“England purchased for some of her subjects, who found themselves uneasy at home, a great estate in a distant country.”
AMERICA began as a sobering experience. The colonies were a disproving ground for Utopias. In the following chapters we will illustrate how dreams made in Europe—the dreams of the zionist, the perfectionist, the philanthropist, and the transplanter—were dissipated or transformed by the American reality. A new civilization was being born less out of plans and purposes than out of the unsettlement which the New World brought to the ways of the Old.
“I write the Wonders of the Christian Religion, flying from the depravations of Europe, to the American Strand; and … wherewith His Divine Providence hath irradiated an Indian Wilderness.”
THE Arbella, a ship of three hundred and fifty tons, twenty-eight guns, and a crew of fifty-two, during the spring of 1630 was carrying westward across the Atlantic the future leaders of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The ship had sailed from Cowes in the Isle of Wight, on March 29, and was not to reach America till late June. Among the several ways of passing the time, of cementing the community and of propitiating God, perhaps the most popular was the sermon. The leader of the new community, John Winthrop, while preaching to his fellow-passengers, struck the keynote of American history. “Wee shall be,” Winthrop prophesied, “as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” No one writing after the fact, three hundred years later, could better have expressed the American sense of destiny. In describing the Puritan experience we will see how this sense of destiny came into being, and what prevented it from becoming fanatical or utopian.
The Puritan beacon for misguided mankind was to be neither a book nor a theory. It was to be the community itself. America had something to teach all men: not by precept but by example, not by what it said but by how it lived. The slightly rude question “What of it?” was thus, from the earliest years, connected with belief in an American destiny.
NEVER WAS A PEOPLE more sure that it was on the right track. “That which is our greatest comfort, and meanes of defence above all others,” Francis Higginson wrote in the earliest days, in New-Englands Plantation, “is, that we have here the true Religion and holy Ordinances of Almightie God taught amongst us … thus we doubt not but God will be with us, and if God be with us, who can be against us?”
But their orthodoxy had a peculiar character. Compared with Americans of the 18th or the 19th century, the Puritans surely were theologyminded. The doctrines of the Fall of Man, of Sin, of Salvation, Predestination, Election, and Conversion were their meat and drink. Yet what really distinguished them in their day was that they were less interested in theology itself, than in the application of theology to everyday life, and especially to society. From the 17th-century point of view their interest in theology was practical. They were less concerned with perfecting their formulation of the Truth than with making their society in America embody the Truth they already knew. Puritan New England was a noble experiment in applied theology.
The Puritans in the Wilderness—away from Old World centers of learning, far from great university libraries, threatened daily by the thousand and one hardships and perils of a savage America—were poorly situated for elaborating a theology and disputing its fine points. For such an enterprise John Calvin in Switzerland or William Ames in Holland was much better located. But for testing a theology, for seeing whether Zion could be rebuilt if men abandoned the false foundations of the centuries since Jesus—for this New England offered a rare opportunity.
So it was that although the Puritans in the New World made the Calvinist theology their point of departure, they made it precisely that and nothing else. From it they departed at once into the practical life. Down to the middle of the 18th century, there was hardly an important work of speculative theology produced in New England.
It was not that the writing of books was impossible in the New World. Rather, it was that theological speculation was not what interested the new Americans. Instead, there came from the New England presses and from the pens of New England authors who sent their works to England an abundance of sermons, textual commentaries, collections of “providences,” statutes, and remarkable works of history. With the possible exception of Roger Williams, who was out of the stream of New England orthodoxy anyway, Massachusetts Bay did not produce a major figure in theology until the days of Jonathan Edwards in the mid-18th century. And by then Puritanism was all but dead.
During the great days of New England Puritanism there was not a single important dispute which was primarily theological. There were, to be sure, crises over who should rule New England, whether John Winthrop or Thomas Dudley or Harry Vane should be governor, whether the power or representation of different classes in the community should be changed, whether the Child Petition should be accepted, whether penalties for crime should be fixed by statute, whether the assistants should have a veto, whether outlying towns should have more representatives in the General Court. Even the disputes with Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams primarily concerned the qualifications, power, and prestige of the rulers. If, indeed, the Puritans were theology-minded, what they argued about was institutions.
One gets the same impression in looking for evidences of political speculation, for philosophical inquiry into the nature of community and the function of government. Nothing in Puritanism itself was uncongenial to such speculation; Puritans in England at the time were discussing the fine points of their theory: What was the true nature of liberty? When should a true Puritan resist a corrupt civil government? When should diversity be tolerated? And we need not look only to giants like John Milton. The debates among the officers in Cromwell’s Puritan Army between 1647 and 1649 reveal how different their intellectual atmosphere was from that of New England. They were not professional intellectuals, but soldiers and men of action; yet even they stopped to argue the theory of revolution and the philosophy of sovereignty.
In England, of course, “Puritanism” was much more complex than it was in Massachusetts Bay Colony. It included representatives of a wide range of doctrines, from presbyterians, independents, and separatists, through levelers and millenarians. Which of these was at the center of English Puritanism was itself a matter of dispute. Within the English Puritan ranks, therefore, there was much lively debate. It was not only criticism from fellow-Puritans that Cromwell and his men had to face. They well knew that any community they built in England would have to find some place for the dozens of sects—from Quakers through Papists—who had made England their home. English Puritan literature in the 17th century sparkled with polemics.
