The Founding of New England/IV

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166699The Founding of New England — IV. Some Aspects of PuritanismJames Truslow Adams



The history of the New England group of colonies was, in the main, shaped throughout the entire prerevolutionary period by the influence of three factors. These were the geographical environment, the Puritan movement in England, and the Mercantile Theory. The first of these has already been discussed, and the last will be more particularly referred to later. As the second was not only a continuing influence during the period, but was the chief determinant in the small settlement of Plymouth, and an element in the great migration to Massachusetts, it must be considered before entering upon the story of those two colonies.

The first difficulty in dealing with the problem of Puritanism is to define the term itself. The earliest appearance of the name seems to have been about 1566, and in the following year a certain London congregation was spoken of as “Puritans or Unspottyd Lambs of the Lord.” The members of this congregation, which met secretly in Plumbers Hall, called their sect “the pure or stainless religion”; and the derivation of the name Puritan, for long a term of reproach, is sufficiently obvious.[1] Its application, however, is less so. Part of the confusion is due to the fact that, like “democratic” and many other such words, it has been applied to an attitude toward life, to a broad movement, and to a definite political party. Moreover, between the meeting of those “Unspottyd Lambs” in Plumbers Hall in 1567, and the overthrow of the Puritan Commonwealth of England in 1660, nearly a century elapsed, during which the meaning of the word underwent the changes which time always brings to words of its class, whereas it still continues as a living term in our social and religious vocabulary. Rigidly and briefly to define a word which has thus had a vague and changing content throughout a dozen generations is impossible. To attempt to confine its definition to only one of its former meanings is unhistorical, however desirable it may be that an author should define it as used by himself in his own writings. Not long ago it was fashionable to decry, as showing total lack of scholarship, any attempt to apply the name to the men who founded Plymouth, it being considered as applying solely to those who founded Massachusetts. It may be true that “the Separatists were not Puritans in the original sense of the word”;[2] but the word did not retain its original sense, and although Separatist and Nonconformist represent a real difference, the word Puritan may well be used to cover both. The pendulum, indeed, seems now to be swinging the other way, and several writers describe Puritanism broadly as an “attitude of mind,” or as “idealism applied to the solution of contemporary problems.”[3] As specific terms for the many sects and minor currents in the great movement, which for a time dominated the history of both the Englands, are by no means lacking, it would seem desirable to retain the use of the word Puritanism in its widest application, and it is so used in the present work.

The idea of unity seems to possess a peculiar fascination for the average human mind. Only a savage or a philosopher may be content with, or rise to, the conception of a pluralistic universe. Moreover, the desire to conform, and to force others to do so, is as typical of the average man as of the average boy.

It is in but few persons, and in rare periods, that the spirit of unrest, of dissatisfaction, of growth, manifests itself so strongly as to overcome the innate tendency toward static conformity. The mediaeval period was essentially, for the most part, one of religious unity. For long, the two great ideas of the Empire and the Church had dominated men’s minds. With the Renaissance and the Reformation, however, arose again, not only nationalities, but individualities. With the growth of the separate nations, developed simultaneously a new sense of individual responsibility in the face of the universe. For the average man during the Middle Ages, the moral, even more than the economic, life had been corporate. Outward conformity to the dogmas and usages of the only church which then represented Christ’s Kingdom upon earth lulled his thoughts, and soothed his conscience. The necessity of belonging to the Church was not forced upon a man merely by fear of persecution or of the public opinion of his own little world. His belief in such a relation, and his ignoring the possibility of any other, had become as innate and instinctive as his belief in the physical laws of the universe by which he guided his daily life. It was not alone the historians of the period who were “content to be deceived, to live in a twilight of fiction,” as “the atmosphere of accredited mendacity thickened.”[4] The subtle poison had flowed through the veins of the entire social organism.

As the idea of nationality grew and rooted itself in the mind of the masses, it attracted to itself, by a sort of mental gravitation, the institutions and thoughts of the peoples. Everywhere, the religious reformation had been closely allied with secular politics, and the reformed churches became national. As universal empire had gradually given place to nations, so the universal church was in part broken into state churches, but without any loosening of the bond which bound the individual to them. The idea of the church persisted, and the average man considered separating himself from it almost as one would consider separating one’s self from the civil state of to-day. It was almost as unthinkable and impossible to realize in practice. His life was so interwoven with it, his civil rights, as well as his religious duties, were so involved in his relations to it, that, even if he disagreed with its dogma, disliked its policy, or strove within it to alter both, he had no thought of leaving it. To do so would have been to constitute himself a religious anarch. Not only were the mental inhibitions to the development of such an idea greater than those operating in the case of political anarchy to-day, but the pains and penalties attending the action, both from law and from public opinion, were also greater.[5]

