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

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 

Puritan oligarchy? A look at the 1641 Body of Liberties

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

Roger Williams’ banishment

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

Roger Williams commits treason

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

Roger Williams: A Dangerous Man

Welcome to Part II of our Truth v Myth series on Roger Williams. Here we look at his early life in New England.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, Puritans were always on the verge of deciding the world was too sinful and withdrawing from it to maintain their own purity and safety. The first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, was wise enough to see that this was both an insult and a danger. An insult because it left the unsaved to their doom, and a danger because once people decide they must withdraw from the world, they go quickly down an endless spiral, rejecting more and more people as unfit, until they are completely isolated and literally alone.

Winthrop, like all good Puritans, knew that the righteous had a responsibility to live in the world and help other people achieve righteousness (if not salvation; only God could give that). He was constantly talking extremists down from the ledge of withdrawal.

Roger Williams was one of those extremists. Winthrop, who had known Williams slightly in England, thought well of the young minister. When Williams was invited to serve as temporary  minister in the Boston church while its usual minister went back to England to get his wife, Winthrop approved. But Williams refused the offer to lead this very prestigious church; he was already a Separatist, done with the Church of England that the Puritans were trying to improve. While Williams was universally well-liked, and a very appealing person, he was beginning to harbor dark thoughts about humanity. He felt he had soiled himself by taking communion in the Church of England because it was not a true church. His purpose now in New England was to regain his purity. Even though the church in Boston did not allow anyone to take communion unless they  had gone through the rigorous process of demonstrating the saving grace of God in them, Williams still would not worship there. Even though the Bostonians were pure themselves, they had not renounced the impure Church of England. Williams demanded that the congregation “make a public declaration of their repentence for having communion with the churches of England, while they lived there.” It would not, and Williams moved on.

As Edmund Morgan puts it so well, “Here was a Separatist indeed, who would separate not only from erroneous churches but also from everyone who would not denounce erroneous churches as confidently as he did.”

Winthrop put forward the corrective idea that people could reform corrupt bodies like the Church of England rather than abandon them; to leave sinners without the “Care” that they needed was a refusal to do one’s God-ordained duty. Winthrop deplored the “spiritual pride” that led people to abandon those who needed them.

But Williams was unmoved by such arguments. He was beginning to see the world in very black and white terms of good and evil, and the number of those who could be considered evil was ever-growing. Williams was also rejecting temporal law: before leaving Boston, which he did after just a few weeks, he had questioned whether the government of the colony (or any government) had any power to address religious matters. While we take this for granted as the separation of church and state, it was anathema to the Puritans of New England, who had come to America expressly to create a government that supported their religion.

On Williams went to Salem, where he was also received with kindness and happiness. Williams was so likable that he could say things that were terrible to the Puritans and still maintain their goodwill–excusing the young minister for his radicalism quickly became a habit in Salem and elsewhere. He seemed so clearly to be saved, he exuded such goodness and personal piety, that no one wanted to believe he was a divisive and alienating zealot.

Winthrop, however, wrote a letter to Salem asking how they could allow a Separatist to be their minister, and his dose of objectivity led Salem to rescind the offer, and Williams went finally to Plymouth, which was a Separatist colony. He should have lived happily ever after in Plymouth, but he did not.

Next time: Williams makes waves in Plymouth

“The City upon a Hill” by John Winthrop: what is it about?

The “City upon a Hill” section of the essay called “A Model of Christian Charity” was written in 1630 by the Puritan leader John Winthrop while the first group of Puritan emigrants was still onboard their ship, the Arbella, waiting to disembark and create their first settlement in what would become New England. The “City” section of this essay was pulled out by later readers–in the 19th century–as a crystallization of the Puritan mission in the New World.

Of course, as with any topic touching on the Puritans, there’s some myth-busting to be done. By now, the “City upon a Hill” excerpt has come to represent irritating Puritan pridefulness—they thought they were perfect, a city on a hill that everyone else would admire and want to emulate. In reality, the excerpt is far from a back-patting exercise. It is a gauntlet laid down to the already weary would-be settlers. Let’s go through it:

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the Counsel of Micah, to do Justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God:

The “shipwreck” Winthrop refers to is the wrath of God that falls on peoples or nations who fail to do God’s will. Earlier in the essay, Winthrop has been at once warning the people that they must not fail in their efforts to set up a godly state in the new World and reassuring them that this does not mean they can never make a mistake. God is with them, and will suffer small failings. But if, like the government and church of England, the Puritans forsake their mission to create a truly godly society, they will suffer the wrath of God. This is the shipwreck to be avoided.

