Much as the search for a new trade route to the East ended up bringing Christianity to America, the forces brewing toward an English civil war brought Protestantism. The foundational moment of that process is regarded today as the arrival in November 1620 near the hook of present-day Cape Cod of some 102 men and women, all Separatists from the Church of England.
The significance of the event was far from obvious at the time. The Puritans who became known as Pilgrims were not the only Protestant English dissenters—collectively known as Separatists. Nor was Massachusetts, much less their settlement near today’s Plymouth, their intended destination (it was Virginia). Their settlement was not the first in today’s U.S. territory (that’s St. Augustine, Florida, founded 1565) and only the third English one (after the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke in 1585 and Jamestown in 1607).
The Pilgrims were not a notably distinct subset of English Puritanism, theologically. They sought to “purify” the Anglican Church of its “Catholic” trappings and believed, with Luther, that the Bible was the only true source of Christian teaching and held, with Calvin, against traditional church ritual and order and in favor of predestination. What was distinctive was their doctrine on church organization.
What makes Plymouth Colony stand out, retrospectively, is that it is the first instance of a Protestant polity—or governing entity. It was a “pure” Protestant society, established from almost nothing else, in as close to laboratory conditions as history ever allows.
The Plymouth Puritans considered the church a community of Christians bound to God and one another. Far from the control of the king, they penned The Mayflower Compact, a document that gives the religious congregation a uniquely political and governmental role. They “solemnly & mutualy in ye presence of God, and one of another, covenant, & combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick” charged with the duty to “enacte, constitute, and frame such just & equall lawes, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete & convenient.”
The emphasis on social cohesion may reflect the fact that—unlike the Spanish and French, who came to the New World in contingents of unattached men—the Puritan migration was made up of families. They were literate (they had to read the Bible), and their many surviving diaries, sermon notes, poems and letters attest to an intense devotional life.
In such a society the Bible stimulated their intellects; they developed an interest in classics and were encouraged to write poetry. In the 1630s and 1640s, the Puritans founded the two oldest schools in the United States, Boston Latin School and Roxbury Latin School, and the first university, Harvard. They welcomed the first printing press.
In Plymouth Colony, each congregation elected its ministers, teachers and church elders—who effectively were colony officials. Each town was a congregation, a political, religious and social unit ultimately and directly subject to God’s rule. This made the congregationalist polity democratic, but also theocratic. People—actually, only free white men—voted as they thought God willed. The result was an ecclesiastical order that was ultimately more intolerant than the one they had fled.
In their Calvinist zeal, they saw themselves as a new Chosen People, if you will, and brought to the New World an Old Testament understanding of current history as a drama under divine direction.
In a 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” delivered aboard the Arbella en route to Plymouth, John Winthrop spoke of the community the passengers would be joining as “a city upon a hill” watched by the world. The phrase is from Matthew 5:14, in which Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Winthrop said his listeners should, accordingly, set an example of communal charity, affection and unity and warned that if they failed to keep their end of their covenant with God, “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” of God’s judgment.
Condemnation did come, at least by the world and history, for the Puritans. Yet it gave rise to the notion that the United States was “God’s country,” a notion so ingrained that President-elect John F. Kennedy, the first and so far only Catholic elected to the position, recalled Winthrop’s sermon in a speech before the General Court of Massachusetts, remarking, “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us.”
Plymouth Puritanism had another legacy: its work ethic, today known as the Protestant work ethic, a term coined in 1904 by German sociologist Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The idea is particularly Calvinist: hard work, discipline and frugality are a result of values espoused by the Protestant elect. Given the doctrine of predestination, divining whether one was among the elect became a preoccupation that ranked very high in the Calvinist mind.
This explains why so many people in the United States, who have heard Jesus’ kind and merciful words for poor people and his wrath toward the rich, nonetheless believe that the poor are to blame for their misery. Weber viewed the Calvinist work ethic as a way of coping with the apparent contradiction of Christian ethics in an increasingly scientific and industrial world. It balanced charity with self-discipline and proposed moderation while suggesting that worldly prosperity was a sign of divine favor.