One of the most dynamic ideas, however, which had come in with the Reformation, was that of the responsibility of the individual to God, both for his own life and for that of others. To those whose minds were open to receive it, the thought came with a force which was almost overwhelming. In the training of youth, it is well recognized that responsibility must be thrown upon them gradually if their characters are to grow normally, and not be warped or broken under sudden strain. But here were men, in many cases incredibly ignorant of the Christian story, to whom the very existence of such a book as the Bible had been unknown, and whose faith and conduct had been regulated for them for centuries. Suddenly they found themselves in possession of the original sources in their own tongues, and were told that the eternal salvation of their souls was no longer in the keeping of the institution upon which they had always leaned with the unconscious confidence of a child upon its parents. Inspired by a new sense of their importance as individuals, and, in the majority of cases, by a self-confidence born of ignorance, earnest men undertook to interpret the scriptures, and to revise the existing ritual, dogma, and government of the Church. Extreme individualism on all these points was the natural result. Sects, often counting only single congregations in their numbers, arose everywhere. Separatism was the logical end of these discontents and strivings; but men are not logical in their actions, and separatism formed but a small element in the Puritan movement. Where it did occur, the disintegrating force did not usually stop there, but continued to plague, with petty and ignoble quarrels, the little groups thus split off. Not only were the Separatists logical, but their action required far more courage than that of the mere Nonconforming Puritans. Not only did the act itself call for a higher degree of intellectual daring, but the penalties attached to it were greater. In many cases, Nonconformity, so far from entailing loss or suffering, possessed a distinct money and social value; but no highly paid cure or easy berth in the household of a Puritan nobleman awaited the Separatist. Misguided as many of the latter may have been, and disappointing as were many of the Separatist movements, it would seem that, on the whole, the Separatists possessed more sincerity and loyalty to their ideas than the Puritans who remained within the Church. This the great majority of them did. The number of Separatists, like the number of Puritans generally, has usually been overstated in the past. The twenty thousand Brownists mentioned by Raleigh in 1593 have dwindled, under the light of modern critical research, to a mere five or six hundred at most.[6]

When the ordinary man gets a new idea, it does not necessarily dislodge the old ones that may be antagonistic to it, or even greatly modify them.[7] The tendency to cling to the established church was as strong in the minds of most Puritans as was their self-confidence in their own beliefs and superior sanctity, and their desire to alter the Church to suit them, whether in the earlier demands in the matter of vestments, or the later in matters of polity and doctrine. Thus the survival of the mediæval idea of the Church, coupled with the new one of individual judgment and responsibility, led the conservative Puritans to adopt a half-way policy as compared with the Churchmen and the Separatists.

Under Henry VIII there had been little change, save in the single fact of the break with Rome, and the substitution of King for Pope as the head of the Church. The ecclesiastical property had, indeed, been largely confiscated and distributed among the laity so as to create a powerful economic interest in the maintenance of the King’s supremacy. By the fact of that supremacy, religious questions had become political, and important changes would necessarily in time have to be made in church administration and discipline. Otherwise, however, there was little alteration, and apparently but two out of the King’s subjects refused to conform to the new order.[8] Although further progress was made under Edward, the reign of Mary restored the union with Rome, and sent many exiles to Frankfort, Geneva, and other centres of the Protestant movement on the continent.[9]

On the accession of Elizabeth, the refugees flocked back to London, keen to work into the fabric of the English church the religious ideas which they had imbibed and developed during their exile. The bulk of the clergy, however, were not desirous of innovation, and seem hardly to have been affected by the controversies raging at the time.[10] Of the nine thousand four hundred serving the Church under the Pope in Mary’s reign, fewer than one hundred and eighty, or less than two per cent, refused the Oath of Supremacy under Elizabeth.[11] Not only had the parish priests thus accepted with indifference the various changes,[12] but the laity in the country districts, especially in the north, had scarcely been touched by the Reformation. When Elizabeth came to the throne, the distracted country needed, above all else, peace and unity. The fifth of her house to reign in the period of about seventy-five years since the end of the long War of the Roses, she found a nation yet suffering from the severe economic effects of that protracted crisis, and a church rendered unstable in doctrine and almost impotent in discipline by the four alternations between Roman and Protestant allegiance which had occurred in less than a quarter of a century. The question of her own legitimacy, bound up as it was with the question of religious authority, and the extreme delicacy of international political relations, especially with Spain, France, and Scotland, added difficulties to the problem of church settlement.[13]

An established church was a necessity from all three standpoints, of religion, morals, and politics. Here and there, a few zealots might organize their own congregations and support a preacher; but any sort of congregational church government was out of the question for the overwhelming mass of the people, who were ignorant and indifferent, but still superstitiously devoted to the old Roman forms. The moral sanctions of the time were, moreover, far more closely involved with religion than they are to-day, and the church was far more essential as a prop to a government none too strong. The situation called for the opportunist policy which the Queen always favored in every difficulty. Whatever may have been her own religious beliefs or lack of them, which cannot now be known, she never cared for religious persecution, but she cared everything for a strong and united England. Although conformity was necessary to prevent the disintegration of the national life, the standards to which she required men to conform were purposely left so vague as to permit all but the most advanced of Protestant sectaries and most irreconcilable of Romanists to become members of the Church of England.

