The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book I/Chapter III

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CHAPTER III


The Puritan Divines, 1620-1720


NEW ENGLAND Puritanism—like the greater movement of which it is so characteristic an offshoot—is one of the fascinating puzzles in the history of the English people. It phrased its aspirations in so strange a dialect, and interpreted its programme in such esoteric terms, that it appears almost like an alien episode in the records of a practical race. No other phase of Anglo-Saxon civilization seems so singularly remote from every-day reality, so little leavened by natural human impulses and promptings. Certain generations of Englishmen, seemingly for no sufficient reason, yielded their intellects to a rigid system of dogmatic theology, and surrendered their freedom to the letter of the Hebrew Scriptures; and in endeavouring to conform their institutions as well as their daily actions to self-imposed authorities, they produced a social order that fills with amazement other generations of Englishmen who have broken with that order. Strange, perverted, scarce intelligible beings those old Puritans seem to us—mere crabbed theologians disputing endlessly over Calvinistic dogma, or chilling the marrow of honest men and women with their tales of hell-fire. And we should be inclined to dismiss them as curious eccentricities were it not for the amazing fact that those old preachers were not mere accidents or by-products, but the very heart and passion of their times. If they were listened to gladly, it was because they uttered what many were thinking; if they were followed through tribulation and sacrifice by multitudes, it was because the way which they pointed out seemed the best intelligence of their hearers the divinely approved path, which, if faithfully followed, must lead society out of the present welter of sin and misery and misrule into a nobler state. For the moment religion and statecraft were merged in the thought of Englishmen; and it was because the Puritan ministers were statesmen as well as theologians—the political quite as much as the religious readers—that the difficult task of social guidance rested for those generations with the divines. How they conducted themselves in that serious business, what account they rendered of their stewardship, becomes therefore a question which the historian may not neglect.

It was to set up a Kingdom of God on earth that the Puritan leaders came to America; and the phrase should enlighten us concerning their deeper purpose. But no sooner was their work well under way than the conception of a kingdom of God tended to merge in the newer conception of a commonwealth of Christ, and this in turn found itself confronted by the still newer conception of a commonwealth of free citizens; and it is the painful wrestling with these changing ideals, with all that was implied in each to the several classes and institutions of society, that gives historical significance to the crabbed writings of the New England divines. As political thinkers they inherited a wealth of political speculation, accumulated during more than a hundred years of extraordinary intellectual activity; and if we would understand the matter as well as the manner of their disputations, we must put ourselves to the trouble of translating the obsolete phraseology into modern equivalents, and conceive of Puritanism as the expression of current English radicalism. It was the English beginning of the great modern social readjustment which goes under the name of the democratic revolution; and its total history, covering a long period of a hundred and forty years, constitutes a noble chapter in the struggle for human freedom. If the evolution of modern society falls into two broad phases, the disintegration of the old caste society into free citizens, and the regrouping of the free citizens into a new social democracy, the significance of Puritanism becomes clear—it was a disruptive force that served to destroy the cohesion of the ancient caste solidarity resolving society into its individual members. It was the rebellion of the many against the overlordship of the few; a rebellion that proposed to coerce the freedom of men by the law of God alone; a challenge of existing institutions and regnant philosophies, which if successful could not fail to bring about profound social changes.

Necessarily, therefore, the Puritan reformation was allied with political reformation, and the period of ecclesiastical reorganization was equally a period of political reorganization. Modern political parties were thrown up out of the ferment of religious dispute, and the inevitable cleavages of Puritan thought were determined broadly by the cleavages of political thought. The three parties in the ecclesiastical field, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Independent, reflected the current political ideals of tory, whig, and democrat. The first was monarchical in principle, the ecclesiastical expression of tory absolutism. It gathered to its support the hereditary masters of society, who held that there should be one authoritative church, to which every subject of the crown must belong, to the support of which all must contribute, and in the governance of which only the appointed hierarchy should share. The second party was aristocratic in principle, the expression of the rising ideal of whiggery, or government by property through the instrumentality of landed gentlemen. Country squires and prosperous London citizens desired a church system which they could control, and this system they discovered in Presbyterianism, newly brought over from Geneva, which gave the control of the parish to the eldership, composed of responsible gentlemen who should serve as trustees for the good of the whole. The third party was more or less consciously democratic in principle, the expression of the newly awakened aspirations of the social underling. The poor man wanted to be ruled neither by bishops nor by gentlemen, but preferred to club with the like-minded of his own class, and set up an independent church along democratic lines. That was the true Christian church, he believed, which withdrew from all communion with sinners and established a “Congregation of the Saints”'; and so he called himself a Separatist. But whatever name he might call himself by, he was at bottom a democrat who demanded the right of self-government in the church, and who, when times were ripe, would assuredly assert the greater right of self-government in the state.

Broadly speaking, the Anglicans kept the situation pretty well in hand up to the accession of Charles I. During the long disputes between Charles and the Parliament, the rising party of Presbyterians was organizing its forces to break the rule of the bishops, and the early years of Parliamentary sovereignty marked the culmination of the middle period, dominated by the Presbyterian ideal. But no sooner was the ruthless hand of tory absolutism struck down than the long gathering forces of social discontent came to a head and broke with the moderate party of Presbyterian reformers; whereupon there followed the real Puritan revolution which had been preparing since the days of Wyclif. The Separatists seized control of Parliament and set about the work of erecting a government that should be a commonwealth of free citizens; the voice of the democratic underling, for the first time in English history, was listened to in the national councils, and the army of the democrat stood ready to enforce his demands with the sword. But unfortunately the strong wine went to the head; unbalanced schismatics endeavoured to set up impossible Utopias; zeal outran wisdom; and the Puritan movement broke at last into a thousand sects and went to pieces. But not before its real work was done; not before the political principles, which hitherto had been obscurely entangled in theological disputation, were set free and held up to the view of Englishmen; not before the new democratic philosophy had clarified its fundamental principle, namely, that the individual both as Christian and citizen derives from nature certain inalienable rights which every church and every government is bound to respect.

