Roger Williams makes trouble in Salem—again

Posted on September 15, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

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

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Roger Williams in Plymouth

Posted on September 10, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , |

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

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Roger Williams: A Dangerous Man

Posted on September 7, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , |

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

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The 1692 witch scare: why Salem?

Posted on March 18, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of my Truth v. Myth series on the Salem witch scare of 1692. Here we take a look at Salem before the scare to see what was happening, and why Salem ended up as the site of this tragedy.

Salem was not just any old town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Salem was the site of first settlement for the New England Puritans. When John Winthrop and his famous band of Puritan settlers arrived in 1630, they first sheltered in Salem before heading south to found Boston. (Remember, as we show in Pilgrims v. Puritans: who landed in Plymouth?, those people who landed in 1620 were not Puritans but Separatists.) A small group of unfunded Puritans had left England in 1626 and founded Salem. Therefore it was the first Puritan settlement in New England, and as such had planted the first Reformed Anglican (Congregational) church in the New World.

So Salem had clout. It was literally the mother of all Puritan churches in the New World, and its community was very proud of its standing. The church in Boston became very powerful, but the Salem congregation was always a kind of Queen Mother to it, and the advice of Salem’s ministers and congregation was always important to Boston.

Salem was always a frontier town. It was closer to southern Maine than to Boston, and southern Maine was a battleground from the 1630s on between France, ever-encroaching southward from Canada, and the English settlers in MBC and Plymouth. The English created settlements and trading posts in this area, notably Agawam, as buffer zones against French expansion. The French, who had a good track record of keeping their hands off (Native) American land in Canada, were easily able to enlist Abenakis, Acadias, and Penobscots to fight the English settlers, who clearly needed and took lots of land in New England. So while the French built forts in the north from which to sweep down into New England, their Native American allies (particularly the Abenakis) would raid English settlements in southern Maine and northern MBC, armed with French weapons and given sanctuary in French-controlled land.

Trouble for Salem, with the French, Native Americans, and England itself, began in 1686, just six years before the witch scare. In that year, King James II of England established the Dominion of New England (read more about that here), which took away MBC’s political independence, its self-rule, and its religion. This grossly unfair and unpopular regime was overthrown by the New Englanders in 1689, when they got word that James II had been deposed in favor of William and Mary. But they were not able to get their independence back; MBC would remain a royal colony with a royal governor who was appointed by the king rather than elected by the legislature.

So just three years before the scare, Salem, along with all the MBC, has had its religion, land rights, and governance challenged and not fully restored. But worse was to come–the new king immediately brought his war with France to New England.

King William’s War (1689-97) was fought by English forces in Europe, but the violence came to New England. Because their home nations were at war, the French in Canada launched new attacks through their Native American allies on English settlements. Native American night raids on small Maine villages were terrifying and unsparing. The worst attack was on York, Maine on January 25, 1692; the first accusations of witchcraft in Salem came weeks later.

Salem, again, was close to Maine, and actually received many refugees from the violence, particularly children. Salem was on constant alert for Native American attack, and sent militia to defend Maine itself.  Salem’s neighboring towns of  Andover, Haverhill, Amesbury, Newbury, and Rowley (now Georgetown) were attacked.

In the midst of this external stress and tension,  Salem was also undergoing internal strife. Salem was made up of Salem Village, the original farming settlement, and Salem Town, a newer development of mostly merchants and business people.  The old Puritan law of “one village, one church” had been upheld in Salem long after it was clear that Salem Town was large enough, and its people far away enough, to have its own congregation. But this was not just any church splitting. This was, remember, the Mother Church of New England; Salem Village did not want to split its historic church and lose the esteem this gave them. There was resentment in the farming Village of the wealth of the merchant Town; all the Village had was its church, and did not want to lose it. Finally, however, it was forced to release Salem Town from its obligations to First Church in Salem, and in 1689, the same year MBC became a permanent royal colony, Salem’s historic church was split.

So we have in Salem, by 1692, very high tensions over Native American attack, royal governance, and internal economic and religious division. On the eve of the scare, Salem was just waiting for a spark to ignite an explosion of violence. In the next segment, we’ll talk about why witchcraft became that spark.

Next time: Did Puritans believe in witchcraft?

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