Opportunism may temporarily save a dangerous situation, but cannot be pursued successfully as a permanent policy. The course of events led extreme Catholics to feel that the Church had advanced so far that they could not follow it, and the ultra-Puritans to consider that it had stopped so short that they could not stay for it. To an opposition, all things, theoretically, seem possible. The practical difficulties are for those who have the responsibility of power. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the Catholics realized that the most they could hope for would be toleration; and the real struggle for the control of the organization lay between the Puritans and those who wished the Church to continue its middle course. It must be pointed out, that this struggle of the Puritan Nonconformists was in no sense for toleration. They had as little thought of it as the Inquisition itself, nor did they exercise it when in power, either in old or New England In that regard, the Separatist John Robinson, preaching to his little congregation in Leyden, was as far ahead of the Puritan leaders in England, as Roger Williams was of the leaders of Massachusetts.

As has already been seen, only two men failed to conform to the change under Henry in 1534, and less than two per cent were forced from their cures when Elizabeth introduced the Oath of Supremacy. In the great deprivations under James and Archbishop Bancroft, following the adoption of the Canons of 1604, the most careful sifting of all the records indicates that less than three hundred Puritan clergy were deprived of their livings.[14] On the other hand, when the Puritans came into power, out of eighty-six hundred clergy of the Church, the livings of approximately thirty-five hundred, or over forty per cent, were sequestrated.[15] The Nonconformist struggle was not for toleration, but for control. Indeed, the objection of the Puritans to the Court of High Commission itself, to which they sometimes voluntarily carried their own cases, and which had a certain popularity that has largely been lost to sight, was not so much that it was an instrument of oppression, as that at times it was turned against themselves.[16] One of the claims made for them is that they constituted a large percentage of both the clergy and the laity, and embraced a great part of the learned men of the church, and were therefore entitled to guide the organization. This claim does not stand the test of rigid criticism. As exhaustive a list as possible, giving every doubtful name to the Puritans, shows not over three hundred Puritan clergy in the church between 1600 and 1610, or about three per cent of the establishment.[17] There are no figures available for the laity, but computations based on various methods of estimating the numbers yield totals equivalent to from two to six per cent of the population. These figures may be too low, but it must be considered that the common people, particularly in the country districts, were inert to a much greater degree even than to-day, and their normal attitude toward the clergy might well have been summed up in the dictum of the choir in Hardy’s “Under the Greenwood Tree,” that “there’s virtue in a man’s not putting a parish to spiritual trouble.”

On the other hand, again, as tending unduly to swell the estimated number of Puritans, it must be remembered that the great landlords possessed the gift of many livings, and if one of them, from any motive whatever, turned Puritan, all of his livings could be bestowed upon Puritan clergy, and the congregations would be nominally counted as Puritan. For example, to cite by no means the most influential of a group which included such men as the Earl of Warwick, we may note that Sir Robert Jermyn controlled ten livings in one archdeaconry, while nine other laymen controlled sixty-five more.[18] Thus these ten men—chosen somewhat at random—owned seventy-five livings; and, upon their declaring themselves Puritans, not only would seventy-five clergy have to become Puritans, to be acceptable, but, if we place their congregations as low as two hundred each, we would have fifteen thousand laity thus attending Puritan churches as a result of the religious or other motives which had moved ten landlords to number themselves with the Saints. This indicates how impossible it to calculate the number of Puritans who were such by sincere conviction.

As to the learning of the Puritan clergy, the latest researches also fail to bear out the earlier controversial claims on their behalf. Of the two hundred and eighty-one men whose names are known, one hundred and seventy-six had no university degree, while of the remainder, only thirty-one were higher than Masters of Arts.[19] There were, indeed, Puritan divines eminent for learning, but the proportion of university men among them was no higher than is known to have been the case among the Conformists.

Hence the Puritans were but a small minority, both of the clergy and of the laity. The instinct of fair play, which leads a man to side with the under-dog, without stopping to consider whether the upper-dog may be not only upper, but justified, induces us to lay great stress on the rights of minorities, on the theory that a majority can take care of itself. Minorities, however, are usually vocal, organized, and zealous, while the majority is dumb, unwieldy, and but little inclined constantly to resist the attacks of all the various minorities in the field. If there is reason to condemn the Church in England for requiring the Puritan minority to conform, then the Puritans themselves must be condemned just as strictly for their oppression of the minorities in New England. There cannot be two canons of judgment for the same act; and, in fact, as we shall see later, the Puritans there in power were, if anything, the more guilty of the two.

