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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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