It was during the decade of the thirties, at the moment when Presbyterianism was in the ascendancy, that the Puritan migration to New England took place; and the leaders of that notable movement were effectively Presbyterian in sympathies and policies. Possessed of ample means and of good social position, they were liberals rather than radicals, and they shared the common Presbyterian hope of capturing the ecclesiastical establishment as a whole instead of separating from it. But they had been preceded to America by the Plymouth congregation, a body of low-born Separatists, who had set up a church upon frankly democratic principles. In an unfortunate moment for Presbyterianism, the pioneer church at Salem came under the influence of the Plymouth example, and the following year, when the main body of Puritans came over with Winthrop, they fell in with the Salem example and set up the new churches on the Congregational principle, as seeming to provide the most suitable form for the development of a theocracy. The inconsistency of an arrangement by which an aristocratic leadership accepted a democratic church organization was obscured for the moment by the unanimity of ministers and congregation; but it was clearly perceived by the Presbyterians of the old country, and it was to prove the source of much contention in later years.

Out of this fundamental inconsistency sprang a large part of the literature with which we are concerned in the present chapter. The ministers, as the spokesmen of New England, soon found themselves embroiled in controversy. During the first ten years or more the controversy lay between New England and old England Puritans, and the burden upon the former was to prove to the satisfaction of English Presbyterianism that the “Congregational way” was not democratic Separatism, with its low stigma of Brownism, but aristocratic Presbyterianism. During the later years, when Presbyterianism had been definitely overthrown in England, the controversy lay between the theocratic hierarchy—which after the year 1637 was the dominant power—and the dissenting democracy; the former seeking to Presbyterianize the church away from its primitive Congregationalism, the latter seeking to maintain the purity of the Plymouth ideal. In dealing with the several ministers, therefore, we shall divide them into the emigrant generation and the native generations, and set the aristocratic Presbyterians over against the democratic Congregationalists, endeavouring to understand the chief points at issue between them.

The most authoritative representative of the ideals of the middle period of Puritanism—its aristocratic conservatism in the guise of theocratic polities—was the celebrated John Cotton, first Teacher to the church at Boston. Of good family and sound university training, he was both a notable theologian and a courteous gentleman. “Twelve hours in a day he commonly studied, and would call that a scholar's day,” his grandson reported of him; and his learned eloquence was universally admired by a generation devoted to solid argumentative discourse. When he ascended the pulpit on Sundays and lecture days, he carried thither not only the wisdom of his beloved master Calvin but the whole Puritan theology to buttress his theses. Good men were drawn to him irresistibly by his sweetness of temper, and evil men were overawed by his venerable aspect. For all his severe learning he was a lovable man, with white hair framing a face that must have been nobly chiselled, gentle-voiced, courteous, tactful, by nature “a tolerant man,” than whom none “did more placidly bear a dissentient,” or more gladly discover a friend in an antagonist. If his tactful bending before opposition, or his fondness for intellectual subtleties, drew from his grandson the appellation “a most excellent casuist,” we must not therefore conclude that he served the cause of truth less devotedly than the cause of party.

For in his mildly persistent way John Cotton was a revolutionist. A noble ideal haunted his thought, as Utopian as any in the long roll of Utopian dreams—the ideal of a Christian theocracy which should supersede the unchristian government which Englishmen had lived under hitherto. A devout scripturist, he accepted the Hebrew Bible as the final word of God, not to be played fast and loose with but to be received as a rule of universal application, perfect to the last word and least injunction. The sufficiency of the Scriptures to social needs was an axiom in his philosophy; “the more any law smells of man the more unprofitable,” he asserted in his proposed draft of laws; and at another time he exclaimed, “Scripturae plenitudinem adoro.” He chose exile and the leaving of his beautiful English church rather than yield to what he regarded as the unscriptural practices of Laud, and now that he was come to a new land where a fresh beginning was to be made, was it not his Christian duty to “endeavour after a theocracy, as near as might be, to that which was the glory of Israel, the 'peculiar people'”? The old common law must be superseded by the Mosaic dispensation, the priest must be set above the magistrate, the citizen of the commonwealth must become the subject of Jehovah, the sovereignty of the state must yield to the sovereignty of God.

It was a frankly aristocratic world in which John Cotton was bred, and if he disliked the plebeian ways of the Plymouth democracy equally with the Brownist tendencies of Plymouth Congregationalism, it was because they smacked too much of popular sovereignty to please him. And when he found himself confronted by signs of democratic unrest in Boston his course of action seemed to him clear. The desire for liberty he regarded as the sinful prompting of the natural man, a godless denial of the righteous authority of the divinely appointed rulers. If democracy were indeed a Christian form of government, was it not strange that divine wisdom should have overlooked so significant a fact? In all the history of the chosen people nowhere did God designate the democratic as the perfect type, but the theocratic; was He now to be set right by sinful men who courted popularity by stirring the dirt in the bottom of depraved hearts? To a scripturist the logic of his argument was convincing:

It is better that the commonwealth be fashioned to the setting forth of God's house, which is his church: than to accomodate the church frame to the civill state. Democracy, I do not conceyve that ever God did ordeyne as a fit government eyther for church or commonwealth. If the people be governors, who shall be governed? As for monarchy, and aristocracy, they are both of them clearely approoved, and directed in scripture, yet so as referreth the soveraigntie to himselfe, and setteth up Theocracy in both, as the best forme of government in the coromonwealth, as well as in the church.[1]

