The End of Witchcraft Trials in New England

Posted on October 1, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our short series on the practical whys and wherefores of witchcraft cases in Puritan New England ends with a look at reasons for the decline and disappearance of these cases. Again we are relying on John Demos’ priceless book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England for many of our specific examples.

As Demos points out, and as we noted in part 1 of this series, one of the exacerbating factors in witchcraft accusations was close proximity: in early New England towns, the entire population lived in small houses crowding the small square, saw each other daily in a variety of roles, socialized together, worshipped and worked together, and basically could not get out of each other’s hair for one minute. If you disliked someone in town, you would not be able to avoid interacting with them every day, and, in their blunt Puritan way the person you disliked would likely barge into your yard and home whenever they wanted, sometimes just to bother you. We have seen that most people accused of witchcraft were difficult people who demanded favors, gifts, and intimacy from those around them, giving nothing back in return. If a neighbor refused a gift or favor, the difficult person might curse or threaten them. Then, if by coincidence some harm befell the neighbor, the difficult person would fall under suspicion of having used witchcraft to make good their threats.

So if witchcraft accusations were provoked in some part by too-close proximity, it makes sense that once New England had expanded enough to conquer its frontier, and it was safer and less laborious to start new towns, two things happened to slow witchcraft accusations: towns began to grow, and people began to move more often. As Demos puts it:

“Eventually witchcraft would disappear as a matter of formal proceedings. This last part of the sequence is extremely hard to analyze from a distance of three centuries; perhaps, however, one key factor was a certain loosening of the social tissues themselves.  …The growth and dispersion of the local populace, a somewhat broadened range of economic activity, an increasingly firm system of social stratification: these interlocking trends seem gradually to have modified the tensions amid which witchcraft had flourished.” (371)

If the average town goes from 150 people to 1,000, you are less likely to constantly deal with the same people each day, and your neighbor is less likely to focus his full attention on you 24 hours a day simply because there are more people to be interested in. Your neighbor is also less likely to also be your tax collector, fence inspector, pew-fellow, midwife, cattle-driver, etc. A small number of intensely intimate relationships are replaced by many more casual ones.

When Demos talks about loosening of the social tissues, remember that the Puritans were dedicated to the principle of mutual watch: the loving oversight of their community. This meant playing a role in the spiritual lives of your community, and welcoming your community’s involvement in your own spiritual life. Puritans worshipped, prayed, and debated together on a regular, almost daily basis, and their ideal was to work out all conflicts through loving negotiation. Ideally, no matter would ever have to go to court. Many times, when a problem did go to court—including witchcraft cases—it was sent back to the town by the judge with a recommendation that the problem be solved privately, by the interested parties, through prayer, negotiation, and applied goodwill. Ministers, deacons, and especially godly church members were on constant call to mediate conflicts, and were successful far more often than might be expected.

As towns grew, and people knew each other less well, mutual watch became difficult and then impossible to carry out. Just as a growing population meant less intimate, less frequent contact between townspeople, so too it meant less conviction that the community was bound, or able, to mediate conflicts. And larger, more mobile populations meant fewer personal problems between individuals had the chance to fester and grow. Problems went directly to court and were settled there. This meant that the weeks, months, or even years of private tension over a suspected witch, and the weeks, months, or years of attempted mediation and accumulated anxiety and bad feeling were done away with. Without that long history of conflict, fewer accusations of witchcraft were made. Without that long history of conflict to produce dozens of witnesses for and against the accused, those witchcraft cases that did go to court were weaker and taken less seriously. It was easier to see the case as the result of a personal conflict. The wind was taken out of the sails of witchcraft.

So we see that by the end of the 17th century, a century of intense population growth in New England, witchcraft cases are dwindling to nothing. In fact, after the Salem witch trials in 1692, there were “no more executions, no convictions, indeed no actual indictments” related to witchcraft in any New England court. (Demos 387) We talked in part 2 about why Salem, the largest witch trials, happened as witchcraft trials themselves were dying away. Here we want to focus on its aftermath. The hysteria at Salem deeply shocked and shamed New Englanders, who saw government go off the rails, replaced by accusation and panic, and they were embarrassed to think of how they looked to the outside world. The Age of Reason was influencing how people thought about natural and unnatural phenomena, even New England Puritans.