There is much truth, however, in the doctrine of the saving remnant; and, in the low condition of morals in the early seventeenth century, it may well be that the Puritan element was that remnant by which England was saved, as well as New England founded. For morality had sunk to a low ebb, and, even if the reality was not as black as it was painted by Puritan writers, we know enough to realize that there was sore need of a reforming zeal which should cleanse society of its rapidly accumulating filth. That zeal was provided almost wholly by the Puritans. Not but that there were plenty of moral and able men in the other party, who were striving with the problems of the day as well as the Unspotted Lambs and Saints—striving, perhaps, with better understanding and more breadth of view. But that was not what the moral situation called for. Luckily the more extreme of the Puritans were thoroughgoing fanatics; for nothing less than a good dose of fanaticism seemed likely to purge England of its social evils. But that is a different matter from fanaticism erected into a permanent compulsory system, or from the attempt to control an organization by three per cent of its membership; and it must be admitted that there was much to be said on the side of Archbishop Bancroft and the Church. Not only was the small number of the Puritans known to him, and also their methods, which were by no means above reproach, but their refusal to cooperate in an effort to reform one of the worst abuses confirmed his belief that their real desire was not for reform but to force their views on the other ninety-seven per cent of the clergy and the nation, and to gain control of the ecclesiastical machinery of the State Church.

He was thoroughly familiar with the facts that modern research has brought to light in regard to the methods of securing signatures to the various petitions presented to the King, and knew how much less they represented than they purported to.[20] Very real abuses in the Church, which were undoubtedly largely responsible for the low spiritual state of the people at large, were those of pluralities, non-residence, and lack of properly qualified preachers, although the number of clergy holding more than one living has been exaggerated. To a very great extent, the reason for the practice, as well as the cause of the great number of inferior, and even immoral, men, who were to be found in the Church, was economic. As we noted in an earlier chapter, the period had been one of an unexampled rise in prices, and in both the cost and scale of living. The tithes, which supported the clergymen, had originally been paid in kind, but had gradually been commuted into money payments at a time when prices were low, and the general manner of living far inferior to that of the later Elizabethan period. In 1585, over one half of all the clergy received salaries of less than £10 each;[21] of these, approximately three thousand received less than #163;S, and one thousand but #163;2 annually, or less.[22]

Pluralism and ignorant preachers were the only possible spiritual fruits of such an economic system, though the use of pluralities was abused by some of the higher clergy. Bills were introduced in the Parliament of 1604 for the increase of the incomes of the parish priests, thus striking at the root of the trouble; but they were shelved by the Puritan Commons, though the Puritans were loud in their denunciation of these very evils.[23] By means of contributions, however, they increased the pay of their own clergymen, so that a Puritan incumbent might expect from two to three times what a Conformist might be paid in a similar cure. At a time when over half of the clergy were receiving less than £10, one Puritan of the Dedham Classis received £50, several others from £30 to £70, a Mr. Dalby £40, another £50, yet another £73, a Puritan assistant £33, and one Puritan congregation which offered over £46 had difficulty in finding any reformer who was willing to accept so small an amount.[24] Here at any rate, was a very tangible reward for those who felt that they could remain in an institution which they condemned, while they drew pay from both sides. Many a poor devil of a sincerely conforming parish priest, struggling along on two or three pounds a year, must have wondered whether it were not worldly-wise to turn Puritan; and a Separatist had to console himself with a logical position and a comfortable conscience.

Advocates of the Puritans, in an effort to prove that their minds were not absorbed by squabbles over petty details of should allow itself to be turned out of control by a small minority, whose attitude it considered detrimental, not only to itself, but to religion and the State. There could be only one answer. Had it not been for the survival of the mediæval idea as to the necessity of belonging to the Church, it is possible that those Puritans who were actuated purely by spiritual motives would have followed the more consistent Separatists, and merely have withdrawn from the body with whose government and usage they were no longer in accord. In that case, the way would have been cleared for the great moral influence which the Puritans exerted, without the embittering results of the struggle, and the reaction of 1660 against Puritanism as it showed itself when in political power. On the other hand, political liberty might have been the loser.