Holding to such views, the duty devolving upon him was plain—to check in every way the drift towards a more democratic organization, and to prove to old-world critics that the evil reports of the growing Brownism in New England, which were spreading among the English Presbyterians, were without foundation. The first he sought to accomplish by the strengthening of the theocratic principle in practice, busying himself in a thousand practical ways to induce the people to accept the patriarchal rulership of the ministers and elders, in accordance with the “law of Moses, his Judidals”; the second he sought to accomplish by proving, under sound scriptural authority, the orthodoxy of the New England way. His chief effort in this latter field was his celebrated work, The Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared; a treatise crammed, in the opinion of an admirer, with “most practical Soul-searching, Soul-saving, and Soul-solacing Divinitie,” “not Magisterially laid down, but friendly debated by Scripture, and argumentatively disputed out to the utmost inch of ground.” The partisan purpose of the book was to prove that Congregationalism, as practised in New England, was nearer akin to aristocratic Presbyterianism than to democratic Brownism; and of this purpose he speaks frankly:


Neither is it the Scope of my whole Book, to give the people a share in the Government of the Church. . . . Nay further, there be that blame the Book for the other Extreme, That it placeth the Government of the Church not at all in the hands of the People, but of the Presbyterie.[2]


Out of this same theocratic root sprang the well-known dispute with Roger Williams concerning toleration. Not freedom to follow the ways of sin, but freedom to follow the law of God—this was Cotton's restriction upon the “natural liberties” of the subject of Jehovah. There must be freedom of conscience if it be under no error, but not otherwise; for if freedom be permitted to all sinful errors, how shall the will of God prevail on earth? In this matter of toleration of conscience, it is clear enough today that the eyes of the great theocrat, “so piercing and heavenly (in other and precious Truths of God)”—as Roger Williams acknowledged—were for the moment sadly “over-clouded and bloud-shotten.” But for this the age rather than the man was to blame. It was no fault of John Cotton's that he was the product of a generation still resting under the shadow of absolutism, unable to comprehend the more democratic philosophy of the generation of Roger Williams. He reasoned according to his light; and if he was convinced that the light which shone to him was a divine torch, he proved himself thereby a sound Puritan if not a good Christian.

The native sweetness and humanity of Cotton's character, despite his rigid theocratic principles, comes out pleasantly when the great preacher is set over against the caustic minister and wit, Nathaniel Ward of Ipswich, author of the strange little book, The Simple Cobbler of Aggawam, and chief compiler of the celebrated Body of Liberties. Born nearly two-score years before Roger Williams, he was well advanced in his sixties when he set foot in the new world, and upwards of seventy when he wrote the Simple Cobbler. More completely than any of his emigrant brethren he belonged to the late Renaissance world, which lingered on into the reigns of James and Charles, zealously cultivating its quaint garden of letters, coddling its odd phrases, and caring more for clever conceits than for solid thought. Faithful disciple of Calvin though he was, there was in him a rich sap of mind, which, fermented by long observation and much travel, made him the raciest of wits, and doubtless the most delightful of companions over a respectable Puritan bottle. "I have only Two Comforts to Live upon," Increase Mather reported him as saying; "The one is in the Perfections of Christ; The other is in The Imperfections of all Christians."

It is the caustic criticism of female fashions, and the sharp attack upon all tolerationists who would "hang God's Bible at the Devil's girdle," that have caught the attention of later readers of the Simple Cobbler; but it was as a "subtile statesman" that Ward impressed himself upon his own generation, and it is certainly the political philosophy which gives significance to his brilliant essay. Trained in the law before he forsook it for the ministry, he had thought seriously upon political questions, and his conclusions hit to a nicety the principles which the moderate Presbyterians in Parliament were developing to offset the Stuart encroachments. The insufficiency of the old checks and balances to withstand the stress of partisanship was daily becoming more evident as the struggle went forward. There must be an overhauling of the fundamental law; the neutral zones must be charted and the several rights and privileges exactly delimited. What was needed was a written constitution. Hitherto God "hath taken order, that ill Prerogatives, gotten by the Sword, should in time be fetcht home by the Dagger, if nothing else will doe it: Yet I trust there is both day and means to intervent this bargaine." To preserve a just balance between rival interests, and to bring all parties to a realization of their responsibility to God, were the difficult problems with which Ward's crotchety lucubrations mainly concern themselves.

Authority must have power to make and keep people honest; People, honesty to obey Authority; both, a joynt-Councell to keep both safe. Moral Lawes, Royall Prerogatives, Popular Liberties, are not of Mans making or giving, but Gods: Man is but to measure them out by Gods Rule: which if mans wisdome cannot reach. Mans experience must mend: And these Essentials, must not be Ephorized or Tribuned by one or a few Mens discretion, but lineally sanctioned by Supreame Councels. In pro-re-nascent occurrences, which cannot be foreseen; Diets, Parliaments, Senates, or accountable Commissions, must have power to consult and execute against intersilient dangers and flagitious crimes prohibited by the light of Nature: Yet it were good if States would let People know so much beforehand, by some safe woven manifesto, that grosse Delinquents may tell no tales of Anchors and Buoyes, nor palliate their presumptions with pretense of ignorance. I know no difference in these Essentials, between Monarchies, Aristocracies, or Democracies. . .

