By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia; Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D., Emory University; Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg University
American individualism has been part of this country since the early settlements of New England. Go back to the Massachusetts Bay settlement to compare the first and second generations of Puritans and see how colony life turned chaotic.
John Winthrop, leader in the new Massachusetts colony, could hold off the most radical of the Separatists and crackpots, but he could not prevent the drift of the Puritan churches and the Puritan ministers evermore to Separatist forms of church organization. One by one, churches in the Massachusetts towns redefined the idea of church membership to exclude any who could not give a believable and detailed relation of their faith. With the second generation of Puritans, the colony appeared in disarray.
Rise of the Congregationalists
Individual congregations came to regard their power over their own affairs as absolute. They rejected any attempt to substitute higher civil and church authorities for that of the individual congregation. Without actually using the word “Separatist,” Massachusetts became, virtually, a settlement of Separatists. Its churches became jealously guarded congregations: hence, the name that gradually came to be applied to the New England churches, “Congregational.”
Given the drift of Puritan ideas, maybe the drift into Separatism was inevitable. The anti-authoritarian bias within Puritanism, based as it was on Calvinist ways of thinking, made Separatist congregations the logical end point of Puritan thinking. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so it seems that no idea rests until it has reached its extreme.
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Whether this process was inevitable or not, however, the fact was that nobody in England was checking up on it. After the first generation of Puritan settlers had endured suffering and sacrifice as Puritans in England, they had not come to New England just to practice the same-old, half-hearted version of church reform. This sentiment made it easy for Massachusetts to slip into the Separatist direction. Change those two facts, however, and matters could take on a very different cast.
The Second Generation of Puritan Settlers
John Winthrop, for instance, died in 1649, leaving behind a personal journal that is one of the most remarkable documents of any European settler of the 1600s. With him, Massachusetts’s first generation of Puritan settlers began to pass off the scene. Within a decade, alarmed ministers across the Bay colony began to notice that the rising generation who had either been born or raised in New England rather than in Old England, lacked the spiritual edge that had been forged by their fathers and mothers in the fires of persecution. Gradually, the numbers of New Englanders willing and able to run the gauntlet of the relation of their faith, becoming church members on that basis, began to decline; the driving force behind it, the urgency to do so had declined.
Of course, Massachusetts Bay retained on its statute books a variety of laws which compelled all of the colony’s people to attend their parish church on Sundays, but these were indifferently enforced. Even when they were enforced, all that the statutes accomplished was to fill the churches with people who did not qualify to be church members, could not participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion or have their children baptized. This condition, obviously, was not the way to be a city upon a hill—and the ministers were not shy about pointing this out.
A Colony in Disarray
The disarray of the churches in Massachusetts was matched by the accelerating breakdown in Massachusetts community life. Boston increasingly became a town of merchants rather than saints, with its eyes on building up trade in Europe rather than treasures in heaven. Per capita income rose steadily from 1650 to 1715 by 1.6 percent annually—as in so many ages throughout history, the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. As it was, in the town of Salem, the amount of wealth owned by the top 10 percent of the population rose from 21 percent over that same period of years to 65 percent.
New Englanders also found less sanctified ways of spending that wealth. The first Boston brothel began operating in the mid-1650s. Between 1690 and 1720, the number of slaves bought by New Englanders increased by six times. West of Boston, as the second and third generations of New Englanders came to maturity, as they married and looked around for land to settle upon, they found that less and less land in their home towns was available. The pressure to find new land forced them westward, and then westward again, and then south and north as well.
By the 1660s, New England had broken up not just into a series of disconnected towns, but six separately organized colonies: Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, New Haven, Plymouth, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. What’s more, the first generation of Puritans had gotten along reasonably well with the neighboring Indian tribes—the Wampanoags, Narragansetts, and Mahicans. Rather than Puritan good intentions, the “getting along reasonably well” had a good deal more to do with smallpox, which preceded the Winthrop fleet, that so hideously decimated the Indian tribes in the New England area. The tribes were weakened and could do little in the way of resistance to the Puritans.
By 1675, the growth of the New England colonies had pressed the New England tribes so far that in June of that year a Wampanoag chieftain known as King Phillip raised up an alliance of threatened tribes and struck the New England towns with hurricane force. Almost half of the Massachusetts and Plymouth towns were burned. Between 500 and 600 settlers were killed, with scores of others tomahawked, raped, and sold into slavery.
Revitalizing the Puritan Mission
King Phillip’s War drove the Bay colony’s ministers into dire warnings that the original Puritan vision had been betrayed by the fecklessness and materialism of its children. “What, then, is the cause of our coolings, faintings, and languishings?” asked Samuel Danforth, the minister of Taunton, Massachusetts, in 1670. “The grand and principal cause is our unbelief.” Danforth explained it in these terms: “We believe not the grace and power of God in Christ,” and for that reason God was visiting upon New England his judgment.
Not just the war, but the breaking and the snapping of the Puritan underpinnings of New England, drove the ministers into a creative frenzy. From that emerged an entirely new style of preaching, the sermon known as the jeremiad. The jeremiad takes its name from the denunciations of evil doing that you find in the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. As such, the jeremiad was really the first American literary form. It was also a howling catalog of New England’s moral shortcomings.
Once that was said, and the congregations were appropriately browbeaten, the jeremiad did a remarkably creative thing: It announced that between the original model and the sordid reality, God still had a purpose for New Englanders and would renew and revitalize their mission. “Why hath the Lord smitten us with blasting and mildew?” asked Samuel Danforth again. The answer? “So that we may remember where we came from and why we came here. Attend we our errand,” said Danforth, “upon which Christ sent us into the wilderness, and he will provide bread for us. If the people cleave to the Lord, to his prophets, and to his ordinances, it will strike such a fear into the hearts of enemies that they will be at their wits’ ends, and not know what to do.”
This kind of call to cultural revival was not a new one. The European Renaissance of the 1400s was one kind of cultural revival and the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s saw itself as another. The jeremiad, however, firmly set this notion of cultural revival into the cluster of basic American ideas that we all still live with. The jeremiad would prepare New England and the rest of British North America for the greatest cultural revival, the greatest cultural explosion that it would ever see.
Common Questions About the Puritan Colony
The Puritans believed they had their very own covenant with God. They were to completely adhere to the Scriptures while also being charged with reforming the Anglican church and creating an example for the perceived sinners who had remained in England.
This article was updated on 11/29/2019
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By George Henry Boughton [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
By California State Library [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons