Vanity Fair, John Winthrop and “a city upon a hill”

Posted on August 18, 2015. Filed under: Puritans, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

Aimlessly leafing through the August issue of Vanity Fair, not even we at the HP could have been expecting to see John Winthrop’s name come up, but such is the power of myth.

In an article on the nature of the political debate over the middle class in America, the author (Michael Kinsley) referred to a speech the then-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, gave in 1984 in which he lambasted then-President Reagan for ignoring the poor by talking about “two cities”, one rich, one poor. The author said this:

Cuomo’s ‘two cities’ imagery was a poke at Reagan, turning of of his favorite lines against him. In almost every speech he gave, it seemed, Reagan would refer to America as “a shining city upon a hill”, meaning an example for the rest of the world. Reagan got that from the Puritan preacher John Winthrop (though probably not directly). What Winthrop had in mind was a moral example, the but metaphor works on many levels.

Kinsley clearly did not get his information about John Winthrop directly from any historical source, as Winthrop was not a “preacher” at all, but a political leader who was elected many times to be the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony between its founding in 1630 and his death in 1649. It’s a little tricky, perhaps; the line “a city upon a hill” comes from a sermon Winthrop wrote while the Puritans were still on their sea voyage to the New World. The final section of that sermon is the section we set apart and study as the “City upon a Hill” speech.

Why would Winthrop write a sermon if he wasn’t a minister? Because the Puritans held four things very dear: reading the Bible, attending sermons, engaging in conference, and lay prophesying.

Each of these, in that order, was key to opening up one’s soul and consciousness enough to become aware of one’s own salvation (if it existed—but that’s another long story we cover here). The first two are clear; the third, conference, was just  talking with other people who were seeking religious light about what you read in the Bible and what you heard in sermons. The Puritans were extremely social, and their religion was founded on the idea that you must put your heads together—no one person could ever get as far in understanding God’s will as a group could. The Puritans needed and relied on each other for support during the difficult and, in England, the dangerous process of following their religion.

That’s exactly what Winthrop is talking about in the City on a Hill section of his sermon. Go read it here. It is an exhortation to the people to support and love and help each other, to put others first and self last.

So that is what conference meant to the people Winthrop was leading to America, and he was giving a sermon to them as part of conference. One of the striking innovations of the Puritan reform of Anglicanism was that every church got to hire its own minister. In most churches, there is a governing body—bishops, archbishops, pope, whoever it may be—that assigns a minister or priest to a church. The people have no say. But the Puritans said each congregation was independent—no overall, hierarchical governing body could tell it what to do. (That’s why in America they came to call themselves Congregationalists.) If a congregation could not agree on a minister, they went without one until they found one they could agree on. And if there was a shortage of good, reformed ministers, a congregation waited without one until one became available.

In the meantime, the deacons of the congregation preached and did everything the minister would except give communion. That was one of only two sacraments recognized by Puritans, and it had to be done by a minister. Having lay people lead the church was called lay prophesying. It could and did happen even after a minister was found, as members of the congregation were encouraged to share their light during and after church services.

The people crossing the Atlantic had not chosen a minister yet. So they asked their most important lay leader, John Winthrop, to preach them a sermon in the meantime. And he did such a masterful job that it has come down to us through the centuries. Once the people landed in Fall 1630, Winthrop and other lay leaders chose John Wilson to be the teacher of First Church in Boston. (Every Puritan church that could afford to pay them had both a teacher and a minister. Roughly, the minister was the administrative leader of the church who represented the church in meetings with other ministers and with the government; he also visited members of the congregation and gave them spiritual advice. The teacher was the scholar who wrote and preached sermons and published them, as well as other theological works.) Wilson served the church on his own until John Cotton was called as minister in 1632.

So that’s why Winthrop preached a sermon even though he wasn’t a minister. He was engaging in conference with other believers and lay prophesying. To go back to our Vanity Fair article, Winthrop was indeed talking about setting a good example in Massachusetts, but not in the pompous way implied in the article (“a moral example”). He wanted the people to treat each other well so that they would receive God’s blessing, and once they had done this, others would see the blessings that God gave to those who serve him and do the same. But most of all, when Winthrop said “we will be as a city upon a hill” he meant that any failures would be painfully visible to all—he might as well have said “we shall be as a city within a fishbowl”. All previous English colonies in North America had failed (Roanoke) or were failing (Plimoth [too small], Jamestown [small and wretched and chaotic]). The Massachusetts Bay Colony was being watched by all, particularly Spain and France, to see if it too would fail.