In theological dogma, the Puritans had, at least until the later period, but little quarrel with the Church. Both were largely under the influence of Calvinistic doctrine, although there was considerable latitude of belief among individuals of both parties. The central pivot of their creed was the absolutely unconditioned will of God.[25] The system, which is strongly tinged with legal doctrine, acknowledges no law but that of his untrammeled will. From this flow two consequences. One is that there is no room for a non-moral sphere of activity, for actions which, belonging merely to the domain of nature, are untinged by moral obligation. The other is the doctrine of predestination, by some considered the central point of the Calvinistic theology. “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and the ruin of his posterity in him,” wrote Calvin, “but also arranged all by the determination of his own will.”[26] The decree involved both election and reprobation. Except for this decree, all human beings, including those to whom the gospel had never been preached, and the baby who died at his first breath, were condemned to hell forever. God, however, chose certain individuals as his elect to vestments and symbols, have explained at length the importance of such matters in that age; and they are quite right. The Puritan attack, however was not merely against the surplice, or minister who did not preach, or immorality in privy life, as it certainly was not for liberty of conscience. It was obvious to those in authority that what the reformers desired was a change of the established church government into the Presbyterian form with themselves in control. Masson claims that between 1580 and 1590 there were not less than five hundred beneficed clergy who practically maintained a Presbyterian organization within the body of the Church.[27] Although these numbers may be somewhat too large, evidence was continually cropping out which showed that the Puritans wished not only to gain control of the Church, but to substitute the Presbyterian discipline in its place.[28] Marsden, like many other writers, has raised the questions whether the points at issue were really vital and whether “Christian meekness and moderation” should not have been shown “even to the obstinate.” From the standpoint of the administration of a great organization, upon which rested the responsibility of maintaining what it believed to be essential both to the Church and to the State, it must be admitted that these things did seem vital, just as they seemed so to the small Puritan minority. If they were not vital, then we must impugn either the good faith or the intellectual ability of the entire mass of Puritans who fought for them so bitterly; and if they were, then it must be conceded that they were quite as much so for the majority in power as for the minority in opposition.

The ecclesiastical struggle between the Nonconforming Puritans and the Church, then, was fundamentally administrative. It came down to the question whether a powerful organization, which thoroughly believed in itself and its own importance, as all powerful organizations and vested interests come to do, be saved, foreordained from all eternity by “his gratuitous’ mercy, totally irrespective of human merit.” The rest He condemned eternally, by “a just and irreprehensible but in comprehensible judgment.”[29]

Although this decree, being eternal and immutable, could not be altered by anything that the individual could do, as he was forever blessed or damned irrespective of his character or conduct, yet, since the wills of those chosen as the elect were in harmony with God’s will, by careful observation of one’s own actions it might be possible to lift the veil and discover whether one were, perhaps, of the elect or not. Hence all those torturing self-examinations and searchings of heart, which fill so much of the early Puritan letters and diaries. Such doctrine, though apparently stripping God of every shred of what we consider moral character, would be of profound influence upon that of those who truly believed it; and the Puritan believed with extraordinary tenacity. His imagination was wholly concentrated on questions of religion, and that religion was a “narrow Hebraism” which “kept open its windows toward Jerusalem, but closed every other avenue to the soul.”[30] His creed must not be considered as merely a series of logical deductions from the Bible, which appealed to him solely through the intellect. Heaven and hell were as vividly visualized by him as external facts.[31] In the early seventeenth century this doctrine was a living thing, the word-pictures not having lost their reality by long familiarity and much repetition.

If it be asked how people who believed that no efforts that they could make would save them from everlasting damnation, if not of the elect, could possibly face life with any cheerfulness, the answer is that the Puritans considered themselves as elected. Now and then a poor wretch did torture himself with the belief that he was damned, and occasional qualms were experienced by the staunchest; but, on the whole, the terrible doctrine seems to have lost its greatest sting for the individual in the comfortable assurance that, although the bulk of his neighbors were going to hell, he himself was one of the everlasting Saints. Such belief naturally fostered, too, that smugness of self-assurance that has always been characteristic of Puritan reformers in all ages, and also a hard intolerance. Those who did not believe as the Puritans believed were not of the elect, and so were condemned by God to eternal torment. No act of intolerance shown toward them by the Puritans could thus compare with the almost unthinkable intolerance displayed toward them by the author of their being. To show toleration or mercy toward such was, logically, to exalt humanity above the deity.

To the Puritan, the reign of law was merely the reign of God’s will, but it was universal. No act was indifferent, either in the universe or in the individual. John Winthrop’s consideration of the special providence of God, in permitting the discovery of a spider in some porridge before it was eaten, was not merely Puritanical.[32] It was scriptural, and it was to the Scriptures that every Puritan turned to ascertain the will of God upon every detail of daily life. This obviously opened the way to the most far-reaching tyranny to which men could be called upon to submit, should those fanatically holding the view be in possession of the civil power to enforce it. The tyranny of political despotism had left untouched the whole vast field of private conduct, save in so far as the acts of individuals might minister directly to the despot’s pleasure, wealth, or power. The conformity forced upon individuals by established churches had left to the individual his whole freedom outside of the limited relations to the establishment and its doctrines. But the Puritan left no such free spaces in life.