He is a good King that undoes not his Subjects by any one of his unlimited Prerogatives: and they are a good People, that undoe not their Prince, by any one of their unbounded Liberties, be they the very least. I am sure either may, and I am sure neither would be trusted, how good soever. Stories tell us in effect, though not in termes, that over-risen Kings, have been the next evills to the world, unto fallen Angels; and that over-franchised people, are devills with smooth snaffles in their mouthes ... I have a long while thought it very possible, in a time of Peace ... for disert Statesmen, to cut an exquisite thred between Kings Prerogatives, and Subjects Liberties of all sorts, so as Caesar might have his due and People their share, without such sharpe disputes. Good Casuists would case it, and case it, part it, and part it; now it, and then it, punctually.

Nathaniel Ward was no democrat and therefore no Congregationalist. “For Church work, I am neither Presbyterian, nor plebsbyterian, but an Interpendent,” he said of himself. But his Interpendency was only an individualistic twist of Presbyterianism. For the new radicals who were rising out of the turmoil of revolution, he had only contempt; and for their new-fangled notion of toleration, and talk of popular liberties, he felt the righteous indignation of the conservative who desires no altering of the fundamental arrangements of society. Only the Word of God could justify change; and so when he was commissioned to write a body of liberties for the new commonwealth, he presented as harsh and rigid a code as the sternest theocrat could have wished, a strange compound of the brutalities of the old common law and the severities of the Mosaic rule. He was too old a man to fit into the new ways—a fact which he recognized by returning to England to die, leaving behind him as a warning to Congregationalism the pithy quatrain:

The upper world shall Rule,
While Stars will run their race:
The nether world obey,
While People keep their place.

The more one reads in the literature of early New England the more one feels oneself in the company of men who were led by visions, and fed upon Utopian dreams. It was a day and a world of idealists, and of this number was John Eliot, saintly apostle to the Indians, who, in the midst of his missionary dreams and the arduous labours of supplying the bread of life to his native converts, found time to fashion his brick for the erection of that temple which the Puritans of the Protectorate were dreaming of. The idols had been broken under the hammer of Cromwell; the malevolent powers that so long had held sway at last were brought low; it remained now only for the people of God to enter into a solemn covenant to establish a commonwealth after the true divine model. That no mistake should be made in so important a matter, John Eliot sent out of the American wilderness the plan of a Christian Utopia, sanctioned by Mosaic example and buttressed at every point by chapter and verse, which he urged upon the people of England as a suitable guide to their feet.

Naked theocracy is nowhere more uncompromisingly delineated than in the pages of The Christian Commonwealth. At the base of Eliot's political thinking were the two germinal conceptions which animated his theocratic brethren generally: the conception that Christ is King of Kings, before whom all earthly authority must bow, and the conception that the Scriptures alone contain the law of God. “There is undoubtedly a forme of civil Government instituted by God himself in the holy Scriptures. . . . We should derogate from the sufficiency and perfection of the Scriptures, if we should deny it.” From these main premises he deduced a system that is altogether remarkable for its thorough-going simplicity. Since the law has been declared once for all, perfect and complete, there is no need for a legislative branch of government; and since Christ is the sole overlord and king, there is no need for an earthly head of the state; it remains only to provide a competent magisterial system to hear causes and adjudicate differences. Society is concerned wholly with duties and not at all with rights; government therefore begins and ends with the magistrate. In order to secure an adequate magistracy, Eliot proposed to divide society into groups of tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands, each of which should choose its rulers, who in turn should choose their representatives in the higher councils; and so there was evolved an ascending series of magistrates until the supreme council of the nation was reached, the decisions of which should be final.

The duties of all the Rulers of the civil part of the Kingdom of Christ, are as followeth ... to govern the people in the orderly and seasonable practice of all the Commanders of God, in actions liable to Political observations, whether of piety and love to God, or of justice, and love to man with peace.

Far removed as The Christian Commonwealth was from the saner thought of the Army democrats, it is the logical culmination of all theocratic dreams. The ideal of social unity, of relentless conformity, according to which the rebel is a social outlaw to be silenced at any cost, dominates this Christian Utopia as mercilessly as it dominated the policy of Laud. In setting up King Jesus for King Charles, there was to be no easing of the yoke upon the rebellious spirit; and in binding society upon the letter of the Scripture there was to be no room for the democratic aspirations of the leveller. Curious as this little work is—testifying rather to the sincerity of Eliot's Hebraism than to his political intelligence or to his knowledge of men—it is characteristic of the man who consecrated his life to the dream of an Indian mission. How little disturbed he was by the perversities and limitations of facts, is revealed anew in the polity which he laid down for his Indian converts:

And this VOW I did solemnly make unto the Lord concerning them; that they being a people without any forme of Government, and now to chuse; I would endeavour with all my might, to bring them to embrace such Government, both civil and Ecclesiastical, as the Lord hath commanded in the holy Scriptures; and to deduce all their Lawes from the holy Scriptures, that so they may be the Lord's people, ruled by him alone in all things.

Which vow, considering the state of the Indian tribes to whom it was to apply, may serve to throw light upon the causes of the scant success of the Saints in dealing with the Indians.

Despite the logic of the theocrats, unanimity of opinion among the Saints was sadly lacking; and the peace of the new Canaan was troubled and the patience of the leaders sorely tried by pious malcontents, who were not content that God should rule through John Cotton, but themselves desired to be the Lord's vicegerents. The democrats were constantly prodding the ruling coterie of gentlemen; and the democratic conception of a commonwealth of free citizens intruded more and more upon the earlier conception of a kingdom of God. Capable leaders of the new radicalism were not lacking; and if we would comprehend the dissension and heart-burnings of those early times, we must set the figures of Roger Williams and Thomas Hooker over against John Cotton and the theocrats.