The stakes were high all around, then, when Winthrop gave his sermon; it became justly famous for urging people to find their best natures in a situation when people often did their worst. The least we can do is understand who Winthrop was and what he wanted for this new world.

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To bring an Indian or a Cockney into the world: a letter from John Winthrop’s sister Lucy Downing

Posted on March 5, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in its earliest years (most of the time between 1630 and 1649), kept up a correspondence with many people left behind in England. One of the more interesting of these correspondents was his sister Lucy Winthrop Downing. Lucy was married to Emmanuel Downing, a London lawyer, and she was a lively and intelligent woman whose repeated promises to join her brother in New England were unfulfilled until 1638, when she and her husband made the journey, only to return home when the English Civil War began in 1642. (Oddly, they lived in Salem rather than with John Winthrop in Boston.)

Lucy’s son George Downing is worth mentioning here. His mother wrote to her brother Governor Winthrop in 1636 to say the family was keen to move to New England but she worried that with no college there, her ambitious son George would have to stop his education: “and it would, I think, as we say, grieve me in my grave to know that his mind should be withdrawn from his book… for that were but the way to make him good at nothing.” In a great coincidence, in October 1636 the Massachusetts Bay Colony founded Harvard College, and this may have had something to do with the Downings’ decision to go to America at last in 1638. George was one of the nine graduates of Harvard College’s second class in October 1642, and returned to England with his parents to serve the Parliamentary government under Cromwell, but after the Restoration he neatly changed sides and served as Secretary of the Treasury under Charles II. George Downing was accused of betraying several of his former revolutionary colleagues, one of whom was executed. The jury is still out on Downing’s guilt there. He served both Cromwell and Charles II as Ambassador to the States General, and was recommended for the job by John Milton. He was the author of the Navigation Act of 1660, and served as an untiring diplomat.  Downing Street in London, the street where the Prime Minister’s official residence is located, is named after him.

Sir George Downing may have inherited his intelligence from his mother. Lucy Downing’s letters are at once thoughtful, loving, and full of slang (such as “grieve me in my grave”) that reverberates down the centuries to this day with life and humor. She is much more earthy and matter-of-fact than her elder brother John, and one gets the feeling (unverifiable by historical research) that he must have enjoyed her letters a great deal.

We will look here at Lucy’s letter of March 4, 1636, which has several interesting features. It is the letter referenced above, where she expressed her concern for young George having no college if they moved to New England. All spellings and usages are modernized.

“MY DEAR BROTHER I received your most kind Letter dated in October and your dainty fruits which indeed were as good as Old England itself affords in their kind, but coming from New England and from your self they were rarities indeed, and we then being at Graces I sent for them thither and Sir Harry and my Lady were much taken with them. Sir Harry professed it did much satisfy him that things did prosper so well with you.”

—What it is John sent her is unknown; it may have been actual fruit or it may have been some American commodity, but Lucy appreciates them mostly because they came from her brother. Her love for John comes through like this in all her letters. It becomes clear that Lucy lives in the world; she is in London with Sir Harry and my Lady and in most of her letters she makes mention of the passing things of this world that Puritans rejected in a very matter-of-fact way, with little or no judgment. But her love of God and her religion also shine through when she mentions the trials of plague and persecution visiting England, and it becomes clear that Lucy Downing’s faith in God and commitment to her religion never wavered, even as she lived the life of a London lady for the most part.

“Now to give you account of our proceedings since my last [letter] to you. We were in progress from after midsummer till part of January, half of which time we wear at Graces and in the other half at Groton… all well in health …except James [had] a few ague fits. Since my coming home myself and maids have had agues but I bless God for it it hath left me again and God hath hitherto most graciously preserved our family from the arrow of pestilence or any other such sad disasters as for our sins might most deservedly have have embittered our lives or deprived us of life and all comfort ere this and on the contrary hath He blest us with many contents.”

—The family has spent part of its time at their house in Groton (in the summer and fall) and part in London (Graces) over the winter. Her son James had an ague, or fever, and so did Lucy and her maids. How different a world is described here than her brother John was living in New England! Traveling from the summer house to the house in London, having maids, and living the life of a wealthy woman, Lucy is worlds away from life in Boston, which was only six years old when this letter was written and was a warren of mud alleys and 100 square foot wooden houses. But just when it seems that brother and sister have nothing in common, their shared piety is expressed by Lucy saying it is only through God’s grace that her family was not struck with the plague then terrorizing England, which would be what they all deserved for their sins, but God has been merciful to them.

