John Fiske.

The beginnings of New England : or, The Puritan theocracy in its relations to civil and religious liberty online

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house of bondage.

In this migration a principle of selection was at
work which insured an extraordinary uniformity
of character and of purpose among the settlers.
To this uniformityjjf purpose, combined with com-
plete homogeneity of race, is due the preponder-
ance early'acqiiired by New England in the history
of the American people. In view of this, it is
worth while to inquire what were the real aims of
the settlers of New England. What was the com-
mon purpose which brought these men together in
their resolve to create for themselves new homes
in the wilderness ?

This is a point concerning which there has been
a great deal of popular misapprehension, and there
has been no end of nonsense talked about it. It
has been customary first to assume that the Puritan
migration was undertaken in the interests of reli-
The migration gious liberty, and then to upbraid the
SdeftoV Puritans for forgetting all about reli-
ran^ougtour gious liberty as soon as people came
liberty. among them who disagreed with their

opinions. But this view of the case is not sup


ported by history. It is quite true that, the Puri-
tans were chargeable with gross intolerance ; but
it is not true that in this they were guilty of in-
consistency. The notion that they came to New
England for the "purpose of establishing religious
liberty, in any sense in which we should under-
stand such a phrase, is entirely incorrect. It is
neither more nor less than a bit of popular legend.
If we mean by the phrase "religious liberty" a
state of things in which opposite or contradictory
opinions on questions of religion shall exist side
by side in the same community, and in which
everybody shall decide for himself how far he will
conform to the customary religious observances,
nothing could have been further from their
thoughts. There is nothing they would have re-
garded with more genuine abhorrence. If they
could have been forewarned by a prophetic voice
of the general freedom — or, as they would have
termed it, license — of thought and behaviour
which prevails in this country to-day, they would
very likely have abandoned their enterprise in
despair.! The philosophic student of history often
has occasion to see how God is wiser than man.
In other words, he is often brought to realize how
fortunate it is that the leaders in great historic
events cannot foresee the remote results of the
labours to which they have zealously consecrated
their lives. It is part of the irony of human
destiny that the end we really accomplish by
striving with might and main is apt to be some-
thing quite different from the end we dreamed of

^ See the passionate exclamation of Endicott, below, p. 190.


as we started on our arduous labour. So it was
with the Puritan settlers of New England. The
religious liberty that we enjoy to-day is largely the
consequence of their work; but it is a consequence
that was unforeseen, while the direct and conscious
aim of their labours was something that has never
been realized, and probably never will be.

The aim of Winthrop and his friends in coming
to Massachusetts was the construction of a theo-
cratic state which should be to Christians, under the
New Testament dispensation, all that the theocracy
of Moses and Joshua and Samuel had

Theocratic i x • /^t t m ^

ideal of the been to the Jews m Old iestament days.
They should be to all intents and pur-
poses freed from the jurisdiction of the Stuart
king, and so far as possible the text of the Holy
Scriptures should be their guide both in weighty
matters of general legislation and in the shaping
of the smallest details of daily life. In such a
scheme there was no room for religious liberty as
we understand it. No doubt the text of the
Scriptures may be interpreted in many ways, but
among these men there was a substantial agree-
ment as to the important points, and nothing could
have been further from their thoughts than to
found a colony which should afford a field for new
experiments in the art of right living. The state
they were to found was to consist of a united body
of believers ; citizenship itself was to be co-exten-
sive with church-membership ; and in such a state
there was apparently no more room for heretics
than there was in Eome or Madrid. This was
the idea which drew Winthrop and his followers


from England at a time when — as events were
soon to show — they might have stayed there and
defied persecution with less trouble than it eost
them to cross the ocean and found a new state.