Nothing was so small as to be indifferent. The cut of clothes, the names he bore, the most ordinary social usages, could all be regulated in accordance with the will of God. For him, that will was expressed once for all, and only, in the Bible, and of that Bible the Puritan believed that he alone had the key, and was the valid interpreter for the rest of mankind. The more extreme of the sects, indeed, occasionally remind one of those hill tribes of the northern Himalayas, who consider themselves so holy that no one is allowed to touch their persons, while they alone are allowed to approach the symbol of their god.[33]

In a trial before the High Commission, in 1567, of certain Puritans who had hired a hall ostensibly for a wedding, and had then held an illegal prayer meeting in it, one of them claimed that he should be tried only by the word of God. “But,” said the dean, “who will you have to judge of the word of God?”[34] The obvious answer, which every Puritan, from then to now, has made, is that he alone is such an interpreter, not merely for himself, but for the entire community. It was natural, with the Puritans’ idea of God, that they should take special delight in the Old Testament. From it, almost exclusively, they drew their texts, and it never failed to provide them with justification for their most inhuman and bloodthirsty acts. Christ did, indeed, occupy a place in their theology, but in spirit they may almost be considered as Jews and not Christians. Their God was the God of the Old Testament, their laws were the laws of the Old Testament, their guides to conduct were the characters of the Old Testament. Their Sabbath was Jewish, not Christian. In New England, in their religious persecutions and Indian wars, the sayings of Christ never prevailed to stay their hands or to save the blood of their victims .[35]

From this attitude toward the Bible the doctrine developed, as Milton wrote, that in that book God had once for all revealed all true religion, “with strictest command to reject all other traditions or additions whatsoever.”[36] It was upon this belief that the Puritan took his stand in opposition to the Church. For him, truth had been revealed once for all, in its entirety. Nothing could be added, nothing could be taken away. To this deadening doctrine, the Church opposed the idea of growth and development. Combine this theory of the absolute finality of the truth, as revealed in books written centuries before, with the Puritan habit of literal interpretation, and the verbal application of sayings, torn from their context, to every occasion of domestic and public life, and we have, not merely an engine of spiritual and moral despotism, but one which was calculated to stultify all liberty of thought. Once allow the body of men professing such doctrine to dominate public opinion, or control the machinery of government, and there would evidently be no limit to their deadly influence upon freedom of intellect as well as of action. It is not a question of the personal morality of its professors or of the nobility of heir motives. Without the vital idea of development, both would slowly harden into mere forms and empty professions, while the human mind would lie shackled, debarred from seeking new truth, or from making those experiments which alone bring about healthy growth. The attempt was made, both in old England, with its ancient civilization, and in the New, untrammeled, as far as is ever possible, by any vestige of the past. It is one of the elements that give unique interest to the history of New England as compared with that of the other colonies on our coast. Had they all alike failed, no interest would attach to the others, above that of scores of other attempts to settle a wilderness. But in New England there was an effort, under the most favorable conditions possible,—numbers, economic resources, untrammeled freedom,—to found and govern a state solely by the self-confessed elect of the community.

Puritanism was essentially a movement of protest, and so was largely negative. In fact, to such a degree was it a matter of protest and negation, that the Puritan became absolutely fascinated in his contemplation of that first great protestor and protagonist of negation, the devil himself. It has frequently been pointed out that, in the one great poem which the movement has given us, the “Paradise Lost” of Milton, the real hero is Satan, and that it is upon him that the poet’s interest centres. The Puritan’s relations with the Deity were not merely fatalistic, but were expressed in the legal form of a covenant in which God and the individual were the contracting parties Drama, or melodrama, was supplied only by the devil, who from that standpoint, may almost be said to have been the saving grace of the Puritan doctrine. Men become eloquent over what appeals to their interest; and it is noteworthy that not only did the finest English Puritan poem centre about the devil, but the finest American Puritan prose was to be devoted to the horrors of hell, and that Jonathan Edwards was to find the last touch to the felicity of Heaven in the saints’ contemplation of the tortures inflicted upon the damned by the Arch-fiend in the depths below.

It was, as we have said, natural sympathy that attracted the Puritans to the Old Testament, that long protest against paganism, with its “thou shalt nots.” The positive side o the New Testament seems to have left them singularly cold. Indeed, so little appeal did the words of even Christ himself make, that, for once, they abandoned their literalism in the quoting of texts, and doubted whether the use of the Lord’s Prayer should be permitted, as it savored too much of ritualism. The Puritans’ virtues were thus mainly negations. Their ideals were based almost wholly upon mere avoidance of sin. They sought complete surrender of will. Humanity, in their eyes, was so utterly an evil thing, that only by an undeserved act of the grace of God was it possible that even a few human beings could possibly do anything pleasing in his sight.