“Now I know you wish us no less good than that these cords of love may unite us to the fountain of love in the firmest bands, but for the great cause most sudden and sad is the change in so short a time. I confess a heart very dead might have been much rapt with the gracious light in those parts all that time and in a way of admiration. God grant that it may prove a gleam before a storm rather than a lightening before the night of death. In this relation might I spend more time and spirits than my condition will now permit but I may spare. Ill news seldom wants messengers (in our climate) and what was then put in execution in those parts is at this instant called upon in Essex and but a month limited for answer which answer is feared will prove a very fearful silence these are days of trial. Pray that our faith fail not.”

—We’ll be honest; this passage is hard to understand. Lucy, like many other correspondents in England, is writing in code about political trouble in case her letter is intercepted by the government. Our interpretation is that she is saying that after a brief flowering of the true faith, persecution has cracked down on Puritans in England. She shouldn’t dwell on bad news, for two reasons: first, her condition (she is pregnant, as we will hear more about later) and she should not work herself into grief for the sake of her health; and second she is sure John is getting more than enough bad news from home (“ill news seldom wants messengers”). Persecution elsewhere is now happening in Essex, and Lucy begs John to pray that the English Puritans will hold firm.

“Now I confess could a wish transport me to you, I think as big as I am I should rather wish to bring an Indian than a Cockney into the world. But I cannot see that God hath yet freed us for that journey, yet I doubt not but if He call us to it we shall discern Providence clearly therein, and I see more probability of the concurrence of things that way now than formerly I ever did, both for generals and particulars, if God please to spare our lives…”

—If she had her way, Lucy would fly to New England this moment, heavily pregnant, and bring an “Indian” into the world rather than a London Cockney. This lighthearted and fairly sassy statement is typical of Lucy, yet so untypical of her brother. For a lady in high circles, Lucy has a pretty relaxed attitude. Yet when it comes to religion, again, she is more serious, and says that God has not yet freed her family to make the journey in reality. When she says “if He call us to it” Lucy reveals a deeply felt worry: that God has not made a way for them to go to New England because God does not (yet) see them as worthy of the journey, worthy to join the saints in America. This is the typical Puritan sense of anxiety about one’s state of grace. Lucy is hopeful, however, that they will be called, for she “sees more probability” of it than before, in the big picture and in the details (details following below in the PS).

“…but may it not be more seasonable for one in my condition to breathe my gratefulness to so faithful a brother as yourself for all your surpassing affections both to me and mine, and to desire the continuance of your brotherly care of their best education, which is a very importunate suit of mine to you, whether I live or die, but especially if God should prevent my endeavors therein.”

—Lucy’s many references to dying are not just about God suddenly swooping in to deliver his judgment on sinners. She is in the last stages of pregnancy at age 35, and in the back of her mind she knows she may not survive this delivery. So she changes tack here, to thank John for his past goodness to her and her children, and to ask him to continue to help them in their education if she dies. Clearly John Winthrop had done something to aid in the education of the Downing children, whether it was giving money or books or using his influence to get the older ones into good schools, perhaps before he left England.

“George and his father comply most cordially for New England, but poor boy, I fear the journey would not be so prosperous for him as I could wish, in respect [that] you have yet no societies [in New England], nor means in that kind for the education of youths in learning, …and it would, I think, as we say, grieve me in my grave to know that his mind should be withdrawn from his book by other sports or employments, for that were but the way to make him good at nothing. It’s true the colleges here are much corrupted, yet not so [much] I hope but good friends may yet find a fitting tutor for him, and if it may be with any hopes of his well doing here.”

—Lucy’s husband and her eldest son George are eager to go to America when it becomes possible, but she worries that if they go to New England, which has no colleges or societies, George’s education will come to an abrupt end. It is odd that Lucy fears George might waste his time in sports if that happens (the Puritans having banned all sports); that is referenced again below. Staying in corrupt England isn’t great, but her Puritan friends could find George a reliably religious and learned tutor, both of which she fears are lacking in New England.