Such an ideal as this, considered by itself and
apart from the concrete acts in which it was his-
torically manifested, may seem like the merest
fanaticism. But we cannot dismiss in this sum-
mary way a movement which has been at the
source of so much that is great in American his-
tory: mere fanaticism has never produced such
substantial results. Mere fanaticism is sure to
aim at changing the constitution of human society
in some essential point, to undo the work of evolu-
tion, and offer in some indistinctly apprehended
fashion to remodel human life. But in these re-
spects the Puritans were intensely conservative.
The impulse by which they were animated was a
profoundly ethical impulse — the desire

1 1 n 1- 1 T . . The impulse

to lead godly lives, and to drive out sm wWch sought
from the community — the same ethical seu in the

1 1 • 1 • 1 1 . Puritan ideal

impulse which animates the glowing waa an ethical

<■ TT , 11 impulse.

pages of Hebrew poets and prophets,
and which has given to the history and literature
of Israel their commanding influence in the world.
The Greek, says Matthew Arnold, held that the
perfection of happiness was to have one's thoughts
hit the mark ; but the Hebrew held that it was to
serve the Lord day and night. It was a touch of
this inspiration that the Puritan caught from his
earnest and reverent study of the sacred text, and
that served to justify and intensify his yearning
for a better life, and to give it the character of a


grand and holy ideal. Yet with all this religious
enthusiasm, the Puritan was in every fibre a
practical Englishman with his full share of plain
common-sense. He avoided the error of mediaeval
anchorites and mystics in setting an exaggerated
value upon otherworldliness. In his desire to win
a crown of glory hereafter he did not forget that
the present life has its simple duties, in the exact
performance of which the welfare of society mainly
consists. He likewise avoided the error of mod-
ern radicals who would remodel the fundamental
institutions of property and of the family, and
thus disturb the very groundwork of our ethical
ideals. The Puritan's ethical conception of society
was simply that which has grown up in the natural
course of historical evolution, and which in its es-
sential points is therefore intelligible to all men,
and approved by the common-sense of men, how-
ever various may be the terminology — whether
theological or scientific — in which it is expounded.
For these reasons there was nothing essentially
fanatical or impracticable in the Puritan scheme :
in substance it was something that great bodies of
men could at once put into practice, while its
quaint and peculiar form was something that cotild
be easily and naturally outgrown and set aside.

Yet another point in which the Puritan scheme
of a theocratic society was rational and not fanat-
in interpret- ical was its method of interpretins: the

ing Scripture, ^ -t^ o

a'^^'fajld™ Scriptures. That method was essen-
his reason. tially rationalistic in two ways. First,
the Puritan laid no claim to the possession of any
peculiar inspiration or divine light whereby he


might be aided in ascertaining the meaning of the
sacred text ; but he used his reason just as he
would in any matter of business, and he sought to
convince, and expected to be convinced, by rational
argument, and by nothing else. Secondly, it fol-
lowed from this denial of any peculiar inspiration
that there was no room in the Puritan common-
wealth for anything like a priestly class, and that
every individual must hold his own opinions at
his own personal risk. The consequences of this
rationalistic spirit have been very far-reaching.
In the conviction that religious opinion must be
consonant with reason, and that religious truth
must be brought home to each individual by ra-
tional argument, we may find one of the chief
causes of that peculiarly conservative yet ^exible
intelligence which has enabled the Puritan coun-
tries to take the lead in the civilized world of to-
day. Free discussion of theological questions,
when conducted with earnestness and reverence,
and within certain generally acknowledged limits,
was never discountenanced in New England. On
the contrary, there has never been a society in the
world in which theological problems have been so
seriously and persistently discussed as in New
England in the colonial period. The long ser-
mons of the clergymen were usually learned and
elaborate arguments of doctrinal points, bristling
with quotations from the Bible, or from famous
books of controversial divinity, and in the long
winter evenings the questions thus raised afforded
the occasion for lively debate in every household.
The clergy were, as a rule, men of learning, able


