were so important to the Puritans for a few reasons. As we’ve mentioned above, they chafed at the inefficiency and corruption of the legal system in England, and they wanted to create a truly just system in their own society in America. They also had a practical necessity for a clear, fast-moving legal process because they were constantly embroiled in lawsuits over land. As new settlers came in, people moved from place to place, bought land, left land in wills, etc., disputes over borders and plots, who had rights to use common land and wood lots, and a plethora of other issues came up continually. If justice did not move swiftly, violence could break out, as people took the law into their own hands. That’s why the Body sets up clear laws and clear procedures for bringing cases to court, and enforces swfit justice—every case being heard at the next Court session being held.

Note the practicality of these judicial liberties and you’ll find the myth of the rigid, all-powerful, and unjust Puritan court is exploded. These Puritan courts had juries elected by freemen, whose members could be challenged and dismissed by defendants in court. The judges could be fined and removed for miscarriage of justice. People had the right to appeal. People’s goods could be seized, but had to be returned to them if they were found innocent, and imprisonment was to be a last resort, not the norm. Many of the liberties of 1641 were new to the western world, and many clearly influenced the Founders of the United States, and are tenets of our own judicial system today.

We’ll turn next to “Liberties more particularly concerning the freemen”, or, more protections of individual liberty, as well as the divisions between church and state.

Next time: more liberties of the freemen

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