“Knowing your prevalence with my husband and the hazard the boy is in by reason both of his father’s and his own strong inclination to the plantation sports, I am bold to present this solicitous suit of mine with all earnestness to you and my nephew Winthrop that you will not condescend to his going over till he hath either attained to perfection in the arts here or that there be sufficient means for to perfect him therein with you, which I should be most glad to hear of. It would make me go far nimbler to New England if God should call me to it than otherwise I should, and I believe a college would put no small life into the plantation.”

—Lucy asks that her brother and her nephew, John Winthrop, Jr., already a leader in New England and governor of the Saybrook settlement in Connecticut, use their influence (“prevalence”) with her husband to persuade him that the Downings should not go to America until such time as George Downing has finished his education in England or a college has been founded in New England. She would be much more willing (“far nimbler”) to go if she knew George could get an education there. And she reveals that her husband has a fatal weakness that he has passed on to George: “plantation sports”. Again, we’re not sure exactly what this is referring to, but it could simply mean the distractions of the frontier. Whatever it is, it must be countered by devoting one’s time to school. Plus, a college would “put life” into the colony. We have a sneaking suspicion that by this Mrs. Downing means not only intellectual debate and the life of young minds but the pranks and mischief traditionally associated to college students, another unorthodox affection of this Puritan lady.

“[Were] my [letter-writing] answerable to my desires of discourse with you, I should be as tedious to you as I am to myself. But in good manners I forbear your further trouble at present, and desiring your prosperity and prayers for me and mine and a happy meeting either in this or a better life, [I am]

Your sister to command,


—If writing to her brother satisfied her desire to see him and be with him, Lucy would write so often and so long that she would drive him crazy. She would be “as tedious to you as I am to myself”, a nice piece of self-deprecation and humor. She signs off for now, and her wish for a happy meeting with her brother “either in this or a better life” is, once again, not just a pious catchphrase but indicative of deep affection and some anxiety about her approaching childbearing.

“I forget to tell you how forward we are for New England; George his jointure and mine is sold and but 320 pounds would it afford us and 2 years delay for payment but the truth is I saw them so unwilling to do me right in the assurance that I feared payment would be more hardly drawn from them and something may be better than nothing.”

—Their desire to go to New England is so strong that Lucy sold her jointure, the estate settled on her to provide her an income if she is widowed, and which her eldest son will inherit on her death. This estate was likely provided for her by her father at the time of her marriage. She sold it at a loss (for just £320) to be paid after two years, which is fishy, but whoever “they” are whom she sold it to were so unwilling to give her a better deal that she just took it, hoping to get at least some part of that money to help them pay for the journey to America, as “something may be better than nothing.” This is indeed a sacrifice of her own and her son’s financial security in the name of joining the saints in America. it’s also one of a few examples of phrases we use today appearing in a 17th-century letter (in another she uses the phrase “what can I say?”).

Lucy Downing leaps off the pages of her letters; her vitality shines through and is unexpectedly affecting centuries later. You will be glad to know she survived this pregnancy and lived to an old age. We’ll be hearing more from her in the future, and, like John Winthrop, we will await her letters with great impatience.

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PS: the end of the letter from John Winthrop’s annoying colonial correspondent

Posted on January 28, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our look at the May 1637 anonymous letter to Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop deals with the craven postscript, in which the writer explains why he is writing anonymously. All spellings modernized.

” I have not subscribed hereunto, not knowing whether my letter may not miscarry. The bearer perhaps can tell you of me.”

—Afraid the letter might be seized or, in good English Puritan fashion, read and then circulated thoroughly to everyone in the community and beyond, the writer chooses to remain anonymous, but sends the letter by a messenger who will reveal his identity. This seems dangerous for the messenger; what if royal officials did seize the letter? Right there on the last page it says the messenger knows who wrote it. It would not be unusual for the messenger to be arrested, jailed, and even tortured to reveal the name if the government felt the letter was threatening.

This small section is in the final paragraph of the letter, but the writer feels it necessary to add a postscript underlining the need for Winthrop to keep his name secret…. and underlining all the reasons why Winthrop, if he were a lesser saint, would not have done so.

“Sir, I humbly entreat you to conceal it, that any with us has thus written to you. There is another thing I have noted since I wrote the enclosed letter, that many in your plantations discover much pride, as appears by the letters we receive from them, wherein some of them write over to us for lace [and] cut-work coifs, and other, for deep [fabric] dyes, and some of your own men tell us that many with you go finely clad, though they are free from the fantasticalness of our land.”