to read both Old and New Testaments in the
original languages, and familiar with the best that
had been talked and written, among Protestants at
least, on theological subjects. They were also, for
the most part, men of lofty character, and they
were held in high social esteem on account of their
character and scholarship, as well as on accoant of
their clerical position. But in spite of the rever-
ence in which they were commonly held, it would
have been a thing quite unheard of for one of
these pastors to urge an opinion from the pulpit
on the sole ground of his personal authority or his
superior knowledge of Scriptural exegesis. The
hearers, too, were quick to detect novelties or vari-
ati6ns_ in doctrine ; and while there was perhaps no
more than the ordinary human unwillingness to
listen to a new thought merely because of its new-
ness, it was above all things needful that the ortho-
dox soundness of every new suggestion should be
thoroughly and severely tested. This intense in-
terest in doctrinal theology was part and parcel of
the whole theory of New England life ; because, as
I have said, it was taken for granted that each in-
dividual must hold his own opinions at his own
personal risk in the world to come.

Such perpetual discussion, conducted under
such a stimulus, afforded in itself no

Value o£ t i i- •

theological mean school of intellectual trainine.

discussion. ...

Viewed in ;relation to the subsequent
mental activity of New England, it may be said to
have occupied a position somewhat similar to that
which the polemics of the mediaeval schoolmen
occupied in relation to the European thought of



the Renaissance, and of the age of Hobbes and
Descartes. At the same time the Puritan theory
of life lay at the bottom of the whole system of
popular education in New England. According
to that theory, it was absolutely essential that
every one should be taught from early childhood
how to read and understand the Bible. So much
instruction as this was assumed to be a sacred duty
which the community owed to every child born
within its jurisdiction. In ignorance, the Puritans
maintained, lay the principal strength of popery in
religion as well as of despotism in politics ; and so,
to the best of their lights, they cultivated knowl-
edge with might and main. But in this energetic
diffusion of knowledge they were unwittingly pre-
paring the complete and irreparable destruction of
the theocratic ideal of society which they had
sought to realize by crossing the ocean and set-
tling in New England. This universal education,
and this perpetual discussion of theological ques-
tions, were no more compatible with rigid adher-
ence to the Calvinistic system than with submis-
sion to the absolute rule of Rome. The inevitable
residt was the liberal and enlightened Protestant-
ism which is characteristic of the best American
society at the present day, and which is continually
growing more liberal as it grows more enlightened
— a Protestantism which, in the natural course of
development, is coming to realize the noble ideal
of Roger Williams, but from the very thought of
which such men as Winthrop and Cotton and En-
dieott would have shrunk with dismay.

In this connection it is interesting to note the


similarity between the experience of the Puritans
in New England and in Scotland with respect to
the influence of their religious theory of life upon
general education. Nowhere has Puritanism, with
its keen intelligence and its iron tenacity of pur-
pose, played a greater part than it has played in
the history of Scotland. And one need not fear
contradiction in saying that no other people in
modern times, in proportion to their numbers,
have achieved so much in all departments of hu-
man activity as the people of Scotland have
achieved. It would be superfluous to

Comparison . , ... x o i.1 J •

with the case mention the preemmence oi ocotland m

of Scotland. i • i • i - it p

the industrial arts since the days oi
James Watt, or to recount the glorious names in
philosophy, in history, in poetry and romance, and
in every department of science, which since the
middle of the eighteenth century have made the
country of Burns and Scott, of Hume and Adam
Smith, of Black and Hunter and Hutton and
Lyell, illustrious for all future time. Now this
period of magnificent intellectual fruition in Scot-
land was preceded by a period of Calvinistic or-
thodoxy quite as rigorous as that of New England.
The ministers of the Scotch Kirk in the seven-
teenth century cherished a theocratic ideal of soci-
ety not unlike that which the colonists of New
England aimed at realizing. There was the same
austerity, the same intolerance, the same narrow-
ness of interests, in Scotland that there was in
New England. Mr. Buckle, in the book which
thirty years ago seemed so great and stimulating,
gave us a graphic picture of this state of society,


and the only thing which he could find to say
about it, as the result of his elaborate survey, was
that the spirit of the Scotch Kirk was as thor-
oughly hostile to human progress as the spirit of
the Spanish Inquisition ! If this were really so, it
would be difficult indeed to account for the period
of brilliant mental activity which immediately fol-
lowed. But in reality the Puritan theory of life
led to general education in Scotland as it did in
New England, and for precisely the same reasons,
while the effects of theological discussion in break-
ing down the old Calvinistic exclusiveness have
been illustrated in the history of Edinburgh as
well as in the history of Boston.

