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Massachusetts and the Puritans

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Published: Wed, 20 Sep 2017

Nhat Nguyen

Now the state of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by Puritans (see Puritanism) fleeing religious persecution in England. Composed of numerous settlements established at various times, the colony had its beginning on June 19, 1630, when John Winthrop stood aboard the ship Arbella and delivered a sermon to a group of sick and weary passengers about to begin a new life in the “howling wilderness” of New England. Winthrop reminded his listeners that their removal from England did not break their social and political ties, indeed those ties should become tighter and more closely follow the will of God. The colony was to be an ordered community, dedicated to realizing the will of God and to creating a model society for old England to emulate.

The rulers of old England however, did not wish to, follow the Puritan lead. Both James I and Charles I were suspicious of the Puritans, especially their rejection of bishops, which they saw as tantamount to rejecting royal authority. James, I had been surfeited with this rejection of episcopal authority while the king of Scotland, having seen the Scottish Presbyterians remove his mother from the throne and place him upon it while still a youth. When he succeeded to the throne of England, James knew that he wanted to retain the Church of England’s bishops and promised to make his Puritan subjects conform or “harry them out of the kingdom or worse,” as he put it. This anti-Puritanism was continued and expanded by his successor, Charles I. Charles and his archbishop of Canterbury engaged in a process of persecution that led to the “great migration” of thousands of English Puritans to British North America.

This migration, led by the Arbella and accompanying ships, resulted in numerous Puritan colonies in New England, the most significant of which was Massachusetts Bay. The colony was originally organized as a stock company with voting rights limited to stockholders who chose the colony’s leaders, but this changed soon after their arrival in America. Winthrop, who held the title of governor, gathered the colony’s inhabitants on October 29, 1630, and by a show of hands gave all the freemen of the colony the right to elect assistants or legislators. This action, which soon encompassed nearly all adult males in the colony, gave Massachusetts Bay a much wider franchise than England and most of Europe, despite its limitation to church membership.

The Puritans desired to build an ordered community, under the watchful providence of God. This society was not, however, the theocracy that many have claimed it to be. In fact, ministers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had less formal power than anywhere in Europe and did not constitute a recognized class with special privileges. This absence of inherited privileges was a significant factor in the life of the colony. Although the Puritans firmly believed that there were greater and lesser people, and titles such as Goodwife, Mistress, and Master constantly affirmed these divisions, the range was much less than in England. Sumptuary laws governed the nature of individual dress-limiting the colors, amount of gold, and jewelry a person could wear. These laws both affirmed social distinctions and limited ostentatious displays of wealth and power. When combined with the Puritan doctrine of human sin and of human equality before God, they resulted in much less overt social differences in Massachusetts Bay than the home country.

The desire to maintain harmony, stability, and social order was great. The magistrates enforced the laws against blasphemy and punished those who failed to attend church services. The nature of colonial settlement also served to strengthen social stability and cohesion. The land was allocated to each colonist for farming, but people lived in towns, traveling out to their farms each morning and returning in the evening. Towns centered on the meetinghouse, the church building that functioned as the center of the community’s social, political, and religious life. The stereotypical independent settler separated from the community was not acceptable in Massachusetts Bay. Such a settler, separated from the bonds of family, church, community, and government, was bound to lapse into antisocial and irreligious behavior. The godly life could be lived only with others.

Conflicts over the nature of that life, however, were such that the harmony desired by the colony’s political elite was never realized. These conflicts emerged early in the colony’s life. The first was the so-called Antinomian Controversy. Occasioned by the religious instruction thatAnne Hutchinson provided in her home and involving conflicts between the growing merchant class and the colony’s political and religious elite, the Antinomian Controversy was typically Puritan in that it was fought over theology and the role of social harmony in theology.

Similarly, the expulsion of Roger Williams from the colony was a response to theological differences that authorities viewed as destabilizing. Williams’s belief that the government had no right to enforce the first part of the decalogue-the first four of the Ten Commandments dealing with worship-was seen as an assault upon the social stability of the colony. Indeed, many viewed any failure of the state to enforce these laws as an invitation to divine destruction. To outlaw blasphemy was not only an act of religious faith but also helped ensure social survival.

Such conflicts, like those with other “socially disruptive” groups such as Baptists, Quakers (seeFriends, a Religious society of [Quakers]), and witches (see Salem witchcraft trials) recurred as the Puritans attempted to build a viable society in a hostile land.

They struggled mightily to establish the social institutions that would provide for the colony’s stability. Churches and towns were the first to appear, then came a college (Harvard, 1638), printing presses, and schools. Soon Massachusetts Bay was an expanding and successful colony, kept alive by fishing, agriculture, timber harvesting, and even the slave trade. Prosperity did not, however, ease the difficulties of creating an ordered society pleasing to God. Tensions emerged within the New England way among not only those outside but those within it as well. The first concern was the perception that piety was declining within the colony. From the heroic period of settlement, when the colony seemed to have been dominated by great men and high religious concern, many saw a decline by the mid-17th century. Religious interest appeared to have waned and the number of visible saints to have declined. This concern became so prevalent that the sermons preached about it have received their own name. Jeremiads, as they are known, were directed against this perceived declension. Whether the decline was as great as the ministers claimed is debatable, but it is true that the colony experienced the shift from a time when people immigrated from religious conviction to a period when people simply were born into the society. A telling anecdote, probably apocryphal, illustrates this change well. A Puritan minister once berated a man he caught unloading fish on Sunday, reminding him of the religious nature of the colony and its founders. The fisherman quickly responded, “My grandfather came here from God, I came here for cod.”

The colony faced other challenges. Chief among these were the local Indians and the French who, from their outposts in Canada, occasionally harried the colony’s more distant settlements along with their Native American allies. These challenges ended with the eventual British conquest of France’s North American colonies in 1759.

The removal of this external threat only exacerbated the internal one, the ongoing conflicts between the colonists in America and the mother country. This conflict was not to be taken lightly, and in Massachusetts, it had a religious dimension. The late 17th century had seen an apparent victory of the “Puritan” party in its monarchical form in England. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had removed the Catholic king, James II, and with it the threat to the colony’s independent existence under James, who had revoked the colony’s charter and established an Anglican foothold at King’s Chapel in Boston.

But this was not the only religious threat that England presented to the colony. If some contemporary writers are to be believed, the most significant conflicts and the true start of theAmerican Revolution began with the rumor that England would send a bishop to the colonies. The imposition of a bishop was seen by many colonists as an inherent threat to their liberties. InMassachusetts Bay, where stories of episcopal persecution of Puritans were still remembered, this was the final assault on everything they had tried to create. Already forced to allow toleration to other Protestants, they now faced the final loss of their religious independence. The Puritan tradition of self-government, the rule of law, and human activity helped to set the stage for the American Revolution. The revolution in “the hearts and minds,” as John Adams-a Puritan scion-wrote, had already occurred. It was no coincidence that a great deal of the revolutionary leadership came from Massachusetts. The colony and its Puritanism had helped to pave the way.

Work Cited

Timothy Breen Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980)

Cedric B. Cowing, The Saving Remnant: Religion and the Settling of New England (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995)

David Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (New York: Knopf, 1989)

Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956)

Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (New York: Longman, 1999)

Samuel Eliot Morison, Builders of the Bay Colony (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930)


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