Thomas Brattle is a good example of this. Brattle lived in the town of Cambridge and wrote a letter to a friend about the events in Salem just as they were ending, in October 1692. Brattle’s account of the way the trials were conducted is a powerful example of a good Puritan completely rejecting the irrationality of the Salem trials:

“First, as to the method which the Salem Justices do take in their examinations, it is truly this: A warrant being issued out to apprehend the persons that are charged and complained of by the afflicted children, (as they are called); said persons are brought before the Justices, (the afflicted being present.) The Justices ask the apprehended why they afflict those poor children; to which the apprehended answer, they do not afflict them. The Justices order the apprehended to look upon the said children, which accordingly they do; and at the time of that look, (I dare not say by that look, as the Salem Gentlemen do) the afflicted are cast into a fit. The apprehended are then blinded, and ordered to touch the afflicted; and at that touch, though not by the touch, (as above) the afflicted ordinarily do come out of their fits. The afflicted persons then declare and affirm, that the apprehended have afflicted them; upon which the apprehended persons, though of never so good repute, are forthwith committed to prison, on suspicion for witchcraft.

…I cannot but condemn this method of the Justices, of making this touch of the hand a rule to discover witchcraft; because I am fully persuaded that it is sorcery, and a superstitious method, and that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion. [This] Salem philosophy, some men may call the  new philosophy; but I think it rather deserves the name of Salem superstition and sorcery, and it is not fit to be named in a land of such light as New-England is… In the mean time, I think we must [be] thankful to God for it, that all men are not thus bereft of their senses; but that we have here and there considerate and thinking men, who will not thus be imposed upon…

What will be the issue of these troubles, God only knows; I am afraid that ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land. I pray God pity us, humble us, forgive us, and appear mercifully for us in this our mount of distress.”

Puritans had always treasured reason. They believed it was God’s greatest gift (after saving grace), given to humans to allow them to comprehend God’s creation and to seek to understand God’s will. Their legal code was a model of reason. As the 17th century drew to a close, Puritans began to doubt that their courts should be hearing witchcraft cases. Like Thomas Brattle, they felt there was no way for a judge to ” discover witchcraft” because witchcraft was supernatural—it could not be addressed in a human court: witchcraft was “that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion.” Most Puritans felt the same, and witchcraft accusations were handled privately after Salem.

They were handled privately because witchcraft accusations didn’t disappear after Salem; they dwindled, and  they entered the realm of ambiguity. “Witchcraft was hard to square with ‘enlightened’ standards and values, yet it could not be dismissed entirely” [Demos 387], and in this state of limbo witchcraft accusations were reduced to the status of gossip and private fulminations and, eventually, legend. Ministers reported strange cases that alarmed them, but never led them to publicly reveal the suspected culprits. Almost every little town seemed to have a local witch who fueled gossip and folklore but was mostly left in peace. “The figure of the witch was effectively scaled down, so as to shrink the elements of death-dealing power, and to emphasize those of sheer eccentricity. …The harm attributed to witchcraft was confined more and more to routine domestic mishap, nightmares, and simple ‘mischief’… such elements had always been part of the witch’s maleficium, but now they were virtually the whole of it.” [Demos 390]

Puritans had always been skeptical of claims that someone was truly a witch in league with and empowered by the devil, and required many witnesses and much evidence in trials, and even then dismissed most cases. By the 1700s, that skepticism was complete. 1630-1700 is a pretty brief window for witchcraft, and since we see that witchcraft cases really began in Puritan New England in the mid-1640s and ended after 1692, the window is even briefer. It is odd, therefore, that Puritan New England is so identified with witch trials and witch hunts. Poor Thomas Brattle was right, it seems, to fear that “ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land.” Americans love to reproach the Puritans with their “witch mania”, unfair though that accusation may be, given that English colonists throughout North America believed just as firmly in witches. If only there had been a Salem in Virginia, another anomaly that drew attention away from its laser focus on Massachusetts, we might have a better general understanding of the role of witchcraft belief in the early modern western world.

As it is, we will leave off here feeling we’ve done our small part to set the record straight.

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The Chronology of Witchcraft in Puritan New England

Posted on September 24, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

Hello and welcome to part 2 of our short series on the Puritans and the factors behind the seeming madness of their accusations of witchcraft. Again we’re referring to John Demos’ book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England for many keen observations on what caused the Puritans to make these accusations.