—If we hadn’t just spent four posts parsing this writer’s deep comfort with self-righteous haranguing, we would be taken aback by his abrupt shift, from pleading humbly for Winthrop to shield him from attack to attacking Winthrop. Colonists have dared write home for lace and dye and pieces of apparel (a coif is a close-fitting cap that women wore under their hoods or hats to protect their hair). None of these things would have been available in America. They were items of earthly vanity Puritans were supposed to have sworn off. These requests are more proof exploding the myth that the Puritans in America wore black all the time and hated ornament. The writer says that while the colonists are asking for some finer things, at least they are not chasing the extremes of 17th-century fashion (“fantasticalness”) current in England. We might forgive the writer for reproaching the colonists for wearing finery, as it really was something the English Puritans did not do, but then again, the American Puritans no longer had a reason to give it up. In England, they wanted to stand out against the unreformed population, and plain clothing was a visible and striking sign of their faith. In America, there were no unreformed Anglicans to stand out against—all were Puritans, so it did not matter what they wore. Plain clothes were a religious protest. In America, there was no other religion to protest against, and plain clothes were no longer necessary.

“There is likewise another thing which I have not mentioned in the letter enclosed, which I suppose you are not altogether ignorant of, that your Patent is called in and condemned, and the Patentees have renounced, and they are outlawed that have not, till they come in and make their peace. …what the effects of [this] will be we are ignorant, but doubt and fear, only we look up to God.”

—Oh, by the way—your colony is about to be overthrown by the crown and all your liberty taken away. This is a very alarming thing to relay to Winthrop, that the royal patent allowing the MBC to exist and to make its own laws has been condemned by the government, and that the men in England funding the Massachusetts Bay Company (“the Patentees”) are being forced to renounce the patent or be arrested for treason. Winthrop had been threatened with this many times before, as the anti-Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, went to Charles I many times to try to get the patent revoked. Charles actually did agree to revoke it in 1637, but, in an unexpected bit of true justice, this was declared invalid because the government had heard testimony against the MBC but had not given MBC officials a chance to come to London and speak in their own defense.

So what the letter writer is hearing is technically true, but he has clearly never learned the value of breaking bad news gently.

“How earnestly can I pray that you may [all] mind holiness, and the things that are above, and grow up in faith, love, humility, and self-denial… for if once pride, covetousness, opposition and contention etc. destroy the power of holiness among you, or your being cast into a new frame of discipline take you up for the most part, diverting your minds… there will soon grow a strangeness between you and God, who will then surely bring afflictions upon you…”

—One can’t help wondering if one of those afflictions God might send is correspondents like this one. And one might also wonder whether the correspondent takes his own advice about not letting pride, jealousy, opposition and contention destroy to power of holiness that should be binding England and American Puritans together.

“…the Almighty God vouchsafe that both your doctrine and discipline work mightily and effectually upon your hearts and lives, to meeken and sanctify them throughout. if you please to write anything back to me, the bearer hereof can tell you how it may be sent and delivered to me. The Lord be with your spirit. Amen.”

—Again the poor messenger is set up to be killed.

We don’t know if Winthrop wrote back. As usual, his reply does not exist, for while he carefully kept and preserved the letters he received, the people he wrote to were not so careful. But it’s most likely he did. He would have taken the lecturing and hectoring of this writer with great humility, as he always did. But while the governor would have thanked the letter writer for his care, and assured him that the colonists strove to put all earthly conflict and vanity behind them, there are no laws or decrees on the books of the MBC censoring letters home, forbidding women to wear coifs, banning books, or restricting Puritans’ freedom of religious speech, all of which the letter writer urged Winthrop to do. Winthrop knew, though it likely pained him, that American and English Puritans were already growing apart, and that the work to be done in the Old World was very different from the task at hand in the New World, and that no matter how much they longed to remain one community, that would likely be impossible.

One wonders why the letter writer was so afraid to reveal his identity to anyone but Winthrop. At first one thinks maybe he was afraid the English authorities would harass him, but after a little thought it seems there’s nothing in the letter to get the writer into trouble in England. After all, he is denouncing the colonists and deploring the abuse of the Anglican church and its bishops. It seems maybe the writer was actually afraid that his identity would be made known to the colonists, who would not take his criticisms well. If they found out the identity of the man who wanted to curb their liberties, religious and otherwise, and who denounced them so roundly to all, the colonists might well have written to England to complain about him, and then this Saint would have been in hot water.

