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The Puritan Experiment in America

Thomas S. Kidd (PhD, Notre Dame) is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. He has written many books, including most recently America’s Colonial History, God of Liberty, The Great Awakening, Benjamin Franklin: A Religious Life of a Founding Father, and Patrick Henry: First Among PatriotsThe Great Awakening., He appears regularly in mainstream media and is a past winner of a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship. He tweets at @ThomasSKidd.

Maybe the most compelling and tragic religious story of the American colonial era unfolded in New England. The Separatists and Puritans who founded New England were animated by high religious ideals, and those vital ideals only made the failings of the colonies more conspicuous. The first wave of colonists came to Plymouth (which was later absorbed by Massachusetts) in 1620. These settlers were Separatists, but we often call them the “Pilgrims.” English Separatists believed that England’s legally established church was corrupt and irredeemable. They wanted to hold their own private church meetings instead of going to Church of England parishes, but it was not legal in England to start an independent congregation. Facing severe persecution, some English Separatists had already fled to the relatively freer climes of Holland.

Some of the Separatists in Holland worried about the corrupting effects of Dutch culture too. In 1620, just over a hundred people sailed to Plymouth on board the ship Mayflower. Upon arrival, the men of the colony signed the Mayflower Compact, committing themselves to the creation of a “civil body politic” that was devoted to “the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country.” While it is true that the Plymouth colonists held a special Thanksgiving celebration with local Indians around harvest time in 1621, they more likely ate eel than turkey.

In contrast to the Separatists, the Puritans believed that the Church of England needed reform, not abandonment. Yet events in the 1620s also convinced many Puritans that they could not remain in England and practice their faith in safety. Puritan pastors fell under persecution from Anglican authorities, with some Puritan-leaning Anglican ministers losing their jobs. Puritan pastors and laypeople, including the lawyer John Winthrop, secured a charter for the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629. At the outset of the “Great Migration” of Puritans in 1630, Winthrop delivered his speech “A Model of Christian Charity.” In a phrase taken from the Gospel of Matthew, Winthrop told the Puritan colonists, “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” The concept of the “city on a hill” would gain new life in American politics in the mid-to late twentieth century when the phrase was used by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, among others.

Few people have ever been more driven by theological conviction than the Puritans. The great Genevan reformer John Calvin was one of the most profound influences on the Puritans. But the preeminent shaper of Puritan thought was the Bible itself. Suspicious of church tradition and unbiblical practices, the Puritans studied the Scriptures in minute detail. They wanted their churches to implement all of the Bible’s practices and doctrines. They wished to lay all man-made church customs aside. Following the guidance of Calvin and other Reformers, the Puritans saw the God of the Bible as unfathomably powerful and ruling over the salvation of individual men and women. Because all were sinners, the Puritans taught, all people were naturally inclined toward sin, which led to eternal separation from God in hell. Because of his mysterious grace, God chose a certain number of people for salvation. These were the “elect.”

The Puritans of Massachusetts and Connecticut (founded in 1636) labored to maintain theological uniformity among all New Englanders. Like most Europeans in the early modern period, the Puritans were confident that the moral codes of the Bible could help them understand God’s expectations for society. If Christian people allowed heretics or gross sinners to go unpunished, they were inviting God’s judgment on their society. Thus the Puritans did not embrace a modern view of religious freedom. They came to New England to find religious freedom for themselves. However, they did not tolerate dissent from the Puritan way, even though it proved impossible to contain dissent altogether.

Roger Williams was one of the first major critics of the Puritans in New England. He had come to Massachusetts as a Puritan, but he gravitated toward Separatist convictions. Williams became convinced that while the government should enforce moral law, it could not rightly rule over people’s consciences or force them into worshiping God. Williams also criticized Massachusetts for its unfair treatment of Native Americans. Massachusetts banned Williams from the colony in the mid-1630s, but he moved just to the south in New England and founded Providence, Rhode Island. Under Williams’s guidance, Rhode Island would offer full religious liberty to its residents. Rhode Island’s approach to religion made it a destination for a number of Christian sects. Jews also began arriving in Rhode Island as early as the 1650s. The mercurial Williams briefly embraced Baptist tenets following his expulsion from Massachusetts. Contrary to the common practice of the time, the Baptists (or “Anabaptists” to critics) believed that baptism was only for converted believers, not for infants. Williams helped to found the first Baptist congregation in America in Providence in 1638.