This is not an ideal which can permanently satisfy man’s whole nature or exert complete influence over him. It is a far cry back to the Greek picture of the perfect life as the fullest development of the entire man, body and soul. Whether that may not properly be a Christian ideal also is not to be discussed here, but it is toward some such ideal of self-expression that the ordinary man strives. His history is that of the fuller and fuller development of his dual nature, in all its varied aspects. Sometimes the emphasis is placed here, sometimes there, but it is difficult to see what other subject can really be the central theme of his earthly striving, and the history of it. Education, economic struggles, law, government, liberty, “emancipation from superstition and caste,” all must be traced through their long careers, but none are ends in themselves. They are but the beginnings of opportunity, of no value save in so far as they secure for man the most balanced development and most perfect self-expression of which his nature is capable. To this natural desire, the Puritan opposed the utter surrender of one’s own will to the divine will as expressed in minuteness of detail, applicable to every need, even to the style of hats for a minister’s wife, in the old Semitic writings. At the time of the Puritan movement, there was much rank growth in society. That growth needed a severe pruning, and for that service the Puritan deserves all praise. But the pruning-knife, after all, is only one of the garden implements, and a tree is pruned that it may grow more abundantly.

This system of negation and protest might have done its needed work and passed, had it not had the misfortune, from the moral and intellectual sides, to come to dominate the power of government. At first Puritanism claimed nothing that could really be termed a party. It may be compared to the Labrador current, cold and invigorating, flowing through the ocean of national life. As it proceeded, however, it met and united with another great current, and the sweep and impetuosity of the two combined carried with them the whole life of the nation, as neither could have done alone. Much had been borne by the people during the reign of Elizabeth, which it had become increasingly evident toward her end that they would not submit to under any successor. The early years of the Stuart dynasty indicated that a constitutional struggle, far transcending the religious, was in preparation. It was by no means true that all of those who were opposed to the King’s views as to his prerogative agreed with the Puritan views as to prelacy; but in the case of many individuals, the two revolts were merged into one; and in any case, the two movements, being both directed against the government, would tend to unite, in order to make common cause against the same enemy, though to attain their several ends. It is true that, in the long run, the leading ideas of the Reformation led toward liberty and equality, especially through the influence of that widely diffused education which was a corollary of the new attitude toward the Bible. It is a fallacy, however, to believe, because certain results have followed certain causes, that, therefore, those results were striven for by the men who endeavored to put those causes into motion, for the purpose, perhaps, of securing results of quite another sort. The Puritan, at least, was no more a believer in the political rights of an individual as such, or in democracy, than in religious toleration, and the leaders in Massachusetts denounced both with equal vehemence. Calvin himself, who most fully represents the political philosophy of the movement, was inconsistent and confused in his thought on the subject; and, as Gooch has said, “modern democracy is the child of the Reformation, not of the Reformers.” The Reformation was much broader than the Puritan groupings, and so was reform in the state; but the political leaders realized the great force to be added to the struggle for civil liberty, and welcomed the burning zeal of the religious malcontents. Thus arose the Puritan party, strong alike in numbers and in purpose, and composed, like all parties, of men infinitely varying in views and character. Their united forces helped at once to create civil liberty under the law and to establish a tyranny of public opinion.

We have already seen some of the incentives that induced men to become Puritans. As the movement grew, worldly motives, aside from the purely religious or purely patriotic, would tend to influence an increasing number. We have noted above how the financial sacrifice was frequently made by the Churchman and not by the Puritan. Indeed, “many of wit and parts,” wrote one of the most attractive of English Puritan women, “who could not obtain the preferment their ambition gaped at, would declare themselves of the puritan party,” while “others, that had neither learning, nor friends, nor opportunities to arrive to any preferments, would put on a form of godliness, finding devout people that way so liberal to them, that they could not hope to enrich themselves so much in any other way.”1

Moreover, there had for some time been growing up into prominence a new class, which we now call the middle, and which had had no assigned position under the feudal form of society. In the Stuart period, this class was, for the first time, to impress its character deeply upon national affairs. The activities by which, during the preceding two centuries or more, its members had been gradually rising into their new position had given a marked quality to their minds and characters. Looked down upon by the noble, and disliked by the peasant, they returned these feelings with interest. When the noble disdained their birth and breeding, they in turn condemned the immorality of those above them in both. Again the element of negation entered, and the Puritan fostered an ideal which was the reverse of the lives of those who looked down upon him. Puritanism became the “reasoned expression of the middleclass state of mind,”[37] which it has always remained.

Among the leaders, however, as among the middle class and country gentry, there was a group which had a very great influence, not only upon the party in England, but upon colonization in America, and which will concern us more directly. We must now turn to examine the settlement of those two colonies in the New World which represented, in the main, the earlier religious, and the later economic and political, aspects of the English Puritan movement.