Roger Williams, advocate of toleration, was the most tempestuous soul thrown upon the American shores by the revolution then griping England, the embodiment and spokesman of the new radical hopes. He was an arch-rebel in a rebellious generation, the intellectual barometer of a world of stormy speculation and great endeavour. A generation younger than the Boston leaders, he came to maturity at the beginning of the wave of radicalism that was to sweep England into civil war. Older ties of class and custom he put aside easily, to make room for the new theories then agitating young Englishmen; and these new theories he advocated with an importunity disconcerting to practical men more given to weighing times and occasions. The kernel of his radicalism was the ideal of a democratic church in a democratic society. The more closely we scrutinize the thought of the great Separatist, the more clearly we perceive that the master principle of his career was Christian—the desire to embody in his life the social as well as the spiritual teachings of Christ. He put aside tradition and went back to the foundation and original of the gospel, discovering anew the profoundly revolutionary conceptions that underlie the philosophy of Jesus. He learned to conceive of men literally as the children of God and brothers in Christ, and out of this primary conception he developed his democratic philosophy. It was to set up no Hebraic absolutism that he came to America; it was to establish a free commonwealth of Christ in which the lowest and meanest of God's children should share equally with the greatest. But before there could be a free commonwealth there must be free churches; the hand of neither bishop nor presbytery must lie upon the conscience of the individual Christian; and so Roger Williams threw himself into the work of spreading the propaganda of Separatism. Not only did he protest in New England against the tyranny of the magistrates, but he flung at the heads of all enemies of freedom the notable book on toleration in which he struck at the root of the matter by arguing that “conscience be permitted (though erroneous) to be free.”

In an earlier age he would have become a disciple of St. Francis; but in the days when the religious movement was passing over into a political movement, when it was being talked openly that both in church and state “the Originall of all free Power and Government” lies in the people, he threw in his lot with the levellers to further the democratic movement. As early as 1644 he had formulated his main principles:

From this Grant I infer . . . that the Soveraigne, originall, and foundation of civill power lies in the people . . . And if so, that a People may erect and establish what forme of Government seemes to them most meete for their civill condition: It is evident that such Governments as are by them erected and established, have no more 'power, nor for no longer time, then the civill power or people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with. This is cleere not only in Reason, but in the experience of all commonweales, where the people are not deprived of their naturall freedome by the power of Tyrants.[3]

Clearly the radical times, his own experience, and his discussions with Sir Harry Vane had carried Roger Williams far into the field of political speculation, and confirmed his prepossessions of broader political rights for the common people from whom he had sprung. In all his later thinking there stood sharply before his mind the figure of the individual citizen, endowed with certain inalienable rights, a free member of a free commonwealth; and it was this profoundly modern conception which he transported to the wilderness of Rhode Island, providing there a fit sanctuary for the ark of the democratic covenant which was soon to be roughly handled by the tory reaction of Restoration England.

A courageous and unselfish thinker was this old-time Separatist and democrat. The friendliest of souls, time has brought him the friends which his restless intellect drove from him in his own day. However hopelessly we may lose ourselves in the tangle of his writings, confused by the luxuriance of his Hebraic tropes, we can plainly discern the man, the most charitable, the most open-minded, the most modem, amongst the notable company of Puritan emigrants—the sincerest Christian among many who sincerely desired to be Christians. His own words most adequately characterize him: “Liberavi animam meam: I have not hid within my breast, my souls belief.” Naturally such a man could not get on with the Presbyterian leaders of Boston Bay; the social philosophies which divided them were fundamentally hostile; and the fate which Roger Williams suffered was prophetic of the lot that awaited later zealots in the democratic cause—to be outcast and excommunicate from respectable society.

A man of far different mettle was old Thomas Hooker of Hartford. The sternest autocrat of them all, a leader worthy to measure swords with the redoubtable Hugh Peters himself, a man of “mighty vigour and fervour of spirit” who, to further “his Master's work, would put a king in his pocket,” he would seem to be the very stuff out of which to fashion a dictator for the snug Presbyterian Utopia. Nevertheless there was some hidden bias in the old Puritan's nature that warped him away from Presbyterianism, and made him the advocate of a democratic Congregationalism. The great schism which rent the early theocracy, carrying off three congregations into the Connecticut wilderness, was an early witness to the antagonisms which lurked in the ambitions of diverse-minded enthusiasts. The seceders had other notions of church organization, it appears, than those held by the dominant group; but they were moderates, who believed that everything should be done decently and in order, and instead of setting up a clamour and bringing confusion upon God's work, they withdrew quietly under the leadership of Thomas Hooker and set up their new church at Hartford.

Concerning the “grave and juditious Hooker” surprisingly little is known, notwithstanding the work that he did and the influence that he wielded dvuing a masterful life. He was a man evidently regardless of fame, who took small pains to publish his virtues to the ears of posterity; nevertheless it is clear that he was a better democrat than the Boston leaders—the father of New England Congregationalism as it later came to be when the Presbyterian tendency was finally checked. For his pronounced democratic sympathies some ground may be discovered in his humble origin. He was sprung of a plain yeoman family, got his education by the aid of scholarships, married a “waiting-woman” to the wife of his patron, and lived plainly, untroubled by social ambitions. He was a self-made man who had risen by virtue of strength of character and disdained to be a climber. He was evidently one of the greatest preachers of his time in either England, and he had early been marked by Laud's spies as one of “the people's creatures” “who blew the bellows of their sedition.” He drew young men to him—among others John Eliot; and even though he should be silenced, his influence would remain. “His genius will still haunte all the pulpits in ye country, where any of his scholars may be admitted to preach,” one of the sycophants reported of him. Such a man must be reckoned with; and when in New England he found the ways too autocratic to suit him, he threw himself into the work of quickening the democratic unrest. “After Mr. Hooker's coming over,” said Hubbard, “it was observed that many of the freemen grew to be very jealous of their liberties.”

