Stacy Schiff does not know anything about the Puritans

Posted on January 11, 2016. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’ve complained about this before, and we hate to start the New Year on a bashing note, but it’s been forced upon us by Schiff’s December 18 op-ed in the New York Times.

“Anger: An American History” is an attempt to contextualize the current anti-immigrant, “we are at war” environment Americans find themselves in now. This sort of contextualization is a good idea. But you can’t make up a context, and that is what Schiff does, once again, by demonizing the Puritans.

Let’s do a close-read:

From that earlier set of founding fathers — the men who settled 17th century Massachusetts — came the first dark words about dark powers. No matter that they sailed to these shores in search of religious freedom. Once established, they pulled up the gangplank behind them.

—The Puritans did not come to America “in search of religious freedom.” As we have pointed out, in The Puritans and Freedom of Religion, they came here so they could practice their own religion freely. That is a very different thing than “religious freedom”. They were persecuted in England for criticizing the Anglican church, so they came here specifically to create a new state where their own religion was the state religion. There was no “gangplank” to pull up behind them. No one in the western world that we know of was offering religious freedom at that time. To set the Puritans up as the only ones who didn’t, and as terrible hypocrites who denied others the liberty they sought, is ridiculous.

The city on a hill was an exclusively Puritan sanctuary. The sense of exceptionalism — “we are surely the Lord’s firstborn in this wilderness,” the Massachusetts minister William Stoughton observed in an influential 1668 address — bound itself up from the start with prejudice. If you are the pure, someone else needs to be impure.

—Yes, we’ve established that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was created by Puritans for Puritans. Just like Virginia was created by Anglicans for Anglicans. Schiff’s attempt to peg a start date for the concept of American Exceptionalism by tying it to the Puritans is again misguided. First, the Stoughton quote is (like almost all quotes from Puritan clergy) referring to religion and religion only: Stoughton is saying that because their parents came to America to set up a reformed Anglican state, the people listening to him are the first-born citizens of a state blessed by God with pure religion. This has nothing to do with American exceptionalism, which is a political theory that says America’s political founding as the United States was a unique—and uniquely good—event in human history because it created representative democracy for the first time and led other nations to adopt it.

Schiff does not understand either Puritan theology or American exceptionalism, and so she conflates the two. Then she makes an awkward leap to her next topic, which is:

Quakers fared badly. In Boston, Cotton Mather compared them not only to dogs, but to serpents, dragons and vipers. The great young hope of the New England ministry, he sounds as if he would have started a Quaker database if he could have. Banned, exiled, imprisoned, whipped, Quakers were a “leprous” people, their teachings as wholesome as the “juice of toads.”

Baptists and Anglicans fared little better. In 1689, Boston’s Anglicans discovered the windows of their church smashed, “the doors and walls daubed and defiled with dung, and other filth, in the rudest and basest manner imaginable.” The most moderate of Massachusetts men believed in Papist cabals; priests qualified as the radical Muslim clerics of the day. From the pulpit came regular warnings that boatloads of nefarious Irishmen were set to disembark in Boston harbor, to establish Roman Catholicism in New England.

—As so many people do, Schiff takes things that every other group in Europe did in the 17th century and pretends that only the Puritans did them. Only Puritans persecuted people who did not practice their version of Anglicanism (which evolved into Congregationalism in America). Only Puritans hated and feared Catholics. But anyone who casts even a passing glance over the history of the Reformation knows that hating anyone who did not practice your religion was the rule, not the exception. Catholics hated Protestants, Lutherans hated Calvinists, Calvinists hated Arminians, etc. etc. That’s what religious wars do: they create impermeable boundaries between sects or faiths. The Quakers were no better: they came into Massachusetts hell-bent on stripping away the Puritans’ religion and forcing their own onto the colony.

If she understood Congregational practice, Schiff would know just how much of a threat Baptists posed: they did not believe in infant baptism, which was key to the Puritans, who believed babies should be baptized as quickly as possible to bring them into the fold of believers, in case they died in infancy or childhood.

