Separation of church and state in colonial New England

Re-running our longstanding post on Roger Williams’ experiment in Rhode Island in 1663, to help us keep our bearings as the eternal minority of Americans demand more of a role for religion in our government.


The first-ever separation of church and state!

…well, at least in the western world. It happened in Rhode Island, in 1663.

This was the year that the colony received its royal patent. In 1643, Roger Williams had received a charter from Parliament, during the interregnum. When Charles II came to the throne, Rhode Island received a new patent from the king. It is a remarkable document. There’s no room to get into all the details here, but pick up Early New England, A Covenanted Society by David Weir for a terrific in-depth discussion.

In the 1663 patent, for the first time the English king/government acknowledged not only that there were religious conflicts in New England, but that differences in religious opinion were unavoidable–and even valid. Here is how the charter describes the people who left Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Connecticut colonies for Rhode Island:

…some of those our subjects not being able to bear, in these remote parties, their different apprehensions in religious concernments, and inn pursuance of the aforesaid ends, did once again leave their desirable stations and habitations, and with excessive labour and travel, hazard and charge, did transplant themselves into the midst of the Indian natives…

Here, for the first time, the crown acknowledges that the religious beliefs of a remnant of its people are truly heartfelt, and real. These are not seditious traitorous rabble-rousers, but people who left their desirable stations in life and their homes for the excessive labor and hazards of the wilderness. The king will justify and honor those beliefs and actions with this patent.

With religious diversity up-front as the founding cause of the Rhode Islanders, the charter goes on to allow the people of Rhode Island to travel safely into other colonies where their views are unwelcome, and, most importantly, the freedom to set up a society that rejects the state religion of England itself:

[A] most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments; and true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles will give the best and greatest security to sovereignty, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyalty.

This is truly remarkable. It is indeed the first time we can think of in the west that a government “[legally] separated the civil magistracy from civil religion and an established state church. We should note that civil religion is not the same thing as the established state church. The state church is an institution with records, buildings, financial dealings, and personnel; civil religion is something more amorphous, and can be described as a cluster of ideas that can be sustained by the state church (or by the state itself) and that form the often submerged foundations of societal life.” [Weir 53]

In granting the charter, the crown recognized that in Rhode Island, civil religion was the antithesis of the English state religion, and was not even uniform itself–many religions were tolerated in Rhode Island, and each contributed to the cluster of ideas that created the civil religion there. The crown also saw that maybe people who are allowed to live according to their deepest religious beliefs would be the most loyal citizens, as they would be grateful to the king for granting them that freedom.

The big news here is that it is no longer treason to challenge the Anglican church. Religious freedom is not heresy (so long, of course, as one’s religion is still Christian), or political treason, or anything but a private, personal matter.

What’s unusual is that this great religious freedom was granted in the Americas at the same time the crown was clamping down hard on religious freedom in England itself. The laws of the Clarendon Code maintained uniformity and orthodoxy. The Corporation Act of 1661 required all town officials to be Anglicans. The 1662 Act of Uniformity required the clergy in England to use only the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Conventicle Act of 1664 forbid groups of five or more people holding dissenting religious views to gather together. And the Five Mile Act of 1665 made it illegal for a dissenting minister to live within five miles of a town unless he had taken the Oath of Allegiance, which was unlikely. These measures sent more English Puritans to America.

So why did the crown decide to grant religious freedoms in the Americas that it was actively stamping out in England? Perhaps the answer lies in the distance between them. We know that Charles II, leaning more and more towards Catholicism, and later converting on his deathbed, hoped to create more religious tolerance in England. But Parliament, wary of another religious convulsion, took away the king’s power to make religious law altogether, and embarked on its coercion of uniformity. Events in the small and still financially unimportant colonies in New England were not as pressing to Parliament, trying to keep things under control at home after the Restoration.