This letter is interesting to close-read because it reveals so much about the rapid evolution of Puritanism during the fractious decade of the 1630s, both in America and in England. It is a window into the minds of those who stayed behind from the promised land of America, the dangers they faced at home, and their feelings about their brethren far away. It also illuminates the thinking of those who sacrificed everything to leave England and keep the faith in the unknown land of America, the things they missed about home, and the power of their elation over their success in forming a new and pure church doctrine—the whole point of their journey. It is a shame the two sides had to divide so widely and so soon.

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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 oligarchy? A look at the 1641 Body of Liberties

Posted on August 9, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Politics, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

Welcome to a short series on the first (but far from the last) codification of laws in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, the 1641 Body of Liberties. We’re going to look through this set of 100 laws to get a better picture of what government was really like in Puritan Massachusetts, and to counter the standard mantra that the colony was an oligarchy, with no separation of church and state. We will also disappoint most readers by showing that there is only one mention of witchcraft in the whole Body, and it is mentioned only in passing.

An oligarchy, of course, is a system of government that keeps power in the hands of a tiny minority of the people, generally the wealthiest, who basically oppress everyone else to keep themselves wealthy and in power. The last thing an oligarch wants is democracy, or the common voice helping to shape the law.

As we shall see, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not an oligarchy at all, but a proto-democracy in which the common people not only helped shape the law, but were actually recruited by the magistrates in Boston to draft the first body of laws. Let’s look at the process by which the Body was created:

The MBC had as its governing document its charter of 1629, which stated that there should be a governor, deputy governor, and 18 assistants (magistrates). The assistants were to be chosen from the freemen of the colony. (One of the first acts of John Winthrop was to expand the definition of freeman to include basically all adult males in the colony.) The assistants would elect the governor and deputy governor from amongst themselves. The charter also stipulated that the assistants hold a court every month (to hear cases and complaints of the people) and that a General Court be held four times a year (where the freemen from each town drafted laws).

But the General Court did not meet four times a year, and the Assistants’ Court was drafting laws without the oversight of the freemen’s deputies, so in May 1634 at a meeting of the GC the deputies asked to see the patent. They demanded that they be allowed their proper role of drafting laws, but Winthrop said the number of freemen was too large to allow meeting—the Great Migration was in full swing, and the number would indeed have been pushing 1,000. Winthrop suggested that the freemen should elect deputies to attend the GC; each town could send deputies to Boston. Winthrop pictured these deputies reviewing laws drafted by the Assistants’ Court (like the Supreme Court reviews laws made by Congress).

The freemen, however, voted on May 14 to send three deputies from each of the eight towns then existing to the General Court to vote for the assistants and to draft laws. So now the freemen of Massachusetts were voting for their representatives and drafting their own laws. This itself is fairly astonishing to the student of history, for one would be hard-pressed to find an example of this type of proto-democracy anywhere else in the world in 1634.

But the people went further, and this is where the Body of Liberties comes in. The General Court made laws on an ad-hoc basis, hearing each individual case and deciding it. But many in the Court and outside it were worried that this could lead to injustice—to deputies “proceeding according to their discretions”; that is, letting their personal opinions sway their decisions. The colony needed an objective code of law that would not change from case to case. In May 1635 the deputies at the General Court voted to draft that code of law.

It wasn’t simple, though. Who should draft it? The deputies, with their subjective opinions? The Assistants, who could possibly establish an oligarchy by writing laws that gave them more power? While these questions were ironed out, the Court voted in 1636 that any law drafted had to have the support of both the Assistants’ Court and the General Court. The General Court also voted that three clergymen—Cotton, Peters, and Shepherd—submit drafts of laws. Why clergymen? In part, because they were seen to be objective; no minister was allowed to hold a government position, and so had nothing to gain by giving the government certain powers. In part, the colony was a religious society and valued the opinion of its ministers. That said, none of the three drafts was accepted, not even John Cotton’s; as the most respectd and celebrated minister in the colony, perhaps in all New England, he might have seemed a shoo-in, but he was not.