And if she read any history, Schiff would know that in 1689, the Dominion of New England was in place in all of today’s New England and in New York and today’s New Jersey. This was a government imposed by the new Catholic king of England, James II, and it stripped Massachusetts residents of their lands, their political representation, and their religious majority: everyone was forced to pay taxes to support the unreformed Anglican church at the expense of both Congregational and Baptist churches. The royally imposed governor forced Christmas and other religious celebrations that both Baptist and Congregational citizens rejected, and turned some churches into Anglican churches. This is the background to the desecration of the main Anglican church in Boston, which was part of a popular uprising against the governor that led to the overthrow of the Dominion.

The alerts naturally served an evangelical purpose. The common enemy encouraged cohesion, appealing to a tribal instinct. In the words of Owen Stanwood, a Boston College historian, the trumped-up fears neatly packaged the Massachusetts settlers’ “desire for security, their Protestant heritage, and their nascent sense of racial privilege.”

—Name the group in America at the time that did not seek to build cohesion by creating a common enemy. There isn’t one. Whites organized an identity against blacks in slaveholding regions; whites and sometimes blacks identified against American Indians; English colonists identified against the Catholic French in Canada. The list goes on. Again, something everyone did is presented as something only the Puritans did.

The enemies did not need actually to be in New England’s midst. As an Anglican official snorted from a Boston prison in 1689: “There were not two Roman Catholics betwixt this and New York.” New England was nonetheless sacrificed over and over to its heathen adversaries, according to the ministry, that era’s Department of Homeland Security.

—Schiff of course hates all Congregationalist ministers, and so connects them to the modern-day government organization she hates. In an NPR interview she did about this piece, she claimed that the ministers were the only source of information in Massachusetts because “there was no press.”

The first printing press was up and running in Boston in 1639. Pamphlets and broadsides published in London were always made available in New England. What she means perhaps is that there were no newspapers, but Publick Occurrences hit the presses in 1690. She just doesn’t know what she is talking about. People respected their ministers, but they got news from many sources.

Now Schiff moves to her favorite topic, the 1692 witch mania:

So great was the terror that year that grown men watched neighbors fly through the streets; they kicked at gleaming balls of fire in their beds. They saw hundreds celebrate a satanic Sabbath as clearly as some of us saw thousands of Muslims dancing in the Jersey City streets after 9/11. Stoughton would preside over the witchcraft trials, securing a 100 percent conviction rate. A Baptist minister who objected that the court risked executing innocents found himself charged with sedition. He was offered the choice between a jail sentence and a crushing fine. He was not heard from again. One problem with decency: It can be maddeningly quiet, at least until it explodes and asks if anyone has noticed it has been sitting, squirming, in the room all along.

—That second sentence should give everyone who reads it great pause. How many of “us” saw Muslims celebrate on September 11th? How “clear” was that for “us”? If you find yourself arguing back that very few Americans entertained such a bizarre conspiracy theory in 2001, you have an idea how most people in Massachusetts in 1692 would feel if they heard Schiff saying “they” saw people fly through the streets. Hey, they would respond; some people had witch-mania, but the vast majority of us did not, and did not support the trials, and were glad when they were over.

And it was Giles Corey, a farmer, who was killed by pressing (stones placed on his chest in an attempt to get him to confess). He was not a Baptist minister, and he had actually accused his wife Martha of witchcraft before he decided the trials were wrong, and he recanted his testimony.

The last sentence makes absolutely no sense in the context, but we are indeed squirming and squirming from reading this article.

Having firmly established that all bad things in America come from the Puritans and nowhere else, Schiff moves on to show how later generations used their inherited Puritan evil to create “toxic brush fires” of bigotry. But they only get one short paragraph, and the essay ends with the Puritans once again:

Anxiety produces specters; sensing ourselves lost, disenfranchised, dwarfed, we take reckless aim. “We have to be much smarter, or it’s never, ever going to end,” Donald J. Trump has warned of the war on terror. Amen. At least we can savor the irony that today’s zealots share a playbook with the Puritans, a people who — finding the holiday too pagan — waged the original war on Christmas.

