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.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The “City upon a Hill” section of the sermon 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 sermon was pulled out by later readers 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 sermon, 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 eache 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.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 8 so far )
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.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
There’s a kind of sucker punch in many presentations of American history, wherein we are told that the Puritans left England for America because they had suffered religious persecution—and then the Puritans persecuted other religions here! The hypocrisy is apparently meant to shame Americans about their founding.
Let’s explore this situation. Yes, the Puritans did leave England because they had been persecuted for their religion. For the whole story go to parts 1 and 2 of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant Work Ethic. Here, the story in a nutshell is that the Puritans were members of the official state church of England, the Anglican Church, but they felt it needed to be reformed and restructured (purified) to be more Protestant. For their loud and continual protests and complaints against the Anglican Church, the church hierarchy, and even the English monarch and Parliament, the Puritans were disliked and marginalized throughout the late 1500s and early 1600s. When Charles I took the throne and in 1630 made William Laud, a pro-Catholic, anti-Puritan church leader the Archbishop of Canterbury (and thus basically in charge of the Anglican Church), the bulk of England’s Puritan population fled England. Laud harried them out, putting a price on the heads of more outspoken and powerful Puritan ministers, making it a criminal offense to attend Puritan worship services, and generally doing his best to squash all opposition to the Anglican Church.
So in 1630 the Puritans headed to what is now New England. There was already a small outpost of Puritan settlers in Salem (now part of Massachusetts) to welcome the group headed by John Winthrop. But Winthrop’s group soon headed to what is now Boston, and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
So why were the Puritans in New England? Because they had been forced out of England. They were forced out because they wanted to reform human civilization through religion, to wipe out poverty, and to make a heaven on Earth in which everyone was free to discover God’s will for themselves. But these were not generalized goals; that is, the Puritans did not believe that any or every religion, diligently applied, could result in such a paradise. They believed that only their reformed version of Anglican Christianity could put such goals within reach.
They were not completely crazy for thinking so. In the world they knew, the world of European and especially English Christianity, the Puritans were the only group calling for an end to poverty, the only group demanding that all people, even women, be taught how to read (so they could read the Bible, God’s word), and the only group that required its members to work hard to improve the world on a person-by-person basis. Puritans were supposed to live exemplary lives in every respect so that anyone they dealt with—their customers, friends, even strangers they met—would see God through them, and be inspired to seek God themselves.
Thus the Puritans might be excused for thinking their religion was the only one that could save the world. In their limited experience of the world, theirs was the most actively reformist faith. They left England to preserve that faith, so that Puritanism would not be diluted or destroyed. They left England to create a place where Puritanism could thrive, and eventually grow so strong that when England was destroyed by God for its apostasy, the fugitive Puritans would be left to re-establish Christian civilization.
Now we see why the Puritans did not encourage religious diversity or practice religious tolerance in New England. It was not because they were terrible, hateful people. It was because they were on a mission, and they feared God’s wrath upon themselves if they failed in that mission to create a holy nation on Earth. They left England to establish a Puritan state where Puritan Anglicanism—Congregationalism—could be practiced. They did not leave England to establish a state where people were free to practice whatever religion they wanted. It is incorrect to say the Puritans wanted freedom of religion; they did not. They wanted to be able to practice their own religion freely. Those are two very different things, and we should not misrepresent the Puritans by claiming they believed in freedom of religion.
The Puritans in New England broadcast their intentions, making it as clear as they possibly could that people of other faiths were not welcome there. They made no secret of their hostility to outside religious presence. When people of other faiths insisted on entering New England, the Puritans boiled over with anger.
The question we ask ourselves at this point is, why did people of other faiths go to New England when they knew the situation there? Because they were just as zealous and single-minded about their own faiths as the Puritans. We tend to think of the Quakers who were persecuted in New England as gentle innocents who did no wrong. But Quakers in the 17th century were the most radical Protestant sect in England, maybe even in Europe. They entered Puritan towns banging pots and pans, screaming and singing, entering meeting-houses during Puritan worship and yelling to the congregation to hear their words. Sometimes Quakers stripped themselves naked in the center of town to call attention to the need to strip oneself of earthly attachments. They got the derisive nickname “Quakers” because they would go into convulsive fits during their worship services.
The Quakers, then, were a radical and alarming people who went into New England with the express mission to destroy the Puritan way and introduce their own religious beliefs. They were just as feverishly devoted to Quakerism as the Puritans were fanatically devoted to Puritanism. What we have are two radical groups with zero tolerance for other beliefs who were, once the Quakers entered New England, trapped in the same space. Persecution of the Quakers followed, in Boston as it did in London.
It is only if we think that the 18th-century beliefs about religious tolerance enshrined in our Constitution came directly from the 17th century, then, that we can be dismayed to find no freedom of religion in Puritan New England. Almost no one in 17th-century Europe believed in freedom of religion or freedom of conscience. The Quakers did not, the Puritans did not. Almost all sects believed they alone had the truth of God and that they alone should exist. It took 150 years of religious co-existence in America to get to the point where freedom of religion could be put forward as a basic human right.
Instead of shaking our heads over the religious intolerance of the Puritans, we are better served by understanding the passions, fears, hopes and dreams that competed for the soul of Europe from the grey shores of the New World.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 8 so far )