THE FIRST ENGLISH COLONIZERS’ VISIONS of gold and a Northwest Passage were not totally mad. Two hundred years later gold was discovered and mined in Virginia. Three hundred years later a tiny ship did reach the Pacific by means of a Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. But in the 1620s, after four decades of English failure in the New World, reasonable people wouldn’t have continued risking their lives and fortunes pursuing impossible dreams. The original hypotheses, gold for the plucking and a maritime route to Asia, were “falsifiable,” as logicians say—and were finally falsified by the evidence. No gold. No shortcut to China and India. European emigrants might be able to make livings in the New World, occasionally even get rich, but only in ways they’d done in the Old World, by raising and making and selling stuff. So in seventeenth-century Virginia, as they gave up gold-hunting for tobacco-growing, empiricism and pragmatism beat back wishfulness and fantasy.
On the other hand, most supernatural religious beliefs aren’t falsifiable. The existence of a God who created and manages the world according to a fixed eternal plan, Jesus’s miracles and resurrection, Heaven, Hell, Satan’s presence on Earth—these can never be disproved.
Queen Elizabeth had been the first Protestant English monarch. Her successor James was a Protestant too. As soon as he took the throne, he ordered up a new official English translation of the Bible—the King James Version, which four hundred years later remains the most popular Bible in America. Its creation was under way when King James, supreme governor of the Church of England, chartered those two companies to start a British empire in America. So naturally the companies’ mission statements included evangelism—the “propagating of Christian Religion to such People as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance,” the native “Infidels and Savages.” By the early 1600s, most people in England (and a third of Europeans) were Protestant. In less than a century, an anti-Establishment sect, the Protestants, had become the Establishment.
Yet unlike Roman Catholicism, with its old global hierarchy and supreme leader, the new Protestant Christianity was by its nature fractious and unstable, invented almost within living memory by uncompromising rebels who couldn’t abide interpretations and rules issued by expert superclergy. It was an innovative new religion successful at a time when innovations were transforming the rest of Europe’s cultures and economies. Protestantism was thus part of an exciting tide of novelty, along with the printing press, global trade, the Renaissance, the beginnings of modern science, and the Enlightenment. Its unique selling proposition was radical. When official leaders lose their way, pious anybodies can and must decide the new improved truth on their own—that is, by reading Scripture, each individual determines the correct meaning of the Christian fantasies. The Protestants’ founding commitment to fierce, decentralized, do-it-yourself truth-finding and spiritual purity naturally led to the continuous generation of self-righteous sectarian spin-offs.
The first extremists emerged as an English movement when Protestantism was only a few decades old. They considered the new Establishment and its priests both too dictatorial and too loose. Too dictatorial for demanding that every local church and every believer strictly adhere to headquarters’ interpretations of the biblical stories, and too loose for letting people get away with ignoring the Bible and God when they weren’t in church. Like Luther and the original Protestants who’d rejected the Catholic Establishment, these English ultra-Protestants considered themselves holier, godlier, and more unsullied than the new church Establishment. The Christians in charge ridiculed them as “Puritans,” and the term stuck.
The theological disagreements between the Puritans and the Church of England were fairly slight. They were nearly all Calvinists—that is, they agreed with the rules of the game as formulated by John Calvin, a theologian a generation younger than Luther who had, not coincidentally, trained as a lawyer: only a small minority of people go to Heaven, he adjudicated, and those “elect” were chosen by God before they were born, before the beginning of time, so nothing anybody did in life could change his or her probably hellbound trajectory.
Because their (fantastical, terrifying) basic beliefs were so similar, historians tend to cast the disputes as nothing but a power struggle, interest-group politics in the guise of holier-than-thou one-upmanship. But rationalists and cynics—that is, most modern scholars—are comfortable imputing only rational and cynical motives. What really distinguished the Puritans from the mainstream were matters of personality, demeanor. To be a Puritan was to embody uncompromising zeal. (They were analogous to certain American political zealots today, who more than disagreeing with their Establishment’s ideas just can’t stand their reasonable-seeming manner.) Moreover, a good Christian life, the Puritans believed, was one consumed by Christianity.
The most extreme of the extremists were the Separating Puritans, who wanted to form their own separate churches apart from the Church of England. Among this hard core were a pair of ministers and their congregants in and around the perfectly named village of Scrooby. They decided to go further, separating not just from the Church of England but from England itself. In 1609 they exiled themselves to the closest foreign place where Protestantism was on the rise, the Netherlands.
But changing where they lived didn’t change who they were—sticklers and malcontents. They lived in Leiden, a place full of all the normal real-world ungodliness of a large Dutch city. Leiden was also the center of a liberal sect of Protestants. In other words, the English Puritans in Holland were surrounded by a new species of disgusting heresy. For them, hell for now was other people who didn’t share their beliefs with full fervor. Returning home was out of the question, especially given the rise of anti-Puritan forces in the Church of England.