But a precedent was set in New England by the Rhode Island royal charter. Massachusetts Bay colonists would never accept people of different religious beliefs to live amongst them, but they did trade with Rhode Islanders, hold markets together, and allow them to travel through and stay overnight in MBC. Gradually MBC, with its natural, un-coerced uniformity, came to be seen as the anomaly–even by its own people! And generations of Americans grew up not only expecting religious diversity to be tolerated, but, crucially, expecting civil religion, not state religion, to be the order of the day.

Therefore it was no stretch 100 years later to set up a government in which religion was important but not codified in law. Americans were used to this kind of separation of church and state, and comfortable with the primacy of civil religion over state religion. Belatedly, in the late 20th century, attempts were made to open up the public to the idea of state religion, but it will likely be an uphill battle to convince Americans to accept this 17th-century idea.

Crash Course on the Puritans: so close, John Green!

We decided to watch the Crash Course “When is Thanksgiving? Colonizing America, Crash Course U.S. History #2” because this CC series is so popular with young Americans. It started out so well! Nice explanation of the unequal labor system that developed in Virginia and clear explanations for it. Plus he differentiated between Pilgrims and Puritans, which you know we appreciate.

But he hit the seemingly inevitable rocks of myth as soon as he really got into the Pilgrim/Puritan section, beginning of course with a weird and incorrect reason for the Pilgrims leaving the Netherlands. He said the Dutch were “too corrupt” for the Pilgrims. At least this was a new one we hadn’t ever heard before (the usual reason being that the English didn’t want their children becoming Dutch). The real reason was that the Netherlands was about to resume fighting its religious war with Catholic Spain, and the English did not want to get in the middle of that (especially if Spain won and immediately persecuted all Protestants). The English were also barely tolerated by the Dutch, because Pilgrim religious practice was very radical.

Green also says the Pilgrims were trying to go to Virginia and got blown off course to Massachusetts, which is not true.

He then ridicules the Pilgrims for not bringing enough food and for bringing no farm animals. If you have ever seen the Mayflower replica at Plymouth, you’ll know that there was simply no room in that small ship for farm animals. Later, when animals were brought over, they frequently died on the way over from the terrible conditions—just like the people. And the Pilgrims did bring food, but much of it was spoiled by seawater leaking into the casks. No one leaves for “the wilderness” without bringing food. They just didn’t have the best of containers.

On to the Puritans, and a decent explanation of Congregationalism marred by the following misapplication of the City on a Hill section of the John Winthrop sermon “A Model of Christian Charity”, in which Green conflates the 19th-century Americans’ interpretation of the sermon as saying that America and later the U.S. were “exceptional” and a model for other nations to adopt. See our post clarifying what Winthrop really meant.

So far, it’s not too bad. But then we take an unfortunate left turn into pure myth. (Green says these courses are written by his high school history teacher; what gives?) He says that in Puritan society a small “church elite” held power and that there were separate rights for freemen, women, children, and servants. The church elite idea comes from the fact that one had to be a church member to vote or hold political office in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the myth that so few people were members that they formed an elite, and the myth on top of myth that that was the original intent.

You did have to be a church member to become a freeman, but the number of men who became freemen was not fractional. Research is ongoing because the original myth of a tiny fraction of freemen in the colony that was first put about by Thomas Lechford, a disaffected colonist who went back to England in the 1640s, has only recently been addressed by historians, who are finding that Lechford’s complaint that only 1 in 5 colonists was a church member is grossly exaggerated. The real problem is that, like Americans today, many Puritan men did not want to become freemen because they did not want the obligations and duties of a freeman (voting, participating in government) so they went to church all their lives but never became members. (Many did, however, vote illegally and participate in their town governments despite the requirement.)

HP readers know that we go over the rights developed and recorded by the MBC in 1641 in our series on the Body of Liberties, and we address the rights of minority populations in that series. Women, children, and servants were subject to many of the same laws as freeman and other male inhabitants, but also had some special protections to offset their traditionally unequal status in society.