  1. C. Burrage, The Early English Dissenters in the Light of Recent Research, 1550-1641 (Cambridge, 1912), vol. i, pp. 84, 93. Hinds, in The England of Elizabeth, p. 19, traces “the first whisper of that sound” to Calvin’s letter of 1554.
  2. Burrage, English Dissenters, vol. i, p. 34. Cf. E. Channing, History of the United States (New York, 1916), vol. i, p. 272 n.
  3. Channing, History, vol. i, pp. 271 ff.; G. B. Tatham, The Puritans in Power (Cambridge, 1913), p. 2; and R. G. Usher, The Reconstruction of the English Church (New York, 1910), vol. i, pp. 244-46.
  4. Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History (London, 1907), p. 5.
  5. Cf. Usher, Reconstruction, vol. i, p. 273.
  6. Burrage, English Dissenters, vol. i, p. 152.
  7. “Unless we allow for the innate capacity of the human mind to entertain contradictory beliefs at the same time, we shall in vain attempt to understand the history of thought in general and of religion in particular.” J. G. Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris [The Golden Bough] (London, 1907), p. 5 n.
  8. D. Neal, The History of the Puritans (New York, 1843), vol. i, p. 34.
  9. Hinds, The England of Elizabeth, pp. 6-68.
  10. H. Gee, The Elizabethan Clergy and the Settlement of Religion, 1558-1564 (Oxford, 1898), pp. i ff.
  11. J. Brown, The Pilgrim Fathers of New England and their Puritan Successors (London, 1906), p. 26; Gee, in Elizabethan Clergy, p. 247, estimates that not many more than 200 were deprived between Nov. 17, 1558, and Nov. 17, 1564, for refusal to acknowledge the Elizabethan settlement. These were mainly Roman Catholics.
  12. One is reminded of the satirical verses on Richard Lee of Hatfield, on his conforming again in 1662:—
  13. Cf. F. W. Maitland’s chapter on “The Anglican Settlement and the Scottish Reformation,” in Cambridge Modern History (New York, 1918), vol. v, pp. 550-99.
  14. Usher, Reconstruction, vol. ii, Pp. 3-14.
  15. Tatham, in Puritans in Power, pp. 91 f., gives from 3,000 to 3,500. In his monograph on Dr. John Walker and the Sufferings of the Clergy (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1911, p. 132), he states 3,500 as the probable number.
  16. R. G. Usher, The Rise and Fall of the High Commission (Oxford, 1913), pp. 72, 105, 329.
  17. Usher, Reconstruction, vol. i, pp. 249-51.
  18. Ibid., p. 270.
  19. Usher, Reconstruction, vol. i, p. 251.
  20. Usher, Reconstruction, vol. i, pp. 45, 291, 294, 412. On the unreliability of Puritan petitions in other cases also, cf. Tatham, Puritans in Power, pp. 59 ff.
  21. J. Strype, Life and Acts of Archbishop Whitgift (Oxford, 1822), vol. i, p. 371.
  22. Usher, Reconstruction, vol. i, p. 219.
  23. Ibid., p. 352; It was said that three quarters of the House was Puritan, but this is doubtful. S. R. Gardiner, History, vol. i, p. 178.
  24. Usher, Reconstruction, vol. i, pp. 274 f.
  25. D. Masson, Life of Milton (London, 1875), vol. ii, p. 532.
  26. Usher, Reconstruction, vol. i, pp. 42 ff., 347 ff.; J. B. Marsden, The History of the Early Puritans (London, 1853), pp. 78 ff.
  27. W. Walker, John Calvin (New York, 1906), pp. 409-29; cf. also P. Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (New York, 1877), vol. i, pp. 451 ff.
  28. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by J. Allen (Philadelphia, 1844), vol. ii, p. 170.
  29. Calvin, Institutes, vol. i, p. 149.
  30. J. F. Jameson, Introduction to Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence (New York, 1910), p. 16.
  31. Cf. S. N. Patten, The Development of English Thought (New York, 1904), p. 121; and B. Wendell, The Temper of the 17th Century in English Literature (New York, 1904), p. 227.
  32. R. C. Winthrop, Life and Letters of John Winthrop (Boston, 1869), vol. i, p. 69.
  33. Frazer, Adonis, etc., p. 137.
  34. Usher, High Commission, p. 58.
  35. This did not, however, imply any love for living Jews. Cf. D. deS. Pool, “Hebrew Learning among the Puritans of New England prior to 1700,” in American Jewish Historical Society Publications, vol. XX, p. 57.
  36. John Milton, Of true Religion, Heresy, Schism, Toleration, etc. (Works, London, 1806, vol. iiv, p. 259.
  37. C. L. Becker, Beginnings of the American People (New York, 1915), pp, 81-85.