—Christmas was not mentioned anywhere in this, but she just can’t resist adding it in. The Puritans did not think Christmas was “too pagan”. They thought God made all days equally holy, and that humans shouldn’t decide that certain days were better than others. Again, many other Protestant reformers in the 17th century  joined them in this, including Baptists and Quakers.

Creating false history does not help Americans see their way more clearly in the present. Creating a bogeyman to blame all our bigotry on is ridiculous–as if a group of people who held sway for under 60 years in one part of the country in the earliest settlement period, who if not for the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving were about to fade permanently from the public mind in the early/ mid-1800s, created all bigotry and hatred in this country and maybe the world. What does this line of “reasoning” do for the people who pursue it? What does it satisfy in them? How does abhorring a group most Americans, especially Stacy Schiff, know nothing about make present-day America a better place? How does it end hatred?

It doesn’t. Keep this in mind the next time you read about those hateful Puritans.

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A Holiday Gift: Religious Tolerance

Posted on December 22, 2015. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Here’s a sharp video from Dr. Larry Schweikart, University of Dayton, on the PragerU site that explains the origins of religious tolerance in the English colonies of North America, and the astounding breakthrough that was the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He even gets the Puritans right! Since WordPress won’t let us import the video, we just have to give you the link:

Religious Tolerance: Made in America

Enjoy, and enjoy watching a short video rather than reading reams of text from the HP crew. That’s our gift to you!

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

Posted on March 9, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Henry VIII v. Wikipedia

Posted on June 12, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

We notice, as historians, that certain popular stories about historical figures are repeated in textbooks and other learning material even though they are untrue. The most glaring example we can think of at the moment is not from American history, but it’s illustrative: almost any resource you read will say that when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon, he renounced the Catholic Church and became a Protestant, and this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in England.

We are exposed to this story frequently as scholars of the English Puritans. The truth is that Henry remained a devout Catholic to the end of his life, persecuted Protestants, and rejected the Reformation. What really happened was that Henry made himself the head of the Catholic Church in England (not the head of a new Protestant Church), putting himself in place of the Pope. The English monarch was now the head of the Catholic Church in England, and this is why it was so dangerous to be a Protestant during Henry’s reign—to reject Catholicism was not just a religious act but a political one. It was to reject the authority of the king, and as such Protestantism was treason, and punishable not just by excommunication but by death.

Protestants would labor in secret during Henry’s reign to sway the Church of England toward Reformation, and under Henry’s successor Edward VI, who actually was a Protestant, and a fanatical one, the C of E did become Protestant. But under his successor, Mary I, a fanatical Catholic,  the C of E returned to the authority of the Pope, and Protestants were notoriously persecuted. Mary’s successor Elizabeth I maintained a middle ground, making the English Church the mix of Catholic and Protestant practice that it remains today, and after the brief experiment of Puritan rule under Cromwell, the Anglican Church was set to remain a Protestant sect with many lingering Catholic elements.

But all that is less clear-cut and dramatic than saying Henry VIII was mad at the Pope and so he became a Protestant. It’s also easy to blur things unintentionally, as the BBC website does when it says “His break with the papacy in Rome established the Church of England and began the Reformation.” Yes, the break with Rome gave English Protestants hopes that the Catholic Church in England would be reformed, and paved the way for Henry’s son Edward to receive a humanist, Protestant education (carefully hidden from Henry), and for Elizabeth to one day enact a gentle shift to middle-ground Protestantism that would be challenged once more during the English Civil War but restored under Charles II and, after one last threat from James II, securely established… but that long string of events stretching  from the 1534 to 1688 is not the story you get from the line “Henry began the Protestant Reformation.”  Most resources sum up the long story as “Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church to get a divorce.”