Then Green goes deep into the realm of fantasy to say that Roger Williams was banished for saying everyone should be able to practice whatever religion they wanted. This is like saying Frederick Douglass thought slavery was good for black Americans. It’s beyond untrue. Williams, as we explain in our series devoted to him, was banished for saying the king of England who gave the Puritans their charter in America was an antichrist. This was treason, and could have gotten the whole colony scotched. No one was less interested in religious freedom than RW at the time of his banishment. It was much, much later in what is now Rhode Island that he began to entertain religious tolerance (but not for Catholics or Quakers).

And not for Anne Hutchinson, either, who was not banished for “being a woman preaching unorthodox ideas” but for inciting a civil war in the colony by claiming that God spoke directly to her and told her who was saved and who was not, and that everyone running the colony was not. She was not “banished to New York”; she originally went to Providence but after she began inciting the same civil war there, Roger Williams kicked her out and she went to what is now New York.

So ends Green’s crash course. The underlying problem is not lazy scholarship but something he references at the very end: Americans “like to see ourselves as pioneers of religious freedom”. That is true. It is true because ever since the U.S. was founded, we have striven to offer true religious freedom, and that is a wonderful thing that set us apart from most nations. But the U.S. was founded in 1775—not 1607. It took a long time and a lot of populations mixing in the 13 colonies, and the advent of the Enlightenment in Europe, to get Americans to the point where they could entertain that idea. Religious freedom was not part of the political landscape in the 17th century. The Puritans did not leave England to establish freedom of religion. They left England so they could practice their own religion freely, which is very different. They were committed to protecting their religion and, hopefully, extending it to other lands. Why on earth, then, would they allow competing (and to their minds wrong) religions in their colonies?

Our job is to separate the modern American ideal of religious freedom from the early modern ideals of our 17th-century founders. We can’t blame them for failing to do something we thought of 150 years after they died. And we can’t teach our nation’s history as a series of failures to live up to 21st-century law, mores, and myths. Alas John Green—you need the shock pen after all.

Roger Williams Transformed

Part the last of Truth v. Myth on Roger Williams, in which Williams draws back from the abyss of isolation and becomes the man we remember so well today.

After creating such high standards for religious and spiritual practice that there were only two people left in the world for him who were worthy of taking communion—himself and his wife—Williams had some sort of breakthrough. He followed his train of thought to its logical conclusion, which is that no church in the fallen world, no church on Earth, can be pure. It’s just not possible. If the Earth is a sinful and fallen place, it cannot create a gathering of people who are entirely holy. One could not escape the “dung heap” of humanity, as Williams had previously described other people to John Winthrop.

It’s a moment of great danger for Williams. This realization could have led him to complete despair; suicide seems to be the only way out of this terrible situation for the man who cannot accept imperfection. But something pulled him through, whether it was Williams’ basic goodness, his realization of the great love and loyalty his followers had demonstrated in going to Narragansett with him, or perhaps the persuasion of his wife Mary, who so often goes unnamed and unnoticed in her husband’s famous story. Mary had followed Roger from England to America, from Boston to Salem, Salem to Plymouth and back again, and Salem to Narragansett country. Each time she had to help set up a new homestead and a new farm, while raising their many children and bearing many more. It is telling that even as he questioned the purity of everyone on Earth, Roger never once turned against his faithful wife. She must have been a loving and intelligent woman, and perhaps we do have her to thank, at least in part, for Williams’ turnaround.

Because Williams did do a 180 in Narragansett. The basic goodness and love of other people that characterized him broke through and he was able to decide that since he could not escape other, fallen, sinful people, he would join them. “Having a little before refused communion with all, save his own wife,” said Winthrop, Williams’ old friend, “now he would preach to and pray with all comers.”