One of his most interesting conclusions is that witchcraft accusations came about during times of relative political and social peace. When communities were first founded, people’s time was completely occupied with building homes, clearing fields, putting in crops, and other necessities of life. During the first few years of a new town’s life, there were few or no witchcraft accusations. This was not only because people had little time to pursue such accusations, but because the populations were so new—people did not all know each other well. The core founders may have come over from England together, or a core group may have left one town to start another, but most of the rest were people who joined in from all over, and did not really know each other. We mentioned in part 1 that people lived in very close quarters and had a great deal of daily, often intimate (in the home) contact with each other over the course of years, and when people were difficult neighbors in these circumstances they more likely to be accused of witchcraft. As Demos says, the first tumultuous years of settlement, with high population turnover and few established relationships, “were not conducive to the development of full-blown witchcraft proceedings, which required time and a certain constancy of social relations.” [371]

After the initial tumult of founding, however, people had time to get to know each other, sometimes all too well, and the accusations would begin—usually about a decade in to the life of the town. At that point, only one thing could disrupt the attention to witchery: outside conflict. War, threats to the town or the colony, dissension in the town’s church; these were all events that devoured the attention of townspeople, putting them back into a life-or-death situation similar to the early founding years. The 1640s were a time of relative peace in New England, and during this decade the colonies in Massachusetts and Connecticut experienced a high-water mark of witchcraft trials. But when the Hartford Controversy (a bitter conflict over church leadership) broke out in 1656, the number of witchcraft cases in that colony dropped sharply, and remained down until the controversy was ended.

After a conflict, there was a brief resting period, and then witchcraft accusations would resume, sometimes more vigorously than before, as excess energy and anger left over from the conflict found a vent.

There is an important difference here, as Demos notes, between conflict and “harms” or “signs”. Epidemic disease, insect infestations, comets, hurricanes, and other such events were considered harms or signs from God, warning the people of the need to repent their sins. These harms and signs often triggered witchcraft accusations, as people attempted to harrow (as they would put it) and purify their communities in the face of God’s demonstrated anger.  Unusual or inexplicable events fueled fear of witches, but concrete, clearly human conflicts did not. Political fights, wars with or fear of Indians or the French in Canada and Maine, and church divisions were not sent from God but were the result of very human arguments, and these did not provoke quests to uncover witches.

The Puritans arrived in North America in numbers in 1630. For that first decade of settlement in the 1630s, witchcraft cases were few. It was in the 1640s that settled communities began prosecuting witches, and this persisted into the 1650s. By the 1660s, witchcraft cases in Massachusetts Bay Colony had dropped, while harms and signs (a smallpox epidemic and repeated crop failures) in Connecticut led to an increase of cases there. 1660 was a pivotal year: Charles II was restored to the English throne, and the Puritans in America justly feared for their safety and continued political independence with a Stuart back on the throne, since it had been Puritans who had executed his father. When the new king sent commissioners to inspect the colonies in 1664, fear of political takeover choked off witchcraft cases. In the late 1660s, a critical conflict in the mighty First Church Boston also preoccupied the colonists’ attentions, and it was not until the early 1670s that witchcraft cases rose again in Massachusetts, which was suffering through a series of droughts and storms (harms and signs), while almost disappearing in Connecticut, which was still struggling with religious divisions (human conflict).

In the late 1670s, both Massachusetts and the Connecticut colonies experienced a very low number of witchcraft cases—almost none—thanks to the turmoil and fear of King Philip’s War: as Demos puts it, “For the time being danger from the invisible world was superseded by combat with a host of quite present and visible Indian enemies.”

After the war, the usual witchcraft cases driven by residual fear and anger cropped up,  and a fire in Boston and other “harms and signs” exacerbated the tension. But in the 1680s and 90s cases dropped off again as fears of a royal political takeover grew—the Massachusetts Bay Colony was fighting for its independence as its charter was called into question in London. It was revoked finally in 1691, and the MBC became a royal colony with a royally appointed governor, a calamity that put almost all witchcraft accusations to rest.

But then came the one witchcraft episode that most Americans know about—Salem. Its date gives its motives away. The first accusations were in 1692, a year after the loss of the charter, and were clearly part of the usual post-traumatic stress of a big conflict. Other factors made Salem explode into a witch hunt such as had never been seen before (see our series on Salem here), but the unusually large trouble of losing political independence obviously contributed to an unusually large case of witchcraft accusations.

After Salem, the 1690s saw almost no witchcraft cases in Massachusetts or the Connecticut colonies, and this was likely, in part, a reaction against the Salem mania.