The third legacy was American Puritanism’s undoing. The doctrine of predestination kept Puritans working to do well in this life, in hopes that hard work, as an honor to God, would lead to a prosperous reward. With no margin for error, deviation from the Puritan norm met with strict disapproval and discipline, directed initially toward the first “Strangers” (or non-Puritans) who came with them, even on the Mayflower. Then it led to internal dissent.
Church elders were also political leaders, so any break with church discipline was regarded also as a social and legal wrong. From the start, for example, Plymouth Colony Puritans frowned on Christmas celebrations and festivities on Saturday nights. By 1659 both were outlawed in Boston. To protect themselves from temptation, the Puritans banned drama, religious music, erotic poetry and games of chance.
These measures represented, in part, a break with their own tradition. Contrary to popular belief, Puritans were not prudish and deemed marriage a civil contract between a man and a woman.
No limits were placed on enjoying sexuality within marriage; in fact, those who failed to perform marital sexual duties (such as in 1 Cor. 7:1-16) were criticized. Women and men were equally expected to fulfill these responsibilities and either one could file for divorce based on this issue alone. In Massachusetts Colony, one of every six divorce petitions was filed on the basis of male impotence.
Now put in that context this extract from a poem of early colonist Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), titled “To My Dear And Loving Husband” for a sense of what Puritans would have called hot: “If ever two were one, then surely we / If ever man were lov'd by wife, then thee.”
The new discipline irked some Puritans. Thomas Hooker went off to found the colony of Connecticut. He is cited as the inspiration for the “Fundamental Orders of Connecticut,” one of the world’s earliest written democratic constitutions. Another dissenter, Roger Williams, was expelled by the Puritan leaders, who thought he was spreading “new and dangerous ideas” (he became a Baptist). He founded the colony of Providence Plantation in 1636 (today Rhode Island) as a refuge for religious minorities.
Puritans were also intolerant of the religious views of others. In 1647, Massachusetts passed a law prohibiting Jesuit Roman Catholic priests from entering territory under Puritan jurisdiction. Toward the 1660s, they mounted attacks against Anglican and the emerging Quaker and Baptist theologies. The hanging of four Quakers on Boston Common in 1659 and 1660 may have spelled the beginning of the end for Puritan theocracy. In 1661, King Charles II explicitly barred Massachusetts from executing anyone for professing Quakerism.
These and several other events led to the naming of a governor of the Dominion of New England, unifying all the colonies. But for the region’s Puritanism the straw that broke the camel’s back was a bizarre episode concerning witches in Salem (present-day Danvers), Mass., in 1692-93. Witchcraft was listed as a capital crime in the 1636 code of laws of Plymouth Colony, but there had been only two formal accusations, in 1661 and 1677, with little consequence.
However, in February 1692 in the village of Salem, Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, the daughter and niece, respectively, of Reverend Samuel Parris, began to have fits described as “beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect.” The girls screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture and contorted themselves into peculiar positions. Imagine Linda Blair in the 1973 film The Exorcist.
Initially, three stereotypical suspects, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; Sarah Osborne, who rarely went to church; and Tituba, a black or Indian slave from one of the Caribbean islands, were interrogated intensively and publicly, jailed and ultimately released. The trials, perhaps the only legal public entertainment at the time, unexpectedly generated widespread panic of a demonic presence in the village and a steady stream of accusations against more than 40 people. By May 1693 a succession of trials ended in the execution of 20 people, 14 of them women and all but one by hanging. Five others (including two infants) died in prison.
A public call for justice by the families of the accused and a vast legal and political campaign forced a reversal of convictions by 1711, monetary compensation to 22 people and the reversal of all excommunications by the Salem church by 1712.
A Salem judge who never repented was John Hathorne, ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who added the “w” to hide the relationship. The 19th century author wrote the novel The Scarlet Letter and short stories such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister's Black Veil,” which say more about the author’s revulsion toward his family’s Puritan past than about history. Playwright Henry Miller used Hawthorne’s Puritans in The Crucible to speak out against the ideological anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s.