Another key dissenter from the Puritan way was Anne Hutchinson. Hutchinson, like Williams, had come to Massachusetts as a Puritan. She was a gifted teacher and began holding small-group meetings in her home to discuss sermons. As the meetings grew, Hutchinson began to indict most of Boston’s pastors for teaching corrupt doctrine. Hutchinson advocated a staunch “free grace” position, arguing that there was nothing whatsoever that people could add to their salvation, nor could they make salvation more likely. Salvation was a work of God’s grace alone, and she argued that only a couple of Boston ministers were staying true to that distinctive Protestant doctrine.

Boston authorities regarded Hutchinson and her supporters as “antinomians,” or those who opposed the moral law of God. When she was brought up for trial in 1637, Hutchinson confessed to the court that she had received her views on grace from the Holy Spirit. To the Puritan authorities, this smacked of gross radicalism. The court banished her from the colony. She told the judges, including Governor John Winthrop, “You have power over my body, but the Lord Jesus hath power over my body and soul.”

Massachusetts routinely confronted threats from dissenters such as Williams and Hutchinson, as well as from Baptists, Quakers, and other prohibited Christian sects. A graver threat to the Puritan project was an apparent decline in piety in the second and third generations of Massachusetts colonists. Church membership rates were always relatively low there, as opposed to church attendance, which was mandatory. In order to join a church, people had to give a testimony of their conversion. It was not a given that church members would vote to accept the person into membership. If a person did join a Puritan church, it meant that they could take communion and have their children baptized. In the 1650s, fewer and fewer people in New England were joining churches, which caused concern among pastors about the growing number of unbaptized children in their midst. This concern led to the “Halfway Covenant” of 1662, in which Massachusetts ministers agreed to allow people who had never joined a
church to have their children baptized.

When King Philip’s War, which pitted confederated Indian tribes against the English colonists, ravaged New England in the mid-1670s, colonists interpreted the war as a judgment for their spiritual half-heartedness. King Philip’s War originated from decades of grievances over land claims and other issues. The Puritans saw it as a sign that New Englanders had done little to evangelize Native Americans, especially as compared to the work of French Catholic missionaries in Canada. In the 1670s and 1680s, the “jeremiad” became a signature sermon form among the Puritans. The name is derived from the bleak prophetic book of Jeremiah. The jeremiads lamented how far the Puritans had fallen from the godly passion of the founding generation. Historians have debated how literally to accept the jeremiads’ narrative of New England’s “declension.” Sermons that look back nostalgically to a founding generation (of the New England colonies, or of the United States) and lament the failings of the current generation have carried great
religious and political weight throughout American history. They do not always, however, reflect a literal pattern of decline.

The Puritan experiment in New England functionally came to an end in 1692. In the mid-1680s, England became frustrated with New England’s relative independence in the empire. Authorities revoked Massachusetts’s charter and placed it—as well as Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey—under the newly formed Dominion of New England. The Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 in England precipitated rebellions against the government of the Dominion of New England. Massachusetts hoped to get its old charter back; instead, the new English monarchs William and Mary gave Massachusetts a new charter in 1692. It restored some autonomy to Massachusetts but required that the Puritans tolerate the presence of other kinds of Protestants, such as Baptists and Anglicans. The inevitable diversity produced by this charter heralded the denouement of Puritanism.

Massachusetts’s disappointment with the 1692 charter was compounded by the horrors of the Salem witchcraft controversy, which devastated northern New England that same year. Salem was unusual in its number of witchcraft suspects, although Europe had seen similar outbreaks from time to time. Scholars have endlessly debated why Salem became such a torrent of fear and allegations. Most of the accusations were by younger women or girls against older women. Nineteen accused witches were executed before Massachusetts officials stopped the trials, fearing that they depended too much on unconventional legal practices. Among the most criticized aspects of the trials was the acceptance of “spectral evidence,” or testimony about seeing the spirits of the accused involved in malevolent activity. The shame of the trials left a lingering sense that New Englanders had turned their backs on God.

This post is an excerpt from America's Religious History by Thomas S. Kidd.

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