This chronological tour of rises and falls in witchcraft cases in New England shows us some interesting points:

—witchcraft was on people’s minds mostly in the absence of human conflicts

—witchcraft accusations were not constant over time

—Puritans did not blame witchcraft for concrete crises and problems, but for more abstract, hard to explain events like storms, failed crops, and epidemics.

—Witchcraft accusations were often safety valves used to release accumulated tension and anger after a human conflict, and sometimes a way to strike at all-too human enemies who had emerged victorious from a conflict that should have destroyed them, according to the accuser.

Next time we’ll see how demographic and geographic growth ended witchcraft cases altogether in Puritan New England by the early 1700s.

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Puritans and Witchcraft: more method, less madness

Posted on September 18, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

John Demos’ invaluable book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England is a worthy read for anyone seeking scientific analysis of witchcraft amongst the Puritans—not just trials and executions, but the daily lived experience of witchcraft. It is a mark of the book’s soundness, in some ways, that it does not discuss the Salem Witch Trials (they are mentioned in passing a few times). This confirms our opinion that the Salem trials were an anomaly in New England, and tell us about the Puritans’ experience and understanding of witches only by spelling out what they were not.

It is clear from Demos’ study that most 17th-century Puritans did believe that a few people around them practiced witchcraft, but the myth-busting corollary to this is that few people suspected of practicing witchcraft were actually tried, and fewer of those were convicted. It is amazing to read dozens of stories of people who were suspected of practicing witchcraft and repeatedly accused of it over many years—sometimes decades—who were never convicted in court, and who often had many public arguments over their suspected witchcraft before charges were even made against them.

The usual (though not universal) profile of a suspected witch was a middle-aged man or woman (more often a woman) with few or no children and an aggressive personality who made a habit of barging into people’s homes uninvited, demanding jobs or favors from people, and meddling or attempting to meddle with the treatment of the ill. The usual victim was an infant or child, or a woman who had recently given birth. This, Demos argues, could illustrate the difficulties for childless women or women who lived past their childbearing years in early modern society: they had no children to do chores or bring in income for them, and therefore frequently asked for favors from others; and those in menopause had no hope of having (more) children and envied women who were younger and having children, which led them to insistently barge in on women in childbirth or to demand to touch and hold infants. In a society where the average family had 5 children, to be childless or to have only one child was to stand out, and once your only child grew up and perhaps moved away, you were alone, which was difficult in a frontier situation.

The almost universal aggressiveness of suspected witches is interesting. Today we tend to think of the accused as kind and helpless old women singled out for no good reason. But the men and women accused of witchcraft were always difficult people. They complained and took people to court even more frequently than the average litigious Puritan. They called people names and spread malicious gossip. They threatened people’s livestock and livelihoods, predicting death or destruction. They made unreasonable demands on their neighbors for food, goods, and labor, and threatened illness, death, or worse when their demands were not met. Many of the couples accused of witchcraft had difficult marriages that sometimes resulted in physical abuse. A surprising number of accused witches actually boasted about their familiarity with the devil and sorcery, and while one can imagine the thrill of holding an audience spellbound with your stories about what you’ve heard the devil and his consorts do at night, one can’t imagine that this display of intimate knowledge of satanism wouldn’t come back to haunt the teller of the tales.

Demos’ book concludes with some valuable generalizations about Puritans and witchcraft that we will spell out and amplify here and in the next post. But first, we want to make our own claims, which are these:

1. Too often the Puritans of New England are singled out for studies in witchcraft. One can be forgiven for thinking that the Puritans were the only group in North America who believed in or prosecuted witches. But witchcraft was an accepted reality throughout the early modern world, and the settlers in Virginia, Maryland, and New York were just as firm in their belief in witches as the settlers of Massachusetts and Connecticut. New Spain was constantly battling against native American witchcraft, and the meager Christian outposts of New France were happy to keep their distance from the witchery of the native Canadians.

Indeed, we posit that the only reason New England is the witchery upon a hill is the notoriety of Salem, and if that anomaly had not taken place the number of people interested in New England witchcraft would be equal to the minuscule number of people studying witchcraft in Jamestown.