He was more concerned with experimental religion than with theology, more the pastor than the teacher. Nevertheless, when the Massachusetts leaders were troubled by attacks of old-world Presbyterians directed against “the New-England way,” they drafted Hooker to write a defence. This was the origin of his Survey of the Summe of Church Discipline, a knotty book vigorous in thought and phrase, the most important contribution of New England Congregationalism to the great disputes of the time. The old champion went straight to the heart of the matter, seizing upon the political principles involved:

But whether all Ecclesiasticall power be . . . rightly taken in to the Presbytery alone: Or that the people of the Particular Churches should come in for a share . . . This is left as the subject of the inquiry of this age, and that which occasions great thought of heart of all hands: Great thoughts of hearts in the Presbytery, as being very loth to part with that so chief priviledge, and of which they have taken possession so many years. Great thoughts of heart amongst the churches, how they may clear their right, and claim it in such pious sobriety and moderation, as becomes the Saints: being unwilling to loose their cause and comfort, meerly upon a nihil dicit: or forever to be deprived of so precious a legacy, as they conceive this is, though it hath been withheld from them, by the tyrranny of the Pope, and prescription of times. Nor can they conceive it lesse, then a heedlesse betraying of their speciall liberties ... by a carelesse silence, when the course of providence, as the juncture of things now present themselves, allows them a writt Ad melius inquirendum. . . . These are the times when people shall be fitted for such priviledges, fit I say to obtain them, and fit to use them. . . . And whereas it hath been charged upon the people, that through their ignorance and unskilfulnesse, they are not able to wield such priviledges, and therefore not fit to share in any such power, The Lord hath promised: To take away the vail from all faces in the mountain, the weak shall be as David, and David as an Angel of God.[4]

If the Presbyterianizing party found the path they were treading thorny and rough, it was due in no small part to Thomas Hooker, who liberally bestrewed their path with impediments. Hebraist and theocrat though he professed to be, his Hebraic theocracy was grounded upon the people, and pointed straight towards the sovereignty of the individual congregation. “The Lord hath promised to take away the vail from all faces in the mountain”—and if the veil be removed and the people see, shall not the people judge concerning their own causes? In this faith Thomas Hooker lived and laboured, thereby proving his right to be numbered among the stewards of our American democracy.

The fibre of the emigrant leaders had been toughened by conflict with old-world conservatism and turned radical by the long struggle with an arrogant toryism. By a natural selective process the stoutest-hearted had been driven overseas, and the well-known words of William Stoughton, 'God sifted a whole Nation that he might send choice grain over into this wildernes,”[5] were the poetic expression of a bitter reality. But seated snugly in the new world, in control of church and state, the emigrant radicalism found its ardour cooling. The Synod of 1637 set a ban upon Antinomianism and other heretical innovations, and thereafter Massachusetts settled down to a rigid orthodoxy. The fathers had planted, was it not enough for the sons to water and tend the vine, and enjoy the fruit thereof? And so the spirit of conservatism took possession of the native generation, the measure of excellence being accounted the fidelity with which the husbandmen revered the work of the emigrant pioneers. Translated into modem terms, it means that the native ministers, having inherited a system of which they were the beneficiaries, discovered little inclination to question the title deeds to their inheritance, but were mainly bent on keeping them safe. To preserve what had been gained, and as far as possible to extend the Presbyterian principle, became their settled policy ; and so in all the life of New England—in the world of Samuel Sewall, as well as in that of Cotton Mather—a harsh and illiberal dogmatism succeeded to the earlier enthusiasm.

The indisputable leader of the second generation was Increase Mather, son of Richard Mather, and father of Cotton, the most vigorous and capable member of a remarkable family. After graduating at Harvard, he entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he proceeded Master of Arts. He spent some years in England, preaching there to the edification of many, until the restoration of Charles sent him back to America to become the guiding spirit of the New England hierarchy. He was by nature a politician and statesman rather than a minister, the stuff of which frocked chancellors were made; and he needed only a pliant master to have become another Wolsey or Richelieu. He liked to match his wit in diplomacy with statesmen, and he served his native land faithfully and well in the matter of wheedling Dutch William into granting a new charter to Massachusetts. A natural autocrat, he was dictatorial and domineering, bearing himself arrogantly towards all underlings, unyielding in opposition to whoever crossed his will. And in consequence he gathered about his head such fierce antagonism that in the end he failed of his ambitions, and shorn of power he sat down in old age to eat the bread of bitterness.

Skill in organization was the secret of his strength. In no sense a creative thinker, wholly lacking in intellectual curiosity and therefore not given to speculation, he built up a compact hierarchical machine, and then suffered the mortification of seeing it broken to pieces by forces that lay beyond his control. If the theocratic ideal of ecclesiastical control of secular affairs were to maintain itself against the growing opposition, the ministers must fortify their position by a closer organization. They must speak as a unit in determining church policies; above all they must guard against the wolves in sheep's clothing who were slipping into the pulpits to destroy the flocks. To effect such ends Synods were necessary, and Increase Mather was an ardent advocate of Synodical organization. He prompted the calling of the “Reforming Synod' of 1679-80, served as Moderator, dominated the debates, and drafted the report; and the purpose which underlay such work was the substitution of a Presbyterian hierarchy for the older Congregationalism. The church must dominate the state; the organized ministers must dominate the church; and Increase Mather trusted that he could dominate the ministers—such in brief was the dream of this masterful leader of the second generation.