And so he did. Williams threw open his tiny colony to anyone who wanted to join him and work together as one loving group. Winthrop shook his head once again at his young friend; to Winthrop, this “come one, come all” attitude was just as crazy as Williams’ original “no one is good enough” attitude. Puritans were careful to make sure their churches were attended by people trying to live holy lives. But Williams was welcoming anyone and everyone, even those who did not profess themselves to be trying to achieve holiness. In fact, many of his most loyal followers deserted Williams at this point. They had seen in him a man who would give them perfection, a man who could create a heaven on Earth; now he was throwing that chance away to live with the most sinful of people.

Word of Williams’ policies in Narragansett got around the MBC, and people decided Williams had snapped. He was an extremist, they saw; first seeking pure holiness, now seeking sinfulness. His appeal faded for most Puritans in the colony. But there were always a few people who found their way to what became Rhode Island, where Williams created a society that practiced tolerance for just about all people and beliefs. There were limits. As we have seen, even Williams could not welcome Quakers, and Anne Hutchinson, when banished from Boston, made herself very unwelcome in Providence.

But otherwise, Williams welcomed Native Americans, banishees from other colonies, and anyone seeking freedom to live as they wished so long as they did not harm others. The Roger Williams we know and love was born. His was an epic journey, one that Americans as a people re-enact each generation: moving from intolerance and the demand that everyone be like them to real democracy, liberty, and freedom.

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 makes trouble in Salem—again

Part V of the Truth v. Myth series on Roger Williams finds him once again before the General Court, this time in April 1635. His unique brand of Separatism was causing him to deny more and more people the benefit of a doubt in a few ways: when the colony decided all inhabitants who were not freemen should take an oath to support the colony and its government, Williams complained (to all who would hear him) that since oaths were taken before God,  if unregenerate (unsaved) men took the oath along with the godly, those godly men would as a result “have communion” with the wicked and therefore be taking God’s name in vain. He also stated that a godly man should not stoop to pray with the ungodly, even if that meant his own wife and children.

Williams was able to persuade the church-goers of Salem in these cases, again because of his charisma and because he himself seemed to be so undoubtedly good. Such a godly man could not be wrong. When the minister at Salem died, Williams was chosen by the congregation to take his place.

Not long after, in July 1635, he was summoned again to the General Court, but this time it was different. As a legally chosen minister of the colony, Williams could not be forced to change his views. In Puritan New England, the independence of the individual congregation was paramount—their faith was called Congregationalism. No one—not the government, not other ministers—had control over a church, or the right to interfere with its decisions. Only a church’s congregation could rebuke or remove its minister. The General Court could not force Williams to leave the pulpit in Salem.

The Court could, however, take the advice of other ministers, and in this case a group of them concluded that Williams was leading Salem to heresy and ought to be removed. To implement this advice, the Court told Salem that it would not grant its petition to claim land in nearby Marblehead if Williams was not dismissed. Salem’s church immediately wrote furious letters to the other churches in the colony, asking for their help in withstanding this clear breach of congregational independence.

This could have become a serious crisis for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. If the churches had united to challenge the government, the whole basis of the colony—a political unit supporting a religious society that agreed to be governed by civil law—would have collapsed. Churches would most certainly have been divided over the issue, some feeling that defying the civil authorities was justified, others feeling it was not. It’s important to remember that at this moment, MBC was fighting with the English government to keep its charter (the legal document allowing it to govern itself independently), and expecting a flotilla of English warships in the harbor at any moment. Everything seemed to be at stake.

So the ministers obfuscated. The ministers who had delivered the opinion against Williams to the court received the letters from Salem and simply pocketed them, not telling their congregations about them.

Williams figured this out and in his anger he finally went too far even for Salem. He claimed publicly that the churches of Massachusetts, by helping the government to oppress the Salem church, were no longer pure. If Salem did not separate from the other churches, Williams would leave its pulpit.

Salem could not do it. To withdraw itself from the help, fellowship, and support not only of the government of the colony but of all other churches and towns in the MBC was too much. The people of Salem did not want to separate from the rest of the world and go it completely alone, having spiritual and earthly communion with no one but themselves. They refused.