…for this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly Affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, we must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality, we must delight in each other, make others Conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labour, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work, our Community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways…:

This is a beautiful passage, reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount in its focus on mercy, kindness, sharing, and other selfless qualities. The Puritans will not succeed by harrying out the sinner or otherwise smiting evil, but by loving each other, caring for each other, and “abridging our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities” (that is, there will be equality of wealth, with no one living in luxury while others starve). They will delight in each other,  making others’ conditions their own, and they will do all this to create a natural community of faith. The point here is that religious faith will not be mandated or policed or forced on anyone. It will be generated naturally by the hope and love and faith of the people themselves. It will be an effect, not a cause. The Quakers would try to live out this same philosophy decades later.

…so that we shall see much more of his wisdom power goodness and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with:

And how. That’s an understatement. The projected society would be almost unequalled anywhere in the known world.

…we shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the lord make it like that of New England:

Here comes the crux of the excerpt. Why will later settlers hope their societies will be like New England? Because of the love and comradeship, care and goodwill in New England. Notice that so far Winthrop has been urging his people to be caring and loving and selfless. He isn’t saying they already are all those things. He isn’t boasting about a pre-existing condition. He is urging them to become caring and loving and selfless, in the name of their godly mission, so that they will truly succeed. If—and it’s a big if—they succeed in becoming all those good things, their society will be admired. It’s not really that the Puritans will be admired so much as their society will be admired. There’s no self in this for Winthrop; it’s all about serving God as a society, and not about individuals becoming famous for their virtue. To him, there’s a difference. Fame may come as a result of serving God, but it’s the serving of God that matters.

…for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the way of God and all professors for God’s sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going:

First, we see what “city on a hill” really means: it doesn’t mean perfect, it means visible. They will be under a microscope, unable to hide their failures from all the eyes trained on them. No one wants to live in a city on a hill, because all of your faults and failings are in plain view.

Second, Winthrop wasn’t just speculating. This fate of becoming a byword for failure had already befallen every English colony in North America by 1630. Roanoake had disappeared, and Jamestown was so well-known in England for the horrors its unprepared settlers suffered that by the time the Puritans sailed their main goal was to avoid Jamestown’s very well-publicized failures. Among the many reasons the Puritans did not want to settle in Virginia was to avoid contamination with Jamestown’s perpetual bad luck (which the Puritans put down in large part to the colony’s lack of a commission from God). Even Plimoth Plantation, founded by Separatists just 10 years earlier, wasn’t exactly thriving. The Puritans settled far from the Pilgrims. So there was evidence, to Winthrop, that God had already withdrawn his support from all previous English settlements. The stakes were high.

…And to shut up this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord in his last farewell to Israel [in] Deut. 30. Beloved there is now set before us life, and good, death and evil in that we are Commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandements and his Ordinance, and his laws, and the Articles of our Covenant with him that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it:

In closing (“to shut up this discourse”), Winthrop dramatically positions his group on the very edge of life and death, good and evil; they have never been more free to choose which way they will go. It’s all up for grabs. If Winthrop was sure that it would be easy for the Puritan to make the right choice, because they were so much better than everyone else in the world, he wouldn’t have hammered this point home. He wouldn’t have had to show them how high the stakes were, and he wouldn’t have supposed there was even a choice to be made. Since he was a realist, albeit a compassionate one, Winthrop reiterated the fact that the Puritans too, like everyone else, had to choose good over evil.

… But if our hearts shall turn away so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other Gods, our pleasures, and profits, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good Land whither we pass over this vast Sea to possess it:

Again, high stakes. The important thing to note here is what Winthrop considers to be the threat: “our pleasures and profits”. Colonies were founded to make money. Everyone knew that. And even the Puritans would have to repay their investors. They were business people, many of them London merchants, and they would set about creating industry in New England. They were also normal people who loved dancing, music, alcohol, sex, and love, and they would enjoy all those things in their new land. Being a Puritan was not about denial. It was about balance. Enjoy without attachment, enjoy without letting pleasure become your master—this was the Puritan ideal (it’s also very Buddhist—see The Bhagavad Gita).

Therefore let us choose life, that we, and our Seed, may live; by obeying his voice, and cleaving to him, for he is our life, and our prosperity:

Let us choose life: it’s a very positive, very idealistic, beatific closing to the excerpt and the sermon. Winthrop even wrote it out in verse (I didn’t do that here for space reasons). Choose life that we may live, choose God for God is life. This sermon must have truly inspired the Puritans who heard it, in part because it did not confirm their virtue but challenged it. It is an exhortation to do better than they normally would, to try harder, to aim higher. It is not a smug confirmation that they are the best people in the world and that whatever they do will be better than what anyone else does. It is a call to virtue and effort, love and compassion, sharing and helping that does Winthrop and his group credit. In that sense, it is the first of many other great American calls to idealism and justice, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

April 7, 1630: the Puritans set sail for America

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Winthrop, villain?