The source of his power lay in the pulpit, and for sixty-four years the Old North Church was the citadel of Mather orthodoxy. His labours were enormous. Sixteen hours a day he commonly studied. Among many powerful preachers he was reckoned “the complete preacher,' and he thundered above his congregation with an authority that must have been appalling. His personal influence carried far, and doubtless there were many good men in Boston who believed—as Roger Williams said of John Cotton—that “God would not suffer” Increase Mather “to err.” Those whom his voice could not reach his pen must convince, and the busy minister set a pace in the making and publishing of books which only his busier son could equal. He understood thoroughly the power of the press, and he watched over it with an eagle eye; no unauthorized or godless work must issue thence for the pollution of the people; and to insure that only fit matter should be published he was at enormous pains to supply enough manuscript himself to keep the printers busy. The press was a powerful aid to the pulpit in shaping public opinion, and Increase Mather was too shrewd a leader not to understand how necessary it was to hold it in strict control. He was a calculating dictator, and he ruled the press with the same iron hand with which he ruled the pulpit. He was no advocate of freedom, for he was no friend of democracy.

Of the odium which an obstinate defence of a passing order gathered about the name of Mather, the larger share fell to the lot of Cotton Mather, whose passionately distorted career remains so incomprehensible to us. One may well hesitate to describe Cotton Mather; the man is unconceivable to one who has not read his diary. Unlike Increase, he was provincial to the core. Born and bred in Boston, his longest trips into the outer world carried him only a few miles from the Old North Meeting-house, where for years he served as co-labourer with his father. Self-centred and self-righteous, the victim of strange asceticisms and morbid spiritual debauches, every circumstance of his life ripened and expanded the colossal egotism of his nature. His vanity was daily fattened by the adulation of silly women and the praise of foolish men, until the insularity of his thought and judgment grew into a disease. His mind was clogged with the strangest miscellany of truth and fiction; he laboured to acquire the possessions of a scholar, but he listened to old wives' tales with an amazing credulity. In all his mental processes the solidest fact fell into grotesque perspective, and confused itself with the most fantastic abortions. And yet he was prompted by a love of scientific investigation, and in the matter of inoculation for smallpox showed himself both courageous and intelligent.

Living under the shadow of his father, he was little more than a reduced copy of the Mather ambitions, inheriting a ready-made theology, a passion for the ideals of the emigrant generation, an infallible belief in the finality of the Mather conclusions. The masterfulness of old Increase degenerated in the son into an intolerable meddlesomeness; and in the years of reaction against ecclesiastical domination the position of Cotton Mather was difficult. He was exposed to attack from two sides; the tories with whom he would gladly have affiliated, and the democrats whom he held in contempt, both rejected the archaic theocracy. As his meddlesomeness increased, the attacks of his enemies multiplied, wounding his self-esteem bitterly—“having perhaps the Insults of contemptible People, the Assaults of those insignificant Lice, more than any man in New-England” as his son testifies. “These troublesome but diminutive Creatures he scorn'd to concern himself with; only to pity them and pray for them." He would die willingly, he believed, to save his erring people from their sins, but he obstinately refused to be dictated to by them.

Of the content of his innumerable writings the accompanying Bibliography will give sufficient indication. A man of incredible industry, unrestrained by any critical sense, and infatuated with printer's ink, he flung together a jumble of old saws and modem instances and called the result a book. Of the 470 odd titles, the Magnalia alone possesses some vitality still, the repository of much material concerning early days in Massachusetts that we should not willingly lose. “In his Style, indeed,” according to a contemporary critic, “he was something singular, and not so agreeable to the Gust of the Age. But like his 'manner of speaking, it was very emphatical.The emphasis, it must be confessed, is now gone from his pages, and the singularity remains, a singularity little agreeable to the gust of today.

The party of conservatism numbered among its adherents every prominent minister of the greater churches. The organization propaganda of the Mathers spread widely, and in 1705 a group of men put forth a series of “Proposals” looking to a closer union of the churches, and greater control of the separate congregations by the ministerial association.[6] Seven years later John Wise, pastor of the second church of Ipswich, published his Churches Quarrel Espoused, and in 1717, his Vindication of the New England Churches. The two works were a democratic counterblast to the Presbyterian propaganda, and stirred the thought of the churches so effectively as to nullify the Proposals, and put an end to all such agitation in Massachusetts.

Posterity has been too negligent of John Wise hitherto. Although possessed of the keenest mind and most trenchant pen of his generation of Americans, he was untainted by any itch of publicity, and so failed to challenge the attention of later times. Nevertheless, what we know of him is to his credit. An independent man, powerful of body, vigorous of intellect, tenacious of opinion, outspoken and fearless in debate, he seems to have understood the plain people whom he served, and he sympathized heartily with the democratic ideals then taking shape in the New England village. Some explanation of his democratic sympathies may be discovered in his antecedents. His father was a self-made man who had come over to Roxbury as an indented servant—most menial of stations in that old Carolinian world. There he doubtless taught his son independence and democratic self-respect, which stood John Wise in good stead when he later came to speak for the people against the arbitrary tax of Andros, the encroachments of the Mathers, or the schemes of the hard-money men.

When, in response to the challenge of the Presbyterians, he turned to examine critically the work of the fathers, he found in it quite another meaning than Cotton Mather found. It was as a radical that he went back to the past, seeking to recover the original Congregational principle, which, since the conservative triumph in the Synod of 1637, had been greatly obscured. The theme of his two books is the same, a defence of the “venerable New-English constitution”; but the significance of them in the history of democratic America lies in the fact that he followed “an unbeaten path,” justifying the principles of Congregationalism by analogy from civil polity. Seemingly alone amongst the New England clergy of his day he had grounded himself in political theory; and the doctrine upon which he erected his argument was the new conception of “natural rights,” derived from a study of Puffendorf's De Jure Naturae et Gentium, published in 1672. This was the first effective reply in America to the old theocratic sneer that if the democratic form of government were indeed divinely sanctioned, was it not strange that God had overlooked it in providing a system for his chosen people? But Wise had broken with the literal Hebraism of earlier times, and was willing to make use of a pagan philosophy, based upon an appeal to history, a method which baffled the followers of the old school. They found difficulty in replying to such argument:

That a democracy in church or state, is a very honourable and regular government according to the dictates of right reason, And, therefore . . . That these churches of New England, in their ancient constitution of church order, it being a democracy, are manifestly justified and defended by the law and light of nature.