In March 1637, the GC was at an impasse, and so it drafted a letter to the freemen of the eight towns asking them to assemble in their towns and write up a code of laws they felt was just and send it to Boston by June 5. The governor and Assistants would then review them all and create “a compendious abridgement of the same” to give to the GC, which would have final review and approve or reject it. Again, this is a pretty surprising exercise of democracy for the time, but we find in November 1639 there’s still no progress. What caused the delay? Winthrop details two main reasons in his diary, a compendious abridgement of which follows here:

1. The people felt that rather than write laws to use in the future, laws should develop naturally over time and custom, as they had done in England. England never had a written constitution, of course, and the English emigrants in Massachusetts believed their laws should develop the same way.

2. Following on from the lack of a written English body of laws, many Puritans felt they were breaking a key tenet of their charter if they wrote a body of laws. The charter said the colonists could govern themselves as necessary, but should make no laws “repugnant” to the laws of England. Even writing out a body of laws was, in a way, repugnant to English law because English law was not codified. Aside from that, the risk of codifying something that wouldn’t jibe with English law was just too great.

So while the people of the colony wanted an objective body of laws, they were worried about just creating one on the spot, and worried about the consequences of codifying laws that did not exist in England. In the end, the need for a code overcame this resistance, first for the govenrment and then for the people. In 1639, two different codes were drafted by two ministers, and each was sent to the towns to be read to the people, who could revise as they saw fit. Knowing that there would be a code of law, consequences and custom be damned, led the people to at last act. They ended up approving a draft by Rev. Ward. This was revised several times by the governor and the courts, and at last on December 10, 1641—six years after the initial request to draft a code of laws—the Body of Liberties was copied and sent to all the towns, “and voted to stand in force.”

It’s an amazing background for a body of laws in the 17th century, and just this lead-up to the Body puts the lie to claims of oligarchy or dictatorship, and poor citizens being oppressed by laws they did not support, which is the usual picture of Puritan Massachusetts. We’ll look at a few of the 100 laws in the Body over the next few posts. The original Body was given a three-year trial, after which it could be either yanked or “established to be perpetual.” It would be established, and used as the basis for later bodies of law for the colony.

Next time: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

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Roger Williams’ banishment

Posted on September 20, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

In Part VI of our Truth v. Myth series on Roger Williams, he is at last banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We left Williams sentenced to banishment in October 1635; he was supposed to leave within 6 weeks, but the General Court, impressed with his willing acceptance of his fate, extended the deadline to the spring, on condition that Williams stay quiet and not “go about to draw others to his opinions.”

Knowing Williams as we do, we can’t be surprised to find out that he was unable to live up to his side of this bargain. By December reports got back to the Court that Williams had inspired a group of about 20 people to go with him to Narragansett Bay and start their own colony. This was alarming to the MBC because from there “the infection would easily spread into [our own] churches, the people being …much taken with the apprehension of his godliness.” There was only one choice left to the General Court: seize Williams and put him on a ship back to England.

This was indeed a sign of desperation on the part of New England, since Williams was bound to spread the word of his treasonous doings back in England, and bring down the displeasure of king and Parliament onto the MBC.

But it was all for nothing, because when the authorities went to Salem in January to seize him, Williams was gone. How could he have known what was going to happen? Who tipped him off? None other than the most orthodox man in MBC, a man who concurred in the judgement of banishment—John Winthrop. Winthrop does not say anything about this in any of his known papers, but he was the one who warned Williams to leave before he was shipped back to a hostile England. We know this because WIlliams wrote a letter in 1670, long after the events, saying,

“When I was unkindly and unchristianly, as I believe, driven from my house and land and wife and children, (in the midst of a New England winter, now about thirty-five years past), at Salem, that ever honored Governor, Mr. Winthrop, privately wrote to me to steer my course to Narragansett Bay and Indians, for many high and heavenly and public ends, encouraging me, from the freeness of the place from any English claims or patents. I took his prudent motion as a hint and voice from God, and waving all other thoughts and motions, I steered my course from Salem, though in winter snow, which I feel yet, unto these parts.”

Fleeing alone, Williams was not a threat, and the MBC left him alone. Williams wrote later that he had nearly died wandering in the winter snows, until he was found by a Narragansett man who greeted him with “What cheer, netop?” (a nice mixture of Narragansett and English).  Helped by the Narragansetts to find a good place to settle, Williams survived. He eventually brought his wife and children down to his outpost, and they lived very much alone there.