So a general consensus is built by people who have not devoted time to studying the English Reformation that Henry was a Protestant. This view becomes so well-known that it is repeated in many venues, including history materials meant to teach students about English history. That’s the problem with an uninformed consensus—it creates stories so well-known that when you point out that a story is wrong, you are the one who seems crazy. As editors of history materials, we know that when we correct items like Henry VIII broke with  the Catholic Church, or Anne Hutchinson was persecuted for being a woman, or the Pilgrims left Holland for America because their children were turning Dutch, we often get flack. Does it really matter? we are asked, by educators. Isn’t the general gist correct?

We insist that it does matter. It’s funny that you would not be allowed to get away with error in football stats, identifying the designer each star is wearing at the Oscars, or summarizing TV show plots online, but misrepresenting the actions of U.S. presidents, founders of major religions, or civil rights leaders is given a pass. Why is it acceptable to learn fictions about the important people and events that have created the world we live in today? Each error in those narratives is worse than just a mistake; it is a misrepresentation of the actions, decisions, and factors that have impacted millions of lives and created the social and political problems or solutions we experience today. Unfortunately, the double standard seems to say that accurately describing what landmark Supreme Court decisions made possible in the United States is less important than getting all the plot twists of Game of Thrones down right on a fan site.

The power of the erroneous consensus is most evident on Wikipedia; many historians have told their stories of trying to correct common-knowledge errors on the site and being reprimanded or banned for their efforts because Wikipedia honors consensus over fact: if a thousand people say the Pilgrims were Puritans, that’s what Wikipedia will go with, even though it’s wrong. 1001 people have to say they were Separatists for them to allow their entry on the founders of Plimoth Plantation to be corrected. Ironically for our argument here, the Wikipedia entry for Henry VIII is completely accurate: “Besides his six marriages, Henry VIII is known for his role in the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry’s struggles with Rome led to the separation of the Church of England from papal authority, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and his own establishment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Yet he remained a believer in core Catholic theological teachings, even after his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.” Somehow the truth has been allowed to stand on the site, and we hope our article here won’t mess with that. But too often, resources beyond Wikipedia—would-be educational materials—follow its policy of accepting common knowledge and, what’s worse, resisting correction when its fallacy is pointed out to them, as the dictatorship of consensus makes its power felt.

It’s hard to know when you are not being told the truth; all we can recommend is that the next time someone on TV is telling you what the Second Amendment ensures, or what Lincoln thought about civil rights, or what the Boston Tea Party was about, take the time to find a reputable book by a scholarly author and read it. Then read a few more. You will most likely get to the truth, and find that you are actually willing to spend that much time studying the history of your country, your own history, because it’s interesting and because it explains the world you inherited and because the truth, as they say, has this uncanny ability to set you free.

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“A Wonderful disaffection in very many towards you” – the letter from John Winthrop’s anonymous “friend”

Posted on January 8, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part 2 of our look at Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop’s anonymous letter from a friend in England gets deeper into the “loving” complaints this correspondent makes against the colony and, by implication, Winthrop’s leadership. All spellings modernized:

“…there came over not long since a letter from you to a friend with us which, I fear, through indiscretion, the eyes and ears of many have been made privy to, to this effect, that whereas it is reported there will be a Governor and a Bishop sent over unto you, he hopes [that] God will give you grace to stand for his truth; which words will carry a strange construction with our state… and redound to the prejudice of you all.”

—We left off with the writer telling Winthrop to watch the letters coming from the MBC to England, which were often full of “weak & dangerous passages”. Here the writer says that someone in the colony wrote to England that the people in Massachusetts have heard the threats that the king is going to take over the colony and send a royal governor and bishops. This would mean the people’s elected governor, Winthrop, and their independent religious establishment would both be destroyed. The person writing from MBC says that if that happens, he hopes that God will give the people of the colony the strength to “stand for his truth”—that is, to resist. This is wrong in the eyes of Winthrop’s correspondent; no one in the MBC should be writing about how they would launch a rebellion against the crown. It’s true that this would anger the king and his government (“carry a strange construction with our state”), but on the other hand, what else should the people of the MBC say they would do if the whole basis of their colony, of their holy mission from God, was attacked? One would think that English Puritans would support a holy rebellion. And if the whole problem is that the MBC letter was widely circulated and copied, whose fault is that? The fault here seems to lie with the people in England who took a private letter and made it public, not with the colonist who confided his thoughts to friend or family.