With the advance of the democratic movement of modern times, the life and work of John Wise take on new interest. After a spirited contest lasting for three-quarters of a century, theocratic Puritanism merged in ecclesiastical democracy. For two generations it had remained doubtful which way the church would incline. Dominated by gentlemen, it was warped toward Presbyterianism; but interpreted by commoners, it leaned towards Congregationalism. The son of a plebeian, Wise came naturally into sympathy with the spirit of radical Separatism, bred of the democratic aspirations of the old Jacobean underlings; and this radical Separatism he found justified by the new philosophy, as well as by the facts of the New England village world. The struggle for ecclesiastical democracy was a forerunner of the struggle for political democracy; which was to be the business of the next century; and in justifying his ecclesiasticism by political principles, John Wise was an early witness to the new order of thought.

Judged by the severest standards, the Puritan ministers were a notable group of men; the English race has never bred their superiors in self-discipline and exalted ideals, and rarely their equals in consecration to duty. Their interests might be narrow and their sympathies harsh and illiberal; nevertheless men who studied ten to sixteen hours a day were neither boors nor intellectual weaklings. A petty nature would not have uttered the lament of Increase Mather:

not many years ago, I lost (and that's an afflictive loss indeed!) several moneths from study by sickness. Let every God-fearing reader joyn with me in prayer, that I may be enabled to redeem the time, and (in all wayes wherein I am capable), to serve my generation.[7]

From the long hours of reading they acquired a huge mass of learning; out of the many books they read they made still other books of like nature and purpose. The way of printer's ink was the path of celebrity and authority, and the minister who had not a goodly number of volumes to his credit was an unprofitable servant, lacking ambition to glorify his Lord. Though they denied themselves in other things, they did not stint their library. In 1686 John Dunton numbered eight book-shops in the village of Boston; and in 1702 Cotton Mather described his study, “the hangings whereof, are Boxes with between two and three thousand Books in them.”

According to present taste it was an uninviting library; works of pure literature were as lacking as books of history and political philosophy and science. Nevertheless, though their reading was narrow, the ministers in many respects were in advance of their times. For all his grotesque lack of scientific method. Cotton Mather was more nearly a scientist than any other man of his day in Boston,—a weakness which laid him open to criticism. Under date of 23 December, 1714, Sewall noted in his diary: Dr. C. Mather preaches excellently from Ps. 37. Trust in the Lord, etc., only spake of the Sun being in the centre of our system. I think it inconvenient to assert such problems.

His membership in the Royal Society, to which he forwarded his Curiosa Americana, encouraged him to keep abreast of current scientific thought; and it was from this source that he got the idea of inoculation for smallpox, which he urged upon the people of Boston so insistently that a war of pamphlets broke out. When we remember that during ninety years only two books on medicine were published in New England—one a popular pharmacopeia and the other a hand-book on smallpox prevention—it is suggestive that within a few months sixteen papers on inoculation came from the press. In this case the minister was in advance of the physicians.

If the influence of the ministers was commanding, it was due in part to their indisputable vigour, and in part, it must be acknowledged, to their control of the means of publicity. The complete domination of the press they regarded as their perquisite; and they swayed public opinion sometimes by means not wholly to their credit. Those who opposed their policies experienced difficulties in gaining a hearing. Thus Robert Calef, who attacked the Mathers because of the witchcraft business, found it desirable to send his manuscript to London for publication, and John Wise probably sent his manuscript of The Churches Quarrel Espoused to New York.[8] Complaints were heard that the press was closed. In the preface to The Gospel Order Revived, by T. Woodbridge and other malcontents, published in New York in 1700,

The Reader is desired to take Notice that the Press in Boston is so much under the aw of the Reverend Author, whom we answer, and his Friends, that we could not obtain of the Printer there to print the following Sheets, which is the true Reason why we have sent the Copy so far for its Impression and where it was printed with some Difficulty.

When James Franklin spoke out roundly against the tyranny of the ministers, they induced the magistrates to teach him respect by throwing him into the common gaol. It was a serious matter to offend the hierarchy, even in the days of its decline, and far more serious to attack. But the days of its domination were numbered, and after 1720 the secular authority of the Puritan divines swiftly decayed. The old dream of a Kingdom of God was giving way, under pressure of economic circumstance, to the new dream of a commonwealth of free citizens. The theological age was to be followed by a political age, and in this later world of thought the Puritan divines were unfitted to remain leaders of the people.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1929, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

 
  1. Letter to Lord Say and Sele, Hutchinson, Hist. of Mass. Bay Colony, vol. I, p. 497.
  2. Part II, p. 15.
  3. Narr. Club Pub. III., 249.
  4. Introd.
  5. From a sermon entitled, New-Englands true interests; not to lie: Or, a Treatise declaring . , . the terms on which we stand, and the tenure by which we hold our . . . precious and pleasant things. Cambridge, 1670.
  6. For an account of the movement, see Walker's History of the Congregational Churches in the United States, pp. 201-213.
  7. Preface to Remarkable Providences.
  8. See Bibliography on this point.