During this time, Williams wrote frequently to Winthrop. It is still touching to see the kindness and broad-mindedness of the governor, who, while abhorring Williams’ views, never lost sight of or respect for the man’s goodness and honesty. Winthrop asked him in October 1636 if he really believed everyone else in the MBC was fallen away, and whether he was not grieved to have made so many people so unhappy. Williams wrote back that he did still believe this, and that he was not grieved, and that Winthrop should follow his example and join him in total isolation: “Abstract yourself with a holy violence from the Dung heap of this Earth.”

Strong language. Here Williams has come full circle in his separatism. Now out of the entire world, only he, his wife, and potentially Winthrop, were holy enough to be acceptable company. Everyone else on the earth was human excrement before God—and before Williams. Winthrop’s argument that there is no escape from the human condition of imperfection, and that imperfection must be addressed lovingly, fell on deaf ears.

There was a small community that joined Williams in Narragansett territory, and they created a small church, but even this dedicated group was not good enough. Williams stopped the practice of infant baptism, since the babies had not proven their sanctity, and began to wonder aloud if any church could be truly holy without God returning through the Apocalypse and cleansing the world. The low point was when he decided that only he and his wife were fit for Communion. The only possible next step would be to find himself completely alone in the world, with not even his wife fit to accompany him.

Next time: Williams as we know, remember, and love him

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Roger Williams commits treason

Posted on September 13, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Here in part IV of our Truth v. Myth series on Roger Williams, we look at the period when his religious unorthodoxy led him to commit political treason.

John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, asked Williams on his return to Salem from Plymouth to clarify or confirm for him whether Williams had indeed questioned the settlers’ right to claim land in New England while Williams was in Plymouth. Williams wrote Winthrop back and sent him a copy of an “argument” he had written about it. The argument was dynamite: the colonists had no right to the land because they claimed that right by virtue of a charter from the English King (Charles I), and since that king was not a Separatist, he was an unregenerate sinner who could not claim any authority from God to issue such a charter. The king was also a blasphemer because he called Europe “Christendom” when Europe was populated by sinners who belonged to evil and ungodly churches (i.e., not Separatist), and basically the English king was one of those harbingers of the apocalypse, a fallen and evil king leading his people to ruin and damnation.

This was, to say the least, a problem for the MBC, whose charter did indeed come from the English king, who could immediately revoke it once he heard of these treacherous charges from Williams. People today, thinking only of the later Williams, assume that he questioned the colonists’ right to settle American lands on the basis of Native Americans’ first rights to them, but this was not the case. Williams at this point was not thinking about Native Americans at all. He was as willing as any colonists to claim Native American land, just not under the authority of the English king.

Winthrop summoned Williams to appear at the next meeting of the General Court in Boston to explain himself, but Winthrop was careful. He wanted to avoid two things: Williams being attacked at the meeting, unprepared for the charges against him; and reports of the meeting being published abroad, turning the meeting into a kind of show trial that would get back to England and the king. So Winthrop wrote to John Endecott in Salem and told Endecott what charges would be made against Williams; Winthrop also gave Endecott some strategies to get through to Williams about the gravity of his situation and lead Williams to repent before the Court.

This must have had some effect, because when he did appear in Boston Williams declared his loyalty and seemed penitent, and Winthrop dimissed his case. And there the matter could have rested, but Williams was unable to stay on a moderate path at this point.  Six months later, in November 1634, news came that Williams was publicly preaching against the king in Salem, and this time Winthrop could not help him. A new governor was in charge, one who was not charmed by Williams.

Williams’ specific charges against the Puritan settlers were that they were taking land under false pretences by accepting the authority of the sinner-king’s charter, and that they ought to send back the charter and have the king himself write a new one that renounced his power to grant land; and also that if the settlers did not do this, they ought to dissolve the MBC, return to England, and do public penance as liars and evil-doers.

Unsurprisingly, the General Court of March 1635 saw Williams brought once more before the bench. The ministers of the colony had asked Governor Dudley for permission to talk with Williams instead of bringing him to court (something Winthrop would have allowed), but Dudly refused. “We were deceived in him, if we thought he would condescend to learn from any of us,” declared Dudley, and in this case he was most likely right. At this point, Williams would not be truly swayed by anyone. However, the Assistants (the board of magistrates helping to govern the colony) overruled Dudley, the ministers met with Williams, and once again Williams seemed to back down. Incredibly, he had been about to send a letter to the king outlining his beliefs, and was very lucky to have been stopped.

Williams never agitated against the king on the same level, but he was not done alienating himself from his fellow humans. He would only go further in his separatism before he finally came out the other side.

Next time: trouble in Salem

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