It is well for us to bear in mind the foregoing
considerations as we deal with the history of the
short-lived New England Confederacy. The story
is full of instances of an intolerant and domineer-
ing spirit, especially on the part of Massachusetts,
and now and then this spirit breaks forth in ugly
acts of persecution. In considering these facts, it
is well to remember that we are observing the
workings of a system which contained within itself
a curative principle ; and it is further interesting
to observe how political circumstances contributed
to modify the Puritan ideal, gradually breaking
down the old theocratic exclusiveness/and strength-
ening the spirit of religious liberty. /

Scarcely had the first New England colonies been
established when it was found desirable to unite
them into some kind of a confederation. It is
worthy of note that the separate existence of so
many colonies was at the outset largely the result


of religious differences. The uniformity of pur-
pose, great as it was, fell far short of completeness.
^ . , , Could all have agreed, or had there

Existence of . .

BO many col- fceeu peliffious toleration in the modern

omes due to o

Blight rdi- sense, there was still room enough for

gious aifter- ' ^

encea. ^ jjj Massach usctts ; and a compact

settlement would have been in much less danger
from the Indians. But in the founding of Connec-
ticut the theocratic idea had less weight, and in the
founding qf New Haven it had more weight, than
in Massachusetts. The existence of Rhode Island
was based upon that principle of full toleration
which the three colonies just mentioned alike ab-
horred, and its first settlers were people banished
from Massachusetts. With regard to toleration
Plymouth occupied a middle ground ; without
admitting the principles of WiUiams, the people of
that colony were still fairly tolerant in practice.
Of the four towns of New Hampshire, two had
been founded by Antinomians driven from Boston,
and two by Episcopal friends of Mason and
Gorges. It was impossible that neighbouring
communities, characterized by such differences of
opinion, but otherwise homogeneous in race and in
social condition, should fail to react upon one an-
other and to liberalize one another. Still more
was this true when they attempted to enter into a
political union. When, for example, Massachusetts
in 1641—43 annexed the New Hampshire town-
ships, she was of necessity obliged to relax in their
case her policy of insisting upon religious conform-
ity as a test of citizenship. So in forming the
New England Confederacy, there were some mat-


ters of dispute that had to be passed over by mu-
tual consent or connivance.

The same causes which had spread the English
settlements over so wide a territory now led, as an
indirect result, to their partial union into a confed-
eracy. The immediate consequence of the west-
ward movement had been an Indian war. Several
savage tribes were now interspersed between the
settlements, so that it became desirable that the
military force should be brought, as far' as possi-
ble, under one management. The col- mg^toa
ony of New Netherlands, moreover, had ""^"pj affed-
begun to assume importance, and the *™*'™-
settlements west of the Connecticut river had al-
ready occasioned hard words between Dutch and
English, which might at any moment be followed
by blows. In the French colonies at the north,
with their extensive Indian alliances under Jesuit
guidance, the Puritans saw a rival power which
was likely in course of time to prove troublesome.
With a view to more efficient self-defence, there-
-JoEerin 1643 the four colonies of Massachusetts,
Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven formed
themselves into a league, under the style of " The
United Colonies of New England." These four lit-
tle states now contained thirty-nine towns, with an
■ aggregate population of 24,000. To the northeast
of Massachusetts, which now extended to the Pis-
cataqua, a small colony had at length been con-
stituted under a proprietary charter somewhat
similar to that held by the Calverts in Maryland.
Of this new province or palatinate of Maine the
aged Sir Ferdinando Gorges was Lord Proprie-


tary, and he had undertaken not only to establish
the Church of England there, but also to introduce
usages of feudal jurisdiction like those remaining
in the old country. Such a community was not
likely to join the Confederacy ; apart from other
reasons, its proprietary constitution and the feud
between the Puritans and Gorges would have been
sufficient obstacles.

