By Charles Redfern, first published on www.creedible.com, June 30, 2010
Puritans are now viewed as grim, witch-burning anti-intellectuals ready to leap from the bushes and pin scarlet letters on innocent hikers. So you can imagine my plight: I want to look past their foibles. I want to celebrate their heritage on this July 4th and see their contributions, fully aware of the skeletons rattling in their closets.
A little background: The Puritan movement began soon after the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s, when thousands of Christians, under the leadership of Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Switzerland, protested the established church’s corruption (Get it? Protest … Protestant?). Two overlapping groups evolved in Britain, both rooted in Calvin’s teaching. Each noticed that the Church of England, while signing on with the Protestants, was still woefully lackluster: Bible reading was discouraged; few knew anything of the Scriptures; the bishops simmered with political intrigue. Each wanted everyone to read the Bible and each called for a deeper spiritual walk. One opted to work within the Church in a quest to purify her and was eventually tagged, “Puritans.” The other felt that purification was an exercise in futility and called for separation: hence their epithet, “Separatists.” They were also known as “Independents,” or “Free,” or, later, “Congregationalists.” The Separatists, while agreeing with overall Puritanical thinking, squirmed with a secular monarch ruling the church and forcing his or her will on acquiescent bishops. Their own Bible study convinced them the Church should be composed of believers and that everyone is a minister. The entire congregation was responsible to God and should hold the leadership accountable — and no scheming, back-biting, adultery-riddled king or queen should tell these congregations what to do. Such thinking was deemed radical and treasonous, and Queen Elizabeth I responded by hunting them down, imprisoning many, and executing some.
Is anyone seeing the roots of American democracy here?
There were some ornery grouches among the early Separatists, such as Robert Brown, who alienated one and all when he wrote the first expression of the nascent movement’s principles in 1582. Brown, who loved a good fight, knew the right people in the right places whenever the police caught him. He sat in jail while many of his friends were executed. He eventually made his way to Holland, which was far more tolerant, returned to Britain, changed his position on separatism, and was given a post in the Church of England. He still managed to exasperate many even after his semi-recantation of separatism. Needless to say, Robert Brown is not viewed as a Congregational hero.
But there was also the sweet-tempered John Robinson, who, along with Richard Clyfton and William Brewster, led a gathering in the town of Scrooby. The authorities hounded them. They finally escaped to Holland, returned to England, and made their way to America via the Mayflower in 1620, with Robinson staying behind with (unfulfilled) hopes of joining them later. They founded the Plymouth Colony. Puritans would follow and establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston. Dialogue was established and the Puritans would adopt the separatist system of church government, wedding the two movements in Massachusetts. Eventually, the Congregationalist label stuck, and they articulated their principles of government in the Cambridge Platform of 1648. The English Separatists expressed their beliefs in the Savoy Declaration of 1658 (the British monarch, Charles I, had been overthrown and there was more religious toleration, which would be formalized in the Toleration Act of 1689).
I’ll say “uncle:” The early colonialists were far from perfect. They made colossal, wince-wrenching, forehead slapping blunders – especially in America, where Congregationalism became New England’s state religion. Religious dissidents such as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were banned and a Quaker named Mary Decker was hanged on the Boston Common. And then there were the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692. But let’s add perspective: The Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers did not arrive on the New World’s shores with the Declaration of Independence in hand. They had no concept of “America the Beautiful,” the separation of powers, or the establishment clause in the Bill of Rights. Americans a century and a half later would dream up those things. These Puritans saw themselves as British subjects longing to live in their Christian commune, pure of what they viewed as foul teaching. They honestly resonated with John Winthrop’s sermon of 1630: “for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill …” Permitting non-Puritan teaching would smother their identity and invite God’s wrath. Their thinking would have gone something like this: “Separation of Church and State? Are you nuts? We rode the ocean waves precisely so our church could be the state and we could practice the priesthood of all believers.” Even more tolerant Connecticut, whose leader, Thomas Hooker, would contribute to American political theory, required Congregational church membership of its voting citizens. Of course the church buildings would double-up as town meeting halls. Why not? The church was the center of the community. The lay ministers who selected their pastors would also select their selectmen (the town council), and the mentality of the priesthood of all believers would seep into citizenship and fertilize the concept, “all men are created equal.”
Can we understand why the British regarded New England – the Bible belt of early America – as their rebellious problem child? Is it any wonder that the shot heard round the world was fired in Lexington, Massachusetts? The mentality of the Revolution was cultivated in New England’s Puritan churches – and so was the American brand of grass-roots Christianity, which has allowed religion to thrive. The United States remains the most religious of the industrialized nations.
Those who say America was united as a “Christian nation” during the revolution are overly simplistic. The state religion in Virginia was Anglican; Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics; and other colonies were settled merely for mercantile interests. Many of our nation’s founders were Deists. Besides, there were periods in which church attendance plummeted and Europeans regarded our nation as a pagan den. Wistful evangelicals who pine for the days of yore and sing Winthrop’s praise would find themselves packing in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Anyone who did not believe in infant baptism had a standing invitation to leave — quickly.
So they were flawed – and they were people of their era with all their blind spots. But still, we can see their contributions to what would blossom into American society. The bells tolled on July 4, 1776, partly because of what they taught. And please remember, Nathanial Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850, long after the Puritan era.