You can imagine our surprise to find this question in the list of prompts typed into search engines that led eventually to this blog.

It took us a moment to realize it must be about Anne Hutchinson; for those of you who are looking for evidence of Winthrop’s villainity, check out our Truth v. Myth series on Mrs. Hutchinson. Rest assured, you will find that Winthrop was no villain, Hutchinson no angel, and the Puritans more complex people than you might have imagined.

The Puritans leave England for America

Welcome to part three of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant or Puritan work ethic. Here we will see how the ambitious Puritan political platform played out in England and was then transplanted to the New World.

We’ve seen that the English Puritans wanted to wipe out poverty, encourage private enterprise, and vigorously embrace the newly emergent capitalist system. Their religion spurred them to achieve these goals, but they did not rely on God to work a miracle for them. The Puritans had many converts from the nobility, powerful men who sat in the House of Lords, and most Puritans of common birth were politically active. The Puritans had members in both houses of Parliament and agitated constantly at court and in the popular press for the changes they desired.

Unfortunately, the Puritans would not abandon their insistence that the Anglican Church (or Church of England), the state church, be radically “purified” (hence their name) and stripped of its remaining Catholic qualities. Elizabeth I and James I after her took a firm hand in stopping such religious agitation, which invariably led to bloodshed and public turmoil, and seemed to promise eventual civil war. (These fears would be realized in the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War.) England had gone through extremely divisive religious conflict during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary, and had landed as a unique Protestant nation: the original Catholic church in England was taken over by the English government, completely separate from the Roman Catholic Church governed by Rome. The Anglican church was sort of neutral or Protestant-by-default, but it was not Lutheran or Calvinist. Anglicanism avoided both submission to Rome and affiliation with European Lutherans or Calvinists.

This policy had maintained a fragile peace in England since 1558, when Elizabeth I took the throne. Puritans who agitated for further reformation, with a Calvinist bent, were not looked upon with kindness. James I particularly loathed the Puritans and their near-relations, the Separatists, who decided Anglicanism could not be purified, and therefore separated from it, leaving the church. Puritans and Separatists were persecuted in England as traitors.

By refusing to drop their demands for religious change, the Puritans sabotaged their efforts to get their social reforms passed. By the 1620s, many Puritans were beginning to fear that God had abandoned England, and was about to punish it, perhaps destroy it. When William Laud, a pro-Catholic Puritan hater, was made Archbishop of Canterbury–head of the Anglican church–in 1630, he launched a Puritan eradication campaign that made life very dangerous for Puritans of all walks of life.

In that year, a small group of influential Puritans left England. Led by John Winthrop, a well-known royal lawyer and property owner, they left to establish a safe space in America where Puritans could wait out God’s wrath on England. While England was punished, America would thrive, regenerating a holy people to lead England back to God’s grace. They founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, with its seat of government in Boston.

Next time: Here the work ethic begins?

Roger Williams: saint of Rhode Island or lunatic of Massachusetts?

There’s a great article on Roger Williams at American Creation, a new blog devoted to studying religion in early America. (Disclaimer: I contribute articles on the Puritans for this blog from time to time.)

Williams was a complicated character. He caused the Puritans of Massachusetts nothing but trouble, yet he was so charismatic and charming they could not bring themselves to punish him for years.

The article at American Creation tells most of the story. I’ll just add that Williams not only challenged the bases of Puritan theology, but also claimed that the royal charter that created Massachusetts Bay Colony was null and void because it was granted by King Charles, a sinner and false king, who had no earthly authority.

Williams would have had the Puritans go back to London, rip up their charter, try to convert Charles, and get a new, valid charter. For Puritans trying hard not to arouse an already hostile king’s anger, this was too much.

Williams was supposed to be sent back to England in chains as a traitor, but John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, intervened. Williams claimed that Winthrop told him what was being planned, and urged him to escape secretly. Winthrop had every reason to detest Williams, but he did not. He saw Williams’ sincerity and youthful innocence, and perhaps had faith Williams would eventually settle down. They remained close throughout Winthrop’s life.

Williams took off for what is now Rhode Island, and many years later got his own royal charter. By that time (1663), he had undergone a radical change from a man who had excluded everyone but his wife from the list of the saved to a man who welcomed everyone as equal.

This is the Williams who is well-known and loved. The story of how he got from A to B is a fascinating one.