2. We tend to cut the New England Puritans far too little slack for being a pioneer people. We somehow block out the fact that most Puritans in the mid-17th century, when witchcraft claims and trials were at their height, were living in mud huts in isolated villages of about 100-150 people, wary of Indian attacks, and suffering all the hunger, fatigue, and strain of founding a frontier settlement. The houses in a new settlement were literally all in one place, lining the road through the village, and everyone was almost astoundingly interconnected: your neighbors next door were also likely sitting next to you at church; serving in the militia with you; plowing the field next to yours; hosting your son or daughter as a live-in worker; performing some task, like weaving or cattle-driving, for you; deciding the borders of your land; having their baby delivered by your wife the midwife; serving on a committee with you; etc. The list goes on and on. Such frequent, intimate contact in an already stressful frontier situation was bound to create arguments, grudges, and other conflicts. If you disliked someone and then had to endure this kind of constant presence in your life, those arguments could grow, over months or years, into more serious accusations of witchcraft. If that hated neighbor was driving your cattle and one was lost, and he didn’t apologize for it, longstanding tension could quickly escalate.

The point here is that most Puritans in the mid-1600s in New England lived in very stressful situations, and they lived in those stressful situations at a time when everyone in the western world believed in witchcraft. It is logical that they would blame witchcraft for the inevitable problems of losing livestock, suffering disease and death, failed crops, and, quite often, just a powerful sense of confusion and uncertainty.

The wonder is not that people were accused, but that so relatively few of the accused were convicted. That means that if you finally accused your neighbor of witchcraft, and testified against him in court, it was most likely that, after spending some weeks or months in prison awaiting trial, that neighbor was returned to your village, to resume life next door to you. Sometimes the neighbor would move away from an unendurable situation. But many other times, the two parties continued to live next to each other, and sometimes renewed accusations would break out.

That’s because, amazingly, people once accused of witchcraft seemed to have no fear of provoking another accusation. Even people who were tried and acquitted, sometimes very narrowly, often returned home and picked up where they left off with their aggressive, argumentative behavior, and even their claims to know all about Satan and his minions.

Next time, we’ll go further into the patterns and logic of witchcraft accusations outlined by Demos.

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

Posted on January 3, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , |

As governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and arguably its leading citizen from the colony’s founding in 1630 to his death in 1649, John Winthrop, Sr., received and wrote a great deal of correspondence. People great and common wrote him asking for help, favors, advice, and news. Many letters to him have been preserved over the centuries, thanks in large part to the work of the Massachusetts Historical Society. One in particular excites our notice: an anonymous letter written in May 1637 from England.

Winthrop, like most MBC colonists, had a steady correspondence with friends, family, and colleagues who remained in England. As Puritans, Winthrop and his correspondents practiced mutual watch, which meant they alerted each other constantly to potential pitfalls along the way to seeking God’s righteousness, pointing out errors they felt their friends were committing and gladly receiving correction, as they would have called it, for their own mistakes. Puritans remaining in England were particularly watchful of the state of the fledgling Puritan colony in America. So much was riding on its success; if the MBC could thrive and remain on a path of righteousness, then a) all the English Puritans could leave England, where they were seriously endangered, and flee confidently to Massachusetts; b) true religion would not perish from the earth when God destroyed England; and c) England and its church might actually be reformed if they could clearly see that God was blessing the Puritans in America while battering the Anglicans in England.

1637 was a crucial year in this anxious watching and waiting to see if God would really bless New England. There were many doubters even amongst the English Puritans. Many early emigrants to America had permanently returned to England, bearing tales of hardship, starvation, cruelly cold weather, and, most importantly and worryingly, religious and political apostasy. (It is somehow poignant to note how shocked English people were by the winter weather in New England; English colonists had not yet encountered American cold [having only been in Virginia] and some believed that the extreme temperatures, so unlike anything they had ever experienced in England, were a sign that New England was not the promised land, and that God did not bless their venture there, and was trying to drive them out.) Returnees and even MBC colonists writing letters told enough about the political innovations of the colony to make English Puritans worry that the colonists were practicing treason (making all adult males freemen, for example, and allowing them to vote for their governor and legislature, and having all freemen swear a loyalty oath to the colony rather than the king). English Puritans, while persecuted by King Charles I, did not want their colony in America to launch a rebellion against him because that would only lead Charles to make the MBC into a royal colony under his direct control, which would have meant an end to the Puritanism practiced there.

English Puritans were perhaps even more alarmed at word of religious “innovations” being introduced in Massachusetts. They worried that the complete freedom colonists had to worship as they saw fit in America, and their release from the state persecution that had knit English Puritans tightly together as a resistance unit, was leading to pointless and divisive arguments about how to worship, which was leading to new ideas and unsound theology.