“Another among you writes… that you are like to have wars the next year with old England!”

—It’s not surprising that people in the MBC believed they would be at war with England when they heard several reports from people in the know that England was going to wage war with them by taking over their colony. We don’t know how the colonist writing the letter in question meant this statement—he may have been grieving and terrified at the prospect. But the statement here is represented as boasting, and the MBC takes the blame for once again stirring up trouble by talking rebellion.

“Others have written as freely and unadvisedly about your discipline, [and] the opinions and tenets you hold, whether all of them as they relate, or not, we know not; which hath caused a wonderful disaffection in very many towards you, [which] if it be not maturely healed, [will cause] a great rent in affection between you and them, that though we are like to see sad times, yet there are, till they be otherwise informed, who are resolved to undergo much misery here, rather than ever remove hence.”

—Many colonists are writing home describing the church discipline they have set up in the MBC—that is, the laws governing religious practice. The whole point of going to America was to establish a state where purified Anglicanism could be practiced freely, and that practice could be clearly thought out and described and a pure church law could be written. But many English Puritans did not like the church doctrines being developed in America. The divide between American and English Puritans developed almost instantly, and only grew as the decades passed. English Puritans, persecuted by their government and trying to keep the faith alive, were more cautious and less willing to make bold statements than American Puritans. English Puritans never developed a church doctrine; for them, there were always other things to do, and they used their persecuted state to paper over the fact that they could never come to any agreement on how their church should be structured. The MBC Puritans were a smaller group, they had sacrificed everything to start a new, godly state, they were in agreement about their purpose, and they lost no time in coming to agreements about how they would worship and codifying that worship in a church doctrine called the New England Way.

This drive and achievement grated on English Puritans, who felt shown up by their erstwhile brethren. Jealous of the American group’s unity and courage, English Puritans turned their achievement into an accusation and used it to give those who were reluctant to suffer privations and cold in New England a good excuse not to emigrate. As the letter writer says, the alarming religious doctrines expressed in the MBC have caused such distaste amongst English Puritans that they find themselves kind of hating the American brethren (“disaffection”), and they would rather stay in England and be persecuted than go to America to join them (“though we are like to see sad times here, [some] are resolved to undergo much misery here rather than ever remove hence”). Winthrop was no stranger to friends and family members claiming every winter that they would be with him in America come the spring, then writing every spring to say they weren’t coming. “Just wait til next year” was the common cry of those who, while rejecting all that sinful England represented, were not so disdainful of living in a civilized nation with a big modern city and all the comforts of home. Those foot-dragging saints now had an excuse for failing to jump ship from doomed England, and they would use it often.

“And one of not mean rank, and of long approved holiness, hearing of your renouncing us to be a church… contrary to your declaration at your first going over, professed secretly to one that told it to me, that he could scarce tell how to pray for you.”

—This is particularly cold. The writer is saying that a high-ranking Puritan saint has heard rumors that the Puritans in America have separated from the English church—that they have rejected Anglicanism. This would have made the American Puritans no longer Puritans but Separatists, like the hated Pilgrims in Plymouth. Now that saint in England doesn’t even believe that he can pray for the people of the MBC, because they are no longer Christians but tools of Satan (as was everyone who was not a Puritan). These are very cruel attacks to relay to Winthrop. First, if a high-ranking Puritan, perhaps someone in the government, turns his back on the colony, the danger of its being taken over by the crown grows exponentially. Second, for someone of John Winthrop’s great devoutness to hear that people he considers to be friends and religious leaders no longer think they can mention his name to God without offending God would have been a terrible blow. It would have really made Winthrop doubt himself. Third, how does the letter writer know of this high-ranking person’s hatred? The high-ranking person told someone about it and that person gossiped it to the letter writer. Again, mean-spirited gossip and skulduggery are flourishing amongst the godly in England, and the Puritans in New England are blamed for it. Last, the letter writer has absolutely no proof that the Puritans in America have rejected Puritanism or separated; it’s just a piece of malevolent gossip. But he gives it full credit and passes it on to Winthrop as chastisement.