As for Rhode Island, on the other hand, it was
regarded with strong dislike by the other colonies.
It was a curious and noteworthy consequence of
the circumstances under which this little state was
founded that for a long time it became the refuge
of all the fanatical and turbulent peo-
of dissent in plc who could not Submit to the strict

Rhode Island. i i i , p /^

and orderly governments or Connecti-
cut or Massachusetts. All extremes met on Narra-
gansett bay. There were not only sensible advo-
cates of religious liberty, but theocrats as well who
saw flaws in the theocracy of other Puritans. The
English world was then in a state of theological
fermentation. People who fancied themselves fa-
voured with direct revelations from Heaven ; peo-
ple who thought it right to keep the seventh day
of the week as a Sabbath instead of the first day ;
people who cherished a special predilection for the
Apocalypse and the Book of Daniel ; people with
queer views about property and government ; peo-
ple who advocated either too little marriage or too
much marriage ; all such eccentric characters as
are apt to come to the surface in periods of reli-
gious excitement found in Ehode Island a favoured
spot where they could prophesy without let or


hindrance. But the immediate practical result of
so much" discordance in opinion was the impossibil-
ity of founding a strong and well-ordered govern-
ment. The early history of Ehode Island was
marked by enough of turbulence to suggest the
question whether, after all, at the bottom of the
Puritan's refusal to recognize the doctrine of pri-
vate inspiration, or to tolerate indiscriminately all
sorts of opinions, there may not have been a grain
of shrewd political sense not ill adapted to the
social condition of the seventeenth century. In
1644 and again in 1648 the Narragansett settlers
asked leave to join the Confederacy ; but the re-
quest was refused on the ground that they had no
stable government of their own. They were offered
the alternative of voluntary annexation either to
Massachusetts or to Plymouth, or of staying out
in the cold ; and they chose the latter course.
Early in 1643 they had sent Roger Williams over
to England to obtain a charter for Rhode Island.
In that year Parliament created a Board

!• /-I • • • 1 1 T1 1 i> The Earl of

or Commissioners, with the iiarl or Warwick and

TIT - 1 • 1 1 i» 1 . his Board of

Warwick at its head, tor the superin- commission-


tendence of colonial affairs ; and noth-
ing could better illustrate the loose and reckless
manner in which American questions were treated
in England than the first proceedings of this
board. It gave an early instance of British care-
lessness in matters of American geography. In
December, 1643, it granted to Massachusetts all the
territory on the mainland of Narragansett bay;
and in the following March it incorporated the
townships of Newport and Portsmouth, which


stood on the island, together with Providence,
which stood on the mainland, into an independent
colony empowered to frame a government and
make laws for itself. With this second document
Williams returned to Providence in the autumn
of 1644. Just how far it was intended to cancel
the first one, nobody could tell, but it plainly af-
forded an occasion for a conflict of claims.

The league of the four colonies is interesting as
the first American experiment in federation. By
the articles it was agreed that each colony should
retain full independence so far as concerned the
management of its internal affairs, but that the
confedeifete government should have entire control
over all dealings with the Indians or with foreign
powers. The administration of the league was put
into the hands of a board of eight Fed-

Gonstitution ■ i r^ • • f i i

of the Con- eral Commissioners, two irom each col-

federacy. , , ,

ony. The commissioners were required
to be church-members in good standing. They
could choose for themselves a president or chair-
man out of their own number, but such a president
was to have no more power than the other mem-
bers of the Board. If any measure were to come
up concerning which the commissioners could not
agree, it was to be referred for consideration to the
legislatures or general courts of the four colonies.
Expenses for war were to be charged to each col-
ony in proportion to the number of males in each
between sixteen years of age and sixty. A meet-
ing of the Board might be summoned by any two
magistrates whenever the public s&,fety might seem

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Online LibraryJohn FiskeThe beginnings of New England : or, The Puritan theocracy in its relations to civil and religious liberty → online text (page 11 of 21)