Williams was called for the last time to the Court in October 1635, where he gladly accepted the charges of denying the court’s authority and writing seditious letters calling for rebellion against the government. He was sentenced to banishment, and told to leave the colony within six weeks.

Williams resigned as minister when he returned to Salem, and because he did not try to whip up support against his banishment, and in fact seemed to accept it happily, the Court changed its ruling to say he could wait to leave until the next spring, rather than set out in late fall. The one condition was that Williams stop spreading his seditious opinions. That, of course, was impossible.

Next time: Williams makes a narrow escape

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 in Plymouth

Here in Part 3 of our Truth v. Myth series on Roger Williams, we follow his time in Plymouth. We saw last time that Williams had left Boston because its church had not separated from the Church of England, which Williams, like all English Separatists, saw as a failed church. So he went to Plymouth, which was a Separatist colony.

For a while things went well, as Williams again charmed the people of Plymouth with his winning personality and his goodness, and impressed them with the occasional preaching he did (he did not earn a living as a minister, but worked his family farm). But fairly soon Williams began to feel even Plymouth was not separated enough. When members of the colony visited England, they went to Anglican (Church of England) services there, then came back and worshipped in the Plymouth church, thus contaminating it. He also, to some degree or other, began to object to using the common term “Goodman”—equivalent to “Mr.” today—to address men who were not revealed to have been saved by God’s grace. How could a man who was not truly good be given the title of Goodman?

Williams stirred up enough fuss about using “Goodman” that when John Winthrop came to visit Plymouth, its leaders asked his opinion. So Winthrop learned that once again, Williams was falling into that trap of shutting out more and more of the world in an attempt to create a purely holy world of one’s own. He reassured the Plymouthers that “Goodman” was appropriate, but Williams made the decision to leave Plymouth. The governor of the colony, William Bradford, wrote later that Williams left “abruptly”, in 1633.

He returned once more to Salem, where the people welcomed him happily, and made him a full member of their church. Williams was willing to join the church, even though it was Anglican, because he saw that most members of the Salem church were open to his ideas; he must have hoped/thought he could lead them to Separatism. He began teaching unofficially, urging the people to aim for the heights of spiritual perfection.

But it wasn’t just his religion that made Williams a problem. While in Salem he would ignite a political scandal that would engulf and endanger the entire Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Next time: Williams commits treason

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

Truth v. Myth: Roger Williams

Roger Williams is a rarity: a Puritan minister who is viewed with great sympathy by modern Americans. How did this happen?

In this T v M series, we’ll look at Williams and learn his full story, and surprisingly, the basic outcome will remain unchanged, in that Williams did become a sympathetic and visionary leader we can all admire today. But it was a long road for him, and most Americans would not recognize the early Roger Williams. His struggles involved many important Puritan leaders, the powerful church at Salem, and at one point the attention of the entire Puritan population in New England. Williams was the closest thing to a celebrity—a rule-breaking, emotional celebrity with devoted fans and bitter enemies—that ever existed in early Puritan New England, and he came close to self-destructing before he found his way.

Williams was born to wealthy London parents (his father was a merchant) in 1603. He graduated from Cambridge in 1627 as an Anglican minister but he could not take up a position in an Anglican church because sometime during college, Williams had become a Puritan. This was not completely surprising; Puritanism was active in the universities, where bright and inquiring men were exposed (whether deliberately or by accident) to the newest ideas. Puritanism was also a very intellectual faith, well-suited to scholarly men.   

Since he could not stand in a pulpit, Williams took a position as private chaplain to the family of Puritan lord Sir William Macham. In December 1629, he married Mary Barnard. Williams knew that the first group of Puritans were planning their journey to America, due to launch just four months later in April 1630. In fact, he had been made aware of those plans by the Puritan leaders themselves, showing that Williams was already becoming a well-known and well-esteemed Puritan leader himself. But he did not join them. Why? There are likely several reasons. First, Williams had a good position in the Puritan household of an influential man, and might have hoped to effect change at home in England. Second, he had not yet been persecuted for his faith. Third, and significantly, Williams was already finding Puritanism too compromised; he was becoming a Separatist (someone who wanted to leave the Church of England rather than reform it as the Puritans wanted to do).