“…my intention is to show what a rent and alienation there is like to be, [not] a little fearing the consequences that will come hereby, both to you and us, from others… that, if possible, as much as in you lies, you may endeavor a prevention of them.”

—Here the weaselly nature of the writer really comes clear: he is only telling Winthrop all these things because he doesn’t want the MBC to be hurt… or for himself to be in danger. The consequences that will come “both to you and us” seem to appear to this writer as mostly dangers to “us”—that is, the Puritans in England. And he puts the onus completely on Winthrop to stop this danger from coming, as if it were a) all New England’s fault, or b) Winthrop’s duty to fix things in England, or c) within Winthrop’s power to censor all letters leaving Massachusetts for England. What about the English Puritans’ responsibility to a) stop spreading gossip, b) keep private letters private, c) stand up for themselves to their government, or, failing that, d) emigrate to New England and be free of England’s persecution?

“[The] whole kingdom begins… to be full of prejudice against you, and you are spoken of disgracefully and with bitterness, in the greatest meetings of the kingdom. The pulpits sound of you, and the judges begin to mention you in their charges [A circuit judge in London said] that they should take notice of such as inclined towards New England, for they were the causes of error and faction in Church and State.”

—What we notice here is that the letter writer seems at this point to take a malicious pleasure in telling Winthrop about the hatred his group in America inspires in England. The tone is most decidedly not mournful or outraged here, but is more Iago-like, as the letter writer fills Winthrop’s head with threats and problems then disappears, once the letter is read, into the safety of England to leave Winthrop to try to figure out what is true and what is not and what he should do. The letter writer is tacitly blaming the MBC for heightened persecution of English Puritans by saying that the colonists’ religious doctrine and supposed heresy against Anglicanism has led the government (in the shape of this circuit court judge) to put the clampdown on Puritans trying to emigrate to America. But this seems to be just another excuse for English Puritans not making the journey to America. Of course English Puritans were persecuted by people in the government; that’s the whole reason there was an MBC. To blame the colonists for making this worse is just an indictment of the timidity of Puritans remaining at home.

We’ll see as we continue that this tension between American and English Puritans is the underlying, mostly unspoken theme of this letter and many others at the time. It’s a sad but not unusual truth that despite the best efforts of those who left England for America, those who stayed behind felt abandoned and disdained, and this suspicion that American Puritans were glad to be rid of England and their English brethren, that they had run out on their English brethren, leaving them to face the apocalypse that was coming when God destroyed England, would poison relations between New England and Old England swiftly and surely over the coming decades.

Next time: censorship, censorship, censorship

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Puritan myth-busting: an interview with David D. Hall

Posted on September 24, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

There is a great, if short, interview with Dr. David D. Hall from the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts (in four parts) that every student of the Puritans should see. Here’s the bio from his web page at Harvard:

“David D. Hall has taught at HDS since 1989, and was Bartlett Professor of New England Church History until 2008, when he became Bartlett Research Professor. He writes extensively on religion and society in seventeenth-century New England and England; his books include The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century; Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England; Puritans in the New World: A Critical Anthology and, most recently, A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England (2011). He has edited two key collections of documents: The Antinomian Controversy of 1636-1638: A Documentary History and Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England: A Documentary History, 1638-1693. Another interest is the “history of the book,” especially the history of literacy and reading in early America. He edited, with Hugh Amory, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, the first of a five-volume series of which he was the general editor. He continues to study and write about religion and culture in early America, with particular attention to “lived religion,” and is presently writing a general history of Puritanism in England, Scotland, and New England c. 1550 to 1700, to be published by Princeton University Press.”