So now they would go all the way. Ferociously believing every miracle and myth in an ancient text wasn’t enough. They were no longer just a group of rash, disapproving English rustics living in a European city. They were a tribe wandering for years in exile, just like in Exodus, determined to find a promised land, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Because, really, once you are free—no, obliged—to figure out the fantastical truth on your own, and then create your own new religious species around that truth (Protestantism), and then a new subspecies (Puritanism), and then a sub-subspecies (Separating Puritanism), what’s stopping you from realizing the ultimate dream of conjuring your own utopian nation dedicated to your perfect new religion?
Where to go? Swampy Virginia was already occupied by the money-grubbing nominal Christians who’d failed to find gold and now grew tobacco. But Britain’s northern American parts, still unoccupied by white people, sounded perfect. After John Smith had had enough of Virginia’s gold freaks and they of him, he sailed north on a reconnaissance mission and in 1616 published an account of what he found. He raved about the cornucopia of stone and timber for building and fish to eat, as well as the “moderate” climate. (He visited in spring and summer.) “Who can but approve this a most excellent place, both for health and fertility? And of all of the four parts of the world that I have yet seen not inhabited”—not counting as inhabitants the natives he’d mentioned earlier in this very account—“I would rather live here than anywhere.” Four years later the several dozen Leiden ultra-Puritans sailed away from corrupt, contentious Europe for this latest Edenic piece of the New World, to create their New Jerusalem in New England.
In other words, America was founded by a nutty religious cult.
When I was taught American history as a child, I must have learned about Jamestown, but it made no impression on me. I knew almost nothing about the failed Virginia gold rush until I began this book. In school and in popular culture, the invention of America was and still is focused on the later, northern group of English settlers—the Pilgrims, the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock. Jamestown is tucked away, an unimportant out-of-town tryout or failed beta test.
It’s telling that Americans know and celebrate Plymouth but Jamestown hardly at all. The myth we’ve constructed says that the first nonnative new Americans who mattered were the idealists, the hyperreligious people seeking freedom to believe and act out their passionate, elaborate, all-consuming fantasies. The more run-of-the-mill people seeking a financial payoff, who abandoned their dream once it was defunct? Eh. We also prefer to talk about Pilgrims rather than Puritans, because the former has none of the negative connotations that stuck permanently to the latter.
The Pilgrims—at least the most vehemently true-believing half of them—were the Puritan pioneers in America.*1 One of the Pilgrim leaders stayed at Plymouth only a couple of weeks before returning home to encourage other Separatists to come. His 1622 pamphlet, Reasons and Considerations Touching the Lawfulness of Removing out of England into the Parts of America, explained that the New World was what Israel had been for the ancient Jews, the promised land for God’s new chosen people, the Puritans. It was “a vast and empty chaos” where the natives did nothing useful or civilized, and their “imperial governor,” the local Indian chief, conveniently “hath acknowledged the king, majesty of England, to be his master and commander.” Yet even after half the Pilgrims managed to survive, their exodus scheme didn’t exactly take off. After a decade of existence, Plymouth Plantation had only three hundred residents; the population of Jamestown was more than ten times as large.
The next king, Charles I, was even less enamored of his annoying Puritan subjects than his father James had been. After he married a very Catholic French woman whom he shamelessly called Maria, the feeling was completely mutual. The Church of England was moving in an even more anti-Puritan direction, becoming theologically more reasonable and stricter about church ritual—in other words, more Catholic.
Right around the time Plymouth’s Pilgrims started calling themselves Pilgrims, a larger group of Puritans—extremists of a better social station—talked themselves into leaving England and creating their own American religious utopia. And they talked the king’s deputies into giving their Massachusetts Bay Company a royal charter. They negotiated a 2 percent share of any precious metals they might find in their piece of America, which was kind of a feint. The king and his royal bureaucrats were fine doing business with men who fantasized about gold—whereas this new set of Puritan colonists’ true fantasy was creating a better theocracy a short sail up the coast from Plymouth. Eight ships had arrived in Plymouth from 1620 to 1628. During 1629 and 1630 alone, more than two dozen sailed into Massachusetts Bay, from which a thousand Puritans disembarked. To the People of God, as they called themselves, the Zion in the wilderness they’d imagined now seemed real.*2 Dreams could come true.
“What is it that distinguisheth New England from other Colonies and Plantations in America?” a Massachusetts Bay Colony minister asked in a sermon two generations on. It was a rhetorical question. Tocqueville made the same point about the defining oddness of these early white Americans with a vision and a plan to realize it, noting a century and a half later that they didn’t “cross the Atlantic to improve their situation or to increase their wealth. It was a purely intellectual craving that called them from the comforts of their former homes; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile, their object was the triumph of an idea….New England was a region given up to the dreams of fancy.” Back then, “dreams of fancy” meant fantasy.
The fantasy endured, and the fantasists spread out. Several decades after the first Puritans arrived, a pastor in New Hampshire delivered a sermon warning that normal folks were unwelcome in these parts. “It concerneth New England always to remember,” he said, “that they are a plantation religious, not a plantation of trade….Let merchants, and such as are increasing…remember this, that worldly gain was not the end and design of the people of New England, but religion.”