These fears were confirmed for many by news of the Antinomian Controversy, which began to reach England in 1637. This religious civil war, led by John Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson in Boston, was thoroughly and luridly described in letters from New England and publications from Boston and in London, and seemed to show English Puritans that the MBC was going off the rails, reaping the harvest of its chaotic religious arguments. The Antinomians were condemned, but so too were some of the conclusions their opponents came to in Boston, and John Winthrop’s description of the errors Wheelwright and Hutchinson had been condemned for only convinced many English Puritans that New England had quickly become a place where any lunatic could raise a devoted following.

This bad press came at a time when anti-Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud was working hard to have the MBC’s charter, or patent, revoked; this document gave the colonists permission to settle in America and to form their own government. Many English Puritans saw the MBC as irresponsibly sabotaging its own chances of survival, and they took the opportunity to write to their brethren in America to complain.

One such letter, and a perfect example of the genre, is an anonymous letter sent to Governor Winthrop in May 1637. He must have received it in late June or July. It is an astounding piece of work, doing three things at once: warning Winthrop of the dangers to his colony in London; praying for the colony’s survival; and taking every opportunity to slag off the MBC and everyone in it as lousy, degenerate, lazy jerks whom everyone in England hates. But with love. It is a tribute to John Winthrop’s complete lack of ego that he saved this letter,and likely responded to it very patiently. (We have many more letters that Winthrop received than letters he wrote; as governor, he felt it a duty to posterity to save his correspondence, but the people he wrote to were not as careful.) Let’s go over this remarkably long and haranguing missive, if not in full, then in large part (spellings modernized):

“Myself and many others are daily petitioners to God, for his grace to abound to you in New England, that you may increase in faith, wisdom, humility, love, zeal, patience, brotherly kindness, etc., enjoying such a competency of outward prosperity as may make you to live in the service of the Lord the more comfortably. And we are exceedingly glad to hear of your welfare, and especially your growth in holiness.”

—Already this first paragraph might irritate us as modern people, but it is in line with the usual Puritan watch and “exhortation”; Winthrop would have been grateful that so many in England were praying for his spiritual success and that of the colony, and he would not have seen this opening paragraph as implying that he and the colonists were not all they should be. It’s interesting here to see the writer say that he hopes the colony’s economy will improve (“competency of outward prosperity”) so that the people can “live in the service of the Lord more comfortably”—it’s unusual for a Puritan to admit that it’s a lot easier to devote yourself to prayer when you’re not poor and starving.

“I have been much moved of late… to write my slender advice to some prudent man among you, and one gracious with the plantations, and thereby able to give counsel to them, and to prevail with them in things conducing to God’s glory and your own prosperities.”

—He is writing to Winthrop because Winthrop is that prudent man whom everyone in New England loves (“gracious with the plantations”); now the burden is on Winthrop to listen to what the writer has to say because he is the only man in New England who has the clout and the respect to give its people advice. Winthrop, thus deliberately singled out, becomes at once someone to pass along the criticisms in this letter and the victim of those criticisms, since, as the colony’s leader, the implication is that he should have been stopping the bad behavior there on his own without having to be told to do so.

“First, I have read and heard of sundry letters written from some with you unto others with us, (and I fear there have been very many such sent over to us into diverse parts of our land,) wherein there are many weak, and some dangerous passages, which if they should come to the eyes or ears of any one of the many thousands of your adversaries, it would afford them matter enough to attempt your undoing, what in them did lie.”

—People in the MBC are writing home to England, not just to London but to many different locations in England, so the things they say are widely known, and most of those letters say stupid things that could bring down royal control on your colony (which would be its “undoing”). Who would be angered by these letters? Why, any of the “many thousands” of the colony’s enemies. This first reference—and there will be many, many more—to people in England hating people in New England might not have raised John Winthrop’s suspicions; he might have thought that the writer was referring to anti-Puritan Anglicans. As the letter goes on, however, Winthrop must have wondered two things: if these “adversaries” didn’t include those who called themselves the colonists their “dear brethren”; and whether their criticisms weren’t directed at him in particular and not just those ignorant colonists who wrote careless letters.

Next time: what the dangerous letters from New England say 

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

Posted on June 28, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

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.

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April 7, 1630: the Puritans set sail for America

Posted on April 7, 2009. Filed under: Puritans | Tags: , , , , |

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.

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The Puritans and Freedom of Religion

Posted on October 27, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , |

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.

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