A Reforming People is one of the HP’s favorite resources, easy to read and transformative for the new student of Puritanism, informative and surprising for the experienced scholar. Unfortunately, YouTube videos will not embed here, so we can only send you to the site indirectly. Enjoy!

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Puritan law, oligarchy, and the Body of Liberties

Posted on September 11, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Politics, Puritans, Revolutionary War, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our series on the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first codification of law in Puritan New England, in which we wrap up our look at this groundbreaking American political document with some thoughts on its meaning in its own time, and in ours.

This first codification of Massachusetts law was, as we saw in part 1, not easily drafted, as the people of the colony resisted doing so for two reasons: first, they felt a body of laws should develop naturally over time, as it had done in England, allowing precedent rather than law-makers to rule the day; and second because their colonial charter forbid them to create any laws “repugnant” to the laws of England, and they were not certain whether the laws they drafted would violate that tenet.

The uncertainty sprang, of course, from the fact that there was no written code of law in England at that time—its famously unwritten constitution was composed of centuries of local custom. But the Puritan leaders, and a growing number of freemen, in Massachusetts were worried about following that tradition in the New World. They worried that legal and court decisions would be made based on opinion, prejudice, or personal agenda rather than an objective striving toward justice. Just four years after landing in America, the Puritans began the lengthy process of drafting a code of laws with input from all the towns, and after six years of canvassing, drafting, reviewing, and revising, the Body of Liberties was published, with copies sent to all the towns to be read aloud and voted on.

The Body was only the first of many Massachusetts codes of law. In 1660 the Body was updated and enlarged (and renamed “Laws and Liberties”), with addenda added each year from 1662-6, and again in 1668. The Laws were revised and rewritten again in 1672, and would evolve over the decades into the state law of Massachusetts.

In its own time, the Body of Liberties was daring and innovative. Daring in that it established an independent government for the colony, with laws clearly not part of English law. The Puritans broke their charter to create their laws, and this is just one example of the commitment the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made to independence almost from the moment of their arrival. As we’ve seen elsewhere in Puritan New England on the Edge, 1637, the people of the MBC feared a royal takeover of their colony, expecting warships from England to arrive in Boston harbor at any moment. Their response was to build forts overlooking the harbor and arm them with cannon, making the decision to fight to the death to preserve their religion, their laws, and their liberty.

The Body was innovative in that it set out a relatively brief yet comprehensive set of laws that reinforce a) the rights of freemen; b) the principle that no one is above the law; c) the right to a fair day in court; and d) the need for buy-in from the people themselves, who  first helped draft and then voted to approve and accept these laws. This was proto-democracy, and it was not being practiced in any other American colony—or many other places anywhere else in the world.

Today, the Body is mostly unknown to Americans. Most Americans, if asked what they think Puritan laws were like, would come up with the most repressive, draconian, irrational suggestions imaginable. (One example: on a recent tour of sites along the Freedom Trail in Boston, an acquaintance was told by the tour guide that Puritans put people in the stocks for sneezing on a Sunday. The Body, as readers of this series will note, contains no references to sneezing.) Modern-day Americans think of Puritans as witch-crazy religious nuts whose only goal was to oppress people. But we see from our study of the Body that to say this image is unfair is an understatement.

Why the Puritans continue to get such a bad rap is fairly clear: very few people actually read their documents. They read The Scarlet Letter in high school, hear the term “city upon a hill” used to refer to smug arrogance, and learn that Anne Hutchinson was persecuted, along with Quakers, for trying to spread religious tolerance. The overall effect is a rejection of the Puritans as unpleasant and even evil people, a fleeting example of intolerance that was stamped out by later Americans who created a fair Constitution.

Those who actually read what the Puritans wrote, and know what their beliefs and ideals and goals were, may not always come away happy and approving, but they have a much more accurate understanding of these revolutionary people, whose laws, and ideas of justice, in having shaped the political consciousness of Massachusetts, played an important role on the road to American independence and the Constitution we revere today.

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