By the time Williams left for America with his wife Mary later in 1630, he was an opponent of the Anglican Church and the Puritan program. How was he to fare in Puritan New England?

Next time: Williams makes waves in Salem.

Puritans v. Quakers in the battle for our sympathy

I just finished my Delbanco book and it strikes me that most historians who write about the Puritans just don’t like them, deep down inside, and this colors their history.

Of course, it’s not as if liking a group makes your history better than disliking a group. Ideally, you try to be as objective as possible.

But that objectivity is hard to come by when you’re reading about the Puritans. A schadenfreude creeps in and eventually sets the overall tone fast in a kind of head-shaking ruing of the Puritans and their crazy ways. Almost any book you read about the Massachusetts Bay Colony gives you the feeling that it was an immediate failure, that the moment those people set foot on shore in America they started betraying their own values. Blame is laid at the door of their religion, inevitably; a religion that crazy was just bound to fail.

It’s funny, because MBC was very successful. It established dominance over all New England, Boston was the major American port for decades, and overpopulation was almost immediately a problem. The MBC Puritans finally codified their religion in writing (the New England Way), something that had eluded or been deemed impossible by English Puritans, they settled two strong challenges to their Way (Antinomianism and the Halfway Covenant), created a representative legislature and judiciary, and wrote down a code of civil law (something the English Parliament tried to force the king to do to no avail).

But in most religious histories of the Puritans of the MBC, they are portrayed as psychologically tortured, religiously intolerant, crippled by self-doubt, paralyzed by uncertainty and fear of eternal punishment. You’d never know this was the place that invented flip, the fun rum drink with sizzling cream.

Meanwhile, the other crazy zealots in America, the Quakers, come off as lovely and wonderful, and full of success, when in fact their single colony immediately and completely betrayed its founder’s principles as soon as he died, and the Quaker faith henceforth had nothing to do with the government of Pennsylvania.

Because the later, 18th and especially 19th century Quakers were antislavery pacifists, we like them. We’re in sympathy with them. We ignore that fact that in the 17th century, they were as unpleasant and dictatorial about religion as any Puritan might be. I am greatly indebted to Tom Van Dyke at American Creation for this description of 17th-century Quakers in America:

[Roger] Williams spent much of his final decades in protracted debates with Quaker missionaries and refugees to Rhode Island, and what caused him to be so exasperated with his Quaker opponents was primarily their violation of [the] aspect of civility, the need to conduct public conversation respectfully. …Williams was taken aback by his Quaker opponents’ boisterous behavior and abandonment of common courtesy during the debates. He vehemently objected to their habit of interrupting his arguments, shouting him down, attempting to humiliate him personally with name-calling and ridicule, misrepresenting his convictions, and displaying a noted lack of truthfulness in their own arguments. …[To Williams] this behavior was not, as the Quakers insisted, an acceptable exercise of free conscience. Instead it was a moral violation of the basic requirements of civility, a signal of deep disrespect and a transgression of the procedural rules for public deliberation that Williams held with the highest esteem, so much so that he was willing to entertain the possibility that violators of civility like the Quakers should be subject to legal restrictions.

If you could get Roger Williams so far on your bad side that he was willing to restrict your liberties, you know you’re pretty extreme.

So while of course you can never completely erase your own biases when studying anything, including history, we need to at least be upfront about them. If only Puritan historians would just include a Foreword saying, “Look, I hate these people, but they’re an important part of American history, so we need to study them, but frankly I’m glad they got what they deserved in the long run–oblivion.”

My foreword would be different…  as you can guess!

(For more on the battle between Puritans and Quakers, see The Puritans and Freedom of Religion.)