The Puritans are conventionally considered more “moderate” than the Pilgrims. This is like calling al-Qaeda more moderate than ISIS.*3 The Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans’ theology was really no less mad. The second-wave Puritans were more posh and educated than the Pilgrims, less contemptuous of the ruling English swells. Their self-identity, before they came to America, was not quite so wrapped up in being off the Church of England reservation. They seemed moderate then and now because they were the Man—well spoken, well dressed, sober, intellectual, accustomed to power. But they were moderate in style, not in substance. If tolerance is part of what we mean by moderation, the Pilgrims in Plymouth were actually more moderate—they managed to coexist with the Strangers. Theocracy had just entered the English language—and to the Puritans, it was a good concept. They forbade Church of England clergy from setting foot in their new American theocracy in Boston and Salem, hung Quakers, and passed a law to hang any Catholic priests who might dare show up.
The Middle Ages are generally reckoned to have ended at least a century before America’s founding. By the 1620s in the Old World, literal belief in biblical end-time prophecies was fading, along with other medieval artifacts.
But not among the Puritans. They took the Bible as literally as they could, especially this most spectacular piece of it. That the Catholics had for centuries downplayed end-of-the-world prophecies was, for Puritans, all the more reason those prophecies must be true. An influential Puritan scholar at Cambridge University published Key of the Revelation Searched and Demonstrated in 1627. He explained that the Antichrist’s big move had not already occurred, as Protestant conventional wisdom had it, taking over the Vatican. No, it was going to happen in the future—the near future. Plus, Christ’s return and reign wouldn’t be some airy-fairy symbolic spiritual thing but a real kingdom on real Earth. And ground zero of the coming Apocalypse, God versus Satan, would be inAmerica.
Even before he’d arrived here, the Boston Puritans’ first leader, John Winthrop, was talking to his shipmates about the end-time. The famous bit of his sermon, “We are as a city upon a hill,” has endured because that as makes it a simile, endlessly adaptable as a happy, self-flattering metaphor for America. But three sentences later Winthrop’s end-is-near scenario isn’t metaphorical at all. “As the latter days begin to unfold,” Winthrop said, “this may indeed be the city, the new Jerusalem that’s unfolding.” His most important successor as a leader of the New England theocracy, Increase Mather, also preached “that the coming of Christ to raise the dead and to judge the Earth” might happen any minute now. Mather even had evidence: meteors or comets visible in the skies over Boston, for instance, could be signs of God’s unhappiness and “presage great calamities.” As the religious historian Paul Boyer says, “The Puritans really expected the end of time to come very, very soon.”
When Mather took over as president of America’s first college, Harvard, his twenty-two-year-old son, Cotton, who’d been preaching sermons since he was sixteen, took over for his father as pastor of Boston’s main church. The younger man soon began issuing specific dates for the end of days and kept doing so for the rest of his life. Six years from now! Okay, thirty-nine years from now—no, wait, fewer than twenty! And when that year passed normally, Cotton Mather announced it would actually be the following year.
If one has enough belief in the supernatural plan, if one’s personal faith is strong enough, false prophecies are just unfortunate miscalculations that don’t falsify anything. If you’re fanatical enough about enacting and enforcing your fiction, it becomes indistinguishable from nonfiction.
But what made the Puritans so American, as they self-consciously invented America, wasn’t just the Protestant zealotry. Rather, it was the paradoxical combination of their beliefs and temperament. They were over-the-top magical thinkers but also prolific readers and writers. They were excruciatingly rational fantasists who regarded theology as an elaborate scientific endeavor. They were whacked-out visionaries but also ambitious bourgeois doers, accomplished managers and owners and makers. They were theologically medieval—but traveling three thousand miles to create a utopia led by university-educated gentlemen was a radically modern endeavor. They were crazed and pragmatic, Quixotes with know-how who went to find a place where nobody would mock them for their delusions and dreams.*4 So the seeds of America in New England were a peculiar hybrid generated from the cusp of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, containing elements of both—as the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morrison wrote, “the Englishmen who had accepted the Reformation without the Renaissance.”
And their peculiar beliefs and peculiar real-world situation also made them—made Americans—exceptional in another way. If you’re extremely religious people who are determined to understand everything factually and precisely; who hate allegorical or metaphorical interpretations of the Bible—and hate art because it could lead you to consider the Bible a book of allegory and metaphor; who love scientific scholarship; and who are personally responsible for your own daily survival in an unforgiving wilderness, aren’t you pretty much bound to become the most literal-mindedfantasists ever?
*1 Their less pious fellow travelers they called the Strangers, one of whom, arriving in 1623, a year and a half after the Mayflower, was evidently an ancestor of mine.
*2 The word wilderness first got currency by means of the first English translations of the Bible, in which it appears 280 times.
*3 In fact, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony tried to pass a law requiring that women wear veils in public.
*4 The first English translation of Don Quixote was published in 1620, the year the Pilgrims started their American adventure.