Seventeenth-century America had none of the speculative vigor of English Puritanism. For Massachusetts Bay possessed an orthodoxy. During the classic age of the first generation, at least, it was a community of self-selected conformists. In 1637 the General Court passed an order prohibiting anyone from settling within the colony without first having his orthodoxy approved by the magistrates. Perhaps never again, until the McCarran Act, were our immigrants required to be so aseptic. John Winthrop was bold and clear in defense of the order. Here was a community formed by free consent of its members. Why should they not exclude dangerous men, or men with dangerous thoughts? What right had supporters of a subversive Mr. Wheelwright to claim entrance to the colony? “If we conceive and finde by sadd experience that his opinions are such, as by his own profession cannot stand with externall peace, may we not provide for our peace, by keeping off such as would strengthen him and infect others with such dangerous tenets?”
In the eyes of Puritans this was the peculiar opportunity of New England. Why not for once see what true orthodoxy could accomplish? Why not in one unspoiled corner of the world declare a truce on doubts, on theological bickering? Here at last men could devote their full energy to applying Christianity—not to clarifying doctrine but to building Zion. Nathaniel Ward was speaking for Puritan New England when, in his Simple Cobler of Aggawam (1647) he declared, “I dare take upon me, to be the Herauld of New-England so farre, as to proclaime to the world, in the name of our Colony, that all Familists, Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other Enthusiasts, shall have free Liberty to keep away from us, and such as will come to be gone as fast as they can, the sooner the better.”
The Puritans in New England were surprisingly successful for some years at keeping their community orthodox. In doing so, they also made it sterile of speculative thought. Their principal theological treatises were works by William Ames (who never saw New England) and John Norton’s Orthodox Evangelist, a rudimentary summary of the works of English divines. In England the presbyterians and independents and levelers within Puritanism were daring each other to extend and clarify their doctrines; but we see little of this in America.
A dissension which in England would have created a new sect within Puritanism, simply produced another colony in New England. The boundless physical space, the surrounding wilderness deprived the New England ministry of the need to develop within its own theology that spaciousness, that room for variation, which came to characterize Puritanism in England. When Anne Hutchinson and her followers caused trouble by their heterodox views and unauthorized evening meetings, she was tried and “excommunicated.” The result, as described by Winthrop, was that in March 1638, “she … went by land to Providence, and so to the island in the Naragansett Bay, which her husband and the rest of that sect had purchased of the Indians, and prepared with all speed to remove unto.” The dissidence of Roger Williams—the only movement within Massachusetts Bay in the 17th century which promised a solid enrichment of theory—led to his banishment in October, 1635. It was only after Williams’ return to England and his developing friendship with John Milton that he wrote his controversial books.
In New England the critics, doubters, and dissenters were expelled from the community; in England the Puritans had to find ways of living with them. It was in England, therefore, that a modern theory of toleration began to develop. Milton and his less famous and less reflective contemporaries were willing to debate, as if it were an open question, “whether the magistrate have, or ought to have, any compulsive and restrictive power in matters of religion.” Such was the current of European liberal thought in which Roger Williams found himself. But Williams was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony and became a by-word of heterodoxy and rebellion. He died in poverty, an outcast from that colony. If his little Providence eventually prospered, it was never to be more than a satellite of the powerful orthodox mother-colony.
What actually distinguished that mother-colony in the great age of New England Puritanism was its refusal, for reasons of its own, to develop a theory of toleration. In mid-17th century England we note a growing fear that attempts to suppress error would inevitably suppress truth, a fear that magistrates’ power over religion might give them tyranny over conscience. “I know there is but one truth,” wrote the author of one of the many English pamphlets on liberty of conscience in 1645, “But this truth cannot be so easily brought forth without this liberty; and a general restraint, though intended but for errors, yet through the unskilfulness of men, may fall upon the truth. And better many errors of some kind suffered than one useful truth be obstructed or destroyed.” In contrast, the impregnable view of New England Puritanism was expressed in the words of John Cotton:
The Apostle directeth, Tit. 3.10 and giveth the Reason, that in fundamentall and principall points of Doctrine or Worship, the Word of God in such things is so cleare, that hee cannot but bee convinced in Conscience of the dangerous Errour of his way, after once or twice Admonition, wisely and faithfully dispensed. And then if any one persist, it is not out of Conscience, but against his Conscience, as the Apostle saith, vers. 11. He is subverted and sinneth, being condemned of Himselfe, that is, of his owne Conscience. So that if such a Man after such Admonition shall still persist in the Errour of his way, and be therefore punished; He is not persecuted for Cause of Conscience, but for sinning against his Owne Conscience.
The leaders of Massachusetts Bay Colony enjoyed the luxury, no longer feasible in 17th century England, of a pure and simple orthodoxy.
The failure of New England Puritans to develop a theory of toleration, or even freely to examine the question, was not in all ways a weakness. It made their literature less rich and gave much of their writing a quaint and crabbed sound, but for a time at least, it was a source of strength. Theirs was not a philosophic enterprise; they were, first and foremost, community-builders. The energies which their English contemporaries gave to sharpening the distinctions between “compulsive” and “restrictive” powers in religion, between “matters essential” and “matters indifferent” and to a host of other questions which have never ceased to bother reflective students of political theory, the American Puritans were giving to marking off the boundaries of their new towns, to enforcing their criminal laws, and to fighting the Indian menace. Their very orthodoxy strengthened their practical bent.
American Puritans were hardly more distracted from their practical tasks by theology and metaphysics than we are today. They transcended theological preoccupation precisely because they had no doubts and allowed no dissent. Had they spent as much of their energy in debating with each other as did their English contemporaries, they might have lacked the singlemindedness needed to overcome the dark, unpredictable perils of a wilderness. They might have merited praise as precursors of modern liberalism, but they might never have helped found a nation.